Dealing with a Machiavellian Boss
October 13, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a new boss who has turned out to be extremely Machiavellian?

A new boss came along about a year and a half ago, as a previous boss was ousted due to office politics. The new guy puts on several layers of veneer: expert in his field with years of experience, complete incompetent using competent employees to do his work for him, to utterly manipulative and sneaky. He will never tell you his real motives for doing anything, dumps the vast majority of his work onto others, cultivates friendships with otherwise incompetent people who will do whatever he says, and will only get involved in a file if it gives him the opportunity to suck up to senior management.

It has had an extreme effect on my workplace - we are now down to about 50% of our original team, with no plan to staff the vacancies. Everyone is overwhelmed with extra work (from those who left as well as doing my boss' job), with no support from above, and people are fighting with one another. Incompetents who should be reprimanded have been getting promotions. It's chaos. At the center sits this man, who comes across as affable and slightly dim, but treats everyone around him as a chump, including his own boss. He is particularly misogynistic towards the women in our unit, chumming up to the few men in the team and treating the women in as condescending a manner as he can get away with.

For a variety of reasons, getting up and walking out is not in the immediate cards, although I assure you I am actively looking for work. So far, we have been speaking truth to power as much as possible, backing up our claims with hard facts. But we can't be on top of him 24/7. What I need are strategies in the short term for mitigating the damage this guy is doing to me and to my team.

Thanks for any advice or experience you might have.
posted by LN to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'll tell you what I tell others, come in on time, leave on time.

CYA on emails, and don't do anything that's not in your area. If asked to do anything above and beyond your current duties, simply say, "I don't have the bandwidth." When given stupid deadline tell him, "with our current work load, that simply won't be possible."

Keep a project spreadsheet and track milestones on it. Note when you've been held up.

Other than that, stop giving a shit. I'm serious, it will eat you alive if you let it. Accept that people like this exist, and that the only thing you can do is find a better situation and leave.

I get passive aggressive. Kill with kindness, be a team a point. But if it requires extra time...just won't be possible.

Unless this guy gets moved or fired or dies, the only thing to do is to leave.

Take home your personal belongings slowly and without notice, so when you do quit, you just have your mug and a picture to take with you.

It absolutely sucks, but they picked him. Remember that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:35 PM on October 13, 2014 [55 favorites]

You might be able to spin this to management as a personality conflict that's affecting retention, but that's about as much as that's going to be. The problem is this:

expert in his field with years of experience = good
complete incompetent using competent employees to do his work for him = amplifies his effectiveness by delegating appropriately
utterly manipulative and sneaky = unstoppable, overcomes obstacles
will never tell you his real motives = (ok, that's not good, but he's not required to)
dumps the vast majority of his work onto others = delegates
cultivates friendships with otherwise incompetent people who will do whatever he says = networks effectively
will only get involved in a file if it gives him the opportunity to suck up to senior management = is aligned with the priorities of the organization

Your only other two strategies are to complain about the misogyny, which is legit but a tough path, or to let him fail by doing a bad job, which might take you out with him (or before him.) Sorry, I know that's not a great outlook, but as long as there's something about him his supervisors like, there's not much you can do.
posted by ctmf at 3:40 PM on October 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

So far, we have been speaking truth to power as much as possible

There has never been a more thankless task. Don't bother. Take a look at your performance from outside yourself, from the perspective of others -- so look at real concrete achievements. Be positive. Develop relationships with others outside that department who might hire you. Do not be duplicitous, but do CYA. Make the dullard look good -- it will reflect on you; others will see it and get the subtext.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:43 PM on October 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sounds like CEO material!

You can't change him. Your company's HR department and upper management hiring him and his continued employment despite his staff's turnover means that your company's culture is sick and you can't hope to change that either.

Nthing to just hunker down, CYA, and get out ASAP.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:55 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: oh my god, find a new job. this guy sounds like the perfect kind of asshole where he knows exactly how hard to push it and not an inch further. you and some of your coworkers might hate him and know that he sucks, but everyone above him probably thinks he's kicking ass and taking names. CTMF has the right idea here of how all this insufferableness can be spun in to greatness.

Waiting him out and hoping for him to fail or trying to set him up to trip on his own, or whatever, will likely end up blowing up in your face and taking you out in the blowback.

It's frustrating and sounds stupid, but in my experience and the experience of many people i've talked to, known, or seen post on here... there is no action you can take here unless he does something utterly heinous(and maybe even then) that wont just end up being spun as a personality conflict that's a you problem of not being a team player or whatever.

i bet that other 50% of the team bailed because of this shit and because they knew better, unless they were just outright fired. you should do the same. i swear, for every 10 stories i hear of something like this only maybe one ends in the "just" victory of the shitty guy getting ousted. the other options are quagmire, or it blowing up in your face for getting outed trying to undermine him or not being a team player or whatever. Find a new job, resign on good terms, and have a good reference. don't burn yourself out trying to fight this and end up with the maximum legally allowed "would not rehire" as your reference.
posted by emptythought at 4:30 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

a previous boss was ousted due to office politics

Sounds like your workplace thrives on drama, so this guy is probably a good cultural fit. You may not be, any more. You can't control his behavior and you certainly can't change the culture (I say from painful personal experience). Agree with the others who say it's time for you to hatch an escape plan.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:26 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Keep your head down and get out as fast as you can. Smile, nod, don't do any more work than is strictly necessary. Check out mentally as much as you can. If nothing bad ever seems to happen to dummies who suck up to him, act like a dummy who sucks up to him until you can escape.

