The Corporate Shrink

What to do when a fellow manager is falling down on the job.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

One of my fellow department heads is a poor leader, poor manager, and poor communicator. We work closely together, and his staff comes to me for leadership and guidance. Our bosses recognize his ineptitude but are unwilling, or unable, either to give him training or let him go. What should I do? (issue 79, page 42)

Your colleague sounds clueless, and he should be replaced before more damage is done. But here’s what might not be so obvious. The fact that your supervisors are doing nothing, even though many people may be on the verge of quitting, suggests that the situation is symptomatic of a deeper problem: organizational denial. And guess what? You’re inadvertently contributing to it by being so responsive to your colleague’s frustrated staff.

By picking up the slack for his shortcomings, your well-intentioned leadership and guidance probably helps them in the short term and makes you look like a savior. But take a step back, and you can see how you might be colluding with a culture of denial. If what you’re doing–covering for an underperforming colleague in the spirit of being a team player–is more the rule than the exception in your company, and the senior leaders are also reluctant to see or act upon serious incompetence, then there’s something insidious going on higher up.

Reconsider your role as an unwitting coconspirator. Tactfully redirect your colleague’s staff, when they seek counsel, to their boss’s boss. And if you really want to help the company, address the problem head-on. Choose the most senior person with whom you have a good relationship and describe to this person the awkward position you’ve found yourself in. Tell him you’re seeking guidance because you do not want to foster organizational denial. I suppose you could just slip this column under his door–but better to take the credit for your behavioral savvy.

We just got a memo from human resources ordering us to be more sensitive to the use of perfumes. It says they can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks. Was my brother right when he said, “You guys have gone crazy in there”?

I was ready to dismiss this question as either trivial or outside my area of expertise. But there’s a deeper psychological issue here: the limits of intrusiveness in the workplace.

At first glance, it seems your HR director may well have overstepped her bounds. But these products are designed to impose a smell in the personal space of others. Some welcome it as pleasing or seductive; others find it a noxious invasion. Perfumes are also a way of marking territory (dogs come to mind), leaving an impression that lingers after the person has left, or concealing an underlying smell that’s worse.

If your brother’s point is that your HR department has bigger things to make a stink about, then I’d agree. But it’s worth considering the larger question: how to balance individuals’ seemingly harmless but ultimately intrusive habits with the responsibility of employers to promote the common good. Failing clear-cut evidence that the odor is harmful, the answer isn’t regulation but greater understanding of the ways we invade our coworkers’ personal spaces. Whether perfume reeks or not, it’s healthy to be aware of the impact we have on others.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (