Succeeding in Spite of Your Boss

Some bosses are highly supportive of the success of the individuals whom they manage, doing whatever they can to foster career development and on-the-job advancement for those in their charge. Sad to say, however, some bosses exemplify in attitude and action the very opposite of career support.

For any number of reasons, consciously or subconsciously, these managers invariably thwart the advancement of their subordinates.

As an ambitious,career-minded professional, what should you do if you work for someone who stymies your opportunity for success? First, you’ve got to understand the likely reasons for your boss’s behavior. With that understanding in mind, you can more appropriately determine how to protect yourself while moving ahead in your career.

Understanding the Boss

from doesn’t take training in clinical psychology to fathom some of the reasons certain bosses are disinclined to support their subordinates. Here are ten common-sense reasons, in no particular order of importance or frequency.

  1. The boss may be stymied — pigeonholed in his or her present position. Perhaps there are concrete reasons, such as a lack of educational attainment or professional certification. If this is the case, and if the boss’s performance also is undistinguished, the boss may have peaked — at this company, and possibly in his or her career. Knowing this leaves a boss unmotivated to seek and support underlings’ success.
  2. Could the boss be jealous of your accomplishments? It’s common for some individuals to feel threatened by subordinates whose accomplishments outshine those of the boss. Differences in educational attainment, race, age, or gender also may contribute to boss envy.
  3. Many a boss believes he or she has “made it the hard way” and is not about to give a hand to anyone doing the same. These individuals often have struggled to get ahead, perhaps working several jobs to put themselves through college, working in “grunt” jobs much longer than expected, or facing odds and obstacles that others around them did not. These bosses may truly believe they are helping their underlings by making the way more difficult. Too-easy success, they think, goes underappreciated by people who would really nderstand hard work if they did more of it.
  4. Bosses may see certain employees as “affirmative action hires” benefiting from “reverse discrimination” who should be “kept in their place.” You may never hear any of these terms, but they may well be in use when ambitious minority professionals ruffle the higher-ups’ feathers. In subtle, and not so subtle, ways, your boss might communicate his belief that you already have received special favor in the workplace and don’t need or deserve additional support to continue advancing.
  5. The boss may not be particularly career-minded—just “clueless.” Effective managers understand that the success of their subordinates casts a positive reflection on the boss. To nurture young professionals’ career ambitions and support their occupational success is a mark of managerial maturity and conscientious responsibility – one that may have completely escaped your boss’s comprehension. Not necessarily meaning any harm, this boss nevertheless does nothing to positively affect underlings’ advancement.
  6. It seems juvenile, but maybe the boss does have favorites whom he or she protects and promotes – and, sadly, you don’t happen to be one of them. This is a reality in many, many workplaces. Ideally, managers should employ consistent, evenhanded treatment for all their underlings. Practically, however, people are people. Certain managers just favor some employees over others. They may make every attempt to cover their behavior in so doing (in which case they are dangerous as well as unsupportive), but that doesn’t mean it is not happening.
  7. Bosses who believe their own bosses are treating them unfairly may take out their frustrations on subordinates. This may be more of a subconscious than conscious action, but the consequences are the same when a hard-working employee is the victim of someone whose fundamental attitude is: “Hey, my boss has it in for me. Why should I go out of my way to do anything special for anybody else around here?”
  8. Could your boss be nursing a grudge for some long-ago slight? Did you once make a mistake that people remember to this day and to your detriment? Even when the boss is generally appreciative of your workplace contribution, your professional growth may be stalling as a result of something that happened long ago or in a bad moment. A boss is not likely to verbalize this idea and may not even realize it is prevalent, but it could be a big factor behind actions that are not on your behalf.
  9. Maybe the boss’s job is in jeopardy. After all, nobody is really safe these days, and perhaps the boss has an inkling that his or her position could be threatened. In this case, the boss has one thing in mind: staying employed, or if that’s impossible, making the best possible deal. Nothing personal, but this boss is no longer looking out for your welfare.
  10. Maybe it’s your job that is on the line. Maybe the boss knows something you don’t. Examine your own reading of the situation, and be realistic in determining whether layoffs or other reductions affecting your division or department may be on the horizon. If your own job is in jeopardy, the most your boss can do is to assist you in holding on to your current position. Career advancement takes a back seat to survival.

Practical Approaches

Given this array of possible reasons for a boss’s unsupportive ways, it’s clear that to succeed in spite of your boss, you’ll have to take some practical steps to safeguard your career and promote your own success in the face of challenging odds.

Winning Over the Boss

Winning the boss’s favor is a logical first possibility and one that certainly should be given maximum opportunity to work. Keep in mind that factors may be affecting the situation that you know nothing about; do your best to become well-informed on your company’s history as well as your boss’s. Might there be some truth to the boss’s self-perception of having had to work much harder than others to get ahead? Was the boss an “AA hire” and still encountering resentment over it? Knowledge is power, as every MBA understands. Use what you can learn to understand your boss’s situation.

In understanding the reasons for your boss’s behavior, give some serious thought to any possible rift separating you from your boss. Is any responsibility here yours? Can you bring yourself to mend your fences if it will help to promote your success — and win the boss’s respect, if not actual support?

