How do you deal with professional threats?
February 20, 2009 12:51 PM   Subscribe

My boss swings from one conspiracy theory to another about our work and her/our future. What are some ways to force her to stop?

I work in a small fundraising office for a big multiple services non-profit. By small, I mean there is my boss, her deputy (me), and an assistant.

We have a central office that turns out our marketing and paraphernalia and does major events.

My boss started there and then was farmed out to run the office where I now work. For the lack of interest from the people this organization serves, we have been remarkably successful even in these economic conditions. I am very enthusiastic about the organizational mission and have activated many of this group's employees to think about advocating for funding.

Because our marketing is handled outside of our office, there are always several layers of discussion between our idea and their end-product. This means that I spend a lot of time rewriting marketing copy and defining our mission.

I don't enjoy rewriting, but my boss sees it as a personal affront to her intelligence and her dignity and reacts extremely harshly and in the most demoralizing tone. I have worked hard to build meaningful working relationships and I am beginning to worry these alliances are being sabotaged because my boss thinks that outsiders are attempting to usurp her power and control. In reality, she has many friends among the organizational leadership, but we are a small office and so, "Small Fry".

When she feels like someone is trying to change aspects of a project she is leading, she will call me, demand I drop whatever I am doing and then I must spend an hour or more in her office to learn how she will soon be tendering her resignation. I have been keeping a tally of these meetings and since I started in the summer, it amounts of over 30 occasions - often twice in one week.

I was advised at first to attempt to turn these tirades into teaching moments. But, I realize she feels like she needs to win my loyalty to her cause. This is ridiculous, she is the person I work with daily. My job is fully invested in her success and she is aware of this. My loyalty to her should not be an issue.

I am not qualified to take up her position if she does follow through on her threat to resign. I am also only really in the beginning of developing a cohort of good donors. I was recommended for the position because of my ability to grow small ideas and turn them into opportunities to activate large groups of like-minded people. I am young and successful in motivating people to give their time and support to causes and people I love and respect. I want to protect my position and support my boss but I can't keep going to these meetings and nodding blankly. I feel like I should threaten to quit. Advice would be helpful.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't threaten to quit unless you are actually willing to follow through on it.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't want to be the first one to walk in here and tell you that your boss sounds like she's certifiably crazy, but paranoia, believing in conspiracy theories, and ranting/raving/tirades are classic signs that someone needs mental help. That probably doesn't help you.

You might see if her friends can get you moved to the central office in order to pick up the experience you need to be a director yourself if the organization is growing even in these economically poor times.
posted by SpecialK at 1:07 PM on February 20, 2009

Take this to the person above your boss. Let them know that your boss's counter-intuitive mindset is negatively affecting the workflow and help them understand how much better you would be at it. At this point, if you want to fix the problem, you need to be willing to take her position. If that means she is let go, it is to the benefit of the organization in the long run.
posted by phredgreen at 1:15 PM on February 20, 2009

Seconding not threatening to quit. That's just not the right thing to do as a professional tactic. even in an environment where it might happen twice a week :)

Other than that, I'd recommend talking to her superior if this is a problem that you can't deal with and feel that you are valuable enough to the organization for this to not be something with which you should have to deal. While this might be seen as "disloyal" by your crazy cuckoo pants boss, your loyalty should be to yourself and to this organization about which you seem to care. In my experience, unstable personalities are not something that any organization, particularly one that depends on the kindness of donors, can afford to have around.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:15 PM on February 20, 2009

First: be sympathetic, but contribute nothing. If she needs to blow off steam, it's something that confronting her directly won't likely solve -- better to be a sympathetic ear if you can stand it (but don't do anything to make those moments last longer than they need to.)

Second: continue to maintain your relationships with those other people as best you can. Don't badmouth your boss to them, and don't badmouth them to your boss. If she's as difficult to work with as you believe, they might be thinking "gee, I wish [boss] would get fired and they'd made [you] the new boss." This happened to me, and so my career and opportunities easily survived the meltdown and ultimate firing of my previous boss.

