The Corporate Shrink

When bad jobs happen to good people.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

I head sales for a family-owned food business. It’s run by two family members with poor management skills – so I’m a leader by default, taking care of employees, trying to improve the culture. I’m well paid and my contributions are valued, but I wonder if it’s worth it for the satisfaction alone. When does it make sense to go elsewhere? (issue 93, page 96)

How does “right now” sound? If you are as billed – a talented employee with considerable people skills – you are critical to the success of this enterprise. But you’re also vulnerable to exploitation.

Often there’s a fine line between doing good for your company and doing good for yourself. Ideally, of course, these aims shouldn’t be in conflict – and one marker of a healthy organization is the alignment of your goals and the company’s. In your case, though, these aren’t even close.

You say that you’re getting some satisfaction from your role. I’d be more inclined to believe that if you hadn’t written to me. Reaching out for help – or even just raising the question – suggests you’re conflicted about this and have been for some time. It’s important to distinguish between a circumscribed period of hardship that you enter into knowingly and an ongoing environment best suited for masochists. I’m concerned that you’re lodged squarely in the latter.

On your way out the door, though, reflect on what might be a bigger problem: the self-sacrificing part of your personality that serves up your goodness on a silver platter. I’m not suggesting that you become selfish or mean. But ambition isn’t a dirty word. Pay more attention to your own needs, or risk repeating the pattern at your next job and eventually burning out. Your inclination to look after others probably comes from childhood experiences that rewarded such behavior, but now it’s just obscuring your own normal need to be cared for.

My boss is having marital problems. He stopped wearing his wedding band, and he’s staying out late at night. His behavior is affecting the office. We’ve stopped having meetings, and team members are acting awkwardly. Is there something I should do?

When the boss’s marital laundry is aired, it inevitably affects those in the vicinity – especially if, as you imply, the big guy is having an affair. Simply put, power infused by sexuality gets everyone worked up (a truth discovered long ago by Shakespeare, and then network television). Under these circumstances, group performance tends to erode, and splintering or fighting occurs.

In a divorce, the jarring effects for those in dependent positions, including employees, can be overwhelming. Those who say nothing compound the problem by becoming silently complicit. This denial of perception makes people shut down emotionally, accounting for the awkwardness.

Rather than confronting your boss alone, better to enlist a small group (along with someone higher up, if possible) who can speak to him matter-of-factly, and without moralizing, about the consequences of his personal life on work performance. While some might argue that his marital problems aren’t your business, they become your business when they affect everyone else.

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 (