My boss thinks I'm dumb. Maybe I am.
March 26, 2011 7:50 AM   Subscribe

My boss thinks I'm incompetent. Maybe I am. Sinking self esteem inside:

This is a two part issue that I'm probably too emotional to parse. But as I see it, part I is that my boss is an intensely negative person who tends to think most people are incompetent (has fired tons of people over the many years I've been there - or micromanaged them into quitting). He talks past me, ignores my ideas, or argues with almost all of them. I know this is part of how he interacts with the world generally, but it also feels targeted specifically at me. In the more than 10 years I've worked with him I've grown from a newbie in my field to someone with more expertise on some of my work than he has. Some of my expertise comes from outside experience, some from my work at this organization. Anyway, he seems to still think of me as someone in my early 20s who knows nothing. This leaves me alternately enraged or, depending on my mind-state, terrible about myself. So part one of my question is, how to deal with this deeply undermining boss (in an awful economy when I can't find a comparable job).

Part II of my issue (and of my question here) is that I often feel that I am in fact incompetent. I'm a recovering know-it-all. I've always been overconfident. There are ways this has served me well, but there are ways I know I've overestimated my abilities. In this job I feel both that I'm perhaps being judged on old behavior (since I've been there so long) but also fear that I actually just suck. So specifically my question here is - how to do something useful with this fear - so I'm not just paralyzed and depressed? In other words, how can I actually show myself to be more competent? I've read some other threads about how to be less of a know-it-all, and have definitely made strides but am still working on that. I know that the bulk of seeming competent is, well, being competent. And I'm growing at that too. But what behaviors show competence instead of insecurity about competence?

Thanks. I know this is a little disjointed.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You've survived there years. You've managed a toxic environment. That is commendable, but also a testament to your stubbornness. First, it sounds like you should change companies - stay within your field but leave that particular company. Failing that, you need to be proactive about taking responsibility. Your boss will never see you as growing unless you take growth paths. Suggest things. "Hey, can I head up a review of X - it's been bugging me that we didn't have that organized." Otherwise this A-type boss just considers you as a given. You're taken for granted, like the filing cabinets and coffee maker. You are not the coffee maker. You are the company's talent! Boom! Take your anxiety and flip it completely around - you're not anxious because they're mean to you; you're annoyed at yourself because you haven't achieved your own awesome potential. It sounds like you could use a dose of Tiger Blood from Charlie Sheen. But yeah, first, get out of that company.
posted by carlh at 8:05 AM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Plan to move on. If you started there so young you've developed a sort of ghost dysfunctional parent-child relationship with that boss, and that can't be fixed. Anyway, youv've been there too long. Get the resumé in order and start looking.
posted by zadcat at 8:05 AM on March 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

Your boss has fired tons of incompetent people over the years you've worked there -- unless you're married to and having a baby with his daughter, or took an incriminating picture of him with a prostitute in Amsterdam's red light district, this speaks loudly to your actual competence and his perception of your competence.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:21 AM on March 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

Your boss is a flat-out bully. These people don't change. Get out of Dodge.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:23 AM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Life's way too short to put up with this; start your job search now, find a better boss and you'll probably find out that you're not as incompetent as you think and that his issues with negativity have rubbed off on you.
posted by dflemingecon at 8:24 AM on March 26, 2011

Your boss's behavior is what's likely leading to your feelings of incompetence. Feeling incompetent is what makes you feel like you couldn't find another job. As J. Wilson said, the fact that you've made it this long means that both those things probably aren't true.

Have you read this post about sick systems? I'm not sure if that's the kind of environment you're in, but if so, you might find it helpful.

You can find a better job with a way better boss. It might take a bit more time in this economy, but you can do it. Good luck!
posted by pie ninja at 8:50 AM on March 26, 2011

Yeah, it's probably going to be impossible to tease out the individual threads of what's your boss's personality issues from what's on your plate. Being around a dick like this will do nothing but muddy the waters for you and give you loads of opportunities to blame yourself. Bail out and find a better situation.
posted by facetious at 8:50 AM on March 26, 2011

Everyone will say leave and get a fresh start - which is ultimately the best scenario. You are now doubting your own viability - and a fresh job is the most likely way to prove to yourself that you are still good at what you do.

