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Your Overprotective Boss May be Killing Your Career

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We all knew at least one kid growing up with an overprotective parent, the super strict mom who was always concerned about what could happen, controlling and mitigating risks large and small day in and day out. Being overprotective can certainly be considered a sign of care and concern but, children of overprotective parents can grow up with unwarranted or disproportionate levels of fear, hesitation, and avoidance. An overprotective environment can limit the ability to adapt, work through challenges head on, and negotiate through difficult situations. Certainly some overprotective tendencies can be meant with the best of intentions. In this case let’s assume that the behavior is truly meant with the best intentions, and not from a space of mistrust which is often associated with overprotection ( for example: so and so won’t make a good decision so I will do it for them).

In the workplace there are all sorts of overprotective managers, for our purposes let’s focus on the ones that are overly considerate of bandwidth, plate overload, and scope creep. You know who I am talking about. They come to the rescue of their team, buffering them from anything that they perceive as extra or excess work. While these buffering skills may look like the markings of a hero, the behavior may in fact be alienating teams and creating islands of isolation. These overprotective managers want to ensure their team members have work life balance, are focused sharply on the identified yearly goals, and can meet their individual deliverables without interruption. This sounds fair enough and maybe even like the ideal boss, but the reality is this behavior is killing your career.

While employees of an overprotective boss are often treated to very clear lines of performance and expectation they are also deprived of critical learning experiences, they are denied the chance to carve their own way and decide their own level of developmental stretch. There is no such thing as a defined set of expectations anymore; todays work world is less about the square we occupy and more about the Venn diagram of overlapping handoffs, collaboration and communication. An overprotective boss is potentially infringing upon some of the most important ways in which an employee can really learn which is through stretch, reach, and taking on challenges outside of their day to day norm.

Powerlessness is an unintended side effect of an overprotective boss. Buffering employees from deadlines, overwork, office politics, and difficult decisions isn’t doing them any favors. Employees should feel capable to tackle these on their own, with help provided upon request. Protecting employees from the norms of work only limits their power and capabilities to be ready for the road ahead. The best workplaces are full of people who feel energized by the tangible impact of their contributions and those who feel powerful to solve issues and make decisions. To move up and through and organization it’s critical that an employee is hoisted up and out of the cubicle and onto the radar of the organization at large.

Some employees who have an overprotective boss any may not even know it. Their boss seems like their biggest advocate, keeping the world in check so they can enjoy their weekends without interruption. Here is the tough part: when a manager turns down experiences and opportunities on behalf of their team members it sends a message to the requestor, and to the larger organization , that this team is not capable – either time wise or skill wise– to take on more. Nothing kills a career faster than sending the signal that you are unavailable, inaccessible, incapable, or unwilling. People will stop reaching out. The river of great opportunity will run dry. They will stop bothering.

An employee of an overprotective boss  may start to feel incapable to make decisions without checking in first. They may miss out on opportunities to engage with other parts of the organization, they can experience limited space to showcase their skills, and ultimately will see a drop in their ability to influence and make pathways in the organization.  If this sound like you, don’t let yourself be looked over because of your overprotective boss. Your biggest champion may be causing you to miss out on key wins.

Spotting an overprotective boss can be difficult; here are a few indicators that you may have an overprotective boss.

  • Other teams call your boss to ask for your help as opposed to calling you direct.
  • You have limited to no work tasks outside of the key deliverables that your boss set with you at the beginning of the year.
  • Your development plan is distinctly tied to your current deliverables, and not future focused.
  • Your boss speaks/answers on your behalf.
  • You and your boss talk about your work load frequently; it’s a standard topic of discussion.
  • You run seemingly normal decisions by your boss before committing to them or you hesitate to make decisions all together.
  • Colleagues outside of your team ask you to check with your boss and circle back with the final answer, assuming the answer does not lie with you.

What you can do to get control of the situation

  • Reclaim your development plan, use this as a way to reopen the conversation about what you are willing and wanting to take on.
  • Find a short project opportunity with another team, let your boss know you want to take this on in addition to your current workload, and that you are willing to move things around and juggle your schedule to make it work.
  • Let your boss know that you want to get involved in additional opportunities, and make a formal addition to your key deliverables so it becomes official. You can title it “additional projects” to get the ball rolling.
  • Jump in and answer requests and questions, don’t wait for your boss to answer. Try hard not to hesitate. This applies to emails, conference calls, and any other medium.
  • Reframe conversations about your workload- move the conversation from being overly focused on time spent and hours worked, to contributions made.
  • If your boss heroically shares that they blocked excess work from creeping into your life, let them know that you are not afraid of a little scope creep.
  • Have a one to one talk with your boss where you acknowledge this situation head on, thank them for their concern but express your own concern around being held back as a result of their overprotective behavior. Come prepared to share where you would like to see things change.

While buffering a team from needless distractions is a good thing, actually a great thing, it is an art. If you are a manager shielding your team from the pain of the outside world it may be time to stop sheltering them and to start letting them learn how to master navigating the masses as you have done. Employees don’t require coddling; they require guidance, the support to achieve, and the space to make mistakes. If you are an employee of an overprotective manager and are just realizing the negative implications of this well intentioned behavior, now is the time to change that story.Don’t let your boss kill your career, its time for a rescue mission.


Bianca E. McCann, MHRIR

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