Q: My boss gossips to me about my colleagues, who also report to him. He denigrates their work and generally belittles them. I feel like a privileged insider when he does this, but I realize he is most likely saying similar things to them about me, so I don't trust him. What can I do?
A: It can be exhilarating to be the boss’s trusted gossip pal. In an office, where information is currency, hearing your manager’s poor opinion of your co-workers can make you feel great, in a schadenfreude sort of way. For a moment, you might feel like you're doing a better job than they are. But you’re right: if he talks this way about them to you, it’s a safe bet you’re also on his list.
“The first victims of scapegoating and blame in a workplace are never the last,” said Ben Dattner of Dattner Consulting in New York City, an organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.
While studies show we connect better with people when sharing dislikes rather than sharing likes, it’s a bad idea to base your relationship with your boss on how poorly he believes the rest of his direct reports are performing. It can also hurt your relationships with others in the workplace.
Resist the desire to join your boss in his trash-talking. Word gets around in an office, so don’t say anything behind your colleagues’ backs that you wouldn’t say to them directly. If you feel compelled to comment in response to your badmouthing boss, be positive.
“Focus on the strengths of your colleagues,” Dattner said.
Duck and cover
It is best to avoid situations in which your boss can drag you into disparaging conversations. Try being with him only when others are present. Don't go out for lunch just the two of you; invite others to meetings (For instance, you might say, "Let's ask Tara to join so she can fill us in on that project as well.").
If you see your boss by the coffee pot, do a 180-degree turn and head toward the supply closet instead.
Of course, there are some cases in which superiors do not realize how their behaviour is affecting the team. If you are lucky enough to have a manager who seems open to suggestion, try redirecting the conversation to a discussion of practical solutions.
“When your boss trashes your colleagues, you may want to try to get him to focus on how to support or coach them to perform better in the future, rather than focusing on their difficulties in the past,” said Dattner. “Get him to consider how he might constructively intervene to help set them up for success rather than failure.”
You could, for instance, remind him of the achievements of particular colleagues. And it doesn't hurt to sandwich in some positives to keep the boss from becoming defensive. Try praising him for decisions he’s made that have helped struggling co-workers succeed.
If these approaches don't work over the long term, ask for a transfer and keep finding good reasons to avoid one-on-one encounters.
Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome questions from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.