Another option is to, at least while you are there, look at it this way.

As J.Wilson said above, he hasn't fired YOU yet. That means you have value.

I've worked for bullies, I've worked with dangerous know-it-alls who got in way over their head and had to clean up the mess afterwards, and I've probably been, metaphorically, your boss as well, treating those who'm I'd seen hired young and ending up their boss a decade later - it's hard not to always think of them as "the kid". But that's the bosses problem.

So I'd say there's a bit of a lesson to be learned from the current job before you depart

1) What is your job - got a job description? If not, ask for one. If there isn't one, that's a failure of the business to properly define what you do.
2) Is there any kind of metrics you are measured on and a scheduled review process with your boss? If not - realize this is another management failure. Without this, there is no way to judge whether anyone is doing well or not.
3) Re #2 - If not - write some up yourself and present them to the boss on a regular basis. If he's not interested, keep those records for yourself. If he wont' do a review on a regular basis, do your own on a monthly basis and keep it to yourself. This will help you optimize your own work, and make you realize what you truly accomplish for yourself.

To get down to your actual question - what can you do to feel more confident.
Before you can know whether or not you are successful at your job, you have to have a clear description of what your job IS. This needs to be documented.
Next, you have to have a clear understanding of what resources are available to you to execute your job, and any procedures you are required to follow. (If it's not documented, it's not a procedure)
Next, if it applies, at any point where you are a decision maker, document your decisions. If you are a policy maker of any kind, document your policies (and distribute them, of course)

Without knowing the specifics of your job - I'm guessing it's technical/IT, the only way to change people's perceptions, to even attempt it, is to really surprise them. That doesn't mean pulling off some great technical project to show them how smart you are.
What will probably make magic happen (I've seen it) is to show them how ORGANIZED you are.
Got a difficult boss? Get clear requirements for a task in writing. Don't ask for him to write them - you take notes if you need to and then you write them, then ask him to review that your understanding of the task is correct. Agree on exactly what's going to be delievered, and then deliver it, on schedule or a head of schedule. Do NOT miss the deadline you agreed to. This is extremely important. Give yourself double or triple the amount of time you think you'll need to begin with - your boss won't mess with you on it unless he actually needs something sooner - in which case you have to very carefully consider whether you can meet his deadline, and if not, discuss it with him. Do NOT agree to any deadline you cannot, with 100% certainty, meet.

Then deliver.

As an aside, an adjunct therapy to the above....
personal presentation - unless you are already in a suit & tie job - kick it up a notch. Just a notch. Ensure you are well groomed and wear something slightly more formal than you normally due to work, and make that your regular work outfit. I'm not saying come in in a suit when everyone else is in t-shirts and jeans - but if everyone is in jeans and t-shirts, start using a shirt & tie, and some decent pants. They wear runners, get some decent shoes.

TL;DR - Document clear and accurate goals agreed to by you and your boss. Achieve them. Rinse, repeat.
posted by TravellingDen at 8:55 AM on March 26, 2011

I could have written this post - and I don't have the answer because I feel as lost as you. However, on thing that has helped is recognising that my boss' behaviour is that of a bully. That is unacceptable behaviour and I've moved from feeling fear, anxiety, stress etc to feeling flat out angry about it. Channelling that anger has made me feel much more positive - I've realised I am better than that and I deserve to be treated better. I've now spoken to HR and I think I've found an opportunity to move internally quickly so I can move out of his line of fire.

Another tip someone gave me in a training course this week that was thought provoking was to look at how you communicate with him. I thought that if I was rational, if I did want he wanted and if I tried to explain to him why I felt he was being unfair then I would be able to get through to him. However, someone was talking about matching your communication style to the other persons (I think the terms he used were "receive, interpret, transmit") I was choosing to respond to what I received from him (i.e. transmit) in my style rather than his and I was therefore not able to get through to him. His style is aggressive, know it all, assertive etc and in order to get through to him I had to adopt this style too. Although this initially sounds like its a recipe to generate more conflict - it sort of made sense too. So, you could try verbally standing up to him - don't try and show him you are competent, just tell him you are and that he needs to change his attitude towards you. I haven't tried this yet - but I know from experience that trying to show him you are competent is not going to work.

