Is my boss setting me up to fail?
November 8, 2010 6:36 AM   Subscribe

I’m at a fairly new year-long internship for child therapy at an elementary school and my bitchy supervisor is driving me up the wall. Please give me some suggestions for dealing with her!

My supervisor at my new job seemed wonderful at first, but after a few weeks of working with her, I noticed that she had something snide to say about how inept all of her coworkers and higher-ups are. She frequently undermines her boss behind her back; for instance, last week, her boss asked her to give a presentation to the pre-K teachers on why rewarding some children and not others with stickers was developmentally inappropriate. My supervisor agreed and quoted a bunch of research at the pre-school teachers to back up her boss’s claims. Later, when the boss left and the teachers were up in arms about having to give up stickers as a management tool, my supervisor told everybody that she’d made the research up because her boss forced her to do a presentation on such short notice and that her own boss had no foundation for any of her assertions, and wasn’t it just terrible that everyone had to give up stickers. Watching her play both sides of this petty argument made me very wary of her.

Now she’s turning her bizarre underminer behavior on me. The other week, she advised me to begin using Cognitive Behavioral interventions with a client who wasn’t really ready for it. I told her that I was nervous, but she assured me that the client and I were ready and that I needed to begin CBT. I explained to her what my planned intervention with this client would be, and she approved it. Later that week, when we went over my recordings for the most recent session with that client, she asked me why I’d started CBT when the client clearly wasn’t ready, and what had I been thinking, and did I even realize how poorly it had been going, etc. I tried to lightly remind her that we had discussed this intervention the week before, she gave me a cold stare until I realized that my only option was to meekly apologize and tell her that I wouldn’t start CBT without her permission again.

Now she’s reaming me out for not letting a child win a board game against me when she told me to stop letting children win board games all the time. She wants to know exactly why I felt that it was so important for me to win Othello against a seven-year-old, and did I think it said something about my character. I don’t know how to handle this one. Her remarks are getting cruel and personal, and I’d rather not endure them, but I feel as though she’ll react poorly if I point out that I’m following her instructions. I don’t want an antagonistic relationship with her. What should I do? I’ve got a bad feeling that she’s out to find fault with whatever I do since I’m seeing a pattern of undermining behavior from her with several other people. Is there any way I can discuss this with her without making her bristle, or should I just keep my head down and take it until the end of the year? I’d love any suggestions on how to deal with passive-aggressive bosses!

Possibly pertinent details: She’s in her late 40s and has been doing this for eighteen years or so. I’m twenty-nine, female, and have zero experience with child therapy, though I'm trying my best.
posted by pineappleheart to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in grad school for social work? If so, talk to your practicum program director (or whoever is responsible at your school for internship placements) about what to do in this situation. I know one or two people who switched internships mid-year because similar reasons to yours.
posted by greta simone at 6:47 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I am in grad school for social work. Good call, greta simone! That's a detail I should add.
posted by pineappleheart at 6:49 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you communicate with her primarily in writing? Or take notes and have her initial them, so that you have a record and/or can tell her "I want to be absolutely sure I understand everything you've said - could you please read over this and initial it so I know I've got every point correct?"

This seems like the only real way to save your sanity...
posted by amtho at 6:55 AM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

[re: amtho's advice --- nice way to mobilize supervisor's paranoia]

I totally agree with pineappleheart -- The way to go is to talk with your advisor and/or the director of internship training at your school.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:00 AM on November 8, 2010

Response by poster: I apologize for the babysitting the thread and won't reply to each answer, but I'd just like to take talking to my advisor and school off the table for now. Thank you for that suggestion, but I'd like to find a way to deal with this without leaving the internship, if possible.
posted by pineappleheart at 7:03 AM on November 8, 2010

Talking with your adviser doesn't necessarily mean leaving the internship. It's just that s/he might be able to give you better advice, specific to your situation, than we can.

