My boss is always confiding in me about her family problems. I seem to know everything about her children, her dog, and even her sex life with her husband. But of course it’s very difficult when it comes to working together. For instance, I wanted more time off over New Year and she flew at me saying didn’t I realise how stressed she was at home, her mother was ill and so on. I didn’t like to say that I have my problems too. How can I get it all back onto a more professional footing? I feel it all getting too intense at work.
Once a boundary has broken down, it’s extremely difficult to build it up again. That’s why working relationships tend to stay quite cool until, perhaps, one of the people has left the working environment and then, but only then, can some kind of closer relationship begin.
I have lodgers, and in the old days I used to be over-friendly to start with and often live to regret it. Now, I’m specially cool to start with, knowing that it’s far easier to warm up than cool down without seeming unkind.
All I can suggest is that you examine the broken boundary between you and your boss. It appears that while she has broken her boundary down, yours is still intact. Keep it that way and never be pressured into confessing any private matters of your own. Emphasise these boundaries by, occasionally, referring to such stresses in an abstruse way, making clear that your stresses are “over there” rather than here, in the room with you both. “Yes, I’ve been through rather a difficult time recently,” you could say. Or “I’m afraid my own life has become rather problematical, too. That way, you’re making it absolutely clear that you have problems, but that you have no intention of discussing them. If she presses for information you can just say, “I’d rather not discuss them, it’s too personal, but things haven’t been easy recently.”
So, maintain the fragile boundary you have and perhaps in future try to build up the boundaries on her side as well. You can’t unlearn what she’s told you, but if she wants to confide in you in future, smile in a cool but friendly way, as if you were a doctor, and don’t encourage her to go further than she does to start with. When she starts with her: “You’ll never guess what my son said to me yesterday!” or whatever, immediately put her in her place by saying, “Oh dear, trouble at home? It’s hard isn’t it… I’m so sorry. Now, about that letter we were talking about.”
Buying her coffee or a bunch of daffs won’t hurt if she’s upset – it shows you’re sympathetic – but try not to get sucked into the minutiae of her life. Of course it’s hard, because to start with it’s so flattering to be confided in, particularly by someone who’s higher in the office pecking order than you, but in the end it’s a poisoned chalice they’re offering you. You’re expected not just to work for them, but to be their nanny and helpmeet as well.
If, after trying to stabilise the boundaries, you still find it too overwhelming, then you’ll have to start looking for another job. But as jobs aren’t so easy to find these days, I’d do your best to hang on in there as long as you possibly can.
Don’t get drawn in
I feel for you. Work can be a great place to make friends, but it’s complicated when one of you is higher up the hierarchy than the other. Sometimes it’s a fine line to tread. It sounds to me as if your boss is exerting her power over you in a rather suspect way, by using her superior position to treat you as a sounding board for her personal problems, because she knows you need her approval and backing. This is something of an abuse of power and is not professional or appropriate. You don’t say whether or not you socialise with her outside office hours, but if you do, I think you should stop. This is not a friendship between equals. You are being emotionally manipulated, and you will have to be the one to put things on a more professional footing from now on. Being a confidante isn’t part of your job description. Be polite, of course, but stand up for your own needs, and don’t get drawn into her problems any more. You can keep your distance by keeping your own private life private.
Change your behaviour
I think it’s important to consider why your boss is over-sharing. How did it start, and did you encourage it at all as a way of “getting in with her”? I think, once you’ve got off on this footing, it can be difficult to reverse out of it as she will only be confused and possibly hurt if you suddenly stop showing interest in things that you have previously been open to. That said, it’s also not fair for it to be all one-way. Next time you ask for time off and she flies off the handle, or if you feel that she is being too self-centred, why not temper things by alluding to some “private” problem of your own? But don’t over-share – say that you don’t want to bore her with the details and say it’s “a bit private”. Maybe that way she’ll take the hint that that is a better way to behave. Not exactly professional, but balanced, at least.
Show some solidarity
Reading between the lines, she is a working mother, with a demanding job and a sick parent. I’ve been there – and it’s really hard! Have you considered that her life is more difficult than yours? This could be you one day, and I hope if that time comes you’ll have colleagues who can cut you a little slack. Let’s not go back to the days when working women had to somehow make their family lives work around their jobs. We need to help each other.
Next week's dilemma
At a party last week given by my sister, my brother – who has no singing voice at all – refused to join in the karaoke singing at the end. Everyone else had a go except him. None of us minded because, even though he’s 40, he’s rather shy and lives on his own. But my brother-in-law gave him a horrible lecture afterwards and said it was bad manners not to join in. My brother is furious and says he’s been humiliated by our brother-in-law and he’ll never speak to him again. How can I help them to get over this stupid incident?
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