Corporate Provocateur

Five Signs Your Boss Is in Trouble


I have sympathy for everyone and everything, which is why I’ve put myself on all the Do Not Call lists I know. When I pick up the phone and start to hear any organization’s sad story, I am done for. My kids know about my marshmallow tendencies. They exploit them.

On a shopping trip two weeks ago, I stopped at Petco so my 12-year-old son, Declan, could use the bathroom. In a cage by the front door of the superstore sat the world’s most forlorn black kitten, three months old. “Look at the poor little thing,” said Declan. “Hold her, Mom.” I was toast. Declan named the kitten Truffle. She is exploring under my feet right now.

My husband sighed when we walked in the door with the two-pound minicat. “She is a cutie, and by gosh, we needed another pet,“ he joked. “Two dogs and one cat in a house with four boys was getting a little dull.”

So what does all this have to do with your career? Hang on, I’ll get there. Here’s the thing: If you’ve worked in the professional world for two seconds, you know that people tend to rise and fall. Some learn and grow throughout their careers. Some get stuck and stay in the same job forever or try various things until they find one that sticks. Most of us focus on our own rising-and-falling activity at work; the question “how well do they like me?” fills our field of vision. We spend a lot of mental and emotional energy worrying about our job performance. We ask ourselves over and over: “How does my boss think I’m doing?”

That’s an important question to ask. We always want to track with our boss’s view of our performance, not only for self-preservation but also so we can make sure that the company’s goals for us (and our manager’s goals for us, in particular) mesh with our career aspirations. It is never a fun experience to say to your boss, “so, I hope you liked the presentation I gave on Friday,” and get a reply like: “It was fine, but that whole project is a waste of time. I need you working on the long hold times in customer service. I’m not happy with the way your priorities are organized.”

Your Manager Has a Boss, Too

Once a month, or even more often, you really should check in with your manager to make sure his top-most radar-screen items and your to-do list are in harmony. Because we’re so attuned to our own place on the internal stock index at work, you can easily forget that your manager is an employee just like you are. He or she gets performance reviews and bonus evaluations, too. Bosses must worry about their place in the company stock index, just as you do.

If your manager is floundering in the job, it’s not a good thing for you. When your manager is sputtering, you have no role model. You’re trying to gain mastery in your own job, a tough thing for bosses to focus on when worried about keeping theirs. Bosses on the bubble are stressed-out cats. They won’t make sound decisions while obsessing about staying in the bigger boss’s good graces (or staying employed at all). Lack of success tarnishes your whole department a bit. It’s the old guilt-by-association deal and it can suck power out of the group, even when individuals (maybe you) are doing great things for the company.

When your boss isn’t thinking calmly and confidently, his or her decisions may show it. In case you didn’t have enough on your plate managing your workload and the relationships around you, now you have to navigate around your non-home-run-hitting boss’s anxieties and desperate moves (to the left, to the right, to the left again) to stay afloat. A manager barely getting the job done is not someone who has extra cycles to spend on employees. Managers whose top priority is hanging onto their own jobs can’t teach you a lot or give you the emotional support you need.

Now, back to Truffle, the kitten. I’m as sympathetic as can be to the plight of others, but I’m here to tell you: Look out for yourself on the job. You can stay terribly sensitive to your boss’s problems with superiors and still keep in mind that your first priority is situating yourself to win, whether or not your boss overcomes his challenges. It is not harsh or unfeeling to look after your own professional prospects before lending your energy and ideas to your boss’s problem. Even in airplanes, flight attendants tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first, then attend to others. Ditto on the job.

Confirm That Your Boss Is in Trouble

You can feel all the sympathy in the world for your teetering manager, and if he or she is a decent person, you undoubtedly will. Still, you have to take care of your own career needs first. Managers are on their own paths.

When you find yourself bundled with a troubled boss, you have choices. You can strike off for greener pastures by launching a stealth job search or you can solidify your relationships inside your current employer and rely on those to get you through whatever trouble is brewing. If you have a great relationship with your manager, you could even coach him or her to overcome the present hurdle.

Many of us would feel uncomfortable saying, “so boss, it looks like the guys upstairs aren’t completely overjoyed with your results this quarter,” but we might try: “There’s a lot of pressure on you right now. How can I help?” You want to assist your boss with a problem. More important, you need to verify your suspicion—if you have one—that your boss is swimming in rough seas performance-wise. You can’t act—by bailing on the job or cementing your extra-departmental relationships or coaching your boss on the challenges—unless you find out what’s up. You can’t react at all unless you pay close enough attention to know that your manager is in trouble. Here are five signs that your manager is off his or her game, to the extent that you may need to act. Do any of these look familiar?

1. Shifts from long-term to short-term thinking.
If your supervisor was drawing up marketing plans for the second half of 2012 and is now fixated on this quarter’s lead generation, someone is none too happy on the executive floor. If she’s putting off down-the-road decision-making and obsessing about today’s, this week’s, and this month’s metrics, there’s a reason for the shift in focus.

2. Emphasizes optics.
If your manager starts talking about the impact of various decisions in terms of “how it will look,” take it as a huge clue that he’s worried about looking bad: too slow to act or too rash, too spend-thrifty, or too conservative—too whatever or too whatever. Confident bosses don’t worry about how things will look. They act according to their conscience and their experience and they sleep soundly at night. Managers who fear being bounced don’t trust their instincts. Alert team members (such as you) will be able to tell.

3. Does your job for you.
Marina called me from the bus station on her way home from work. “My boss was in my office six times today,” she said. “He’s basically devolving into the person he was before he got promoted, back when he used to do my job. I know I’m killing at my job, because the [vice-president] of marketing tells me about once a month. So I think my boss is freaking out about adding value of his own.” A boss who takes a huge personal interest in the work on your desk, when you have no need for help and could really move faster without the interruptions, may be a boss on a performance plan.

4. Stops trusting.
Michael worked under Chad, a young and lively department manager who routinely joked about and gently dissed the higher-ups, even in staff meetings. One day, Chad suddenly turned very serious and the public joking stopped cold. Chad wouldn’t share information with the team members. When asked a direct question about a subject theoretically only for managers’ ears (such as: “Chad, do you have any skinny on the 2012 sales forecasts?”), he became very formal and stand-offish. In retrospect, says Michael now, he should have seen that Chad was in hot water. Chad stopped trusting the team because he didn’t know who might carry a story about his less-than-professional busting of the senior execs’ chops back to the wrong person. Management eventually asked Chad to leave, or as my human resources friends say, “he was separated from the payroll.” “It was a painful slide to watch,” says Michael. “The worst part was that after a certain point, it was obvious that Chad was going down. He should have trusted us and gotten at least our moral support, instead of shutting himself off and going through that awful process alone.” It’s hard to trust subordinates in a hierarchical system in the best of times. Under duress, it can be nearly impossible.

5. Turns into the boss from hell.
When a formerly decent, open manager turns evil, you can gamble that this person is striving to hang onto something—a higher boss’s approval or the job itself. It’s always appropriate to say in a non-critical way: “So, Sandy, it seems as though the stress level is up around here. You must be feeling it. How are you doing?” If your boss doesn’t want to discuss it, fine—at least you’ve offered yourself as a sounding board. If there’s no explanation for your manager’s change in attitude, he or she may be in serious trouble.

Once you’ve called it, you can take steps to make sure that your boss’s woes don’t become your own. Forewarned is forearmed, right? You’re getting an education in reading people, and that’s an important lesson for us all—kittens and tigers alike.

Liz_ryan_2
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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