upstart thoughts on talent and leadership

Working With A Boss You Don’t Trust

In ! Jen, Careers, Change, Employee Tips, General Work on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 3:33 am

A friend recently asked for advice on working with her manager whom she doesn’t trust. I immediately started sharing ways she could try to reestablish trust and she cut me off. Things were too far-gone, she said. She had been there, done that. Now she just needed survival advice: how could she work day-to-day with this manager she didn’t trust—someone who would never, ever, win her trust? Polling a few friends who specialize in this area, we came up with 16 ways:

  1. Start planning your exit strategy. If you feel the trust damage is irreparable, you cannot continue to work for this manager. You must start planning your graceful exit. This will: a) navigate routes for you to get out of there, and b) increase your confidence and spirits in no insignificant way. This one current job is not the alpha and omega. Most importantly, your confidence will improve when you start envisioning a better situation.
  2. Depersonalize this. To the extent that you have made a good faith effort to make this work, as you bide your time looking for another job, take your boss’s behavior less personally. It’s not you, it’s him. You’re likely not the first, and sadly, you’re likely not the last to have this experience with him.
  3. Don’t gossip. Don’t engage in any gossip about your boss. Don’t engage in any gossip with the boss. If the boss initiates—or if anyone initiates gossip about your boss, change the subject or walk away. Don’t acknowledge, agree, or disagree on whatever the deets are—just get away.
  4. Document expectations. After meetings and after key events, follow up with an email to your boss that recaps your conversation. “As we discussed earlier this afternoon, I’ll be providing you with the following deliverables by the end of the week.” This is a good practice in general, but when you’re concerned about not getting credit, or getting slammed for doing something wrong, you need to protect yourself by ensuring you understand what’s expected of you, and leaving a little paper trail to which you can refer back.
  5. Ask regularly: am I meeting your expectations? Ask this on a specific activity, project, and in general. Doing this has at least two significant advantages. First, it invites feedback that may be valuable—feedback that may or may not have been shared without your first soliciting it. Secondly, it pieces together a fuller picture of your performance. Presumably, you’ll address negative feedback straightaway, so you’ll be on a positive feedback path
  6. Focus on behaviors. Ask for examples. Get as specific as possible. Don’t focus on internal motivations or intentions. What you see and deliver is what counts right now.
  7. Get stakeholder feedback. Collect kudos from people you work with, internal customers and clients, and ensure your manager is aware of your good performance from others’ perspectives. Do this with understated elegance, however. If you slather it on, it’ll have the extreme opposite effect of being attractive information. You want to give your manager a well-informed, multiperspective picture of the value you bring to the organization.
  8. Underpromise, overdeliver. Turn it on to 11 and really shine in your performance. Don’t be a clockroach and don’t have your performance just “get by.”
  9. Don’t act like a victim. This situation is not your identity. God forbid your manager is one of those people who gets a sadistic thrill out of inflicting grief on others. But don’t hand over your power by showing your resentment or fear.
  10. Derive what you’re getting out of this. Get outside your head and try to be clinical about what you’re experiencing. It may not feel like it now, but think of your boss and working with him as being a good story you’ll tell in a future interview. The story of how you remained the consummate professional and did your best work while working with a challenging manager.
  11. Invest in your development. When your boss says “you need to work on XcompetencyX,” don’t argue the point. Find a powerful seminar that addresses that perceived deficiency, one that is known for parallel power networking. In my hometown of Chicago, we have the Executives Club and Economic Club among others, which have a solid reputation—and intimidating power player member and event attendee lists. Get there and…
  12. Network your heart out! It doesn’t matter what level or what position you are. Be prepared with at least five intelligent & relevant things to share and you can make yourself memorable. Always have business cards or personal networking cards on your person.
  13. Remember your priorities. Keep pics of your family and friends in your office/cube to remind you of what’s really important. Start a gratitude journal: simply writing what you are grateful for on a daily basis. Contribute in other ways by volunteering in your community and giving back. This job experience does not define you unless you let it.
  14. Disconnect trust and respect. You don’t have to trust your manager. You don’t have to respect your manager as a person. But you do have to respect his position, level and authority. At least until you’re out from under his management. Compartmentalize these two things and you’ll find it easier to deal with him.
  15. Report legitimate harassment. If your manager’s engaging in legitimate harassment, you must tell someone. Keep in mind, there is no legal protection from asshole behavior. However, if it is conduct of a sexually harassing nature, or legitimately harassing nature, consult with HR or the Policy Hotline, or someone internally in a position of power you trust. Approach your concern in as objective a manner as possible—your credibility is on the line, too. And keep in mind there were scads of people before you who have brought forward concerns of questionable merit. Stick to the observable facts, be prepared, and stay emotionally neutral. Hysterics, histrionic flailing and melodrama will erode your content credibility. (Sorry, just being honest.) Just give your employer a chance to correct the problem. At minimum, ask for suggestions on what you can do to help your situation. Everyone likes someone willing to take action himself.
  16. Don’t perpetuate the madness. Take from Shakespeare’s line in Romeo & Juliet: “he was as civil as an orange.” Strive to be always civil and professional. Take solace in knowing that everyone ultimately gets their comeuppance. In your next job, release the baggage of the former….get your wings stronger and fly!
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  1. I LOVE this!!! Excellent advice!! Thank you for your great wisdom, Jen!

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