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The Corporate Shrink

In his debut column, Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowitz tackles your tough workplace issues.

I’m stuck in a great job with a bad boss. I’ve got a senior marketing position in a consumer products company, where I’ve been for 15 years. I’m highly skilled and well paid. But my immediate boss gets in the way of every good idea I have. He can’t seem to tolerate my wanting to be creative or successful.

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Before blaming your boss — and yes, you might wind up doing that anyway — I’d advise investing in a good mirror.

Perhaps you’re actually sabotaging your own efforts, while attributing the obstruction to your boss. Psychoanalysts call that “projection.” Or the problem may lie in the dynamics of your relationship. You may be unwittingly inviting him to meddle, either by coming across as threateningly competitive or by trying too hard to please him.

That said, you could well be right about your boss. Are other of his direct reports having the same problem? That’s a telling indicator. Even if this is about him, though, you’re not off the hook. It’s clear your current approach to solving your relationship problems isn’t working, and you need to do things differently.

One option: Try giving your boss some feedback in a way that’s direct but not self-destructive or provocative. Do this alone or with a group of colleagues who share your sinking boat. Tact is of the essence. If your boss can’t hear what you’re saying, don’t respond by yelling louder.

You’ve tried to patch things up and failed? Then consider one more possibility: Maybe this is about more than your boss. Perhaps your company’s culture rewards conformity and compliance over innovation and individual achievement. If so, then it’s back to the mirror — to ask what you’re doing there in the first place.

The favorite sport at our young firm is trying to figure out our CEO. He’s constantly pitching our services, but he always swings for the home run and whiffs, leaving it to lower-level salespeople to bring in the business that keeps us afloat. He loves to talk, rarely listens, and seems more of a dreamer than a real leader. Everybody always talks about him behind his back. I’m no shrink, but I think he’s insecure and out of touch.

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Well, I am a shrink — and while I encourage amateur shrinking in the workplace (it’s a form of empathy), don’t put too much stock in your conclusions. Treat your speculations like Kleenex: Use them liberally, but throw them out when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

Why do you think that shrinking your CEO is such popular sport? Is it because the guy really is such an enigma, or does it reflect a general reluctance to challenge him directly? Is it because he is unapproachable, or is everyone colluding to avoid bursting his bubble? Since you’ve taken the initiative to write me, perhaps you’re the logical person to speak for all of those gathered around the watercooler. Find a way to tell your CEO that you need him to return to earth.

Presumably, your boss wouldn’t be where he is without some measure of ability and accomplishment. I bet that he was once a grounded entrepreneur and his dreamer quality came off as visionary leadership. Now that he’s been at it for a while, he’s uncomfortable with running a more structured company. Rather than confront the mundane work of a CEO, he shoots for the stars. It may be time for him to move on to a new challenge. At least, that’s my Kleenex.

Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and adviser to senior executives, is founder of the Boswell Group LLC. Send him your questions about the psychology of business via email (shrink@fastcompany.com).