While seeking to understand your boss, also do your best to promote your boss’s welfare and success. Why? Quite simply, your work performance reflects on both you and your superior. By making your boss look good as an effective manager, you do yourself the primary favor; it just happens to serve your boss’s interests, too. Making both of you look good to your boss’s higher-ups serves your purposes, if only because an immediate supervisor is never an employee’s sole determinant of success. The boss’s boss and others have a say in who gets promoted, who receives the most challenging projects to work on, whose compensation increases most, and the like.

Even if you must regard it as a sort of psychic exercise, strive to get along with your boss. At almost any cost, avoid making an enemy of him or her. Remember: When it’s time to move on, recruiters or prospective employers will want to question your boss about your workplace performance and attitude. In pursuing “developed references,” background checkers may talk to anyone who has worked with you or has direct knowledge of your contribution to the organization. It is no advantage if you’re concerned that your co-workers or superiors might speak favorably of your skills and abilities, yet unfavorably of your relationship with your supervisor. Even if your boss is not a strong advocate of your occupational advancement, it pays not to make an enemy.

Safeguarding Your Interests

For starters, maintain an updated portfolio of your professional accomplishments. Include in your portfolio a current resume, any special workplace commendations and annual evaluations, current documentation — licenses, registrations, certifications, etc. — and any other important documentation of your career to date. It is also advisable to include confidential letters of reference from persons who can speak favorably of your professional performance. Should you need to begin a job search for any reason, it pays to be prepared in every way and not depend upon what your boss might or might not do on your behalf.

Second, toot your own horn in a low key, especially about your workplace productivity as it sets you apart form your peers. You have nothing to gain by harboring a sense of false modesty. Without braggadocio, speak up for yourself and make sure you receive proper credit for your workplace accomplishments. Keep a file of accomplishments – projects you’ve worked on, suggestions implemented to help the organization save or make money, specialized training you’ve provided to newer employees, and other initiatives that have benefited the group. Documenting your workplace accomplishments not only safeguards your story and your current situation, but prepares you to make a calculated career move, on short notice if necessary, backed up by facts and figures that support your “claim to fame.”

Above all, a primary and essential aspect of protecting your occupational interests is to establish a reputation for being an outstanding employee. Nothing beats having your name associated with “excellence” in all that you do. This is something that will follow you throughout your career, and something your boss can never take away from you. After all, professionals who are “at the top of their game” become known throughout their industry. Well-respected by their peers, they are the ones who hear from recruiters. Being in that group of achievers will propel your success regardless of your boss’s endorsement.

Working with Recruiters

Have you made contact with reputable executive recruiters who specialize in your professional field? Informed, experienced recruiters have an inside track on corporations’ unannounced staffing plans; they know where the best jobs are and who is willing to pay premium compensation for talented MBAs of color. From their vantage point, recruiters can scout the marketplace on your behalf, inform you of “the golden opportunity” that you might not otherwise be aware of, and present your credentials in strictest confidence for review.

In the early stages of a job search, an executive recruiter will not contact your current boss. Should a client choose to tender an offer, however, it may be contingent upon your boss giving a favorable reference once your intentions become known. This does give your boss one last chance to possibly thwart your success by withholding a “glowing” reference.

Should that be the case, make sure the recruiter can bypass your immediate supervisor and go to a list you’ve provided of other managers or executives in the organization who can speak highly of your job performance.

A skilled, informed and concerned recruiter can remove the “land mines” that might dot your career path, including that of the sabotaging boss.

Mentoring and Networking

Establishing effective mentoring relationships with helpful, well-connected professionals, both within and beyond your place of employment, is a key to future success. If you cannot count on your boss to promote your interests in any meaningful or constructive way, it behooves you to align yourself with other successful individuals who can accomplish that on your behalf.

Mentors can provide general career guidance to help their protégés achieve peak productivity. Additionally, through their industry contacts, they often are aware of what companies are looking for the kind of talent their protégés can offer. By sharing this information and then turning around to provide an endorsement on behalf of their protégés, mentors can facilitate opportunities and serve as a catalyst for wide-range change over a long term.

Beyond the search for mentors, professional networking far and wide safeguards your career progress and keeps you visible. You will make numerous steps along your career pathway. Whether or not your boss actively supports your professional advancement, by networking with influential sources, you can make for yourself the contacts that will benefit you throughout your career.

In networking, cast your “net” as broadly as possible. In particular, cultivate anyone who might provide job leads or otherwise propel your career in some special way: former professors and administrators from college or grad school; fraternity brothers, sorority sisters and friends of every connection; supervisors and colleagues from internships and previous jobs; acquaintances made in professional circles and organizations; current co-workers who understand your situation, and former associates who have moved on. Don’t discount anyone as a helpful source of information and influence.

In Conclusion

It’s a joy to work for a boss who wholeheartedly supports the professional advancement and occupational success of his or her people. These are the bosses – managers and executives alike — to whom you can enthusiastically give your full allegiance and dedication. You may have had such bosses before; if you’re lucky, you will have them again.

Meanwhile, it’s up to you to look out for your best interests when your boss does not. Mentors and trusted networking colleagues, including recruiters, can help significantly in serving as your industry-wide eyes and ears. Tending your own interests and making your accomplishments known will bear fruit in time.

In the final analysis, your career growth is your own: dependent on your resourcefulness, ambition and determination to let nothing—and no one—stand in your way. Succeeding in spite of your unsupportive boss is the best revenge.

Calvin Bruce, CPC, has over 20 years experience in recruitment and career counseling.