When The Boss Steps On You — To Advance Their Own Career

Dear Liz,

I work for a government agency. It’s a good job in many ways, but the opportunities for advancement are limited. I’ve been in government for over 15 years. I am stuck in this position. I could make a lateral move pretty easily, but why?

One thing that keeps me in this job is that I’m a subject matter expert. There’s no one else in our agency who does the kind of work I do.

I had one boss for years, but she got transferred in 2016. We got a new manager, “Jason.” Jason is young and ambitious. As soon as he got to our department, Jason started using my work to impress the higher-up managers.

About six months ago Jason confided in me. He told me that he really wants to get promoted into another department. There’s a specific role he wants to apply for when a senior-level manager retires next summer. In order to get the job Jason needs certain “check marks” on his resume that he can’t get without my help.

Our department always hits its goals, but Jason has made our goals thirty to forty percent more aggressive than they were. Most of the extra burden falls on me. Jason is aware that he’s asking impossible things of me but he doesn’t care.

Ironically the closer I get to hitting Jason’s goals, the more crazed and demanding he becomes. He’s lost his temper twice so far this month. The first time he blasted me verbally, I just walked away. The second time I said “You’re out of line, Jason.” He turned on his heel and walked away without saying a word.

I finally sat down with Jason last week. I didn’t want to say “I’m burning out” because that makes me sound like a wimp, and also the only reason I’m burning out is because I am fueling Jason’s career advancement plans by myself.

He doesn’t even contribute. He putters around and has long conversations with his wife on the phone.

I pick up all the slack. Jason is fixated on our metrics, and mine in particular. If it takes me working every weekend to hit the target, Jason couldn’t care less. If I refuse to play ball, he can make my life miserable.

I told Jason “I always hit my goals, but you want me to surpass them by forty or fifty percent. I’m not able to do that because my own health is important to me, my personal time is important and I don’t want to set myself up to miss my goals when they inevitably get raised if I manage to hit them this quarter.”

Jason said “You’re telling me you’re going to hold back on your effort just to spite me?” He takes everything personally.

I said “I’m not holding back anything. I’m working my tail off. I’m telling you what is possible and what isn’t.”

Jason said “If I don’t get promoted, I’ll know who to thank. You will not want to be working in this department if that happens.”

What should I do, Liz?



Dear Finn,

You work for a manager who is misusing his role to an astonishing degree. He is stepping on you to get ahead himself. You can call him out on that or not as you like.  You can talk to HR or a higher-up manager if you think it will do any good.

The central question is not “What should I do about this immediate problem with Jason?” but rather “How do I want to spend my precious time and energy — building my own flame, or being trodden under foot so other people can accomplish their goals?”

Let’s imagine that Jason won the lottery and quit his job today. Would you still want to remain employed by an organization that would enable a guy like Jason to have the position he had as your boss, and treat you the way he did?

Jason’s behavior is sick. It’s toxic. Where is his boss? Where is the minimum level of oversight that employees expect to be exercised over anyone in a management position, especially someone with aggressive career advancement goals, like Jason? There is something badly broken in your organization, completely apart from Jason’s problems.

I would make that lateral move if I were you and get away from Jason as fast as you can, but that’s not all. I would think about the rest of your career. Apart from feeling stuck in your career, you diminish yourself by staying in such an unhealthy environment.

Many organizations have a dysfunctional relationship with metrics and yardsticks, and it sounds like your agency has that problem. Numeric goals are important but they are not everything. Too many leaders and cultures are so addicted to yardsticks that more important things like trust and teamwork get ground into the dust.

Don’t let yourself get ground into the dust just so Jason can get promoted on your back!

You have been presented with an ethical dilemma:

Should you kill yourself just to hit the goals that will get Jason promoted (or so he hopes) and with luck, out of your hair — knowing that by doing so, you will create a new and maybe bigger problem for yourself next quarter?

Or, should you stand up for yourself and tell Jason to back off, taking whatever backlash comes?

Let your trusty gut guide you. Fear is temporary — your path and your flame are permanent!