How To Deal With The Wannabe-Mentor Boss

Thanks to Jennifer Aniston and those blunt bangs, every one is talking about Horrible Bosses the movie and horrible bosses in real life. We’ve all had awful experiences with a superior. I’ve suffered through a few employers who seemed to want to make my life hell. They screamed, threw temper tantrums and made insanely unreasonable demands on my time and patience.

Those circumstances were bad, but nothing comes close to working for horrible bosses who see themselves as mentors. It’s the boss that honestly wants to take you under their wing, but they seem to be crashing in flames and threatening to take you with them. It’s the superior who gives you daily advice about your personal life, but they’re living out of a hotel after separating from their eighth spouse. We’re talking about the boss who desperately wants to be your friend and “hang out” on the weekends so that they can feel comfortable sharing extremely disturbing personal information during work next week.

We know this person, don’t we? The wannabe-mentor?

In a recent post about keeping secrets from your boss, one of our commenters asked me a question, “My boss doesn’t seem to recognize all the things I did before working for her: she must think she is teaching me but I find some of the things she says condescending – and the biggest thing I’ve learned from her is how not to do things.  She also treats me like her daughter in some ways – I don’t want this to affect my advancement, so what can I do?”

The more I pondered this question, the more stuck I was. What can you do when an incompetent boss wants to be besties? And how do you break off a personal relationship or friendship with a boss whose gotten toxic? Is there any way to do this without hurting your career trajectory?

Toxic mentors are tricky. They have good intentions and they feel like they’re helping you. You don’t want to insult them by turning away their advice or shutting them out of your life. But you need to create separation while still being grateful for their time and energy in the past. The first step that needs to be made is to break off the personal from the professional. The more involved a boss feels in your personal life, the less likely they are to stop doling out all that advice. If they inquire about your personal life, give a generic, “Things are going really well,” type of response. If something happens at home, try your best not to discuss it at work. Politely and subtly try to steer your conversations back to professional matters.

Keeping things professional might be the easy part. To break it off with a mentor in the business world takes a little more finesse. First, I would begin reaching out to other managers in the company. Offer to help with a big project or ask for advice on some of your own work. Try to branch out from your current mentor’s sphere of influence. Do this on your personal time, so your boss won’t be able to accuse you of slacking on your job to move into another area. It might seem like a lot of effort, but you need to have another place to move if things go badly. You need other people in your company to see you as more than your boss’s protege. If this mentor is truly a bad employee, you don’t want your reputation to be tainted by their actions. Try to distance yourself while continuing to perform well in your current position.

It’s not always easy to control that eye-rolling, but sometimes we just have to smile through less-than-stellar advice. Try to appreciate the effort that your mentor is putting into helping you, even if it comes off as a little condescending. The last thing you want to do is seem ungrateful. That’s a good way to guarantee that no one else will want to mentor you either.

So D, I hope that helps. Best of luck to you!

Photo: NBC

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    • D

      Thanks for writing this post about my situation, Lindsay! Great advice!!