I work with a woman who is a bully but also manages my team very well. She is dishonest sometimes about what direction she has given people and speaks poorly about other people at work. I report to her, what can I do?- Displeased at Work
DEAR DISPLEASED AT WORK:
Good grief! It’s bad enough having to work for a living, but having to work for a boss who might take you down in a blaze of gory? (No, that was NOT a typo!) Yikes. Given the brevity of your question and not knowing your work context and at what stage you are in your career, I’ll do my best. I’ll start with my conclusion: Run! Run fast. Run far!!! Think of Glenn Closes’ character in Damages. For all you Netflixers, it’s your next best bet for a binge-watch. Boss from hell doesn’t even touch it! But I digress. Your boss is not all bad because you say she manages your team not only well, but very well. Rather than being a total tyrant, it sounds like your boss’ fragile sense of self leaks out under pressure.
Let’s start with trying to understand your boss. This can help to distance yourself from any nonsense which can save you from taking things personally. Bosses who lie may be doing so for many reasons. They may not be able to let others see that they have made a mistake as they may view mistakes as weaknesses. In fact, owning that we have erred on is actually a sign of strength. It takes some risk to show others our warts. What if they say “Ew”? We wonder: “Will I be able to survive the humiliation”? It’s pretty usual for people to want to hide what is unflattering. For those of us who have had critical parents or been around mean teachers or coaches it’s especially hard not to assume others will also be humiliating. Lying becomes a way to avoid the possibility of someone saying “Ew”. It’s worth noting that when your boss lies, not only is there the problem that she erred in the first place, but now there is a second problem- she has lied about it. She could save herself a lot of trouble by just having one problem. Think Bill Clinton here.
Viewing vulnerability as a weakness is a way we explain away our avoidance of doing the really hard personal work of fessing up. For someone with a fragile ego, they simply may not have enough strength to be able to own and reveal their imperfections. When your boss lies, your boss is attempting to save face but actually ends up with egg on it. No one dares tell your boss because everyone is too afraid of getting zinged or doesn’t want to humiliate her. How sad and lonely for your boss! At the same time, this is not totally your boss’ problem: The organization you work for is responsible for this behaviour because they are not doing anything to stop it. Your organization may be lead by some wimpy people who cannot call your boss on their nonsense. If this is not the case then your organization may be run by liars who won’t address your boss’ lying because it is not in the organization’s best interest.
Some bosses really get off on telling other people what to do and how to do it. They are motivated by a particular kind of power known as power over. This is different from power with. Imagine a big hand squashing you down in the power over scenario and then imagine hands being held together in the power with scenario. Capiche? Leadership requires a boss who has a positive view of people and their potential. They take the attitude “We are all in this together”. Good leaders aren’t always grace under pressure but they create an environment which is safe enough. Right now you are not in a safe environment. You are not in a safe environment because what you should be able to take at face value you cannot. Your boss is unpredictable and inappropriate and trash talks your fellow co-workers. A lack of safety in relationships prevents our growth at best and devalues our personhood at worst. You could benefit from assessing the lack of safety you are experiencing. Regardless of where you are in your career trajectory you need to consider that working for a piece-of-work could give YOU a bad reputation. If you are early in your career or work in a select field, working for a piece-of-work could be career suicide for a time.
What to do? Andy’s Top 5 Suggestions for Working With a Piece-of-Work Boss:
1. When your boss trashes a co-worker, do nothing, say nothing. Do not speak nor nod your head. Just keep looking at your boss with the intention in your eyes “I don’t do this. Can we move along to the agenda for the meeting?”. Take this attitude with your eyes and face. Don’t soften it too much and don’t harden it too much. Just do nothing while maintaining eye contact. You are sending a message “I don’t engage in this”. Your boss will get the hint after the 3rd occasion of this. Because you have said nothing there is nothing that can be used against you. Do not bend on this.
2. When your boss lies you need to decide whether you are going to let it go or whether you are going to put it on the table. How much is at stake in terms of safety practices, ethics, your integrity? Knowing this will determine your level of intervention. If you boss lies about stats for how much candy is wasted to pad the numbers in your team’s favour, you may not feel this is an issue worth fighting for. But if you boss accuses someone of theft and you know this is a lie, seek the support of someone OUTSIDE of the organization and come up with a plan to address this with your boss with a consequence in place if the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction. “If you don’t tell the CEO this week you made a mistake in accusing Rufus, I will”.
3. Stay away from your boss. Don’t chat by the water cooler. Don’t have lunch together. Always take the position that you are very busy. Don’t feel sorry for their vulnerability. This is not yours to cure.
4. Keep your mode of communication on contentious issues to email if at all possible. If you receive a directive that is a bold faced lie and you know it, write a brief email later to your boss seeking confirmation of plans made: “At our meeting you told me to fire Rufus. Just so that I am clear, can you go over what the reasons are? Thanks Boss”.
5. Document lies. If there is a 3rd party privy to the interaction, note their presence. Keep your journal entries brief. Keep your journal at home. This journal will be important when you leave your organization and don’t have a reference from your boss. Why won’t you get a reference from a piece-of-work-boss? Because wise workers never ask an unpredictable boss for a verbal or written reference. If you boss can’t be trusted now, they can’t be trusted in the future. Having a record of some of your differences may prove helpful at your next job interview or the lawyer’s office.
Tissues Issues is an advice column and not meant to replace hard soul searching that many problems require. When you read this column, please keep in mind that people and their problems are always more layered than what can be captured in an advice column. If you get a response to your question, consider it and also forward it to other people in your life to get their take on it. Not all submissions will receive a response but keeping your question and the context it is coming from to 200 words or less will increase your chances of getting one. Questions for Tissues Issues can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org