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Bosses Behaving Badly

Dear Joseph,

I have an issue with my boss. She often talks to me about my colleagues. I have asked her not to do this and she has apologized but continues to complain to me about their performances. Recently, I discovered that my boss said something negative about me to my direct report. I did not address this with my boss and now I carry resentment and have totally lost trust in her. I don’t want to leave my job because I enjoy my work as well as the people I work with. I have worked very hard to get to this point in my career. My performance review is coming up and I’m wondering if I should bring this up. If I do, how should I approach this? I appreciate your feedback.

Can You Hear Me?

Dear Can You Hear Me,

I’d like to ask your permission to talk with you the way I would talk with myself. Please don’t mistake an abundance of candor for a lack of care. You have been wronged by your boss. She is behaving badly. She has undermined your trust. All of that is true. And none of it will help you move forward. In an effort to be helpful, let me speak plainly.

Of course your boss is talking behind your back! If she gossips to you, then she will gossip about you. You shouldn’t be surprised.

You are carrying resentment because you have made yourself a victim. You have done so in two ways. First, by declaring a boundary (that you don’t want to hear gossip) then expecting her to be responsible for it. She is not—you are. If you declared your expectation that she not gossip to you anymore and you let her do it again, the problem from that point forward is not her, it is you.

Second, you’ve made yourself a victim by allowing her to wrong you by gossiping about you—then doing nothing to take care of yourself. You made the statement, “I did not address this with my boss but I carry resentment and have totally lost trust in her.” A more accurate representation would be, “I’ve totally lost trust in myself.”

It is ultimately your responsibility to take care of yourself. When someone is abusive to you, if you do not stand up for yourself then the problem is not just them, it’s you.

Here’s the principle: Resentment is a product of violated expectations. Your expectations are your own—and it is your responsibility both to make them clear to others and to take care of yourself when they aren’t met. I am not absolving her of responsibility for violating your very reasonable and ethical expectation. That is her problem. She has squandered her trust with you and it is up to her to restore it—if she wants a good relationship with you. But protecting you from her bad behavior is your responsibility.

You say that you don’t want to leave your job. And that’s fine. But realize that by choosing to stay you are choosing to continue to have a relationship with someone who is likely to continue gossiping. Don’t blame her for that. She has already shown you what to expect. If you choose to stay, you choose to endure the gossip. So stop resenting it. Instead, ask yourself what you will do to cope with the reality you have chosen.

For example, you might:

1. Set an expectation with her that you will confront her every time she gossips. Be clear with both her and yourself that you are doing this not to try to control her behavior, but simply to stand up for yourself. Perhaps over time it will help her change, but you had best not bet on it.

2. After you confront her, let it go. If you continue to feel resentful, it is because you have begun to slip back into the role of victim, making her responsible for taking care of you. Resentment comes when you impose expectations on her rather than on you. Once you have fulfilled your obligation to yourself, you’ll feel more accepting of her imperfections. You’ll be able to live with her imperfections because you are living with integrity yourself.

3. If problems escalate, reconsider your decision. If her gossip escalates, or her behavior becomes intolerable, don’t slip back into being a victim. Maintain your responsibility to take care of yourself. Stop and ask, “What do I really want?” If the job becomes less important than your own quality of life, it’s time to go.

I have spoken plainly—but please know that I understand what it is like to feel mistreated. You have every reason to feel that way. I hope these ideas help you to escape those feelings soon!


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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31 thoughts on “Bosses Behaving Badly

  1. I too have a boss that gossips and more importantly speaks ill of his employees, peers and higher level managers to me. Then I have to watch him be sugary sweet to those same people when he needs something from them. He has probably said negative things about me to other people, but I just haven’t heard about it. I tried setting the expectation that I didn’t want to hear these negative impressions. That did not go well. He was offended. I’m paraphrasing but he expressed that he was giving me good information that I should use when dealing with these (lying, self-serving, lazy, etc.) individuals, so I could protect myself (and him) and get my work done. And as his boss he felt that I had to listen to whatever he felt I needed to hear. I know that I cannot stop him for doing this He writes my performance review and having seen some of the vindictive things he has had done to get back at someone who ticked him off I can’t run the risk of trying to stop him. So I’m just biding my time, biting my tongue and watching for an opportunity to get away from him.

