Do I have to support my underperforming boss? Elaine Varelas advises

Do you support an underperforming boss's success—or hope he gets fired so you can take over his role? Elaine Varelas offers insight and expertise.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: Am I responsible for my boss’s success? My manager is on an unofficial performance improvement plan after a negative annual review. Many of his deficiencies went unnoticed for a while because I was picking up the slack. I don’t have any goals of deliberately getting him fired, but I want recognition and advancement opportunities from the work I do. Do I help him keep his job by continuing to fill in the gaps or let the ball drop and see what happens? A promotion could be in it for me after all.

A: Yes, you are responsible for your boss’s success and all of your colleagues’ success. This kind of “what’s in it for me?” attitude happens at every level—but vying for attention, promotion, or brownie points is what produces toxic, political environments at companies. You say you don’t have goals of deliberately getting your manager fired, but you don’t seem to have goals of actively supporting his success, either. When working with your boss or your colleagues, if you are supportive of everyone’s shared success, you will end up getting the recognition and advancement you crave if you are in a solid company driving success.

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First, ask yourself why you think you would be promoted if your manager is ultimately fired for poor performance? Are you operating on an unfounded assumption that you would take over? It’s worth considering how much visibility you really have to your manager’s entire job and if that’s distorting your understanding of the situation. The aspects of his job that you contribute to may actually only be a small slice of his total responsibilities.

Also consider your reputation, or workplace brand. Is it supportive and collaborative, or some other description? Why do you think your support wouldn’t be visible to—and valued by—the organization? Helping your manager succeed, rather than “dropping the ball” and seeing what happens, is a much better way to get the recognition you would like. With this mentality, you’re much more likely to get promoted for positive reasons, not because you “let” your manager fail and then took over his role. What’s more, this situation extends beyond just you and your manager—it has company-wide impact. If you’re standing idly by while your manager, or others, struggle with something you could assist with, what’s happening to the organization as a result? Is it failing to meet client deliverables and losing money? What’s happening to the culture? Are other employees displaying similar unsupportive mentalities in pursuit of their own personal gain? Just the fact that you know about your boss’s negative review hints at a destructive culture. Either your boss trusted you enough to tell you and you are using it to your advantage, or he didn’t tell you and there’s gossip being spread about his struggles. Either way, the negative impact of unsupportive colleagues on the organization’s success and culture is widespread and detrimental.

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Many people may agree with your view and say you’re not responsible for your manager’s success, but that reflects a very limited, “not my job” approach to your role. This is a mentality that keeps you in your job—it doesn’t get you promoted, it doesn’t enhance your career, and it certainly doesn’t earn you any positive recognition. People who get promoted are the ones who step in when they see a need and support others.

A better solution to your situation might be to work in partnership with your boss and perhaps establish a new division of labor. Could you change your job description to include some of the pieces you’ve been handling, so that you own the work and are recognized for those contributions? This may or may not include a title change or raise, but regardless, you will be demonstrating to your manager how you can actively help and support him.

If you stop going the extra mile, it’s a lose/lose situation: If your manager gets fired, you may not get the promotion and you’ve damaged your reputation and the company’s productivity in the meantime. If your manager is not fired and can turn his performance around, he will look back on this period and remember your lack of support. Employees do get recognized when they do good work, go above and beyond, and support their managers and colleagues. And they get recognized when they demonstrate conniving behavior and contribute to a negative culture. Your actions will determine what you are known for.