“My boss seems incredibly anxious at work—especially when there is a tight deadline or some internal problem that has to be addressed. He seems to panic and lose focus. I’m a team leader who reports to him but I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to ‘talk him off the ledge’ whenever he’s under stress. I offer suggestions on handling delicate situations, help sort out problems and organize solutions to help him manage complex issues and more. I think he appreciates what I do for him, but I’m worried that this situation will negatively affect my career long-term. I worry that I won’t be recognized for my own contributions and leadership because I spend so much time and energy on his issues. Any advice?”
“First thing is, you need to be clear that ‘his problem is not your problem,’” says James Kestenbaum, a corporate psychologist and founder of The Solutions Group, a leadership coaching and assessment firm in Pittsford. “When someone is anxious, people tend to have two reactions. First, it makes them anxious, and second, most people want to avoid people with any kind of mental health issue.”If you research this a little, you find that a lot of people have experienced something like this with a boss. It can be a very complex problem to solve.
How do you deal with it? Kestenbaum suggests doing what you can to improve your self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Understanding your own thoughts and feelings is critical, he says, not only to help you cope with the situation but to handle it very carefully in your conversations with others in your workplace. “It can be very frustrating to have a boss who is not doing their job and if it goes around the office, you can come off as a complainer.”
Your own concerns about your career are a real issue here, as well. You obviously want to increase your visibility and be recognized for your own accomplishments and success with your own projects. However, your boss might not want to lose you, says Gonzague Dufour, an organizational coach and human resources consultant and author of a book, “Managing Your Manager: How to get Ahead with Any Type of Boss.”
“My real concern is the risk that the boss would block your next step and promotion, just to keep you as a valuable adviser within the team, helping him deal with future crises,” Dufour says.
Your challenge then is to continue to balance your own career development while you continue to help the boss. That means taking care of yourself, your physical and emotional health and your own career. If you have a mentor inside the company who understands the politics of the organization and is a peer of your boss, you might be able to go to them and ask for assistance. A mentor who understands what you’re going through—and knows your boss well—might be able to intervene if necessary, Kestenbaum says.
Another key point is to watch your time and workload carefully as you navigate this situation. It’s important that your workload is reasonable and that you not say yes to everything,” he says. “It’s human to be compassionate, but if you do too much compassion, it becomes enabling.”
To manage the time and increased workload, he suggests that you begin a regular dialog with your boss—meetings that can take just a few minutes, where you can prioritize the list of things that need to be done and who can do them, Kestenbaum says. In these scenarios, it is easy to believe that you don’t have the right to negotiate, but you do. “Just be reasonable about it and use common sense,” he says. “For example, you can say ‘A and B are priorities but C is not. If I do that, it’s going to take away from what I need to do for A and B.’”
Believe it or not, you are gaining great skills doing what you are doing. “You are certainly improving your interpersonal sensitivity and emotional intelligence, your troubleshooting skills, your prioritization and organizational skills and your ability to handle complicated nuanced problems,” says Alisa Cohn, an executive coach.
“This will certainly help propel you forward. Keep your head up to see who you can add to your network or enhance your relationship with as you continue to navigate these waters for your boss. Being seen as a level-headed informal leader will get you recognized by quality people in your organization.”
Cohn suggests that you try to clarify your career goals and ask yourself where you want to go in your career and what skills you need to get there. “And make sure you are building your network up, down and across with people who can help you answer these questions, support you, teach you and sponsor you by throwing you into relevant experiences.”
Contrary to what you might be thinking, your work with this boss is indeed visible to others there. “People know this boss is having problems and they see his subordinate stepping up and helping, Kestenbaum says.
Margie Warrell, a speaker on leadership issues and author of “Make Your Mark: A Guidebook for the Brave-Hearted,” agrees, saying that you should let go of the idea that your career will be negatively affected by this experience.
“Other people around are not oblivious to what you do and are very likely acutely aware of your boss’s tendency to be very anxious and sweat the small stuff. The people around the office probably admire you for how calmly you are handling someone who is anything but.”
At the same time, though, you also need to ensure that people “have the chance to connect with and experience you ‘in action’ first hand,” she adds.
If you are not the only direct report that this boss has, perhaps you can build an alliance with another person to try to share the role of “emotional buffer,” during crises that arise, Dufour says.
Another idea that could be very effective here, Dufour says, would be to approach human resources about doing a 360-degree feedback session for the whole team to help improve its efficiency. “It would be a way to provide feedback to the boss and in addition, human resources might appreciate the initiative and may recognize you as someone willing to lead and deal with people – a way to be on the map,” he says.
As you navigate this, you might be concerned about whether your boss is getting some extra help for his anxiety issues. You can really only discuss it if your boss begins to open up personally about what he is going through, Kestenbaum says. “The relationship has to be very strong before you can go there.”
Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585)249-9295 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.