Third: if this is untenable -- and it sounds like it is -- try one more coping mechanism before you go to her boss. At the beginning of every day, make a todo list of the work you need to get done before the end of the day. Ideally, add estimated hours to it and whatnot. Then, when she tried to pull you into her office for a rant, you can say "I'm sorry, [boss], but I have this, this and that to get done before the end of the day; can we [go to lunch|wait until end of day|do this after I finish this other thing]?" Hopefully she'll accept that as a business issue gating your discussions rather than a personal one, and by the time lunch/end of day/you finishing the task rolls around, she'll have calmed down. If not, at least you can listen to her at a more appropriate time.
posted by davejay at 1:23 PM on February 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a crazy, paranoid boss who was always worried she was going to be fired (which is kind of funny, because by all rights she should have been).

In this, and many other things, she was an irrational person. It sounds like your boss is also irrational, at least regarding this one issue. You cannot reason with irrational people. The only person you can change is yourself.

Speaking to the next person up the ladder is a good idea, but be prepared that if you go to them, they may do nothing, or they may do something that is detrimental to you.

Leaving things how they are seems to be an untenable situation. Figure out what action is most likely to change the situation to your benefit, and then do it.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:39 PM on February 20, 2009

I just remembered there was one more important thing I meant to add to my advice:

Take a step back before you do what I suggested (talking to her superiors). Make sure that the consequences fits the situation. Make sure that this problem is as big as it feels right now. Sometime an imperfect, maybe even unhealthy, office environment can be contagious. The way your boss feels could be rubbing off on you. It's possible that things only feel as bad as they feel because you're so close to her. You may be able to take a step back, calm down, and realize things aren't as bad as they seem. Maybe not, but I'd suggest doing so before making any big steps.

Also, good luck.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2009

Yes, this is ridiculous. She's acting like an insecure teenager. However, I totally feel your pain, because this is a not-uncommon "type" in non-profits.

I would advise that you try to handle this the way you would any co-worker who spends too much time venting. Take the high road, don't get dragged into the drama, listen for a few moments, offer some sort of generically supportive comment, then make a work-related-task excuse to get yourself back to your desk.

I think threatening to quit will backfire. She will not understand what you're trying to convey. And sadly, I don't think tattling on her will help either.

It sounds like you're getting GREAT experience at this job. I'm often a little leery of posting in these sorts of job threads, because I feel like a lot of people have highly unrealistic expectations about their worklife, but you sound really mature about this. You're gonna be fine.
posted by desuetude at 2:34 PM on February 20, 2009

From reading your post, you probably don't need this advice, but whatever you do, keep your temper. My husband (who is usually smarter than this) worked for your boss. She decided he was "part of the conspiracy" and made his work-life hell. He ended up walking out and not turning back. She made it a personal point to actually call anyone she knew in the non-profit sector to blackball him. He ended up wth a job he loves, so it all worked out, but we live around the corner from the museum where he worked, and he still, 10 years later, tenses up when we go by it. You sound level-headed and truly comitted to your work. I can't offer much advice-wise, but I can offer my greatest sympathies and am keeping my fingers crossed for you that your situation improves.
posted by dogmom at 3:05 PM on February 20, 2009

I would be sympathetic but business-like, and give business reasons for not having time to talk. davejay's coping mechanism is great. You could also talk to her in a calm time: "I notice that we spend time on big-picture discussions and sometimes that takes away from me finishing the work you've asked me to do. Should we limit the time we spend checking in if it's not a planned meeting?" and then refer back to that solution ("we said we'd limit these to ten minutes") the next time the situation happens.

Also, it does sound like you should start preparing yourself to take over her position if it doesn't work out.
posted by salvia at 3:15 PM on February 20, 2009

desuetude, what's up with the random slam on non-profits? I've worked at three and never met anybody like that.
posted by salvia at 4:52 PM on February 20, 2009

I didn't mean it as a slam on non-profits. I work in the nonprofit admin field too, and intend to stay there. Just that everyone I know who works for a nonprofit seems to know a "takes things personally and needs validation from their staff" senior manager type.
posted by desuetude at 9:18 PM on February 20, 2009

A timely post in Zenhabits: Five Strategies for Surviving a Tough Boss.
posted by desuetude at 10:52 AM on February 22, 2009

[a few comments removed - please take it to email or metatalk, thanks]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:42 PM on February 22, 2009

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