Crucial Conversations QA

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!