I can't keep up with the happy-happy-joy-joy
December 15, 2010 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Please give me some external validation that my supervisor's need for reassurance is really not ok, and advise on how to disguise my extreme discomfort.

A while ago, I asked an anonymous question about striking a work/life balance....


and got some great advice. The phrase 'emotionally divest' is my mantra. Whenever I start getting overwrought about work or see that I am working too many hours, this phrase makes me stop and think about why and whether I need to steer things a bit differently. I continue to do good work, but putting in too many hours is now something I guard against as closely as working too few.

I realized though that part of what makes it so hard to divest is my supervisor's strong wish that we remain very emotional about our work. He regularly asks me (and everyone else) to confirm that we are happy about our jobs. This would be a great opening for discussion, but a) he is always in a rush and doesn't really want to discuss -- he just wants the short answer that one is perfectly happy and b) even if one were to bring up issues, he might decide that these are not the 'real issues.' I don't trust him. As a minor example of this,he asks for input on what we would like for supplies, and then orders something completely different, saying that he knew we would be happier with his preference. Last, he seems to overinterpret signals-- the example I can give is that he once asked me (sympathetically) about a stressful, personal matter in front of several coworkers. I was embarrassed and answered in a bit of a clipped way....he told me months later that he "knew" from that exchange that I was very unhappy about this personal thing and that he should stay clear of me 'for a while.' There is also the fact that he discusses coworkers with me, what he thinks of their actions and motivations and emotions, so I am sure I am the subject sometimes when I'm not around.

So yeah, on my own, I am getting ok at this divesting from my actual work, but I am completely flummoxed by this overpersonal relationship. Is it overpersonal? I feel it's intrusive and yet, at the same time, I am invisible. I left another job that had a horrible authoritarian boss -- I often hated and disagreed with his edicts, but at least I felt like he kind of expected that and didn't really care what I thought. I only felt invisible, not intruded upon.

What would you do in this situation? The obvious is to just fake it all the time, and always say that I'm completely happy with everything. This is so taxing to me, because it is sooooo frequent that he asks, and because I feel like my reactions *allllll* the time to everything are being interpreted. As it is now, I will collapse if I have to maintain a good mood 40 hrs/wk. My job is already intellectually taxing. Further, there are some things I am realllllly unhappy about, and if I knew someone were listening, I might actually raise the issues. As it is, I feel like my concerns will not be addressed and worse, I will be labeled as just being generally 'complainy.' I frequently have to sit around a table and act happy with the group about how close we all are and what a great team we are and how we can all depend on each other, when in fact, our supervisor deliberately leaves most of us out of the loop and plays favorites. This farce makes me want to scream. I can divest and ignore these things I don't like and am powerless over, but I feel like it is the last straw when we must almost publicly sit around and act thrilled about everything.

I completely understand that I can leave this job at any time, well, you know, barring the usual financial needs and health insurance etc. Even that thought has brought me some feeling of empowerment....the collective answer to my last question was remarkably effective in changing my attitude, and keeping the advice in mind led to a slow but actual change in my actions and feelings. I'm looking for the same sort of "rules of thumb" for how to deal with the sort of supervisor relationship I have. He's not going to change and I'm not willing to give up the job I have just yet; what mindset can I get into that will make this at least 'ok' day-to-day?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, your boss has big issues with boundaries and realizing that y'all are individuals, not an extension of himself that he can keep happy through sheer force of will.

You can try to disengage from as much of the farce as possible, but it sounds like you can't entirely disengage without his thinking you're unhappy and interfering. The best you can do is to maintain your own personal and professional boundaries by, for instance, nodding and mmming and needing to get back to work when he discusses coworkers.

But from your description, I think you should continue the farce while looking for another job. Not being able to have your voice heard about problems that could be solved isn't sustainable.
posted by ldthomps at 9:46 AM on December 15, 2010

I think your choices are limited to faking, polite truth, and/or rotating between those two.

For me, I would probably just fake it with occasional polite truth. The polite truth is fine but can be time consuming, leading to long discussions in which the polite truth is disputed. You state that faking is taxing. Can you make it less taxing? Accept that faking is helpful to you in this situation. Come up with some stock responses. Only share "personal" matters that aren't that personal to you (fake sharing). You can make it a game. Think of it as something you are doing to help yourself.

Some people are constitutionally more averse to faking than others. Some people are very scrupulous about truthfulness, and find it very painful to tell even white lies. If that's you then you may be left with polite truth. Perhaps you can brainstorm ahead of time some stock "polite truth" responses that discourage further discussion. "I don't know if I am happy, but I do know I am going to [finish project X by the deadline]."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:57 AM on December 15, 2010

I have a manager like this and over the past year I've come to realise that I have to play the game. I have always been extremely forthright in the way I express myself and for a variety of reasons (like I'm reallly good at what I do, have a very positive and sunny nature) it has always worked out OK but with this type of manager it doesn't. It sucks sour lemon catballs but it really, really doesn't work to either confront someone like this or try to be 100% yourself.

