It’s a boss’s job to provide employees with direction and guidance, ensuring effective performance and development. That includes keeping employees safe within the organization and helping them do well, for their own sake and to ensure the team, gets a good return on their hiring and training investment.
But even if your relationship with your boss is solid, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is happy with them or that they’re successful in their roles and responsibilities. Your boss could be under threat because someone higher up is dissatisfied with their performance, a colleague is out to get them, or something is lacking in their work product or ability to form relationships.
So, if your boss is at risk, what’s your responsibility? How far should you stick your neck out, and in what direction?
Meet the New Boss
For a new boss who isn’t quite fitting in with their peers, gauge carefully where the discrepancy is. Some execs need help finding their footing in a new culture. If you have a better understanding of how things work and how senior leaders operate, or if you know the culture better and realize they’ve triggered negative reactions, take your boss out for coffee and a heads-up. Try this: “I thought you might want to know that in the past, when we’ve had situations like this, So-and-So was concerned about X, or reacted by doing Y. You may want to have a preliminary conversation with them to see if any of those expectations still hold.”
If your boss doesn’t yet understand how to navigate the organization, be specific about the steps and people that need to be managed. In the same way that a kind person would tell you if you have spinach in your teeth, don’t let your boss leave out influential colleagues whose job titles don’t convey their importance or go to a crucial presentation without the right data.
Some new bosses may try to replicate their last job experience, not realizing that resources are allotted differently; or the level of collaboration or compromise in the culture may be too warm or cool for them. If their direction runs counter to the existing culture or violates work norms, the regulatory environment, or customer relationships, tell them so in writing, with references or links to documentation showing what the right thing would be.
Help Out Now to Ensure Future Success — and Self-Protection
You can’t control your boss’s behavior, but there may still be ways to shore them up. Say your boss comes across as incompetent or weak, which can affect your team’s credibility and standing, ability to get resources and ratings, or participation in decision-making. If Human Resources or other leaders are supportive, consider whether it’s practical to share information: “Boss, I’m going to see whether I can get some backup for our plan from Xerxes in accounting. They usually agree with this kind of approach, and I bet they’ll be helpful.”
Or if your boss is going through a rough patch due to tough personal circumstances or they’ve uncharacteristically bobbled something on the job, you can offer to pick up the slack, give advice about what the department needs to do, or assist with managing interdepartmental relationships: “Can I be helpful with X? I’ve got a little extra bandwidth right now.” In any case, don’t shield them too much. To be responsible for their own long-term success they still need to be aware of what’s really going on.
Even if you can’t improve your boss’s performance, be cautious about exposing their flaws. Hierarchies offer protection based on the chain of command, so unless you see something that’s legally or ethically inappropriate (like harassment, lying, or double-dealing), it’s better to build alliances around your boss rather than reporting them.
Make sure your peers and other leaders know how hard you’re working to move everything forward, even if it’s in the face of your boss’s passivity or incompetence. Strengthen your ties with other leaders: One of them may protect you or speak well of you to the new boss if your boss is replaced.
You’re Not Your Boss’s Keeper
It can be appropriate to go down with the ship over a moral or ethical issue, but not over a performance or interpersonal issue. So make sure you’re doing whatever you can on the organization’s behalf, while keeping a sense of yourself as an individual and maintaining self-care so you don’t lose yourself to despair. Think about what you would do if you were the one in charge, and move in that direction.
But if you find that you’re frequently feeling drained or negative, or if you’ve been pushing hard for months with no sense of significant change, then it could be time to look for a transfer opportunity — or, if necessary, to start planning an external search.