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Article Published in February 2000
Issue of Mademoiselle

IS YOUR BOSS HOLDING YOU BACK?

Seems like everybody else at work is getting ahead, but you're just stuck running in place. Well, guess what? Maybe it's not you; maybe it's your boss. Valerie Frankel explains why--and tells you what to do about it

It's been a kick-ass year at work. You've made real progress. The boss says you're definitely promotion material. She confesses that she couldn't function without you. In no time, she promises, you'll move up. Just as long as you straighten yourself out in a few areas and, with her careful guidance, master a couple more essential skills. And then you'll be golden.

But the monument dedicated to the Wonder of You never goes up. The long-promised raise and promotion never happen. ln fact, the special attention, the under-her wing-taking, doesn't come to pass, either. You feel like you're filling the office with the stench of stagnation.

Instead of dousing yourself with blame, consider this: Maybe the culprit behind your slump isn't you. Suppose it's the allegedly encouraging boss. Suppose it's all bluster, that she's building you up not to help you along, but to keep you exactly where she wants you. Let's acknowledge one thing: There are supportive leaders whose promises can be taken at face value. A good boss really is eager to increase your skills and advance your career. When she makes suggestions, they're constructive. When she praises you, it's for a job well done. She knows it may not be your destiny to end up at her side, and although the idea makes her sad, deep down she knows you've got your own career to look out for.

The wolf boss in performance fleece, on the other hand, is watching out for only one person (not you). She may applaud your work and offer you a smidgen of encouragement, but if your career plans disrupt or distract from hers, she'll nudge and prod and ever so gently steer you back to her path to success. A boss who holds you back, says Nancy Friedberg, senior consultant for The Five O'clock Club, a national career advisory service based in New York City, "could be a boss with control issues. She's threatened by the employee and wants to keep her in check by micro-managing her. She might want to cast a shadow so big that no one else can shine--or breathe."

Or, says Marilyn Puder-York, Ph.D., a psychologist and executive career coach in New York City, "the boss might be inexperienced and not know how to retain good employees with respect and rewards. Or she might be acting out of insecurity--she might be under incredible pressure and stress. She might be afraid for her own job." Someone in a constant state of either befuddlement or terror won't spend a nanosecond considering her employee's five-year plan--or even her own. She's living day by day, meeting by meeting, just trying to survive.

But sympathy for the oppressor won't get you one step closer to buckets of money, power or prestige. Understanding her ways and means, however, will. We've isolated four of the puppet master's subtle pulls, along with counterstrategies for each. Happy string cutting.

BOSS PLOY #1: The Phantom Promotion

You've been lobbying for a long-deserved bump up. When you finally get the call, you learn that your big promotion is in name only. Your boss, beaming smile on her face, announces that your new title, Her Exalted Associateness, comes without more money or greater responsibility. Sometimes this is customary, particularly if there's a tight organizational chart at your company and you're not actually replacing anyone. "Do your research," says Friedberg. "Do these kinds of promotions happen all the time at the company? Is this a way to pay your dues? If so, don't be insulted. But don't be satisfied, either."
Two strategies for dealing with the phantom promotion: Ask for more responsibility--on a trial basis. Lobby for something that will improve your skills and office standing. "lf the boss says he doesn't think you can handle harder work "says Dr. Rush-Mamenko, "ask for a three month trial period to prove otherwise. If you can't do it in that time, back off. But if you can, you should be able to continue." Lynn Berger, a private career coach in New York City, suggests you get specific. "Make a list of things you really want to do, things you know you can handle. Play on your strengths." After six months of Exalted Associateness-caliber work, ask for more moolah. Maximize the leverage of your new title. No one is sure what Queen Elizabeth does, but everyone knows who she is.

"Use the title to get noticed," says Friedberg. "The title should grant you entry into meetings, put you on CC-ing lists, give you access to information you didn't have before so you can volunteer to work on projects you now know are important to the boss. Watch how others get good assignments, and do what they do.

The best strategy: Be direct about your expectations and ambitions at the moment of your title change. For instance, if the invitation to attend key meetings isn't forthcoming, bring it up yourself, as in "This means I can attend the monthly strategy sessions now, right?"

BOSS PLOY #2: Stringing Along

You and your boss are in total agreement that bucks should be added to your paycheck, that you should be higher on the chain of command. But times are tight right now. The boss doesn't want to ruffle any feathers. In three months, things should loosen up. There should be more room for movement. The salary freeze will be over. But until then, the boss's hands are tied. Meanwhile, you're standing in the same exact spot, except your feet are sinking deeper and deeper into a rut.