    1. Hi Wanda,

      Your situation happens more than you would think! Bosses generally do not think well of being confronted by subordinates and since they have power over your immediate professional career, it is wise to consider your options. One strategy is to be active —- active and aggressive in finding another position in another department or even another company. Just the action of this strategy will help soften the victim label. In the meantime, start documenting every time this boss gossips to you and how you ever so gently try to redirect — but not on your work computer. This is a CYA strategy of being able to pull this out if your boss does decide to give you a poor performance review or have you fired. That’s another road to cross wisely. Another way to look at this, too, is that this is a business gift. Some people have a propensity to gossip and spread negative rumors — which is a bullying tactic to achieve their social and business goals because they don’t have the appropriate prosocial skills. Check out Joseph’s Crucial Skills work to learn as much as possible, not just for your situation, but for a manager’s situation whereby they don’t know how to get the results they would like from their employees. Curiosity over why an employee performs the way they do may even help in your particular situation. While it is not against the law for your boss to behave the way s/he does, there is a Healthy Workplace Bill circulating in over 29 states that specifically points out what is termed workplace bullying. It is coming! In the meantime, if you can find a coach or therapist that specializes in the underlying dynamics of the bullying phenomenon, this will provide you with the much needed professional support to achieve your professional goals. Whenever an individual is treated inequitibly, their inhibition system triggers cortisol and other chemicals that tend to scatter incoming information disjointedly in the brain in order to force attention on environmental threats. When you start documenting these situations, you may discover it difficult to write it all in a coherent manner. If so, do seek mindfulness training and that coach or therapist!

  2. I really enjoy these articles and have learned a lot from them. I have noticed, however, that when the question concerns unfavorable behavior from a boss the advice tends to be to leave the position and work somewhere else. Most people have worked hard to get into the position they are in and don’t want to leave because of someone else’s inappropriate behavior. I have seen people in high level positions be reprimanded and/or replaced when they are not behaving or performing properly. Would you ever recommend going to HR or the next level of management to attempt to get the behavior corrected as an alternative to leaving the job you love and have worked hard for?

    1. Now that’s a very good question. Can’t wait for the answer. I have seen this work but rarely. The majority of the time the messenger is figuratively hanged outside the castle gate as a warning to other trouble makers. I work with a gentlemen that the company is in the process of freezing out because he reported something that went all the way to HQ to get resolved. He was right, but now only gets assignments that are far below his level of expertise and those are not enough to fill his time. This will I am sure result in an unfavorable review and/or justification for letting him go because his position isn’t needed anymore. He’s also being avoided by his peers, less they get caught in the same vortex.

    2. Every HR person I contacted while dealing with a terrible boss said “you need to talk with your manager…” HR people don’t always see their roles as being mediators but rather people who toe the company line and support hierarchy.

      1. You are totally right. Unless it involves something of an illegal matter (i.e. harassment, discrimination, retaliation, etc) – that is typically the advice HR gives.

        I work in HR. I have given this advice.
        Here’s why:

        You are an adult. While confrontation can be uncomfortable at times, you are responsible for addressing the behavior in a way that makes someone feel safe while you share your perspective. HR’s role is typically more of a “consultant” at times with these sort of things. I’ve used the tactics from crucial conversations when giving employees advice: what are the FACTS, what PERCEPTION was created, and how can we arrive at a RESOLUTION. I always recommend beginning the conversation with “I am confident this wasn’t your intent, but [insert fact, perception]..”

        It can be a tough situation to manage, witness, and consult. That’s why I read these blogs and books :)

        1. What advice do you give when the employee fears retaliation from the boss who has been behaving badly. I am in that situation and like Anna-Marie, from what I have seen when others have approached HR they are told, you are an adult, you need to talk to your boss then we’ll deal with any retaliation that may happen.

    3. Absolutely, Jen. Of course you should use any power or tools available to you. I am sorry if it has sounded like we glibly suggest “just leave.” We don’t take that lightly. The core message I meant to send in this response was that if you choose to stay, CHOOSE it. It doesn’t make the bad behavior any more fun to be around – but it removes the added burden of feeling like a victim.

  3. Excellently articulated. When interacting with others one can only control what and how one communicates (or fails to communicate), they cannot control how the other receives the message and responds.

