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.