Prescription – what you can do when you don’t trust your boss


This month we’ve tackled a dysfunction that nearly all of us have encountered at some point in our careers: “I don’t trust my boss.”  I think you would agree me that this is not a fun situation to be a part of.  Whether our boss breaks our trust because he or she is unethical, incompetent, difficult to read, or fails to protect us – once that trust is broken it is hard to regain.  So, what can we do when we don’t trust our boss?  Here’s your prescription – refill as necessary:

Your 90 Day Trust-Management Prescription

  • Keep your boss close – Ever heard the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer?”  I’m not suggesting your boss is your enemy (yet), but I am suggesting that you need to get more face time with him or her.  There are two important reasons for this: 1) it allows you to assess if you were right to not trust him or her by getting a better read on his / her intentions and 2) it prevents you from distancing yourself from your boss and acting as though you don’t trust him / her.  We tend to not trust people that don’t trust us.  Don’t make this a self-fulfilling prophesy by sending “mistrust” signals your boss’ way.  Having lunch with your boss is a good start.
  • Clarify expectations –Mistrust can come when we don’t know what is expected of us and we feel like we are constantly in a state of guessing.  This is the equivalent of going to Vegas and throwing your career on the table.  I don’t know about you, but I always come back from Vegas a loser.  Don’t bet your career.  Ask what is expected of you over the next month / quarter / year.  This can enhance trust by getting you and your boss on the same page.
  • Document everything.  If you notice your boss has the propensity to slip on promises or make sneaky dealings, make sure you are documenting EVERYTHING.  How you might ask?  Put everything in e-mail and save it all.  Confirm promotion schedules in e-mail.  Confirm salary cuts / increases in e-mail.  Even include your general recommendations for the business in e-mail.  Documenting everything serves two purposes.  First, it helps to keep your boss in line and second, it protects you in the event your boss gets caught behaving unethically and an internal investigation ensues.  You don’t want to be mistaken for crew on his or her sinking ship.
  • Determine where you stand.  In absence of communication we always assume the worst.  If you aren’t asking about your standing and if you aren’t hearing anything from your boss, you are likely to assume that you are not in a good position.  This train of thought may also lead you to begin to mistrust your boss even further.  Clear that up by proactively asking.  It will put your mind at ease because you will at least know how he / she perceives your current performance and what you can be doing more of / differently.

A Stronger Prescription – In the Event the First Round of Treatment Doesn’t Work

  • Develop an exit strategy.  As my friends in the entrepreneurial world say, “you should always have an exit strategy.”  Do you have one?  Get one.  This is particularly important if you think your boss is unethical or out to get you.    And if you do observe your boss behaving unethically, you may be putting yourself and your career at serious risk by sticking around.  Not simply because your boss could continue to hurt you by limiting your opportunities and/or stealing from you, but more importantly because you are under their reputational umbrella.  If they go down, your reputation could be stained… permanently.  You could be one of those unfortunate individuals who have Arthur Andersen or Enron on their resumes and are forever defending their reputation.
  • Gang up on your boss – I’ve seen this approach have tremendous impact on a boss.  When his or her entire team comes to him or her as one unit and says “we don’t trust you,” it is a tough message to ignore.  And frankly, no one wants to be seen as untrustworthy by their team.  A facilitator may also help you pull this off so consider that path if you want to ensure your boss hears the message.  However, I would not recommend doing this solo!  The boss could choose to shoot the messenger and you know what that means.
  • Tell on your boss – If things have gone from bad to worse and you experience things in your department escalating to dangerous levels, it may be appropriate to tell your boss’ boss or Human Resources about what is occurring.  However, use this is a last resort.  Consider this the equivalent to major surgery.  There is a chance the patient won’t survive.  That patient could be you.   Make sure you are prepared to make that gamble and you have taken all the necessary precautions (see “Document everything” above).

Finally, be honest with yourself about your mistrust of your boss.  Make sure that you aren’t labeling your boss “untrustworthy” simply because you don’t like their way of approaching their job… or more importantly, because you think you should be the one calling the shots.  That could be a dangerous step in the wrong direction… for you (see last month’s dysfunction “I thought I was a rock star until they let me go”)!

There you have it – the prescription for what you can do when you don’t trust your boss.  It will take discipline, hard work and intention.  Keep it up, be vigilant, make a concerted effort and watch your back… and your front.

Stay tuned to April’s dysfunction of the month – “I’m AFRAID… to make the changes in my career and life that I want to make.”  Who hasn’t felt that?

A note from Brandon
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9 replies
  1. Jean says:

    I was just turned down for a coordinator role for the second year running. The reason being according to my manager that even though I had proved that I could do the job 2 times in the past she was picking another person who has been there longe then me. This person is a follower not a leader and has on more then one occasion stated she wouldn’t know what to do if she had to deal with situations arising. I have y more experience and qualifications then she does the only thing different is that she is a friend of the boss. She is also a yes person with no opinion and will follow the manager blindly. It is making me feel sick. I am part of a union so I decided to talk to them but I also will ask a thought provoking question to the chair of the board because I think she knows things are not being run properly. If I don’t I think they will not question the managers disision and I will feel that she has won again, forcing me to quit my job.

