How do I prepare myself to resolve this toxic situation with my boss?
March 31, 2014 8:42 PM   Subscribe

My boss and I got along fairly well before I got promoted to a full-time position. She was clear about priorities but fairly hands-off, which I liked, and open to questions (of which I had many, since I'm just starting out). At the time of the promotion, I was given many, many additional responsibilities and started to run into a micromanaging side of her I hadn't seen before. And a weird, contradictory expectation. If I asked her things, she started to tell me to figure them out myself. She wanted me to take initiative. Great, I thought. I'm fine with that. Except that when I started taking initiative, she was then critical if I didn't do things in exactly the way she would have done them....

I'm a very harmonious and hard-working person -- I'm fine with taking initiative (and I'm equally fine with taking direction). I'm also something of a perfectionist. If I make a mistake, I don't need it hammered that that was a mistake (something my boss also does).

I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place. I end up consulting her because I don't know exactly what she would have done in a situation and know she'll be upset and critical if I do something different. Then she's upset because I'm asking her too much. If I could just do one or the other without being snapped at, that would be great. I come into work anxious because of it, and it affects my productivity.

Some of the problems stem from her edits to my writing. For example, there have been some blog posts where she has edited them over and over again, mostly because there are certain wordings that she thinks are good and which I cannot fathom. If I've somehow managed to word things similarly to the way she would have, the blog passes by relatively uncommented. If they aren't, the blog is "not up to par." It's maddening, because I know it's good writing, and even other partners have said so. It feels literally like she expects me to read her mind. Sometimes her edits do not take the rest of the content into account and are either repetitive or don't flow well, so I spend precious time trying to incorporate them in a useful way. She takes any disagreement badly, so often I just suck it up and make the edits that I feel worsen the writing. Then she wonders why I'm not getting more done in some other area.

I know that she's not being malicious, but she is very blunt and sometimes irrational. And always impatient. I don't think that quickly on my feet and at times I've tried to question the edits or the fact that we're spending so much time on them. But she will deflect and then point out some tiny mistake I made or otherwise seem defensive, and I just am not fast-thinking enough to calmly move us back to the topic at hand (I only realize later when I'm not so stressed).

Also, her feedback is almost always negative. If she is positive (I suspect), then she just says nothing. I work much better with some positive feedback. On some level I surmise she thinks I'm good. She keeps giving me additional responsibilities, and saying how I'm going to take over such and such a task in several months.

The work level is crazy and it's all I can do to keep up with work that fits my standards. She never seems to notice this, and constantly points out that we "need to wrap some of these things up," conveniently ignoring the other six things I've wrapped up that day. She's a workaholic and does things on the weekends and in the evenings, and seems to have some stress-related health problems because of it, so I know she's even harder on herself. I resist doing this most of the time for the sake of my own health, but I'm working very hard nonetheless, and put in a little overtime every day. I feel frustrated that the creativity and high energy I had at the beginning (which I think was something she liked) are being inadvertently smothered by unhelpful criticism (resulting in low morale) and confusing expectations.

I feel flooded when talking to her. Even after practicing in private, I just forget all the well-thought-out things to say once she responds, harshly and decisively. Sometimes she comments in a way that I disagree with but can't articulate immediately (this is frustrating as well). I think she thinks she's being helpful. Perhaps she thinks if she criticizes me enough, I'll just morph into a version of her. I really like this company, and I overall really enjoy the work. I think I could be really excelling if my energy wasn't getting drained by worrying about when I was next going to be criticized. I feel like I'm holding my breath half the time.

So I guess my question is from this very long description -- if you are a harmonious, high-standards, creative person (perhaps also one who isn't super quick to respond/process verbally), and had to deal with someone like this, how did you teach yourself to have some conversations that had a productive outcome? Are there any books or resources you read, philosophies you adopted? My friend suggested assertiveness training -- are there any free resources here? How can I ask her to respect my hard work, respectfully, and give me a clear set of expectations? And what did you tell yourself day after day to stop feeling anxious about where the next jab was going to come from? If you have other constructive thoughts on the situation, I welcome those too. Thanks.
posted by iadacanavon to Work & Money (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you engaging with this person? You won't change her and her approval is not something you can control.

I am failing to understand why you can't agree to everything she says without taking it personally.

It really sounds like you are taking this personally.

Just mimic her style and do things her way. If she gives you edits, implement them as given and quit struggling to make them fit.

With this headache off of your plate, start looking for another position at this company or elsewhere.

In the meantime, she's your boss. Do the job her way and quit trying to put your spin on things. She obviously does not want you doing that, so stop it.