  4. I had a boss who started talking down my co-workers just after I took the position – he was always hinting at the weak points of others in the group and suggesting that we should all be in competition to under-cut each other to get ahead, the guy was simply Machiavellian and he ended up being promoted to VP while treating people like garbage. I spent the minimum required time in that group (2-years) and left the group, his farewell gift was to write me a viciously negative review which I refused to sign and was over-turned.. yet the company clings to him dearly. I guess we can see the kind of “leadership” that they value.

  5. I’m not sure I like the phrase, “you have made yourself a victim”. A definition of Victim is: a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. The rest of the article seems like good advice.

    1. Lisa,

      If you leave your front door unlocked while you are away on vacation, or you leave a $100 bill sitting in plain view in your car while you are away from it, and someone takes advantage of it, then you share some responsibility in being victimized. Of course the person who actually does steal the property is wrong, but you didn’t protect yourself and so in that way you contributed toward being a victim. That’s how I take Joseph’s point: you are responsible for protecting yourself. If you say “woe is me, people keep breaking into my car and there’s nothing I can do about it” then you are taking on what is commonly called a “victim mentality”. So I see this as about empowerment: what can the person do to protect themselves in this situation.
      Joseph: I always smile when I see a crucial skills message in my inbox: I sometimes forward them to other managers in my company. Thanks for another great one. The combination of humility, drive to better oneself, and common sense in these articles/blog posts is just great.

  6. While some good points are made for taking responsibility as an individual the larger context is not addressed. Higher management has a responsibility to discipline the gossiping supervisor and ultimately get rid of her if she contributes to a corporate climate they don’t wish to foster.

    I believe there are more people in this situation than you can imagine…It is not so easy to just leave a career and get another job. Workforce professionals have a lot of valuable insights regarding this. While the actually unemployment rates may be down – the number of people working below their skills and at part time positions has increased.

    These days we are all treated to numerous examples of higher level managers performing unethically and being rewarded. Please address this most crucial issue of Management responsibility as well.

  7. Thank you for helping me see my identical situation from a different perspective. Now I know what needs to be done and how to take better care of myself. This was an absolute blessing.

  8. Thank you for a perfectly poignant article that provides a candid assessment of “Can You Hear Me’s” role and responsibility in the situation. You are absolutely correct the writer has responsibility for maintaining a boundary that is set rather than allowing themselves to be a victim. I wish more professionals would live by the principle that “It is ultimately your responsibility to take care of yourself. When someone is abusive to you, if you do not stand up for yourself then the problem is not just them, it’s you.”

    1. I particularly liked the admission/adivce that when the person who is behaving badly is your boss you are more limited in protecting yourself from the behavior as that can backfire on you because you can’t create a safe environment.

  9. Perfect timing for this article. It hits home in my professional life on so many levels. I am in an extremely toxic environment at work and know this but have allowed myself to compromise to fit in & not be bullied. In reading this article I have allowed myself to become a victim and get into the “vicitm” mentality by allowing the bad behavior.

    I have realized the last few weeks that it’s time to move on as it’s not going to change only I can change. In you saying “The job is less important then your quality of life, it’s time to move on” is very true. No hard feelings people showed me their true self & I allowed myself to allow the behavior knowing it was not good for me!

    Thank you for answering & being honest!

  10. A few times each year one of your newsletters blows me away. This is one of them. Too often people (myself included) think that they resent someone else’s bad behavior whereas what they are really resenting is their own inability to either act on it or accept it. Thanks Joseph.

  11. Excellent article – a lightning bolt hit when you stated “I’ve totally lost trust in myself.” I am the one causing the resentments, I am the one allowing boundaries to be crossed again. I really appreciate the write up.

  12. Reading and thinking this through, I have gained a lot of insight here. The victim role is more difficult to get on top of than one would think, so I appreciate how you framed this around who is really responsible.

  13. My life begun to change after I red two key phrases:
    “it’s my responsibility”
    “If you wait for the world to change to feel better, you are going to wait for a long time”
    Every time I’m unhappy about a situation I ask myself: what is my responsibility in this? And by I by changing my approach and behavior, hence the way I respond to it, I fell I take responsibility for my emotions.

    1. I agree with that to a point. But in situations where you are being abused by a manager and there is nothing you can do but take because, you will be punished if you report it and you can’t financially afford to quit or change jobs changing your apporach or behavior will not stop you from being unhappy. However, in those cases just having a friend or a spouse who will listen to your greviances and NEVER share them can be a huge help in relieving the stress and improving how you feel.

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