    There are so many things that my manager does that are questionable and unprofessional it is such a shame that all the decent people at my workplace feel undervalued and mistreated. It’s fine if you are a suck up and can turn a blind eye to all the hipochracy but I can’t.

  2. Brandon Smith says:

    How awful. I’m right there with you. I don’t think I could put up with a manager like that for very long. Any chance your manager might be moved or promoted sometime over the next year or so? While unfair, it is not uncommon for poor managers to be rewarded with a promotion. This is particularly the case if the organization is not comfortable making the tough decisions.

    My last piece of counsel is that I LOVE the idea of “thought provoking questions.” Just be sure not to say anything anything directly disparaging about your manager (Ex: “He’s the worst manager I’ve ever worked with. I can’t stand him…. etc…”). You don’t want it to look like you are the problem. Going in as a team and voicing a complaint is also a strategy I’ve seen work time and time again. Can you get others on your side?

    Regardless, good luck and hang in there!

  3. C Jooste says:

    My boss is younger than I am, almost half my age, thinks she knows it all and I am in the Industrial Relations Department which already is a negative environment as it is a constant witch hunting as to who to dismiss or warn next. I found them to be inconsistent, conniving, vindictive and don’t agree with their methods. Biggest problem is that her and the HR Manager and Group HR Manager are all so deep up each others’ backsides that whatever is discussed with one of us or all of us at the office gets told to the other bosses and there is no one higher up to report this to. The Management style if non existent, they can’t handle pressure and to crown it all, find pleasure in dismissing people for the smallest things. There are no business ethics, you get treated like dirt and have to be thankful for the fact you have a job! No incentives, time off is a problem – not even an hour off before Christmas holidays regardless of whether you’ve worked 365 days a week, worked in all your lunch hours etc. It’s shocking that they won’t give their staff any leniency in any regard, yet someone who joined our team who has come from working for top Execs in same company gets treated differently (and admitted by boss because new person in our department has been with our company for longer and are big buddies with the execs and has threatened to take her bag and leave it or just pick up the phone to one of the top execs to stand by her whilst myself and other colleague are being “bluffed with the bullshit they feed us and they think we are so gullible as to believe it. It is the worst company I have ever worked for by far. They don’t aim to keep their employees … they aim to get rid of them. I can’t tolerate the snotnose boss I have who has 20 answers to everything and although I’ve come up with really execellent ideas to make lessen stress levels, there has been no thank you or recognition. It is driving me to a state where I literally take her on full force and I feel I’m losing my cool with her and I think the feeling is mutual. How do I separate the despise I feel towards her from behaving in a professional manner but then I must say that I wear my heart on my sleeve.

  4. Brandon Smith says:

    It sounds like you’ve had enough, and frankly the way you described it, I can’t blame you. The best way to manage your emotions during the short-term so you don’t loose your cool is to focus on the things you can control. For example, your interactions with your “customers,” your immediate work and most importantly, your career path. When I’ve worked with others that are close to the breaking point, they experience the most relief when they begin to work on their “exit strategy.” Given you are going to need to leave at some point (it is definitely not a sustainable situation), consider working on your resume and begin to plan your next move. That coupled with planning “mini vacations” will give you positive things to look forward to and will reduce the feeling of being “trapped” and thus lower your frustation. Give it a try!

  5. Dave says:

    I’ve been trying to find another job for over 4 years in this lousy economy. What’s my so-called “exit strategy”. Homelessness?

  6. Brandon Smith says:

    That’s a trickier question. Shoot me a note if you like. I’d be happy to help. Just click on the “Ask the Therapist” button on the right side bar. I look forward to helping.

  7. sam says:

    My boss took a second job and neglected her primary one which meant that she was working 2 days a week whilst still being paid for 4, she was uncommunicative with ne unless she wanted something. I had a problem with an external agency and emailed/caleed for her assistance with no response which resulted in me carrying the workload and having to deal with issues/concerns as and when they arose. She’s since shafted me on my appraisal which meansI look like I can’t cope with my workload due to her diverting her time and attention outside the organisation. Her boss and human resources are aware yet no action has been taken, I’ve been questioned as to why I’ve done the cpd that I have and told that my registering with a professional body is worthless, I have to call the estates manager to gain access to the work space which makes me feel like a thief and untrustworthy…..she constantly takes credit for work I’ve done and still refuses to communicate with me. I think and feel that both She and the organisation are unprofessional I’m currently applying for other jobs and willl be blowing the whistle when I leave.

  8. Brandon Smith says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It sounds absolutely dysfunctional to say the least. If I can be of any assistance, don’t hesitate to ask.

  9. L says:

    I agree it is not a good idea to express one’s feelings about the boss’s ineptitude in his lack of follow through. However, it is difficult when others talk about your boss to you about lack of follow up and follow through. To clarify meaning the boss’s own peers complain about the boss to the employee who reports to the inept boss.

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