How to deal with an overbearing, perfectionsist boss?
November 11, 2013 2:56 PM   Subscribe

I am from the United States and love my new job in a developing country. I believe in what the organization is trying to accomplish. There are two bosses. One is laid back and lets me do my thing. The other is a complete perfectionist who is so overbearing at times that I want to cry.

I need guidance on how to handle the overbearing boss. In moments of frustration, I have resisted crying or going to the nicer boss to explain or complain. I would like to find a diplomatic way to deal with it. One of the things I want to do is address my job description.

Here is an example of a small incident that happened recently. A discussion led to me creating a document to be used internally. After completion, the difficult boss asked me to make a formatting change, and then another. She asked me to give her the document so she could work on the formatting (not the content). She was unhappy with my title because it was at the top of the left-hand column instead of centered at the top of the page- and the box around the text was a problem ("I don't like the box, take away the box"). The information was tight and it was a formatting and style choice based on very limited space. So she ended up telling me to just leave it undone and set it aside, even though the employees could use it immediately. During the exchanges I mentioned using a slash (/) to conserve space, but she "doesn't like slashes." Documents should be readable and made as effective as possible, but her opinions are expressed as facts- she never uses an oxford comma, because that is "wrong." In my mind, a public document may deservedly need more scrutiny; what I created was excellent work- it was thorough and met all qualifications for the staff's needs.

She takes over work that is meant for me, leaving me confused about my position and responsibilities. Staff do not respond to her well because she is critical- the nicer boss has explicitly shared this with me.

If I suggest something to her, nearly every idea is shot down. What is the best course of action? I have been very close to going to the 'nice' boss and explaining that in order for me to stay I need to feel valued. It is a small organization and I am important to their success at this point. It is my preference to first attempt to make the situation better, and will certainly leave if nothing changes.

Thank you very much for any input. I've looked around the site at perfectionist and boss questions and did not find what I feel like I need- apologies if I missed something.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like she's not really overbearing so much as she has well-formed ideas of how she wants things to be that you don't agree with.

There's a phrase I learned from someone like that I worked with, and it serves me well. "You may be right, but I'm your boss."

Once you learn that, no matter how "right" you might be (and about formatting issues? Just do what she wants), the buck stops with her, and you're not going to win in a battle of wills. You'll save yourself a lot of heartache if you remember that.
posted by xingcat at 3:03 PM on November 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

If your example is prototypical of the issues you're running into, I think the best course of action is to basically follow xingcat's advice and essentially take less ownership of your work. This may sound counter-intuitive.

Once a document like the one you're discussing is handed off to Picky Boss, it is now Boss' document. Not yours. Do the best you can on Your draft, but once it's Boss' draft, just implement the changes Boss wants so that the final result is as close to Boss' vision as possible. Boss doesn't like slashes? Don't use slashes. Boss doesn't like oxford commas? Don't use oxford commas. Especially if Boss is some years older than you, turning this into a battle of wills means more hassle for you, and possible more hassle for Boss. And you can't fire Boss.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:15 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

What xingcat said. I did some volunteer design work for a non-profit that I'm involved with and even when I thought the ideas of the person I was working with were quite dated I had to just defer to her if she didn't like my suggestions. Fortunately, this is someone I really respect so even if she was not too current on editing practices, despite being a writer, I just did it. Some of those things really were just personal style preferences as yours sound as well. Just remember she is the boss, and besides, it's just editing i.e. no lives will be saved or lost by the use or misuse of an Oxford comma.
posted by wildflower at 3:16 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

but her opinions are expressed as facts

I don't take that from what you describe in your question. What I see is you prefer oxford commas and your boss does not. You will lose that fight ever time.

Unless there is something very big I am missing here, it seems dramatic to feel "unvalued" or be on the verge of tears over something as trivial as typography. (this is the only example we can work with because it is the one you chose to give us). At my office, I have both superiors and subordinates. I think my job is to make my superiors' job easy. You can guess what I think my subordinates' job is.

It is not surprising that staff do not prefer the critical boss. Most people want to be told that what they are doing is great. Of course, criticism can be delivered constructively or it can be delivered cruelly. However, I don't see that your boss is being critical in a cruel way. You just don't like what she has to say about formatting a document.

