Dealing with an untrustworthy boss

June 12, 2019

This article, Dealing with an untrustworthy boss was originally published in the Washington Business Journal as, “A turncoat boss requires special care.” It is part of a series on management consulting and organizational dynamics, aptly named, “Corporations on the Couch”. In this column, psychologist, psychoanalyst and management consultant, Dr. Lynn Friedman, discussed how to understand and respond to the untrustworthy boss.

Your boss, John, has done it again. And once again you feel you’ve been had.

Dealing with a dicey internal political situation, you confided in him. You needed his sponsorship and told him so. You gave him a compelling rational for your position and described how he could be helpful. His response came as a great relief.

Empathic, concerned, thoughtful, he assured you that you would have his total support. So you slept well and attended the meeting relaxed and confident. And John, in the loveliest, most gracious way — acting as if he were giving you a gift — torpedoed your request.

Still worse, afterward, he evinced no contrition, not even a twinge of discomfort. He offered no explanation and acted as though you should be happy with the outcome.

Aside from being furious, you’re mystified. How could he be so seemingly compassionate, so reassuring — and then do the exact opposite of what he promised? More puzzling, how could he act as if he had done nothing upsetting?

Most disconcerting, he has a reputation as a nice guy. You can see why. You thought so too!

So you meet with him privately and tell him how disappointed you were. After all, he gave you his word and then switched horses midstream. John acts as if he completely understands. He even apologizes.

But later you learn that behind your back, sitting with the corporate elders, he rewrites history and manages to convey that you have a problem. You’re dismayed when you learn that he has done this to you more than once.

He is smooth as silk, and you find it difficult not to trust his sincere, seemingly heartfelt, assurances.

You wonder how you should understand his behavior and what steps you might take to manage him and protect yourself in the future.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

You have learned something vital, albeit very unpleasant, about your boss: You can’t trust him. An important thing to recognize is that neither can anyone else — at least not anyone in a subordinate position because he probably attempts to curry favor with corporate leaders and his colleagues.

The key thing to remember, for your purposes, is that John is not a man of his word — nor a person of integrity.

He is not on your side. He’s not on anyone’s side. He’s organized around looking good at any cost. And you are expendable.

The conspicuous absence of guilt on his part is not an auspicious sign. And you’ve learned a second critical thing. John is able to seduce people into believing that he is trustworthy. Perhaps he even believes it too.

Unfortunately, he has got credibility. And make no mistake about it, because of this he can be quite damaging to you.

From what well does it spring?

How can John’s behavior be understood and, most importantly, how can he be managed? Everyone is unique, so it is impossible to be certain of what drives John’s behavior.

But here are some things to consider. Despite his outward appearance of confidence, John is very insecure about where he stands. In his early life, parents and key caretakers may have been unreliable and undependable. Thus, he did not learn how to trust others, an important first step to becoming trustworthy. His behavior might also reflect troubling corporate dynamics cascading from the top. Likely it’s a mix of both.

In any case, John has a desperate need for acceptance — particularly from people he admires (usually those in power) — and is desperate for the admiration of his subordinates. Those traits prompt him to tell you what you want to hear instead of being straightforward and telling you where you really stand. It also means he readily (and secretly) subordinates your needs to his own.

How can you succeed with this sort of boss?

John is, indeed, challenging. While he’s likely to self-destruct eventually, there are no guarantees its will happen any time soon. Launching a full-scale search for more hospitable quarters, internally or externally, is a completely reasonable course of action. But in the interim there are steps you can take to protect yourself and to succeed.

Because John is preoccupied with looking good at all costs, make yourself valuable to him and to the people he values.

If possible, write things for him in ways that make you both look good. But be prepared, he is likely to appropriate your successes and to attribute to you anything that does not work out. One strategy is to help him appreciate that you can make him look good but that this is contingent on some kind of reciprocity. However, whatever John promises — don’t take his word for it.

Don’t be shy about conveying your good work and ideas where they will be heard. But proceed carefully because that may be threatening to John within the company. Help his contemporaries and the corporate leaders develop an independent view of you as a talented person. If John sees you as connected to and respected by the brass, he will be less likely to sabotage you because he’ll fear their disapproval. He may even attempt to take credit for having such an able employee.

Beyond this, join your trade associations, do good work, showcase it and be generous in acknowledging your company’s support. In this way, you will create professional options for yourself, within the company and outside of it. This recognition will allow you to preserve your self-esteem while working with a trying boss.

It’s not easy to work with a boss who is unable to establish trusting relationships. In dealing with bosses like John, it’s important to remember that you get to go home at the end of each day, but they have to live with themselves all the time.

Those seeking executive coaching, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis are welcome to give me a call: 301.656.9650. Learn more about me and how I work, here.

Originally published on January 24, 2008, in Washington Business Journal as a Turncoat boss requires special care.

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