You can also try to CYA by documenting any directions she gives you verbally with follow up emails, but that might really grate her, so think twice before going that route.
posted by jbenben at 9:12 PM on March 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wasn't trying to be harsh, yo. Just letting you know that a handy rule if thumb is that if someone or something makes you feel flooded and overwhelmed, often the BEST thing to do is step back.

In your case, I am advocating you step back emotionally. She's micromanaging and mercurial because that's who she is. It's not personally directed at you.

It's possible if you can stop reacting to her emotionally, the problem will resolve on its own.

Hope all of this helps. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 9:18 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you can compromise on her level of micromanagement based on the task at hand - if it's a task you've never taken on before, ask her to mentor you by letting you check in early and often to avoid making mistakes and backtracking. If it's something you've done many times before, ask her how often she wants to review these items, if at all, before they are complete.

Ask her point-blank: "You've indicated that you want me to take more initiative to complete tasks on my own, but I have noticed that we spend a lot of time and attention reviewing the small details of my completed work, such as the blog posts I write. Would it be more helpful for us to review my work at specific progress points instead of waiting until the end?"

As for the writing style - ask if there is a specific style guide or writing style the company uses, or one she personally prefers to use as a reference so you can follow it more closely and avoid the multiple rounds of edits. Write like she writes as much as you can. Remind yourself that you are writing with the voice of your company, not your personal voice.

To get more positive feedback, ask her for it once a month. Specifically, say "I'd like to check in with you regarding my performance in general. Can you indicate which parts of the job I'm doing well? Have I improved in any areas since we last spoke? It's important to me that I budget my time and effort wisely - and while I want to improve in all areas, it doesn't make sense to put extra effort into areas where I'm already meeting or exceeding your expectations if I can use that energy to improve something else."

Finally, if things don't improve - since you've had trouble thinking on your feet when you try to have a calm and fruitful discussion, maybe you can try writing her an email where you logically lay out your concerns, leaving emotion out of it. Obviously get someone to proof it to make sure it's not too confrontational, emotional, or condescending. Frame everything in the context of a) you want to be a better, more productive employee, and b) finding ways to further empower you without her constant oversight will free up more of her time to get more important work done.
Sending it on a Friday evening (knowing she will read it over the weekend without the chance to immediately come to you in person to discuss it) will give her a chance to reflect without getting defensive. Even better - schedule yourself on her calendar for Monday afternoon, and in your email reference that meeting time as the opportunity to follow up on the email, so as not to interrupt the usual rush of a Monday morning.
posted by trivia genius at 10:54 PM on March 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Agreed with the idea that you should do this in writing rather than in person.

You should also consider whether your interpretation of high quality results may be different to hers - so if you're spending an extra block of time on something she's interpreted as trivial, that may be a cause of her frustration / being short with you.

I think the notion that you need to be more assertive doesn't really gel with what you've described as her character. It would seem that would likely cause more issues than it solves.

I would suggest the best reaction to a micro manager is to strike first - catalog what you intend your approach to be in writing, then do said approach, follow up again in writing to say "hey I've done this as per the approach i told you, let me know how you go on the review", and set yourself a deadline for review comments. If it's a lot, respond to say "hey, that's more feedback than I expected, I understand your comments and will update by xx/xx/xxx. Let me know if that's a concern".

If you're producing written content and have differences of style with your boss is there an opportunity to have a style guide you can all refer to? or can you just accept to take her view on occassion?
posted by kaydo at 10:55 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

And on preview, I type too slowly
posted by kaydo at 11:13 PM on March 31, 2014

I worked for someone like this!
I thought the problem was something I could solve and I tried and I tried, and she kept moving the goalposts, and I wound up very miserable and upset.
You know what fixed it - when I quit!
posted by heyjude at 1:00 AM on April 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

Just to second jbenben and heyjude - I have been exactly here and was in that situation for a number of years. Unless you can distance yourself emotionally from this (which is hard when it's work that you would really enjoy if it wasn't for the walking on eggshells and constantly second-guessing yourself and your boss) then you will drive yourself up the proverbial wall.

I speak from experience.
posted by Chairboy at 1:51 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have had this work experience, and your examples about wordings ring as very familiar. I eventually was able to adopt a style that was acceptable 90% of the time. But after four years of tries and frustrations it eventually was apparent nothing would really get better.

My suspicion is that you are getting all of this feedback because your boss is also highly invested in the outcomes. It is worth attempting to work with her to find a better compromise, but if things don't get better within a month I'd start thinking about how to shift your job, whether it is internally or externally. It's hard to convince passionate people that things they think they are right about don't actually matter that much (or that they are wrong). Really hard. And that is what you are up against in shifting this tendency.
posted by meinvt at 3:25 AM on April 1, 2014

So I've dealt with this.... extensively.

I'll just address the writing aspect. You need to figure out what about her style she prefers over yours. Look at the formatting, the word choice. Does she prefer a more formal style? She prefer something wordier or more concise?