If that's totally off the table, then I agree that getting everything in writing is the way to go. Insist on having her initial your notes from meetings in person, and follow up with everything by email. That way, if she wants to gaslight you, she's going to need to confront her own previous instructions, in writing.
posted by decathecting at 7:08 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Does she have the ability to fire you? If not, put every instruction she gives you in writing and have her sign it. If she does have the ability to fire you then having her incompetence/malice pointed out to her in such a way will probably end badly for you, if not, then I don't see how it could make things worse.
Does she have a supervisor/boss you could talk to? If not then I'd vote for just ignoring her supervision and doing what you think is best - if you're going to be reamed out, better it be for something you actually did wrong rather than for doing what she told you to.... oh and stop apologising to her if you were just doing what she told you to do.
posted by missmagenta at 7:13 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have just a few suggestions regarding accountability and structure, however this is a complex and multi-valiant problem where you don't have a great deal of control or influence. However, I do feel like you can structure and control the most pertinent parts of your internship so that you can learn what you need to under an unhealthy management style.

*Develop a written accountability system with your supervisor. This can be as simple as a one page project sheet that has a place for your names and signatures, the timeline of the expectation, and a written description of your responsibility, also include a space for a short evaluation after the fact. To initiate the project sheet system:
"Supervisor, I think that since I am new to the field I would benefit from written structure for each of the responsibilities that you assign to me. This way, I have your great advice and expectations right at hand in the event I should need to look up any background or ask you questions, and it gives you a way to evaluate me. What's more, I would like to develop my portfolio in this internship, and I can file this project sheets in it in order to keep track of what I am doing."
Have the project sheet ready for her to look at when you make this request. This way, you eliminate the primary issue I see in your post--which are major discrepancies between her instructions and her evaluation or follow-through. Under no circumstances should you present the project sheets as your solution to any problems. You are offering them to help her help you. Of course, this also keeps her tightly accountable in her management of your work.
*Let her know that you are keeping a professional diary of your days in the internship, and keep this as an accessible electronic file that she can look at. Record your activities for the day in professional terms, noting any meetings, interventions, or presentations. Keep it brief and professional--you could even email it to her daily. This puts dates on any interactions and activities which is great for mutual accountability and can assist in any collaborations with her or uncomfortable confrontations ("I hear what you are saying. Let's take a look at my entries for that day and see what was going on.")
*Keep a personal diary of your days that you record from personal email or file. This should stay professional, too, but include more details and more of what you are feeling ("Supervisor called me in for a meeting, she said "x" which I feel was berating and unprofessional. My response was to pull the project sheet and show it to her."). This is helpful, personally, because it is a healthy pressure valve, and also useful in the event you needed to speak with her supervisor. In that case, you could come armed with both diaries and project sheets (that she has signed, remember). Since you are an intern, I assume you have some kind of outside mentor or departmental advisor. Keep that person in the loop for advice, as well. Let that person take a look at your documentation if you're not sure what to do.
*Do not participate in any workplace gossip or discussions. First, it's not your permanent workplace and you NEVER know who could be helpful to you later that you do not want to alienate. Second, this is great practice for handling a difficult work situation well.
*Don't dismiss the idea that these efforts may lead to a productive and mutually agreeable relationship with your supervisor. So often, once a colleague has decided that someone is a "b***h," it's really unfortunate because, then, NO ONE gets any second chances and the whole deal just tanks. It's just as possible that folding some boundaries and structure into this scenario could make your relationship productive and enjoyable. Leave that on the table.

I am sorry you're dealing with this, it's not fun. I hope the winter and new year sees some positive changes.
posted by rumposinc at 7:15 AM on November 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't know what it means to mobilize someone's paranoia, but I agree with amtho that getting things in writing can be helpful in a situation like this. You don't necessarily need to ask for her approval in writing - you just need to have written documentation of her instructions so that if she continues to lie about what she's told you, you can bring up what you have in writing.

