Nobody Loves A Tattletale
By Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D.
A co-worker has been out of the office for three times as many days as she is entitled to this year, and our easygoing boss is oblivious. I'd like to point this out in the interest of fairness. But I don't want to insult his leadership—or appear to be a petty, vindictive tattletale. Anonymous, New York
Hmmmm. For some reason, your quandary reminds me of how my older daughter used to feel compelled to tell us when she thought her little sister was doing something wrong. To be helpful, of course. Naturally, it was more complicated than that: By adopting a "parental" role, she was finding a socially acceptable way to tell on her sister and thereby get her in trouble.
It's a parent's responsibility to correct their children, not a sibling's. And it's your easygoing boss' job to monitor attendance, not yours. That said, it may be that her absences don't bother him as much as they gnaw at you. You should try to figure out what's behind your desire to "point out" your colleague's attendance record to the boss. Are you envious of her ability to be loose with the allotted days—or of your boss' laid-back manner? Disappointed that you're not getting credit for your own strict adherence to the rules? It may be embarrassing to admit any of this to yourself, but you have a shot at learning something if you do. If instead you go to the boss with your "helpful" vacation-day tally, you may indeed be seen as petty or vindictive—just as you (wisely) fear. Relax and get back to work. And think about asking for some extra time off.
I often find myself rolling my eyes in front of subordinates at some directive from above that I consider foolish. I think I'm a good manager in most ways, but I occasionally worry that this may get back to my boss—or, worse, that I'm just avoiding doing the hard thing: expressing my opinion to my superiors. Anonymous, Washington, D.C.
I think you're right on all counts: It will get back to your boss (if it hasn't already), and you're probably afraid to deal more constructively with directives that don't make sense to you. But there's more: It also sounds as if you're signaling your own ambivalence about maturing as a manager. And what would this mature person do? Come up with an alternative to a misguided policy—and communicate it to senior management. It's true that the occasional irreverent comment can convey to your subordinates that no one—including you—is beyond criticism. But in not containing your contempt for authority, you're quite possibly acting in a self-defeating way to prevent yourself from becoming a more senior manager.
Ask yourself if you're more interested in the fleeting pleasure you get from mocking your superiors or in advancing in your career. You don't want the last laugh to be on you.
Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edited by Deborah Stead