Analyze This

When You're The Abusive Boss's Pet

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week
01.15.2007

I was recently hired by a new manager who is hated by his staff. Because he hired me, I guess, he treats me much better than he treats the others, toward whom he’s hypercritical and dismissive. With me, he adopts an entre nous attitude, complaining about everyone else. I’m uncomfortable with this. I need to develop good rapport with my colleagues, but I can’t see that happening if I remain the boss’s pet.  Anonymous, New York

YOU’RE RIGHT: as long as this favoritism lasts you’ll never be able to bond with your co-workers. And you’d better act fast to change the situation. The longer you wait, the more you risk being stigmatized permanently.

A warning, though: Figuring out a solution will require mustering some empathy for this manager. He has obviously gotten off to an abysmal start, and my bet is that he’s probably lonely or depressed in his new job (and maybe in the rest of his life, too). That may be one reason he’s latched onto you, the other newcomer, and effectively split you off from your peers.

His contempt toward his staff also sounds defensive–his way of deflecting the fear that he’s the one on trial in the department. By taking you into his confidence and maligning the others, he’s consoling himself, in part by trying to poison your impressions of the staff.

You can’t pretend this mess doesn’t exist, so you’ve got to say something to your co-workers. Don’t take a page from your boss’s playbook, though, and trash him. Instead, acknowledge the awkwardness and find ways to make it clear that you have a mind of your own. You should also approach your boss privately, and, in the spirit of being helpful to him and to the team, start a discussion about the dynamics you’re observing. I wouldn’t put it in the context of how he’s making you miserable and turning the others against you. That will just make him more defensive and thus even harder to deal with. Rather, offer some observations about the perception that he has taken you under his wing. While you appreciate his interest, you’re concerned that it might be hampering your ability to build relationships with colleagues.

IN TRYING to engage his curiosity about office dynamics, you stand a better chance of helping him see how he’s undermining his own authority. Offer one or two suggestions on what the team really needs from him as a leader. Tactfully, try to counter his dim view of the staff with examples of good work they’ve done. And admit some of the challenges you faced in making the transition to a new company. He’ll feel less alone and more understood. Sadly, if all this doesn’t eliminate the unwanted favoritism, you might have to look for another job.