If you work for a boss who habitually betrays you, get out from under them as soon as possible. Until then, do whatever you must to protect yourself and keep their bad behavior from negatively effecting you and your work. First, be clear on the values you want to govern your behavior, and resolute on what you believe constitutes compromising them. How you show respect to others, how you share ideas, and how you give credit where due are all informed by this. Next, never accept your boss’s behavior as normal. It’s common for people who tolerate abusive behavior to eventually conclude they deserve it. But you don’t. Resist this by detecting your boss’s patterns of betrayal and interrupting them as much as possible. Finally, don’t repress your negative emotions. Journaling, or seeking guidance from a mental health professional can provide you with a healthy outlet.
Fewer things hurt more than the betrayal of someone we trust. When that person is our boss, someone who impacts our career paths and livelihoods, the pain can be amplified. Whether they took credit for a project you sacrificed months to complete, gave a promotion they promised you to someone else, or publicly shamed you for someone else’s mistake, the consequences of their betrayal are far-reaching.
Boss betrayal can hinder our ability to trust others, remain optimistic and resilient during difficult times, and accurately judge complex situations. Our brains often process their betrayal as trauma and we expect that trauma to be repeated. Hurt and guarded, we sometimes engage in behaviors that are meant to be protective, but have unintended consequences. When this happens, it’s not our boss’s behavior that should concern us. It’s our own.
While you may not be able to change your boss, you can keep their bad behavior from harmfully changing you. Here are ways to guard against the risks of becoming someone you never intended to be.
Hold fast to your values. According to Dennis Reina, author of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, 85% of workplace betrayal is unintentional. But just because a boss didn’t mean to betray someone doesn’t lessen the experience. Sometimes you can raise concerns with a boss who failed to realize the consequences of their actions. Their genuine remorse and commitment to make things right can restore trust, and even make your relationship stronger.
But if your boss has routinely betrayed your trust, it’s important to ensure you aren’t unconsciously corrupting your own behavior in response. Research indicates that if your boss behaves badly, you are more likely to follow suit. As long as you have to function under this boss, be clear on the values you want to govern your behavior, and resolute on what you believe constitutes compromising them. For example, if you value inclusion, think about what actions make others feel excluded and monitor your behavior to make sure you aren’t doing them. How you show respect to others, how you share ideas, how you give credit where due, and even how you talk about your contributions, are all informed by your values. Don’t let your boss’s contradiction of those values lead you to justify compromising them.
Pay attention to patterns of betrayal. It’s common for people who tolerate abusive behavior from bosses to eventually conclude they deserve it. Similar to victims of domestic violence, a form of organizational Stockholm syndrome sets in, and you eventually come to expect betrayal as normal. You can resist this by detecting your boss’s patterns of betrayal and interrupting them as much as possible. If they fail to keep promises, keep their commitments to you well-documented. If they take credit for your work, make sure important stakeholders associate your name with relevant projects. If nothing else, this will help preserve some measure of your psychological health, and keep your self-perception separate from your boss’s behavior.
Remember: not everyone will betray you. When our boss repeatedly betrays us, it can become easy to unconsciously conclude other people we’re close to are untrustworthy. Be careful not to universalize your boss’s betrayal across many relationships, especially those with authority. Pay attention to your behaviors. Are you continuously questioning the motives and actions of others on whom you rely? Are you excessively scrutinizing the decisions of people close to you? One executive I coached, who’d felt her boss intentionally misrepresented her to the Board of Directors, realized she was second-guessing the motives of her team, husband, and even her son. Betrayal is a powerful force that can spread to other parts of your life. Intentionally remind yourself that not everyone you trust will betray you the way your boss did.
Practice forgiveness, not retaliation. It’s natural to want to make your boss pay for their betrayal. You may even fantasize about ways to sabotage their success. Never stoop to their level, even when opportunities to do so become available. In one organization I worked with, an employee grew to resent their boss so much that they spread horrible, but believable, rumors about them, and intentionally inserted incorrect data into their presentations. Of course, this eventually boomeranged, costing the employee their job.
If you allow vengeful actions to leak into your behavior, others will inevitably find out, concluding you are just as detestable as the boss you loathe. The best antidote to vengeful bitterness is compassion and forgiveness. As hard as it may feel, forfeiting your right to retaliate — the very definition of forgiveness — is in your best interest.
But this doesn’t mean you have to deny your anger. Journaling can be a helpful tool here. Write down how you are feeling about your boss’s actions and yourself as a result. Perhaps their betrayal made you feel inadequate or exploited. Learning to separate how others’ choices make us feel from what’s actually true is the first step to forgiving. Stepping back and acknowledging that you aren’t inferior or exploitable begins to create some distance from those feelings. At some point, your boss will come face-to-face with how miserable they are, and the misery they’ve caused.
Don’t bury your negative emotions. Trying to keep a stiff upper lip while enduring betrayal can be hazardous to your health. Suppressing strong emotions like anger, hurt, and anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms of sleeplessness, headaches, digestive disorders, and general irritability. Recognize that these feelings may get triggered in unexpected situations. When we are consumed by negative emotions, they can cloud our judgment, distort how we see ourselves and others, and create chronic feelings of being overwhelmed. That’s why it is critical to have an outlet. In addition to journaling, finding a therapist or coach to talk with can help. A trusted confidant can reduce feelings of isolation, and the risk of negative emotions becoming destructive. You should also be especially attentive to your diet and alcohol intake, and where possible, increase physical activity and exercise. Turning to unhealthy activities to numb feelings of pain can be alluring when we can’t see alternatives.
Let gratitude and purpose offset entitlement and apathy. Two of betrayal’s common side-effects are believing you deserve restitution for what you’ve suffered, and indifference toward your work. Entitlement can begin gradually — taking longer lunches, padding travel expenses with luxurious meals, and escalate to more voracious acts of self-compensation, all justified by what you’ve tolerated. But after those efforts fail to stem the hurt from your boss’s behavior, you can stop caring about work altogether. Apathy is a dangerous byproduct of betrayal because it’s hard to compartmentalize. Once you lose perspective about the aspects of your professional life for which you are genuinely grateful that attitude can bleed into your personal life as well.
Remind yourself of the passion behind why you chose your field. Remember the things you are uniquely gifted at. Inventory parts of your life that bring joy, and for which you are thankful. A sense of purpose, not a great boss, should be the reason you get up in the morning. You can’t let a horrible boss become the reason you don’t want to.
If you work for a boss who habitually betrays, get out from under them as soon as possible. Until then, do whatever you must to protect yourself from hardening into a person you don’t recognize. Your boss’s choice to hurt others, consciously or not, is theirs. The choice to allow their betrayal to negatively alter who you are is always yours.