For example, after she told you to start CBT with the client mentioned above, you could've emailed her something to this effect:

"[Supervisor name], I just wanted to confirm that, per your direction, I will be beginning CBT with [Client name] at our next session on [date]. If you have any further instructions for me, please let me know.


posted by pecanpies at 7:17 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I once had a supervisor like this, for a little while. People can only operate this way if they have secrecy and plausible deniability. So, I think the suggestions to document everything by "follow-up" email are really good, but also -- become a talker. One of those talkers who just rambles on to everyone around.

The idea is to make her aware that if she says anything to you, you're probably going to repeat it to everyone else there, so she has to stick to one side of things around you or else her lies will be exposed -- BUT you want to come off as someone goes around talking just because you love to chat and are clueless, not because you're trying to gossip or expose her in some way.

Similarly, make sure she doesn't feel as if the emails are some kind of attempt to trap or expose her. That will backfire. Just try to come off as if you are somewhat overly anal, rule-abiding, conscientious, or even obsequious: "Dear Nancy, just wanted to follow up and let you know I followed your directions to X, Y, Z." "Just wanted to send you an email updating you that I plan to follow your instructions X Y and Z on such and such a date."
posted by Ashley801 at 7:36 AM on November 8, 2010

Also -- if she feels that you are onto her *without meaning to be* (not deliberately or even consciously) and are just so clueless her attempts to cover things up don't work on you, I think that will actually help.

That is probably not very clear, so I mean you should come off as someone who is so innocent, guile-free, thinking the best of others, never thinking for a moment that anyone would lie, that you are *VERY CONFUSED* and discombobulated without knowing why when someone does lie.
posted by Ashley801 at 7:40 AM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Really, the only way you can get around this -- at lease based on my own experience -- is to do one of the following:

1. Quit (that was what I did, but it was a job, not an internship; your equivalent is to follow greta simone's advice above with the goal of getting out);

2. Accept the bullying as part of your internship (not ideal);

3. Initiate a program of note-taking to avoid confusion, with the support of your advisor (this is key.)

First, go to your advisor. Let him or her know that there has been more than one major misunderstanding, where she asked you to do something that went against your training, and you did it because she told you to, and then she chastised you for doing it after. Note that in one of these cases, you began CBT with a student under pressure from her, then got chewed out by her for starting CBT with that student. State that you wouldn't be concerned if this were an interpersonal problem, but that the CBT incident and at least one other incident directly impacts the well-being of the students, and so this has to change.

On that moral high ground, ask your advisor how best to handle the situation. If the tables are turned and your advisor asks what you think should be done, state that you'd like to get a notebook and start taking notes on her major expectations, one dated page per day -- then ask whether your advisor thinks this is appropriate, and whether you should ask her to review the last day's notes to confirm them at the end of or beginning of each day.

Then, follow the path as your advisor recommends. Now you have your advisor as an ally, and (unless your advisor pulls the same kind of reversal) one that will support you in your efforts to do right by yourself and by those kids despite this woman's thwarting you.

A nice side effect of this is that, with your advisor's support (and possibly with the notes) you should be able to look her in the eye when she gives you that cold glare, and clearly state "[name], on [date] you asked me to [quote her own words verbatim back to her], and I did so despite telling you [your words stating you thought it was inappropriate.] Now you are complaining because I did exactly what you asked. This has been a pattern with us, first with the CBT and board games, and now with this." If you push back like this, tell your advisor the same day -- then, if/when she contacts your advisor to complain about all the bad things you've done, it will be something you and your advisor see in the same way, and should do well to justify getting you moved.

Which, ultimately, is what will be likely. That, or pushing back on her will cause her to cower and start watching her ass with you, but I doubt it.
posted by davejay at 7:41 AM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd like to find a way to deal with this without leaving the internship

I have sympathy for this standpoint, but you'll have difficulties with this. It is clear to me from your description that she has a habit of very cleverly messing with others' heads. The "seemed wonderful at first" impression you got does in fact belong to that picture as well.
My bet is that she's setting you up to squirm, for the sheer kicks of it, and for no reason that has to do with your performance or personality at all. The "cold stare" seems to be a giveaway here. It seems to me a matter of her putting others in their place, a power game.

