Ask Harry #11: If your boss undermines the trust in your working relationship, should you confront him/her?

This question was sent to me by a student who experienced this situation recently. It reflects a theme I often encounter in my discussions with my part-time Kellogg MBA students who work fulltime and take classes in the evening, as well as the Kellogg EMBA students who fly in for weekend classes. For these students, these questions are not a theoretical exercise; they are trying to apply the leadership concepts in my classes to actual decisions in the real world. Here’s the background my student shared:

After I asked my boss for a promotion and salary increase for one of my team members (a genuinely hard worker who truly deserved the raise I was seeking), my boss told me that he would not go above a certain amount. I tried to negotiate, but he held firm, stating that if my team member wasn’t happy with the lower amount, then “she won’t get any promotion or raise at all.” I relented and made a concerted effort around communicating to my teammate that the smaller raise was still a positive outcome. To her credit, she took it in stride and seemed genuinely happy about the salary increase even though it was less than what she had expected. Less than 24 hours later, my manager pulled me aside and told me to revise my team member’s promotion letter for the full salary increase after all. The sudden change surprised me, to say the least, but I thought, great! This was an awesome show of support for my team! Then, on a whim, I asked my boss: Does she (my team member) already know? That’s when he really shocked me: Yes, he had already “given her the full spiel.” I was floored. After all the hoops I had jumped through to advocate on my teammate’s behalf and then manage the messaging with her, my boss had completely undermined my credibility. If my boss had changed his mind, the appropriate approach would have been to bring me back in, share the news with me, and have me communicate back with my team member. I shared this feedback with my boss, and he grudgingly conceded that he “could have handled it better.” I left it at that and got back to work. Three days later, my boss fired me.

Unfortunately, as this example demonstrates, there are terrible bosses out there. That is the reason why the majority of people who leave companies leave because of their managers. Horror stories like my student’s can make employees question whether they should speak up or just “suck it up.” Net net, the company suffers because its culture becomes toxic, and inevitably, overall trust in the organization deteriorates.

Just yesterday morning, in fact, I read an opinion piece in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal entitled “American Institutions Went From Trust To Bust.” Gerard Baker, a Journal columnist and editor-at-large, provides a clear picture of what happens when trust is compromised: “Trust is the essential feature that allows society to function—more important the more modern and complex society grows.”

Baker points out that beginning in 1979 the Gallup organization has measured the level of trust that Americans have in the most important American institutions (including government, business, science, media, etc.). The Gallup trust measure from 1979 to 2022 has declined from 49% to 26%! Is it any wonder we are in the polarized situation we find ourselves in as a country? If we cannot trust one another, how do we make progress dealing with the many challenges that confront us? The war in Ukraine, increasing deficits, inflation, climate issues, etc.?

Okay, with that as background, on a personal basis, how do you handle a situation when your boss undermines the trust in your working relationship? Let’s start with two extremes, and then let’s talk about the “gray in-between”:

Extreme 1 – Clear case of an ethical breach

Your boss does something that is clearly unethical. In this case, if you’ve done your due diligence as a values-based leader and are living the four principles (i.e., self-reflection, balance, true self-confidence, and genuine humility), then you have no choice but to address the situation. Depending on the nature of the issue, you may need to bring it up to HR or your boss’s boss. In cases of ethical breaches, the answer for you as a values-based leader should be crystal clear: You must act, regardless of what your role is in the organization.

Extreme 2 – Obvious case of a miscommunication or misunderstanding

Your boss does something that is, objectively speaking, most likely a misunderstanding, something that was done unknowingly or unintentionally. If it appears that trust was violated, I will give my boss the benefit of the doubt and operate under the assumption that it was a mistake or simple misunderstanding. I don’t assume it was done on purpose until I can convince myself that it really was deliberate. I have been in many situations where I assumed there was a violation of trust when in fact it turned out to be a simple misunderstanding. Now, to be clear, even minor infractions, if they become a recurring pattern, may require you to step up and talk to your boss. As I say all the time, feedback is a gift, and a recurring pattern of minor infractions may be a good opportunity to present your manager this gift.

The Gray In-Between

Now let’s talk about the “gray area” in between the two extremes above. It’s these types of cases where most of us find ourselves most of the time. In these situations, if I believe that the behavior in question was deliberate, I then ask myself two questions:

  1. Is this a major infraction or a minor infraction (i.e., closer to Extreme 1 or Extreme 2 above)?
  2. Do I have what I call in my principle #3 “True Self Confidence”?

If it is a minor infraction, I will be vigilant to see if there is another infraction. If it is a major infraction, then I have to address the second question. If I have “True Self Confidence,” I know I am competent and capable of finding another job. In that case, I will confront my boss, and if not successful, I will confront my boss’s boss.

Some of my students question this process and challenge me by stating, “Harry, but I could lose my job by confronting my boss.” I respond to this challenge by explaining, yes, that is true, but let me explain how I define an “optimist.” To me, if I think of what the worst outcome could be, and if I can deal with it, everything else is an upside. What do I mean? If this is a big issue, and I have “true self-confidence,” do I really want to work in that environment? Is the environment consistent with my values? In the example shared by my student, he clearly found himself in an environment where “speaking up” was not valued, and despite doing the right thing, he paid the price. I realize this can be very challenging and emotional, but that is what it means to be a true “values-based leader.”

Have you encountered similar situations? What did you do? What would you have done if you had been in my student’s shoes? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!