how to survive perfectionist boss until a new job offer comes
September 7, 2011 5:53 PM   Subscribe

My boss is brilliant at what he does - except for the management part. He is highly critical of himself and others, has little to no people skills, and he's making me miserable. It's making me self-doubt my abilities and the negativity is creeping into my personal life. What can I do to deal with my perfectionist boss while I make my exit strategy?

I have already tried discussing the issues with my boss, tried different methods of working with him, and tried using other co-workers' methods of dealing with him. It's not working out and it's not a good fit.

I am looking for other jobs. In the meanwhile, how can I deal with the constant criticisms while keeping my confidence and sanity in tact? Especially given the heavy workload and tight timeline?

I feel like I'm either being set up for failure or work my life away to meet an impossible standard. This is the first time in my career that I have a manager who wasn't at least pleased with my work, all my previous managers had glowing reviews about me.

He thinks we can have it all (all pros and no cons) if I can just be smart enough with my work... but after letting him try it out, he'll realize the challenges, make up a solution (a variation of my previous proposals), and then downplay the previous cons that were such a HUGE deal. His directions, verbally or written, tend to be vague or easily misinterpreted because he spends 3 seconds in thinking or writing it. It's literally a line in an email for a task with no context. Given his aggressive timeline and his micromanagement style, tasks / projects are either delayed or they get done but then he'll be displeased with the outcome because he wasn't heavily involved (see first sentence of this paragraph).

I'm beginning to doubt myself - a lot. It didn't hit me until I was at the grocergy store and was debating on what type of tomato to buy for 10 mins, all because I was terrified of making the wrong choice! My boss has criticism for everything, from big things to small, trivial things. The fact that other people was able to tolerate this work environment for years doesn't help me feel any better about my abilities or my political savviness.

I'm fully resenting him now. He's high achiever, produce great individual work, and in a very senior position at a relatively young age in mid-size company. Yet I can no longer focus on what's so great about him, what I can learn from him, etc., only his bad qualities. This is not the person I want to be.

Intellectually, I know certain criticisms I should just ignore (e.g. his criticism of us using grey highlight in Excel to show an item is completed) while others got merits (e.g. how to better communicate with engineers). However, the sheer number of criticisms is making me doubt my abilities and even if I'm in the right career field anymore. I think he offered me a job only because I was the only candidate.

He seems to think the work his direct reports produce is a direct reflection of him, thus, sometimes holds a higher standard to us than to himself. He'll tell me that I need to shape up because I don't reply to his email or I didn't do X like he said in his email. When I look into it, it's because he either sent the email to the wrong person (typo) or because he sent it while I was on vacation and I just got back.

Talking with him about these issues only bring in change for about a day. From what I can see, other coworkers have learned to either develop thick skin or avoid contact with him as much as possible. Owners don't care, they're trying to sell the company.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If talking with him only brings about change for a day, can you talk to him every day? Can you make him lucid enough to see that a pattern of changed interaction is good for you and thus for him since your work reflects on him, and then continually remind him of that when he lapses?

Otherwise, would the thick-skinned route be so bad until you find something else? I am sure you could toughen yourself up to where you once again do not rely on his opinion of you as a barometer of your abilities.
posted by michaelh at 7:16 PM on September 7, 2011

If you do not already know how, take up ice skating or skiing while you look for a new job.

You know what's great about ice skating or skiing? You learn how to fall. Every day you will practice falling, getting back up, and moving on.

That practice in falling and getting up will serve you well. Treat your boss's criticisms like falls on the ice. They're just an inevitable part of the process. What's important is getting back up and moving on.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:23 PM on September 7, 2011

Hmm, not sure the highlighting colour example would even register as criticism with yes, become more thick skinned. Also ask yourself if everything that you perceive as criticism is actually criticism or rather an expression of personal preference, i.e. do not attach a value judgment about your performance to ever sentence this guy says. You'll know yourself when you really have made a mistake or failed to deliver in some way. The rest is just him being him and best ignored.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:51 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

As you may well know, you are not powerless: manage your boss.

Ask for help before the criticism hits. The goal is to short-circuit any "I helped!" mentality, and to provide for a nice soothing ego boost for the boss. (This works extremely well with tenured professors and former engineers who miss working in the lab... um, or so I've heard.)

The micro-manager special is information loading. Give the boss a list of tasks performed, percentages completed, feedback from other departments, dates and schedule slips, daily Excel spreadsheets of figures... Keep it positive, useful, and frequent. The goal is to provide, not information, but a feeling of control over the process, so he lets you get on with your work.

Much harder is managing oneself, and unflipping the bozo bit. (This is something I struggle with...) Here are some semi-random ideas.

Focus as firmly as you can on the positive aspects of your boss. He may be at his level of incompetence now, but he got there because he was good at something.

