My boss talks trash about our partners

Listening to people complain about each other makes me intensely uncomfortable.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 21, 2009 11:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have a problem. Listening to people complain about other people affects me so strongly that it's interfering with my work life.

My boss does this regularly. At least twice a week, she steps out of her office to commiserate snarkily with my team about what an idiot one of our business partners is. For whatever reason, these conversations are so upsetting to me, I can't focus on my work at all. So I conveniently run out of coffee or discover a pressing need to visit another department, just to get out of the room. Chalk it up to a painful adolescence, perhaps. I feel like I want to defend the person, but I know that will accomplish nothing but making my boss treat me the same way. I could have easily made the same blunder, and rather than saying, "Here's what I'd like to see," she'd have gone and mocked me to a roomful of people. I leave because I'm less capable than my co-workers of smiling and nodding and agreeing with her and offering my own sympathetic snipes. She'll wander in for a meeting and do the same thing to people who aren't there. Meetings are harder to escape.

Note that I said this is my problem. I can't change people, I certainly know that, and there's no graceful way to ask your boss to stop being a jerk. However, I'm often tempted to talk to her, privately, and tell her that hearing that sort of conversation really bothers me more than it apparently does most people, and it's entirely my issue, but if she wouldn't mind indulging my peculiarity and doing her snarking when I'm not there I would appreciate it, and of course I'm not judging. Still awkward.

I should mention that I've been at this company for about two months -- just long enough to start feeling integrated. There were many reasons I switched jobs, but getting out of a toxic social environment was a biggie. My old gig just left me feeling sad and drained and hurt at the end of every day. Finding jobs isn't easy in my field, so I took the opportunity that came my way. Overall, the new job is a lot healthier for me ... and I don't want to let this one thing drag me down. It's life. People are people. You deal. I'm oversensitive, so it's challenging to deal sometimes, but I've got to make it work. I'm just not sure how.

Too Nicey Nice for My Own Good

Dear Nicey Nice,

I think the best results will come if you can figure out what your boss is accomplishing by her behavior.

Your own discomfort is important. But this is a business problem. In particular, I wish to caution you that the scenario you imagine, in which you confess your peculiar sensitivity and beg your boss's indulgence, would not serve your interests. This is a business relationship. If she were a friend, such a personal appeal might work. But she is not your friend.

So for starters, ask if her behavior is strategic or symptomatic -- that is, is she doing it on purpose or is she out of control?

Let's imagine that she knows exactly what she is doing and why. She might want to instill fear and discomfort in her subordinates so that she can stifle competition and challenge. She may be demonstrating (in particular to you, the new person) that she is on top. She may also be covering her ass -- that is, preemptively diverting blame from herself. Say the endeavor with these partners fails. She will be able to say that she knew it was doomed from the start, that they're a bunch of morons.

Personally, I don't like her tactic. What troubles me is not so much that it is mean and upsetting and inappropriate, but that casting doubt on the competence of partners creates an inducement to failure. Her subordinates want to stay on her good side. To help this partner succeed might mean to defy her. So why should they work hard to make the project succeed? It would be better to let it fail. So it's bad for the company.

But perhaps she is unstable and does not know why she is doing what she is doing. She may be meeting unacknowledged needs for reassurance; she may be in trouble, facing obstacles she does not understand. She may have a personality conflict with the person she is disparaging. She may, in fact, be in competition with this person and so is creating an inducement to failure to undermine or eliminate this person.

Each possibility has implications. If her behavior is a conscious ploy to maintain power and dominance, then she most likely doesn't care what you think or how you feel, but values your functional loyalty. It's not personal. She just wants you to stay in your place and do your job. If she sees you as a threat then she will try to eliminate you. Otherwise you will be OK. You would be well advised to maintain a professional distance, do a good job, and show your loyalty without joining in the disparagement.

If, on the other hand, her displays of intemperance hint at an inner insecurity, then it's likely that she is needy and vulnerable to manipulation. She wants emotional reassurance. She may want a confidant. She may have a need to be understood and listened to.

Finally, consider this: Is she sending a message? Perhaps these business partners are on their way out. Knowing so could help you plan for what is coming.

Thinking about what she needs and why she is behaving as she is will help you choose the appropriate way to deal with her.

After you have given some thought to her, then turn to your own situation. We've gone on about her because if you don't understand what's motivating her, you can't protect yourself. But now turn to your own coping methods. You basic approach seems reasonable: Get out of the room, avoid her. I suggest you also try building up a tolerance to this behavior. Next time she does it, when you first feel the impulse to leave, resist it. Stay in your chair a moment longer and pay attention to what comes up. Take some deep breaths and just listen to what you hear. Is it adolescent memories that come up? Is it family? Do you feel left out? Threatened? Remind yourself that this is not junior high school, and this is not your family. You are an adult in a professional setting, and a set of behavioral norms apply. If she is not abiding by them, that's her problem. You have work to do.

If the impulse to flee is very strong, don't drive yourself crazy sitting there. Go ahead and leave the room. But next time, test your limits again, and observe your reactions. See if you can build up your tolerance and find other actions to take -- making a phone call, doing some filing, watering your plants.

After you've been there a few months, you might up the ante: Take the opportunity, in the middle of one of her rants, to ask her a business-related question, saying something like, "I'm glad I caught you, is this a good time? I have a question about blah blah blah." This may refocus her. It will also subtly shift the power relations. It could embarrass her, or make her angry, so it must be done carefully. If done right, it will show that you are not afraid of her, and that you are focused on the business.

In fact, if you could get her to focus on the actual business problem for a moment, which is, ostensibly, some weakness in one or more of the partners, you might propose some practical solutions. You might suggest that if, as she indicates, the partners lack expertise in certain areas, that for the project to succeed you will personally reinforce those areas, or do whatever needs to be done to see that the partners' shortcomings do not doom the whole project.

Doing so carries risks. If she unconsciously or consciously wants this project to fail, then you are challenging her. You may be calling her bluff. It's touchy. But the possibilities are intriguing, and it certainly appeals to our basic love for justice in the workplace!

My main message to you is: Figure this out. Yes, you are having an emotional reaction, and you need to strengthen your coping behaviors. But your best bet is to figure out what she is doing and why, and tailor your responses appropriately.

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Cary Tennis

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