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Heads Butting
When the Bosses Fight, You Might Get Hurt

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006; F06

Say you've got a boss you really like and admire. She gets things done, helps your ideas rise to the top, is easy to talk to and listens to your proposals. Great for you, right?

Then say this boss does not get along with her boss. They don't communicate. They don't agree on anything. They complain about each other when the other isn't nearby.

The result of this personality problem? Everyone suffers. Maybe the senior boss diminishes the junior boss's authority by taking over her direct reports, perhaps in subtle ways. And then whom do those employees answerto? How do they avoid getting stuck in the middle? How do they avoid letting this nastiness get passed to their own direct reports? Most important: How does the good work get done?

It's like being a child caught in a nasty divorce.

Sue Peschin is an executive coach in Rockville who is able to use her past experiences to help clients. This issue, in fact, came up repeatedly in her career. She recalls the time her boss at an association in the D.C. area had a conflict with the higher-up boss in New York. As is natural in such torturous situations, each boss asked Peschin to do something different. And they wouldn't let go of their ideas. Peschin was stuck in the middle.

She decided to lay it all out: She told her D.C. boss what the New York boss wanted. And then she went back to the New York boss and explained that there was a conflict in what she was being told to do. She told them both they had to work it out and let her know what they decided. "I can't choose for you," she told them.

She went back to doing her work while they battled it out.

Peschin advises her clients to do as she did: "If two different people are barking in your ear, it's fine to be direct with them about it: 'One boss is telling me this, you're telling me that. I need to know what the priority is here.' You don't want to just sit and stew about it."

But sometimes speaking out isn't so easy.

Not long after Amy Gearing began work at a Columbia-based research firm four years ago, she noticed her boss and her boss's new supervisor did not agree on many things. Every time the two executives had a meeting, Gearing's boss would come back to the office upset. And soon enough, the senior boss openly discounted things that Gearing's boss said. So what Gearing said or did was discounted, too. The senior boss would undercut both Gearing and her supervisor in front of other staff members and managers.

Because Gearing got along and worked closely with her immediate boss, she was caught up in the dispute on a personal level. She was eventually laid off -- luckily. She got an MBA and landed a job she loves at Johns Hopkins University.

"It was really hard. I knew no matter what work I did, the senior boss would find a way to discount it. My boss being so wonderful was really the only thing that kept me at the job," she said.

Sometimes bosses' infighting doesn't have much of an impact on the staff. But it can make workers feel as if they should help. Scott Eblin used to give his boss "a safe place to vent." There were multiple occasions when, as an executive, his supervisor had issues with a higher-up. "Coach them a little: 'What's going on, what are you frustrated about, what could you do differently?' " suggested Eblin, a Herndon-based executive coach and author of "The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success." "But it can end up having a direct impact if you get sucked into it. Keep the perspective that this isn't your fight."

That's sometimes impossible, according to Laura, an administrative assistant at a technology company in Herndon who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because she is still employed at the company of boss fights.

Her direct boss never really got along with the national vice president. Her boss would casually throw in comments about how the vice president didn't understand what was going on in the local office. The vice president threw the same comments around about her boss when he wasn't nearby.

She tried her best to stay out of it, but she also began to question whom she should be loyal to. She worked closely with her boss and respected him. And meanwhile, with the vice president working in a different office, "sometimes it was hard to agree with him," she said. "It absolutely impacted my morale."

Her boss left several months ago, which sent her morale to the floor -- particularly when the vice president started saying, "We'll be better off."

"For me, it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth," she said. "I respected my boss and learned a lot from him. This is my first job out of college. So though I'm lacking in experience of dealing with situations like this, it just didn't feel right."

On a good note, she was just offered a new job that she is excited about. Now let's hope the vice president doesn't tell everyone they are better off without her.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.comwith your own experiences for future columns.

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