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The Difficult Bosses of Capitol Hill

Even the most kind-hearted member of Congress can be a difficult boss on occasion (CQ Roll Call File Photo).
Even the most kind-hearted member of Congress can be a difficult boss on occasion (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

Happy members of Congress are all alike (and great to work for); unhappy members are each unhappy in their own way. Wise — paraphrased — words from Tolstoy ring true about the Capitol Hill workplace: Difficult bosses come in all stripes. What do you do if you land in one of the many (many, many) offices with a difficult boss at the helm? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I’m relatively new to the Hill. I’m excited about the issues that I work on and my boss’s position on them. I get along well with other people in my office. The only problem is my boss. I can’t seem to develop rapport and establish a good working relationship because, quite frankly, he’s difficult to manage. What advice do you have for staff that have a demanding boss, or a boss that sometimes treat staff callously?

A. Ah, the old rough boss. Maybe the boss is disorganized, callous or passive-aggressive. Maybe he orders a tuna sandwich from Longworth and then barks that he’d wanted a bagel. Maybe she ignores all of your late-night research and heads to the House floor with talking points she’s made up on her own. Or maybe he is sweet as pie but refuses to engage with anything from the Internet, blaming “the Twitters” for his last tough re-election race.

On Capitol Hill, even the most amiable, genial and kind-hearted boss can still be difficult. Even those for whom social graces are a second nature can turn into demanding, squabbling individuals behind closed doors. So how does one handle working for a difficult boss while trying to get ahead on Capitol Hill?

The same way the rest of us do.

A good work ethic, strong sense of teamwork and the unfailing ability to be ever-responsive while maintaining good cheer can go a long way toward melting the ice caps of a difficult boss’s heart. But it’s not a guarantee of landing in good favor. Bosses — especially members of Congress — are fickle creatures accustomed to the rest of the world catering to their whims and desires. If a staffer decides a member is too demanding or unreasonable, they’re free to leave; hundreds of applicants will stand at the ready to take their place.

When Fortune Magazine publishes the best places to work, Congress may be conspicuously absent from the list. Yet so many Capitol Hill staffers love their jobs, and even more wannabe staffers are clamoring to get their foot in the door.

And here is why: Even the worst, meanest, crankiest boss has an upside. For one, they were smart enough to hire you, or at least give you a chance, and help you earn that coveted Capitol Hill experience. Two, they already have an office on Capitol Hill, which Hill Navigator will acknowledge is an amazing place to work, even if you have a boss that is persnickety, foolhardy or knuckleballs their BlackBerry across the room.

Research supports this conundrum. The Congressional Management Foundation teamed up with the Society for Human Resource Management to evaluate congressional staffs’ level of satisfaction with their jobs and found that the relationship between employees and senior management was a top area which required improvement. Of all the aspects of job satisfaction, communication between management and employees ranked as very important (70 percent of respondents felt so) while far fewer were satisfied with the existing relationship (only 22 percent felt very satisfied).

To respond to the specifics of your question, it sounds like you and the boss haven’t gelled yet. It could be a matter of time and your relationship could improve as he or she sees your outstanding work and comes to trust your judgment. It could also be a matter of personality, and nothing you say or do will elevate you in their eyes. If it’s the former, hang in there. Spend time observing current staffers who seem to be in the boss’s favor and watch their approach and actions. If it’s the latter, do the best job you can while trying to minimize any actions that your boss may find objectionable. If it continues, bring it up with a supervisor, but frame it in terms of your own improvement: “I want the senator to trust my vote recommendations, but he seems to ignore me whenever I speak up. How can I make this better?”

Finally, know that not all Capitol Hill matches are intended for “till death do us part.” Because of the intensely personal nature of Capitol Hill offices, not every staffer hired will grow to become a trusted adviser, even if their credentials and legislative know-how are exemplary. But if you do good work, even a boss with personality differences will not stand in your way to great things. Give it some time, talk to someone you trust, and see if you can improve your situation. If you can’t, use your valuable hill experience and find a boss who is a better match. Good luck!

Have a question for Hill Navigator? Email or use our submission form. All queries will be treated anonymously. Follow Hill Navigator on Twitter and Facebook. Or, get Hill Navigator delivered to your inbox by signing up on the right hand sidebar under “SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL.” (Recommended!)

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