People like this never get ousted, they just get shuffled from department to department. Luckily for you, you don't own this business, so it's not your problem as long as he doesn't get you fired.

I know everyone feels really hassled and harried because they're trying to pick up slack for all the missing staff and the DOA boss, but seriously, don't bother. He's not going to appreciate it, and you're not going to get any credit for it. In the worst case scenario (which ime is pretty likely) working hard will only paint a target on your back as someone who might make trouble. It's going to make you look like a threat.

If you're OK being completely pragmatic about this, then imo your only goal right now should be to cut your losses.
posted by rue72 at 5:49 PM on October 13, 2014

Document everything you do. Smile like a Stepford wife and be perennially cheerful (i.e. fake) and act like everything's happy. Be perfect. Do the best you can to not call attention to yourself.

I don't think you can mitigate damage really. If you don't have anyone in the middle supervising between you and the boss, you're fair game for whatever he wants anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:58 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your ONLY focus is to get a new job.

Why are you "speaking truth to power"? Are you trying to be insubordinate and get fired?

You sound a little too wrapped up in the drama. Step back. Step back.

Get out of there, pronto. Nothing you describe is any of your business. None of it.
posted by jbenben at 6:29 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are a few options:
1. ignore it -- do your job, avoid doing extra work, seek emotional validation from your coworkers, and eventually find a different job.
2. fight it -- do your job, document everything, and quietly build support with other people to raise questions about the boss's leadership.
3. join it -- go read The Gervais Principle and then start playing the same power games your boss plays instead of doing your job. He will get promoted soon and someone will need to fill his place...
posted by sninctown at 7:59 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I worked for someone like this for more than a year and one of my best life decisions was to leave. The kind of company that would put someone like that at such a high level in the company was not a company I wanted to work for. Their choice in leadership reflected the tanking that particular company has taken.

Go somewhere better that hires better leaders.
posted by raw sugar at 9:20 PM on October 13, 2014

My very last boss I ever had was like this. Fifteen years ago she propelled me into a successful consulting career.

If you absolutely cannot escape, consider the fact that this person's behaviour is visible to others as well. Often people like this get moved around pretty fast, so it might not last. But my heart is with you. It's hard working for a dick.
posted by salishsea at 10:40 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unless you are a union delegate in a country where this is a legally protected role, or utterly 100% indispensable, speaking truth to power is a very risky thing to do in a work place. Big bosses mostly protect little bosses lest the underlings get the wrong idea like maybe they can effect change by working collectively. If big bosses don't protect little bosses, then their immediate layer of subordinates who they actually know personally won't trust them any more, and that hurts them. Finally, big bosses value obedience more than they value effectiveness.

Look out for yourselves by keeping excellent records and providing mutual moral support. Bail the second you get a chance.

Don't forget, if dude has promoted incompetents, even if he gets replaced, you'll be stuck with the people he promoted.

To add to ctmf's list of fault -> virtue translations: drives off half the team leaving the other half to do the same amount of work = runs a lean and effective organisation.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:44 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi Everyone, and thanks for the responses. It's clear the next step is for me to find something else, and believe me, that's underway.

To address some of the concerns:
1) "speaking truth to power" - this man does not understand the files he is responsible for, and often will mis-characterize what's going on when speaking to his boss about them. That leads to crazy decisions that will have a deleterious impact on us all (including my boss). Since I cannot trust that the correct information will pass from my boss to his boss, I have instituted a system whereby I copy his boss on any piece of business within my control that he needs to be informed of. As the senior boss is a micromanager, he loves this arrangement, and it protects my boss' ass. That doesn't stop me from pointing out to my boss as many times a day as I need to that he needs to be on top of this file. He agrees with me, BTW, but claims he just can't keep it in his head. I personally think he's using me for a patsy.

2a) I am unionized, and for the moment, in a situation of being indispensable for the specific file I'm responsible for. I also have two other jobs (and my boss knows this), so threats to fire me don't elicit the fearful response I suspect he hopes for.
2b) I have people reporting to me, and I know if I don't do something, he will just come down hard on them instead of me. I'd rather his attention was focused on me.

Thanks for your support and advice!
posted by LN at 7:30 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify 1) above - I make sure the work is done and no-one could complain, but I make sure it's clear where the breakage is, and it's not me.
posted by LN at 7:47 AM on October 14, 2014

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