I think you've already started learning the lesson many other people learned earlier for whatever reasons they needed to. There is a script, deviation from the script will cause discomfort and only you can tell what level of discomfort is acceptable to you.

The only thing that helps is that I have learned of ways to couch what I am unhappy about in ways that she feels she influenced, thought of first, encouraged .... what have you.

So if I say...
"well I was OK with that until I felt that it didn't respect your principle of X... and we're a team right, you're the manager and you've been pretty straight & clear with us... so I think you're 100% correct and we should review it..." it is manipulative, I don't like doing it but I've realised that people like this are quite insecure deep down and they overwhelmingly react to anything they percieve as against the way they see the world. This makes them far more dangerous than managers who are secure & confident in their skills and the possibility of curveballs is magnified.

For this reason it is worth learning the particular script and working on ways to emotionally distance yourself from the delivery of it.
posted by Wilder at 10:04 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you play Stanley? I mean like the character Stanley at the office. Give lip service to what the boss wants to hear, but mentally check out at every opportunity. I don't recommend you start doing crossword puzzles in meetings, but surely you can daydream, plan your grocery shopping, etc., and say 'totally, I agree' when it's your turn to talk.

Another thought - what are the consequences of being thought 'complainy', or of the boss thinking you're unhappy about something? Sounds like so far the consequence is he avoids you (or avoids talking about the subject) which sounds like a win to me.
posted by bq at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2010

And what about some push back? When he orders different supplies than you wanted, can't you say to him, "Actually, I needed product X for reasons A, B and C". Don't be mean or dismissive but tell him the reason that you needed the things that you ask for. If he returns with a reasonable rebuttal, how about asking for a heads up in the future when he orders something different than was expected.

Likewise on the complainy stuff? Can't you pick one thing that you and your co-workers probably agree on it being a problem? With support of the group, wouldn't it easier to pose this change to your manager as an opportunity for the organization to do better?
posted by mmascolino at 10:24 AM on December 15, 2010

Just a guess, but part of the answer to this might lie in your life outside of work, about which you haven't said much. I don't think I could tolerate the situation you describe for long unless it was balanced by solid, honest and open relationships elsewhere, with people for whom I didn't have to put on a performance. Do you have friends outside of work with whom you can talk about these issues? Heck, do you have friends outside of work with whom you can talk about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with your job? Emotional divestiture doesn't work so well unless you have something else to fill the vacuum. Your boss is not a good boss, but maybe it doesn't need to matter quite so much...
posted by jon1270 at 10:33 AM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

If there is one thing I've learned about work from being an employment lawyer and as an employee myself, it's this: You bring the exact same stuff to your work relationships as you do to the rest of your life. Work is not a separate psychological arena from the rest of your life. Everything you are outside of work, you are inside of work too. Your communication style; habitual emotional reactions and coping styles; your instinctual reaction to people; hang-ups; baggage; strategies for dealing with authority; introversion and extroversion ... these all get expressed at work just like they do outside of work. Work is actually a great laboratory to figure out how you relate to the world.

So it seems to me that you don't have a work or a boss problem; you have a relationships/dealing with conflict/dealing with other people problem. For example, you say that one example of why you don't trust your boss is that "he asks for input on what we would like for supplies, and then orders something completely different, saying that he knew we would be happier with his preference." Ok, so how is this such a big deal that it makes you not trust him? Some people would think this is just an annoyance and a quirk of the boss's; others would be able to say, "Hey boss, I actually really needed that specific reagent and I am going to put in an order for it, just so you know."

For another example, it sounds like you're a classic introvert and really don't like sitting around the table making inane happy talk. Ok, fine -- this is going to be a characteristic of yours in any social setting, not just work. It will happen when you have to visit your sick aunt you have nothing in common with; it will happen at parties; it will happen when you need me-time from your romantic partner; it will happen with your coworkers. So what kind of strategies can you develop to start asking for the space that you need in all of your relationships? How can you make playing along with social niceties less painful? (Hint: there are plenty of Askmes about introverts dealing with our extrovert overlords.)
posted by yarly at 11:03 AM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

Can you develop a sense of humor about it? If your default reaction is amusement instead of resentment it would at least make you feel a bit better. (ANYTHING can be funny if you are desperate, btw.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:07 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like your boss is a Narcissist.

He doesn't respect your boundaries because there are no boundaries. You aren't actually a separate person but rather an object with which he can construct his vision of himself. He probably has a vision of himself as "emotionally perceptive" and "really a great boss so concerned with his employees' welfare." That's why he always asks how you're feeling but doesn't actually care. That's why he is "concerned" about your personal issues in front of your coworkers (ie, an audience). That's why the supplies he thinks you need take precedence over your own stated preferences (you don't even have preferences, how could you?). That's why you feel like you'll be "punished" if you deviate from what he expects of you -- your only purpose is to serve his needs. That's why you feel both invisible and invaded. That's why you feel so drained at having to fake with him, because he's using you and your emotions and your energy to feed himself.