It is a small organization and I am important to their success at this point

This idea may be coloring your assessment of the situation. While you may be important, the indispensable employee is mythical. (and no smart company would hire one if they did exist) If you were to disappear tomorrow, I am confident that the organization would survive. Apple did not die with Steve Jobs.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:26 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

When somebody is THAT picky about something I did, I smile and pat myself on the back. As long as the substance is there, people will always differ in opinion on the presentation. It doesn't mean you did a bad job, not at all. Hopefully you can get to the point where it becomes amusing. It sounds like she's very predictable! I have many co-workers with quirks that initially bugged me. Eventually I just accepted the quirks and didn't take them personally. Can you do that?
posted by icanbreathe at 3:44 PM on November 11, 2013

What is the best course of action?

The best course of action is to grin and bear it, or resign if you're not willing to do that. I had similar issues with a previous boss who was constantly telling me to reformat charts and such in reports I produced. To me, the changes he demanded were frivolous and wasting my time, but hey... he was paying me to move that graph 1 inch to the right and change the colour to turquoise.

I think overtly complaining to the "nicer" boss is not going to achieve anything. Everyone probably understands the situation, and being the one who whines about a shitty situation that everyone is aware of is just going to make you look like a ... whiner.

And on preview, what icanbreathe said. This person probably needs to find something to nit-pick in everything as a way to exert their authority. If they're just picking on simple grammatical issues, then consider yourself lucky. At least they're not saying "This is shit. Redo the whole thing from scratch".
posted by Diag at 3:51 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree with Xingcat and the others. You need to get used to the idea that your work will be more likely to involve producing drafts than finalizing documents. If you stay in the nonprofit/government/consulting world, that is likely to be the case for most of your career. Don't take it personally.

If you don't understand what she wants, ask for a model or some examples of documents that are done the way she wants them, and then follow them as closely as you can. But don't get upset when she has to tweak something, some people think they are not making a contribution unless they change something.

On a practical note, is there any way you could shift your focus so that you end up reporting to Nice Boss for a higher percentage of your time? One day, Other Boss might decide she needs her own resource, and you could be off the hook.
posted by rpfields at 3:53 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

As someone who manages staff, I find your characterization of your boss with strong opinions as "overbearing" and your boss who lets you do whatever you want as "the nice one" concerning. Your boss/manager/supervisor is there to supervise/guide you, not tell you everything you do is great as it is. And I've never been more frustrated with a bright new staff member than when they think - as a newcomer either to the field or just to our office - that they know better than I do (regardless of what their professor or some book they read says). And you're not in your own country - even if you have done this kind of work before for similar organizations, you may not understand how things are done there just yet. Please consider that the "nice one" may be playing "good cop" with you because you're argumentative and the office needs you but does not appreciate your attitude. Is it possible that what you interpreted as sharing that others dislike the "overbearing one" was actually the "nice one" trying to placate you, vaguely validating your complaints ("Yes, Beth can be very precise. Some people don't appreciate that.") rather than saying "Oh yeah, Beth is a jerk, no one likes her"? If you can't do things the way your toughest supervisor (and yes, I admit that having two makes things trickier, but a good rule of thumb is to aim to please the tougher of the two) likes them or accept her changing your work so it fits her needs/expectations, then please consider that this position is not for you. Only when you are the top mucky-muck do you get to have things your way. And even then, you're usually answering to someone else (a constituency, a board, the public, etc). And getting to be top mucky-muck means a lot of wading through jobs running around changing things to please whoever the top mucky-muck is before you get there. Good luck, OP. Sorry if this was tough love - I am typing with my sympathetic face on, even though I know the words may read as harsh.
posted by pammeke at 4:15 PM on November 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

The comments above are right. She's the boss. And you're in tears. Do your best to please picky boss, and especially try to get her to tell you what she wants and how she wants it.

You're confused about my position and responsibilities and that's a problem. Your bosses may not be in agreement about your role. Take on tasks and projects that you feel you can do, if Perfectionist takes over, let it go. Try to get your bosses to give you some clarity.

in order for me to stay I need to feel valued. There's valued, and there's doing things your own way. Look at what you accomplish, make sure you document it for review time, and take pride. Don't get your sense of being valued only come from your managers. Try to detach a whole lot from your need to be validated. It tends to bring misery, and your bosses are busy.
posted by theora55 at 5:21 PM on November 11, 2013

Is there a house style guide? If not I strongly suggest putting one together, and referring to it publicly. So when this boss says "I don't like slashes" add that to the style guide and ask her her preference for space-saving. When you have a preference for something, get her take on whether to add it to the style guide. For internal procedures, create a template (heads centered, arial bold 12pt, revision date in footer at bottom right, etc.).