Good luck - one other thing that has helped me deal with the anxiety, fear, stress etc is a good therapist and good friends who have listened and supported me.
posted by smudge at 8:56 AM on March 26, 2011

I often feel the way you feel (also a recovering know-it-all, too), and right now I have a boss that sounds a lot like your boss.

I am getting past it by reminding myself that I don't like this person and thus have no reason to want to please her. Who cares if she doesn't like my work and never hires me again? I don't particularly like working with someone who behaves the way she does. I probably don't need a connection to her for my basic sustenance - there are plenty of other Production Managers out there who aren't insane and who value my contributions.

But, yes, despite all that, there's that little voice: maybe she's right. Maybe you're incompetent. Maybe you do need her. Maybe this can bite you in the ass.

Those are pretty hard feelings to live with. One thing that has helped a lot is having a third party there who sees the situation as it is. This co-worker of mine, who has worked with my boss longer than I have, will often remind me, "you're fine, it's her, this is just how she is." Said coworker has even apologized to me on her behalf. So I know I'm not the crazy one, here.

Is it possible that you could find such a person, or turn to someone impartial at work who sees the whole picture here?
posted by Sara C. at 9:07 AM on March 26, 2011

There's a book - I can't remember the title of it - that talks about being stuck in a doldrum at work. Sounds like you're in one. Anyway, all I can say is, try not to tease out and hang on to all of your boss's problems, as if obsessing about them or working them out will provide you with some type of comfort or salvation. That is part the hook of the passive know-it-all, over-working or over-thinking your way through the problem when the desired results are simply not waiting on the other end, and generally speaking, avoiding or mismanaging conflict in the process.

People like your boss have problems, clearly, they're human too. But you can only really take care of yourself. And it's just a job. And working on something, or in an environment that you love.. is a seriously unbelievable feeling. I used to work for some really awful people and my personality kept me locked in there. I had to be let go; I certainly wasn't going to give up. In hindsight I can only look at my part in it and ask myself what I could have done better to take care of myself.

I think therapy might be a great idea. Figuring out why you're really unhappy and coming up with a plan. Which could involve finding new work while keeping the job you have. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Distractions also, believe or it not, are great. Do you have a hobby?

By the way, to refer to a particularly weak comment in your post: how your boss treats the world generally and how he treats you have nothing to do with each other. This is you coming up with an excuse for not having a boundary. Perhaps at one point in your life you liked your boss's aggressive behavior, or at least got off on the drama of it. If you want to live a happy life I believe recognizing this behavior as faulty is a starting point. You may be at that age where you have to come up with something better than giving assholes a pass.
posted by phaedon at 9:26 AM on March 26, 2011

At least go find another job offer. Threaten to quit, and be ready to do it. Then you'll find out how your boss really feels about your competence, and how you really feel about your boss.

But if it were me, I'd get gone.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:37 AM on March 26, 2011

Think about your boss's attitude as another incarnation of the Peter Principle. He got his position because people mistook his sneering aggressiveness for assertiveness and his condescension for authority, not because he was actually a good leader. This, unfortunately, happens a lot.

I used to have a co-worker who was a lot like your boss. I got pissed at this person and, as a reaction to how this person treated me, I gradually began to feel like even more of a schmuck than I actually am, even though intellectually I knew this person was just a martinet. This person later wound up burning a lot of bridges within the company in incidents entirely unrelated to our relationship.

As I moved on from that position, my anger drifted into pity for that person and sympathy for this person's future subordinates. That person was always going to be an angry, frustrated person, and that person would always eventually turn people off. I got out of that situation unscathed. Thanks to that experience, I learned to take myself a bit less seriously and with a bouquet of "what not to do" lessons. All things considered, it was a positive experience for me, even if it didn't feel like it at the time.

