Stanley Bing

Ask Bing: My boss doesn't listen

You can turn a bad boss to your advantage, says Fortune's Stanley Bing.

By Stanley Bing

Q: What can one do about a boss who is a chronically poor listener? I will mention an idea, boss will say nothing about it, then come up with it on his own or find it elsewhere later and tout it like the best thing ever. There will be no mention of me coming up with it first.

This is a bigger problem than I thought. I'm pretty good about letting him know about the work I've done on any particular project. He, however, seems to forget about it. The other day he mentioned that I needed to be "more aggressive" in one particular aspect, but it was something I have already been doing for some time - and have told him about on many, many occasions.

He talks a lot, doesn't listen well and seems to have a selective memory. I don't want this to come back to bite me come performance review time. I've started directing my ideas and such more toward his boss for just that reason, but I don't have as much contact with him and he doesn't see what I do on a daily basis.

A: You are clearly a very, very nice person who doesn't understand what it means to work for a narcissist. Your boss is not a "bad listener." He is an egocentric, self-obsessed person who a) doesn't think other people have ideas, only him, and b) is incredibly unaware of what the words "other people" mean, anyhow. What you need to understand is that this is not a misunderstanding. It's the way he does things, all the time, not just with you but also in his home life, if he has one, which is probably a real question.

You mention two discrete problems, each of which has a different answer. The first is not a problem, and there's nothing you can do about it anyway. Your boss sops up your ideas and gives you no credit for them. Big deal. Boo hoo. Get over it. That's what bosses generally do. Your job is to be in the neighborhood when he gets "his" ideas and make him feel good about himself. Believe me, that strategy will be appreciated at review time. He may even get a teeny-weeny glimmer that you have something to do with his acquisition of such ideas, even only as a talisman. Get this into your head: Your job is to make your boss feel good about himself and to do well. If you're doing that, you're a success. Forget about getting "credit" for things, per se. Just be around when good things are happening for him. That's enough.

The other issue is more serious. This person has no idea what you do, when you do it, and what the outcome is. He's so self-involved and vague about the responsibilities of others that you're essentially a fictional idea to him. This is not going to change about him. It's a part of his personality disorder. You need to document all your activities with brief e-mails that tell him what you're engaged in and how well that's turning out for the universe. Then you can direct him to an electronic trail that proves your worth when it arises. And hey. It doesn't hurt one bit to say to him, very slowly, "Murray, I've been doing that since 2004. You know that, right?" To which he will most certainly reply, since he's the Boss and He Knows Everything, "Of course I know that! Good work!"

Oh, and about going above his head... It's been nice knowing you.

Q: I just found out my boss is being let go. We have a great relationship and we work well together. I was told it won't affect my job, however in many ways it will. I have only been here 18 months - should I start looking elsewhere? I have had talks with my boss about my salary and he has even mentioned to me I should maybe see what options are out there in the range I desire... I feel I am in limbo with everything once he leaves. Please help.

A: Yeah, it's hard. In fact, losing a trusted, sympathetic boss is maybe the worst thing that can happen to a career in mid-stride. But don't be too hasty. You sound like an open person, one who is capable of communicating with people in authority. You may do well with the next guy.

You feel like you are in limbo because you are. It's not an illusion. But please keep in mind that new bosses are looking for employees who accept them, are willing to offer their loyalty and assistance. New bosses are terrified. They tremble in the shadow of the allegiances and competencies of their predecessors. Offer the new person the same good work and loyalty you did to your previous boss. You may find that the new working environment in which you are recognized and better-compensated is the same place you work right now.

If the nouveau boss turns out to be a loser? You can always bail. Eighteen months is a burp in the life of career wage slaves like us. The world is your oysterette! Go out and slurp it up.

Q: I work in an environment that is best described as "event planning." Most of my work is done after the event so while I help out before and during, I really don't get as stressed out as my "bridezilla" boss and his/her assistants because I don't have as much invested. My tactic in dealing with their craziness is to just talk them off the ledge when I can and to forgive them (over and over...) and get on with the next big thing. But I feel a little guilty because I can predict how they will act and may have some advice on how they can do better "next time" but I'm not sure I should go there. What do you think? Should I share my insights and risk being misunderstood (they tend to obsess and I don't want to add another thing to their pile by appearing critical) or should I just hunker down for another storm?