You, on the other hand, have no interest in her game, no experience in playing it, yet you are the single recipient of what she's got in store for just you, meaning that you have no chance whatsoever of not taking this personally. So what are you gonna do? Counter some high-end trickery with a sincere and rational approach? It's not going to work.

I'd absolutely do what amtho says, or if you're uncomfortable with that,
keep a very strict personal log of conversations, date and time, situation of encounter, specifics and side-remarks, all entered meticulously.

This will help you to keep your wits together and to see when the situation gets out of hand (ah. Hm. After the two things that happened to you, isn't it out of hand already? I would go absolutely ballistic about being treated that way!)
I fear if this pattern persists, you will have to take your documentation to your advisor (or whomever Higher).
The alternative would be to confront her in a sort of blow-for-blow manner, and that's gonna be nasty. I mean she obviously knows very well what tricks she's been playing, no? Little chance she hasn't got a plan B someplace ready, for just such a case.
posted by Namlit at 7:52 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just a quick bit of advice on the note-taking: EMAIL EVERYTHING. Don't just keep a Word document on your computer, or written notes in a notebook. Type stuff up in email and email it to yourself (maybe even open a new gmail account specifically for these items). And email any "instructional" notes to your supervisor, too. Don't show or tell her that you're emailing stuff to your own private account. Email the items separately to each address, or make sure you bcc: yourself.

I would follow the suggestion to do the instructional notes (from our meeting this morning, I will be doing X with student Y, per your direction) that you would email to her and to your private account. Also do the "supervisor looked at me like I was a slug" type notes, but keep those entirely private.

You must email all of this stuff so that there is an irrefutable timestamp on the notes. You don't want her coming back and saying that you just typed all this stuff up last night.

Ask me how I know this. It sucks, but learning CYA is one of your most valuable work skills, no matter where you work!
posted by wwartorff at 9:06 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am going to answer assuming that the goal here is to stay the year in your internship and get the most out of it.

When she gets this way with you, does it seem like she is cold and calculated or stressed out and frazzled? From your description I somehow drew that this person is stressed with her job, and some of it is spilling out onto you. The rest of this answer kind of assumes that you are dealing with someone who is stressed and not someone who is calculating and political and out to get you (what possible gain could there be for her if this is the scenario).

Most importantly, you have to not let her get to you. She is just a boss, and things that may seem personal are not necessarily meant that way. It's difficult to understand the various stresses that go with working for 18 years in the school system have had. Maybe she herself was genuinely resentful about being forced to find research against stickers? Is it possible that she sensed that the way you viewed her changed after that? It's entirely likely that she is trying to cope with a world of politics that you are not aware of. You are not being treated well, but I am just trying to guess at some of the stresses that your supervisor may feel that could cause her to "act out".

If email is in use at the school, the "document it" approach outlined above is very powerful. You can do this in a very non-intrusive way. Essentially what you are doing is taking "minutes" of those meetings where she gives you instructions. You email her: "Hello Ms. Supervisor, as discussed today, I will now proceed with tasks X, Y and Z. I will make to sure to A, B and C as I do these. Please let me know if I missed anything out." This will make sure that she doesn't forget the conversation, if nothing else. It may be inappropriate to email in this way, depending on the environment. You can even tell her that you plan to do this to make sure that you don't misunderstand in future. In general, the phrase: "I'm sorry, that was a misunderstanding" is your friend.

A last piece of advice, and this may be difficult, is to try to get her to see you as a friend. Bring her a donut or something in the morning occasionally, or just chat with her about her life, where she is coming from. If she sees you as a friend, someone who is on her side, and just there to do a job and learn, this sort of thing is almost certain to stop. If issues persist, but you are friendly, that will allow you to bring them up more easily. Maybe ask her one time when she seems in a decent mood how the school has changed over her tenure?