Emotionally divesting is a good strategy. I also make great use of the internal eyeroll to remind myself that it's their problem, not mine. Probably though, you are very good at fulfilling this boss's need (it's called being a source of narcissistic supply). Maybe there are/were other narcissists in your life and you developed some co-narcissistic tendencies (like a narcissist-enabler). Try being worse at it. Stop faking. Stop giving your boss any personal information to use as fodder. Practice a blank stare, a glazed eye, and a very noncommittal "mmm." You'll have to make it over the hump as the boss ramps it up and tries desperately to prod you back into your role, but eventually he'll give up and move on to someone else.
posted by thebazilist at 11:24 AM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think you have to change the perspective to see dealing with these issues as part of what you're being paid for. In other words, if you make $30 an hour, only 70% of that is for doing your actual work, the rest is for tolerating various quirks and abrasiveness of coworkers. If you feel that 100% of salary is for doing work, then inevitable issues of this sort will wear on you because they subtract from your ideal working environment while not making up for it in any way. In all the places I worked at there was something like this, and often much worse than what you describe.

To address specifically the stuff you mention, it may be helpful to see the offer of choosing supplies as not definitive but potential, i.e. only if he doesn't feel strongly one way or the other he'll order what you said. That's still better than nothing as you no longer have high expectations.
posted by rainy at 11:26 AM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I understand thebazilist's suggestion to stop being a narcissist enabler, I counsel against being perceived as willfully obtuse at work. I had a narcissistic boss at a previous job, and when I decided to stop feeding her, I ended up without a job. Just a counter example.

When I've worked for people like the boss the OP describes, it's universally pointed to a lack of security on the boss' part. And I don't mean emotional security. I mean "put on notice" kind of security - their neck is on the line. So they make a big show of being the caring manager, asking their employees' opinions and expecting (hoping, praying for) a big show of happy happy from their employees, because this is a show for the higher ups, you see. Doing the happy happy dance will get your boss' boss off your boss' back.

So, my advice to you, OP, is to pretend this is a play. You are cast in the role of the happy employee. In public interactions with your boss, you show how wonderful everything is, smiling all the while. Say nothing about your personal life; just cultivate some non-personal everyone-likes-it topic for discussion like the latest TV show or whatever. Imagine yourself as one of those marionettes with big pink spots on your cheeks, if you need to.

Back in your cube with no-one watching, you indulge in an eye-roll or three and go about doing what you need to do to get your work done.
posted by LN at 12:05 PM on December 15, 2010

What I do not suggest: going along with it until you literally cannot make yourself go into work one day; until you flip out and yell at someone random; or until it permanently affects your physical and mental health.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2010

Echoing LN, think of yourself as an actress delivering lines in a (bad) play. Like John1270 says, it's a performance. When your boss asks you how you are, the answer is, "Excellent!" When he asks if you are happy, the answer is, "Very. Thanks for asking." Say it like you mean it.

Meanwhile, of course, you are looking for another job, to get away from this asshole.

Not incidentally, when you interview for another position, do NOT trash your current boss. That's a red flag, because it suggests that you might have a problem with authority, taking direction or getting along with people generally. Any negative answer will only result in follow-up probes, and then your goose is cooked.

Have positive answers that are more or less true--this will take some thinking and practice--to questions that are fishing for your opinion of him (e.g. tell me about your current boss; does your current boss have any weaknesses?, etc.). Answer something like, "He can be demanding, but the experience has taught me discipline and the importance of being productive. I'm grateful to him for that. But I'm ready for more responsibility, and that isn't available in my current workplace."

Which is to say, never take the bait when invited to be negative.

It's a fact of life, especially now, with such a big labor pool, that they're not looking for reasons to hire you. They're looking for reasons to screen you out.

Don't give them that reason.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:21 PM on December 15, 2010

I've learned that being "no bullshit rah-rah cheerleading" and "happy" are not and need not be seen as mutually exclusive. My standard answer to "how are things going?" is a vague "so far, so good today." If your boss wants to care about how you feel about your job so much, well, now you know your conversational home base. When your boss buys you the wrong supplies, say "oh, those might help too, what a good idea. Could I still get X and Y also, though? I like them - it makes my work easier and more enjoyable to have the particular things I've built into my work flow." Whatever the issue, the ultimate reason you want what you want is now that it makes you happy. Bring it back around to what he claims he wants.

Have a pending hard question, request, or research project for him on the back burner all the time. When he asks how you're doing, say Great! You know, it sure is nice having a boss who seems to care about us. Hey, by the way, how would one go about getting new chairs for the lunch room? Those old ones are falling apart.

If every time he does that, it results in an unexpected project for him, he'll learn to stop. (Assuming you're otherwise pretty low-maintenance.)
posted by ctmf at 6:07 PM on December 15, 2010

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