Don't let this jerk gaslight you into thinking that you're incompetent. I would also recommend considering a modest pay cut in exchange for not having to work under the thumb of a lunatic.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:52 AM on March 26, 2011

I honestly don't get why so many people on AskMeFi recommend therapy. Almost like the place is sponsored by the psychiatry industry. You don't need therapy. You just need perspective. Your boss is messing with your career and self worth. Forcibly separate the two - start being super kickass at your job (you know you ARE because you've survived several rounds of layoffs) while looking for a new job. Because you are struggling in a toxic environment. You are the company's talent. You need to find a place to thrive. Either carve it out where you are, or go somewhere else for more fertile soil.
posted by carlh at 9:57 AM on March 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get a better job. I know the economy is bad. Keep looking and don't count yourself out without trying. Your boss sucks. That's the problem. That is the entire problem right there. Being around that will cause anyone to feel the way you feel, but it's not you, it's your boss.
posted by citron at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2011

Carlh is right. Therapy will not stop the other guy from being an asshole. Get away from that guy. Life is short.
posted by citron at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2011

Hmm. It's entirely possible your boss is a terrible guy and nothing will work except quitting.

But the question you're actually asking is a very, very good one, and I don't want to ignore it, because it's a skill you will need in a new job, too, if you get one. In fact, you'll need it more, because you'll be proving you're competent to a whole new group of people.

My feeling? Wherever you go, try to be a person who solves problems. That's as simply as I can say it. Solve a little problem by answering a question. Solve a big problem by proposing an organized approach. When in doubt, say yes to requests that you do things (provided they are reasonable and within your job and such).

Think about people who have a short time to make an impression, like interns. What impresses people about interns? They don't have to revitalize the company; they have to contribute in a relatively short time in a way that people can identify. Think like an intern; assume you're going to be job-hunting in a few months (whether you are or not), and think about what you want people to say about you.

Everyone remembers the person who got the printer to print, or dug up the phone number they couldn't find, or figured out how to word a difficult-to-write letter. Solve a problem; make an ally. It is the best advice I've ever gotten about work.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmm. Take a class at a nearby grad school. Do well. Feel better. Ask the prof if she knows any companies that need help?
posted by salvia at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2011

I think the best way to guage your confidence level is to leave, and see how you do in a new environment. You've probably learned so much, including how to navigate in a toxic environment, and would undoubtedly thrive were those obstacles removed. Every workplace has it's weirdness, but I truly do think you've outgrown your present job. At least begin the process of looking ... "the economy" is not a good enough reason to stick around. And network like crazy, on your current boss's dime if possible.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:24 AM on March 26, 2011

I honestly don't get why so many people on AskMeFi recommend therapy. Almost like the place is sponsored by the psychiatry industry. You don't need therapy. You just need perspective.

A therapist, being an outside uninvolved party, is great at helping people gain perspective, and it's appropriately assumed that people ask these questions on AskMe because they want an outside uninvolved party to help them gain perspective. But see. We're not pros at it, so we recommend people who are.

Personally, I had lots of episodes of "boss is mean, that means I suck," and therapy has helped me parse those situations and see them differently.
posted by sweetkid at 12:21 PM on March 26, 2011

He talks past me, ignores my ideas, or argues with almost all of them.

If you're arguing with this guy a lot, I think you might benefit by learning when to hold your tounge. When you engage in an argument with your boss, you enter a contest you can't win. Instead of arguing when you believe your boss is wrong, let him be wrong. State your position once and be done with it. If he wants to do things differently than you recommend, let him. Give him enough rope to hang himself.

how can I actually show myself to be more competent? ... what behaviors show competence instead of insecurity about competence?

If you're asking how to impress your boss, and if you want to impress him so that he will treat you better, I think you're headed in the wrong direction. From what you've written, I'd bet your boss's behavior is primarily a tool for maintaining his own power and relative status. He talks down to people to keep them down, not to prod them into excellence. In such a case, going out of your way to impress him is exactly the wrong strategy, because it does two things that are contrary to your interests; the effort itself is an illustration of your insecurity, while the actual competence you display threatens him. Guess what the rational response is when one sees an obvious vulnerability in a potential rival. [Hint: It's not the result you're looking for.]
posted by jon1270 at 1:16 PM on March 26, 2011

One thing that can be going on with people that are constantly belittling others is that they feel the need to demonstrate their own relative worth over and over, perhaps because of their own insecurities.

In that case what can help, though it might be counter-intuitive, is to do what you can to make them feel better about themselves. Maybe for example showing your admiration for their skills, or whatever fits.

Conversely what may not help is just being better at your job, because that may only reinforce their need to prove their place in the pecking order.
posted by philipy at 5:43 PM on March 26, 2011

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