Why! Possible explanations: The boss is stringing you along because she doesn't think you're competent enough for a higher level job and she lacks the courage to tell you the truth. Or she fears your promotion will piss off someone more valuable than you. No matter how you parse it, though, a year without a much-discussed vault is six months too long. You've got to take action. A few counterstrategies:

Learn how the system works. "Find out what it'll take to get you the promotion," says Friedberg. "Ask your peers. Use your own perception. Does everyone on that level have an M.B.A.! Do they bring in new business? What have they got that you don't?" Once you've solved the puzzle, arrange a strategy session with the boss. This could be uncomfortable, so be direct. Say, "It seems to me, to get a promotion, I need to first do this, that and the other thing." If the boss still insists, "lt's not you and your skills; it's me and my budget," drop the subject for at least a few months. In the meantime, however, should you notice that your leader managed to eke out a raise for Jane Kissass two cubicles down, the boss's credibility is shot. "Can you trust this person!" asks Friedberg. If the answer is "No," it might be best to move on.

Work from outside the company. If your boss really can't wrangle a promotion for you, perhaps someone else can. "Initiate your own public relations campaign. Write for a trade journal. Go to lunches, parties, inter views," says Friedberg. "Get your name on people's lips. If the boss doesn't want to lose you, if your perceived value increases, she'll do what she can to hold you. "And if she doesn't, be glad you've been interviewing. "It's always better to know the truth," says Friedberg. "Even if it hurts."
Check in. Check in again. Check in yet again. "If the boss says, 'In three months, we'll talk, prior to the three month period you need to go in and make an appointment," says Berger. "It's your responsibility to stay on top of it." If the boss's bag of excuses is bottomless--coming up with a fresh heap of bullshit every three months would be tough for even the wiliest bosses--you have to judge for yourself whether she's telling the truth. "Let's hope that two years won't go by before you realize she's never going to come through," says Berger.

BOSS PLOY #3: Building You Up

"You are the best, the absolute best. ""I can't live without you. ""I don't know how this office limped along before you showed up. ""You're the secret weapon--the indispensable Supergirl." Does any of this sound familiar? This boss can dish it out with two spoons. You suspect her praise may be excessive for your job of sorting mail and answering phones, but why question the love!

Why does the boss do it? She's hypnotizing you with the sound of her gushing. Beware: Kind words can lull your career to sleep. Or your ego will turn into a ravenous gorilla--and the boss holds all the bananas. You're addicted to her approval and, at the same time, full of guilt (we all know that bosses can become surrogate parents, and while we seek their praise, we fear their disappointment in us). She says she can't live without you, so how could you possibly leave your post, even if you've outgrown it! A couple of counterstrategies:

Don't just stand there beaming-take notes. "Next time the boss says something vague ('You're fantastic!'), ask her to be more specific," says Friedberg. "Say, 'l really want to know: What about me is so fantastic! 'lmmediately go to your desk and write down whatever she said."

Keep a record of her lip service. And at review time, use it as ammunition. Don't show her your list, of course, but look it over before you meet with her so that you can have a discussion focused on your strengths. Tell her, for example, "l know from all the great feedback you've given me that you think I'm particularly good at organizing my time and communicating with other staff members...."

Learn to translate. No one is indispensable. Everyone, from the top dog to the mangiest mutt, can be replaced. "Praise can be very satisfying," says Berger. "But if you can see through excessive flattery, you can learn to translate it." ln other words, if the boss says, "I'd crumble without you," try to hear, "lf you left, I'd be screwed-until I replaced you. This will prevent you from falling into the guilt trap. Your head will stay the correct size, and you'll be open to other opportunities.

BOSS PLOY #4: Sly Criticizing

Branch out. My personal antidote for a boss's criticism: freelance. Not everyone is in the position--or has the energy--to do extra work on the side. But if you are, and do--go to it. If your freelancing is well received, your confidence will shoot up and your self-doubt will spiral down. it will also help you gain experience, and you'll meet people (networking made easy). Plus, having another source of income takes the pressure off the main job.

If you can't freelance, try volunteering for community service, at a literacy center or for a political campaign (I know one woman who turned her world view around by putting in a few hours a week at Bill Bradley headquarters). Doing good will do wonders for you. No matter what your current professional standing, branching out will boost your self-esteem and keep your spirits high-- which is exactly where you need them.

The harsh truth! Sometimes, you do have to keep working for a boss who's not watching out for you--i.e., you need the paycheck or the experience--until you find something better. And that usually comes quickly to those who don't mope around.

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