The Insider: Pushing back or shutting up

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Complaining when work's dumped on you isn't a good idea, says Hugh Karseras, author and banker. That doesn't mean you can't get away with it.

A few months ago there was an email exchange posted on eFinancialCareers between an analyst and an associate that stimulated substantial debate. The nub of the issue was that an analyst, tired of having work dumped on him, complained to an associate who responded aggressively and negatively. Who was the jerk? It's irrelevant. In this kind of situation all that matters is who has the most political capital, because politics define how much freedom each individual has to get their own way.

If you're an analyst in the first three months out of the training programme you'd be naïve to complain about workloads to an associate. Even if justified - and even if things appear to end amicably - complaining only offers downside. Come review time, it's highly likely the associate will be asked to comment on you and if you've complained to them, their comments will be tainted with negative undertones. Admittedly, you could comment negatively on the associate too, but anyone who thinks upward feedback counts as much as downward feedback is kidding themselves.

Perceptions and reviews are hardly built on a scientifically robust set of data and a couple of negative comments are all it takes to earn a label you do not want - that of being an under-performer. Once earned, this label is very hard to change.

However, if you're a late second-year analyst and you've earned your stripes (i.e. you've earned the respect of the directors and MDs) and if the associate doing the dumping is fresh out of an MBA course or has had known performance issues, you'll be in a position of strength. The associate makes unreasonable demands? Tell them to stick it - you're not there to compensate for his or her shortcomings.

I remember a specific situation where it was actually a second-year analyst who dumped a pitchbook on a first year associate, fresh out of none other than Harvard Business School. Both understood their political capital. The second year analyst was a star and knew the associate was a newbie so he got to go home early at no personal cost. The associate ended up staying all night, but knew that delivering was the best way to improve his own political capital. Both understood the territory and both ended up doing well.

Judging by the language in the email exchange I referred to above, neither was entirely new in their role - and so I tend to side with those of you who thought the analyst should suck it up - my guess is that the associate has the greater political capital by virtue of simple seniority. Better for the analyst to bite the bullet than irritate the associate - particularly as this was a five minute bullet to bite, not an all-nighter such as a last minute pitchbook or emergency revamp of a valuation model.

Push back - yes; but watch when you do it.

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