Once you figure that out, you need to bring these qualities into your own writing. However, you don't just want to mimic, you want to do what she does, but better.

There isn't one way to write something and while your style might be very good, it doesn't mean you can't also write very well while adopting another style. You have criticisms of her writing an style. They are probably valid, but that doesn't mean that her style couldn't be executed well. Mastering this may get her off your back and make her feel that "she is getting through to you," so to speak.
posted by whoaali at 4:31 AM on April 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Working for people who micromanage is soul-sucking and demeaning. You are not a child. You are a grown-ass adult who knows how to make decisions.

Have one clarifying conversation with her where you use trivia genius' script: "You've indicated that you want me to take more initiative to complete tasks on my own, but I have noticed that we spend a lot of time and attention reviewing the small details of my completed work, such as the blog posts I write. Would it be more helpful for us to review my work at specific progress points instead of waiting until the end?"

After that... once you get to a point where you are having all "conversations" in writing (ie email), it's time to move on. Ask me how I know.
posted by vignettist at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

She is deeply insecure and threatened by you.

Workaholism is a manifestation of insecurity - she'll never felt good enough, so she has to do more and more and more.

Now that you're closer to her level, it freaks her the hell out that you might do something differently. Not because it's bad, but because it implies that her way is not The One True Way.

She may well know all this intellectually, but she can't help herself.

You are in for a bad time, and my advice (and the advice I'd give the past version of myself) is to get out before this person destroys your confidence.
posted by jetsetlag at 6:45 PM on April 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for all the responses, I really appreciate it. I started marking best answers but then realized it puts a green check by the question, so I'll wait on that for just a bit.

There's truth to what each of you have said. There's a little bit of me taking it personally, a little bit of my standards vs. hers, a little bit of her critical/irrational personality that is never going to subside.

So, I'm going to try the initiative question, try to write in the best version of her style (I was already doing this), and try to prioritize the way she thinks is important.

I don't feel like leaving is an option at the moment. I'm not opposed to leaving after a year or two, but it's only been a few months in the position, and it's a new field I'm trying to get a foothold in. I can't transition laterally very easily, as it's a small place and we're the only two people in the department. Also -- we were somewhat friends when she hired me. She got me the job, and so I have a bit of loyalty there as well to at least stay a moderately respectable amount of time. I just didn't know her as a manager.

She's not a mean person (at least, not intentionally), and sometimes I wonder if she even knows how she comes across, and whether I could somehow nonverbally/subliminally reward her for treating me better. In MBTI terms, I think she's an ESTJ (there's a great line in Gifts Differing that says their emotional life is "accidental").

I was so excited to get this job and build experience in a lot of these things. I don't want to throw that out just yet. So let me phrase my question a bit more clearly: if you managed to keep your sanity with someone like this, what strategies did you use to stick it out? What did you tell yourself? Did you get them to be any less critical of you, and if so, how? In terms of emotional detachment, *how* did you emotionally detach? How did you steel yourself against the ongoing criticism?

Thank you.
posted by iadacanavon at 8:45 PM on April 1, 2014

I started writing exactly like her, to the fullest extent possible. I ran everything I did by her before publishing it, before she asked. I told myself I would be finding a new, better job with a boss who appreciated and recognized my skills ASAP, and that all I needed to do was SURVIVE her. No, she never became less critical of me, but when I did find a promising new job opportunity, she went to bat for me. Because she knew I cared about doing the best job possible, and my willingness to be occasionally micromanaged read to her as "teachable and coachable".
posted by SkylitDrawl at 4:49 AM on April 2, 2014

You've identified that your manager doesn't like to be asked how to do something she thinks you should be able to figure out, but that she also doesn't like it when you don't ask and then make what she considers a wrong move. At the moment when you're inclined to ask her, you could instead propose what you're thinking of doing, and check whether it suits her before you move forward:

NOT: Boss, what should I do next with that report?

NOT: To:Jim CC:Boss Hi Jim, I've revised that report, here you go.

INSTEAD: Boss, I'm thinking that the next step with that report is for me to revise it and send it along to Jim. Please let me know if you'd prefer a different approach, or if you'd like to see it before I send it along. Otherwise, I'll send it to him at the end of the day.

Also, I think you can have conversations with her about some of the dynamics that aren't working between you. You could pick one small part of the conflict as a trial, choose a time when you and she are both in a good space, and try bringing it up in a non-accusatory, positive and collaborative tone. Listen more than you talk, and keep the first one very brief. That way, you can get out of the conversation before it's any big deal, think it over on your own, and decide whether it went well enough that you'd like to proceed with similar conversations, change your approach, or drop the effort.
posted by daisyace at 5:43 PM on April 3, 2014

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