Managerial Warfare: The danger of competing against the boss


There is conflict in many organizations caused by individuals competing against their managers and managers equally involved in managerial warfare. Much of the combat is out in the open, but many skirmishes occur secretly. Why does this happen? What is the cause? Here are a few possible explanations for the dissension.

Manager focused

  • The manager is insecure and wants to remove people they view as a threat to their position or ego  
  • The manager was appointed due to favoritism and may or may not be competent or confident   

Employee centered

  • The employees feel the manager took a job that should have gone to someone else; therefore they did not earn it.
  • An employee is asked to train their new boss which they resent because they personally wanted the job 

An insecure manager is dangerous. The threatened manager may demonstrate their insecurity by firing salvos to challenge people in public, undercut their ideas and take credit for their suggestions. The friction caused by their actions reduces the level of candid constructive participation by members of the team. When employees strike back they are acting in counter productive ways. They are operating from a faulty premise that if they can undermine, embarrass and sabotage the boss’s effectiveness, the manager will be replaced.  The job will be up for grabs and available for the right person. They believe a mutiny or coup is the only way to correct the injustice. 

People fail to consider that the manager was placed in their position by upper management, for a reason. Leaders do not like to be proven wrong in their selection process. A shot against the manager can be seen as a blow against the people who put them in power. 

Additionally, even an ineffective manager may have the influence and initiative to fight back and sabotage someone’s career. The manager can inform their superior of the difficulties caused by their subordinates. A manager, no matter how weak, can launch dangerous accusations against employees, which could damage their reputations, especially if they provide specific examples of insubordination. People who are cited for poor performance and insubordination can be removed from future promotional consideration. 

Case Study 1 

A manager was promoted to a job that Harold thought he should have received. When Harold heard about Bob’s promotion he was stunned. He felt he was next in line for the position and had been groomed for it. He was told by a former boss that everything looked good and that the job was his. Harold knew Bob. He was aware of his track record. They were in the same training class. Harold admired the growth in Bob’s career. He could not argue with his selection, other than the fact, he was promised the job. 

During a sales meeting Harold noticed Bob nervously pacing outside of a meeting room. He walked over to him and congratulated him on his new assignment. He told him he had interviewed for the job and would do everything he could to make Bob successful. He told Bob that he could count on him for anything. Bob thanked him and said he was pleased at his reaction. Bob also mentioned that he had been told that Harold may be a problem, because he wanted the job. Harold knew he was disappointed because the job was promised to him. Harold and Bob formed a strong team and less than a year later, Harold was promoted. The strongest endorsement for his new job came from Bob. 

From Harold response you can glean the following: 

  • Harold openly discussed his situation with his new boss
  • Harold did everything he could to help his new boss look good
  • Harold stayed committed to delivering excellence which made him a fantastic role model for others
  • Harold recruited his new boss Bob as an ally and advocate for his career development 

Harold remained positive and stayed with the organization as a constructive leader. If he could not be positive it would have been smart to leave the company. It would be career suicide to poison the company environment and change people’s impression of his maturity and leadership potential. When people are negative, it often confirms the decision management made not to give them the job. At least that’s the way management will look at it. 

Case Study 2 

John found out that his manager was threatened by him. He had not intentionally done anything he was aware of to cause this resentment. He was told by his previous supervisor that his current boss was threatened by his presentation skills and relationship with other leaders. His boss conspired to leave him off agendas and gave him smaller speaking roles and shorter time slots. John knew this explained his recent interactions with his manager. Apparently, managers had been very complementary of John’s presentations and his boss did not like their appreciation. 

John responded by continuing to perform at a high level and expand his exposure to customers and sales leaders. He even worked closer with his manager to take on more assignments and asked for more feedback on his performance. He tried even harder to make his boss look good and give him credit for the unit’s success. John was eventually promoted and his manager was demoted. 

Insecure bosses require a lot of time and attention and must be handled cautiously. Their egos are fragile and their actions may be calculated and destructive. People should work with their mentor to receive guidance on how to handle these individuals. 

There are rare circumstances when the boss openly competes against employees as an initiation exercise to test them. They want to see if they are tough enough. They will challenge them to see if they have the strength to make it in the organization. This situation when diagnosed should be pursued with great enthusiasm and competitive spirit. To lose would not be to their advantage. 

If you discover your boss is competing against you in public or behind your back, you may not be able to diminish the threat you represent to the manager’s career and ego. The general rule of thumb still holds true. Do not compete against your boss. Even when you win you may lose. The career consequences within your organizations may be destructive. Work with them to improve your relationship and job performance by making the company and your boss look good.   

Poor bosses have been replaced and great employees have left organizations. You must decide if you have the patience, faith and courage to stay or make the move that is best for you. If you stay or leave, it should be on your own terms. If you are thoughtful and strategic, even though there is conflict and warfare, you will make the right moves for your career. 

Copyright © 2011 Orlando Ceaser



One thought on “Managerial Warfare: The danger of competing against the boss

  1. Unfortunately, managers (and sometimes employees) forget that work is not a club. The job is often ones only source of income and a managers ego has a domino effect on the managees entire life. As a young person (under 30), I strive for my boss’s approval and I work to impress in order to keep my job.

    Having been in a situation like this, even when you are making your manager look good, they still want you out of the picture so that they can get the credit for your efforts or whatever the case may be. A managers ego has to be “checked” because their competitive spirit with their managees effects peoples livelihood.

    For a long time, I tried to work with my manager but every step of the way I was being sabatoged and ultimately became physically and mentally ill at the fear of losing my income, not really the job.


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