Good luck! Don't let her get to you!
posted by yoz420 at 9:15 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

She sounds like the most narcissistic people I have known in my life.

The whole CBT thing could be her purposefully fucking with you, sure.

Or her need to be right could be so pervasive that she literally cannot conceive of a scenario in which she might be wrong. In her mind, it is unacceptable for her to be wrong--it short circuits her brain so she eschews it as a possibility. That leads to these assumptions:

1) If you suggest that she is or was wrong, you are either lying to cover your own ass, stupid, incompetent, or out to get her. Hence the cold stare.

2) The best course of action in any given situation is the course of action that she wants to take. If that means lying, browbeating you, trying to get you fired--if she wants to do it, it's the right thing to do.

3) She should be in charge of everything. Anyone above her? Shouldn't be. Anyone below her should do exactly what she says at all times, according to her ever-correct whim.

4) Catching her in a contradiction or proving her wrong will really fuck up her self-image and lead her to crazy, possibly desperate, mental gymnastics. I have seen this extended to the point of near- or complete- delusion. Invented emails, broad conspiracies, complete denial of reality.

I don't know where to go from this. The best suggestion in order to get along is to avoid her as much as possible and become wildly secretive so that she'll have less to criticize and evaluate. At the same time, suck it up and deal with her rude and abusive behavior towards you, and never attempt to contradict her or imply that she has contradicted herself.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:39 AM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and wwartoff is so correct: "learning CYA is one of your most valuable work skills"
posted by davejay at 12:22 PM on November 8, 2010

I'm in a social work program, and I would be talking to my advisor/placement person already, syaing just want you wrote in your post. Damn, you are paying your own money for this! Is this the learning experience you want to invest in, playing head games with a narcissist, instead of learning how to run sessions?

If you're bent on staying there and not involving the school, do what yoz420 suggests and keep an email trail of every supervisory session and lay low. Good luck!
posted by Shusha at 12:52 PM on November 8, 2010

I act as a faculty liaison for this sort of internship, albeit in a different field. I understand that you are reluctant to speak to your school/advisor/liaison, but would like to encourage you to rethink this. We deal with similar situations more often than you'd think. No one should judge you or think any less of you for bringing up these valid issues that affect your ability to be successful in this very important piece of your training.
posted by onepot at 4:03 PM on November 8, 2010

Response by poster: The internship office at my school is spectacularly unhelpful and could possibly make things much, much worse for me. It's not an option for me right now.
posted by pineappleheart at 4:19 PM on November 8, 2010

Perhaps I watch House too much, but maybe she suggested the CBT and was looking for you to stand up for your assertion that the client wasn't ready? Of course if that was true, she also should have stopped you before you began the therapy. Kind of like when I was in driver's ed and my instructor told me "turn left here" so I flipped on my signal and was sitting at the stoplight waiting, and when I didn't realize it, eventually told me "you can't go left here, it's a one-way street." That doesn't explain the board game incident though.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:37 PM on November 8, 2010

The internship office at my school is spectacularly unhelpful and could possibly make things much, much worse for me. It's not an option for me right now.

If this is really true -- and I understand how it could be, I stopped going to my school after my internship advisor went off his meds, showed up at my internship when I wasn't there, and berated my manager about random untrue nonsense -- then you're in a situation that has only one resolution: leave the internship and the school. You're paying good money to attend this school, and they should be placing you in internships that will further your education and professional options. What you're telling us instead is that they're placing you in a bad internship and then leaving you hanging out to dry. Why would you pay money for that? Switch schools.

However: once you've made that decision, to switch schools if they don't help you, then try and get their help. If you're right, then you're free to leave knowing it's the right choice, and if you're wrong, they'll help you. Win/win.
posted by davejay at 1:29 PM on December 6, 2010

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