A: Both. That is 1) Yes, absolutely, positively attempt to help the crazy bosses do better going forward. Even extremely crazy people have a hazy sense that something is kind of wrong with them, and wish they didn't have whatever ailment afflicts them. This is particularly true of nutty crisis-based pressure-cooker types. If you can give them suggested processes and procedures that will minimize the carnage next time? Go for it, by all means. Your efforts may be greeted with squinty-eyed resentment for a time, but underneath it all, if your ideas are good, there will come a grudging sense that you are somewhat more sane and functional than they are likely to be, and that it would be nice if some of your ideas were implemented, if only to mitigate some of their pain when the crunch is on. In short, it's worth a try.

However, you should also realize that the crisis is the way insane bosses of a certain type get motivated to produce their best work. So batten down the hatches, stock up the storm cellar and shiver your timbers. The next storm is most certainly on the way, matey.

Q: I work in a State Mental Health Facility. Last year I was attacked by a patient who ruined my right shoulder. The first six months of my injury, I was misdiagnosed with a cervical strain, given pain meds for another six months (with therapy) and released back to work. The pain became more excruciating. I then got a second opinion and rotator cuff surgery done. Now my job has terminated me for being out of work because they couldn't accommodate my work restrictions after 180 days had expired. Is there anything I can do? I know they won't rehire me now.

A: You know what? There are some things that management advice can help with, and there are some things that can't. I'm not saying you have a legal case, but you certainly have endured enough, and are screwed up enough at this point, to be allowed a short conversation with a lawyer or, better yet, a friend who is a lawyer. Perhaps you don't have a case at all. But perhaps you do. And sometimes you need a hammer, not a pair of pliers. Be aware that a lawsuit against a corporation is a real pain in the neck for everybody, including you. So don't just go in there whaling away with your eyes closed and your fists clenched. But there does come a time when matters move beyond finesse. You may be there.

Q: How can I remain sane when I'm surrounded by a selfish co-worker? My co-worker "Jane" and I are the only two employees in our office. Jane works three days a week, sometimes two days, sometimes one day, whatever she feels like. Jane also takes 10 vacations a year. I work five days, have much more responsibilities than Jane, don't take anywhere near 10 vacations a year and I am always at work. Jane is the office manager. None of our bosses seem to say anything to her. I am literally going crazy. I have always been passive, too passive obviously, because this has been going on for over seven years. But now I am tired of it all. I don't really want to quit my job but lately I feel like I have to. Please help me!

A: I don't want to be rude to you, my friend, but... what are you? A chump? You are being exploited, have been exploited, for the amount of time it takes the body to replace all of its brain cells. Perhaps you have a whole new set now and are starting to think straight.

An organization doesn't use somebody as a doormat who refuses to accept that role. First of all, start taking your vacation days. Second, stop doing the work that is supposed to be done by the Office Manager. When she asks you why it's not done, simply say, "You weren't here." If she yells, just look at her. I have found, over a long career, that a blank look is often a very powerful weapon.

I wonder whether her bosses know, really. You don't and probably shouldn't tell them outright, but simply STOP covering up and essentially enabling this bad behavior. Do your work, of course, and even a little bit more. But stop making the whole situation possible, because that is exactly what you are doing.

And take your damn vacation days, for goodness sake!

Q: I'm 50. I've been both an employee and a business owner. My experience is that I have many, many worse employees that I had bad bosses. Having employees drove me crazy. They pulled everything in the book. I sold the business and am an employee. Much happier and saner. And I overlook a lot of crazy behavior of my bosses because I understand.

A: The key words here, pal, are: "I sold my business." I would translate that as "I have a certain amount of F.U. money." This makes it a whole lot easier to be an employee, I think. That said, you're right, of course. Employees are impossible. I have a bunch of them myself. It's just not as funny or helpful for the vast amount of people - i.e. employees - to read about how creepy, lazy, stupid, inefficient and hapless they are. We'd much rather talk about our bosses. Aren't they just the pits sometimes?

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