View your boss as a human being trying (and failing) to solve a problem. Given the triviality of some of the criticism, I would guess the problem is not you. You are just the unfortunate target of a stunted emotional response of that problem (maybe he's worried about the sale?). Cut him as much slack as you can stomach, and make an effort to understand the real problem he's having.

Try to to distance yourself emotionally from the criticism. Joel Spolsky recommends (in a slightly different context) imagining yourself as a puppet... and the criticism is directed at the puppet, not you. There are other similar, but perhaps more orthodox techniques.

Boost your work ego. Go over your accomplishments. Display your diploma/certificates/letters of recommendations. Call up an old work friend and go talk old times. Polish your resume, and think how good things are going to be.

Read Managing Humans, or Peopleware, or any book in your industry that describes what good management should be like.

In the end, some situations can only be tolerated, not solved. Keep looking! Best of luck to you.
posted by underflow at 9:54 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I had a boss who was in that direction but quite not as bad. It helped to think of her problems as her problems.

When something went wrong, she would jump to an absurdly specific and completely wrong conclusion that person X caused the problem when he did Y, and she would tell person X that. After a few times, we realized that's just what she does and we stopped taking it personally.

She also, instead of planning, would make big decisions on a whim and assign tasks with little direction or context. If it was something that mattered, we would make our best guesses, turn it into a plan with a realistic timeline, and confirm it with her in (e-)writing before going forward. ("Ok, so I'm going to do X, which I estimate will take 3 days. This means that I no longer have time to do Y, so we'll have to set that aside for now. Can you confirm that's what you want to do?)

It helps when you realize that they forget the criticism a minute afterwards anyway, so if you just ignore it, there's no lasting problem. Treat it like a toddler lashing out in the moment. (Wow, this sounds so condescending, but that's how I thought of it, I guess.) It also helped to have someone else to laugh about it with.
posted by callmejay at 8:39 AM on September 8, 2011

During your exit interview, show HR all of the proof documenting he sucks at managing. Sorry if they don't mind firing low end people, they should not mind firing a boss for sucking. Being a boss is his job. He sucks. So he shouldn't be a boss.
posted by stormpooper at 9:08 AM on September 8, 2011

Start managing him better. He's all over the map. You'll have to work out the details. Try sending him an email every day with a list of the day's priorities. Explain that constantly checking email is counterproductive for you, and that you'd like to try checking it less often so that you can keep it organized, and get other work done more successfully. Try to do roundups of his mail, aggregating his requests into 1 email, with comments. Meet with him weekly, have notes of what needs his attention, questions, updates. Try to get the job out of your head when you're not at work; not easy, but really important.
posted by theora55 at 4:21 PM on September 8, 2011

I had a similar boss, and I had to quit because it was so infuriating. Your job search is great, because there is just no reason to put up with this. Until it pans out, document everything and send it back to him. If he wants to micromanage, then give him lots and lots of copious detail to pacify him.

Micromanaging usually comes from a place of fear: you might be able to guess what he's trying to prevent, but whatever it is, he feels that control will solve the problem.

If he gives vague or contradictory instructions, send a reply email like "Ok, so you want me to [insert your best guess here]. I'll get on that right away, it should take Time X. I'll start again on [previous project] at Time X+1Day. Let me know if the situation changes." Chances are he'll just accept that, because the alternative is actually giving proper instructions. If you keep this up, both of you will have a record of the tasks and changing priorities. Best result is that this finally penetrates his brain, next best result is that you've got your arse covered if he wants to make an issue of it.

Make it clear in your emails and other communications that you're following his instructions to the letter. Don't disagree with him, just do what he says and let him figure out the flaws in his own time. When things go wrong, say "it's a shame your idea didn't work out, let's try the other one you had". If he blames you, vaguely agree then roll on to how you were following his instructions, and ask him what the solution is. Re-focus him on the next action, not the details of what went wrong.

It's a lot like talking to a toddler, as callmejay says. For some reason he hasn't developed an adult way of relating to his staff. Until you can get a job elsewhere, part of your job description includes "soothing the boss when he's feeling frustrated that things aren't going right".

If you can manage it, try to detach from the situation and feel a bit sorry for him. He's trying to make up for some perceived or actual shortcoming, he lacks social skills, and his staff think he's a douche. You are a great worker, as evidenced by your previous glowing reviews. Get your friends to frequently remind you of good work you've done in the past. Try to be emotionless and detached at work, so his silliness doesn't mess with your head, then if you can get any exercise during your lunch break (even just a quick walk in the fresh air) that will help work off any tension.

And as a silver lining, if a job interviewer asks you about how you deal with interpersonal conflict at work, you'll have a good example to work with :)
posted by harriet vane at 7:08 AM on September 10, 2011

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