Companies & Industries

Managing Your Boss's Political Battles


Your boss's troubles aren't yours. Don't allow your superior to drag you into her fight—and drag you down, too

Dear Liz,

If there were ever a person with an ax hanging over their head, it's my boss. She has regular arguments with her manager, in front of everyone; the air is so thick you could cut it. Everyone in our group is waiting for our boss to be fired. We can't tell whether she's oblivious or doesn't care, or is hoping for a good severance package. My question is: How do I steer clear of the political damage? I like my boss, but I like having a job more. I don't want to be too closely linked with her.

Luckily she hasn't dragged me into her office to listen to her tale of woe, but she does say negative things about her boss and the company at staff meetings, making the rest of us wince. She has no hesitation airing her whole political drama in front of us, and I'm worried about being tainted by being on her team, once she is gone (it's inevitable). Any tips for a person who has no interest in being a pawn in someone else's chess game? I really don't feel like being dragged into office politics.

Yours,

Brad

Dear Brad,

You are wise to look out for yourself at a time like this. It's a shame your boss can't rise to the occasion and work out her differences (up to and including an amiable separation from the company, if need be) rather than wage a public battle with the powers that be. Your best bet is not so much any particular to-do item as a list of to-don'ts:

1) Don't enter into any conversation about your boss's issues with the company, in a group or one-on-one. If your boss introduces the topic, say: "I can see that it's a frustrating situation for you." Physically leave the area if you have to. Don't be party to any company-bashing if you can help it.

2) Don't offer any consolation to your boss beyond the obligatory "sorry for your frustration" mentioned above. It's never appropriate for a manager to use her subordinates as sounding boards for her own political troubles.

3) Even among your co-workers, try hard to steer clear of the drama. When the boss's situation comes up in conversation, either guide the dialogue to other (work-related) topics, just go silent, or bail on the discussion altogether.

4) When your boss brings up the bad juju in staff meetings, immediately clam up and put on your best "I'd rather not go there" face. If the whole team does this, she'll get the hint.

5) Finally, keep up your best work, despite the obvious distraction. At times like this, senior leaders are most likely thinking: "If Pam goes, who on her team will be loyal to her and who will be loyal to us?" It doesn't have to be a tug-of-war, if you're a professional; you've got a job to do and you'll use this agonizing pre-ax-drop time to show anyone who cares to notice that you're more than happy to do it.

I hope the waiting doesn't drag out much longer, Brad. If it goes on for more than another month or two, you may need to think about making a move yourself, to get out of the toxic environment. And I hope that, once your boss is on to greener pastures, there's something good in the move for you, rewarding you for your professionalism in the face of not-especially-adult role modeling.

Cheers,

Liz

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at businessweek.com/managing. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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