As for shooting down your suggestions, experiment with different ways of suggesting them. I had a boss whose first answer was always no, and after a while I learned to suggest something else first & then allow my second, preferred idea to come up as a result of our talk about the first idea. Sounds ridiculous but it really wasn't, it actually ended up being a good working relationship. Figure out what makes this person tick a little bit.
posted by headnsouth at 5:44 PM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

This type of boss more than likely has no idea what she's doing, knows this, is terrified that others will know this, and therefore leads via strong and forceful opinions about things that mean very little.

You can't get into a battle wills, it's not personal (she does this to everyone, right), and you will never convince her of anything because this isn't about what's right, it's about her insecurities.

So, you have two options, really. Keep looking for clarity and she will drive you batshit crazy insane because you'll have no idea what she wants from you (more than likely, she has no idea either) and then you'll leave incredibly resentful of the whole thing. Or get to a point of "meh, whatever", which is pretty much how others manage to survive these types of people.
posted by heyjude at 5:53 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Nice Boss already knows that Picky Boss is hard to work with. It appears they do not care that Picky Boss is picky and difficult. By complaining about her to someone who already knows that she is difficult, you end up looking like a complainer. Don't do it. Suck it up and work.

If you are having fantasies that they will support you and put her in her place - get over that, they will not. You will really hate your job if she finds out you complained.

As for feeling valued - they are paying you.

I know this sounds even tougher than the poster before me. I am sorry. Work sometimes really, really feels like work instead of doing something important and meaningful.
posted by cairnoflore at 6:07 PM on November 11, 2013

It sounds like this is more of a communication problem than anything else. I'm willing to bet that this boss is quite brusque and rude- stating that matters of opinion or preference are "right" or "wrong" does come off as agressive or mean if you are used to people speaking nicely to you, or are a sensitive person.

Try this: remember that when your boss says "no, don't use blue, blue is stupid", what she really means is "I really value the hard work you've put into this, and blue does go quite well with green- I know I'm being picky, but I'd still really prefer red this time. Thanks for being so accomadating, I know this can be a frustrating process". Imagine that her rude requests are just shorthand for a polite and considerate request, and that she likes you enough to assume you understand that she's not trying to be mean, she's just in a hurry.
posted by windykites at 6:42 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing- don't make suggestions. That way lies madness.
posted by windykites at 6:48 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, I'll stick up for you as I have just come out of a situation like this. My "picky" boss was an anxious micro-manager with a serious tone problem. It's very belittling to be treated like you don't know how to format a document. Or to be told to make the world's tiniest change, then another tiny change, then another, etc.. My boss would also lecture at length about things that I already knew and suggest that I wasn't on his side when I would suggest an alternate way to do something or express a different opinion than his. He would do these extended lectures in the middle of a very small office, making me feel like he was totally undermining my credibility (What is wrong with her that she doesn't know how to make his simple changes?) and his tone felt humiliating. As someone who prides herself on being very self-sufficient, eager to please and willing to go the extra mile, it was horrible. It took a lot of effort and fortitude and speaking up for the things that I thought could be done better in a collaborative way and honestly trying to see how he wanted things done and not just throw up my hands that made it somewhat bearable. Also, to his credit, he started to meet me halfway on some things and we reached a sort of d├ętente. Anticipating picky formatting interactions, I would print out the thing and ask him to mark it up and I'd make changes from that. That seemed to help him get through all his major revisions instead of this endless, horrible, interaction where we were working together waaaay too closely for way too long.

I also just started slowing waaaaay down with him. I just allowed that working with him was going to take a long time and he was the boss and if he wanted to spend half a day telling me to add words to a document and then remove them, that he could. I could try to head him off but I also started treating him a bit like a toddler. I reflected his concerns back to him and made sure that he heard me say that I had heard him. "I hear that this is making you very anxious. I understand the reason why. Let me see what I can do to make this better." There's this thing with little kids (I have one) where the faster you try to get them to move, the slower they go, the more stubborn they get. So, you consciously do the things that you can do and you slow down and try to work at their pace.

So, try that. Also, deep breathing when you need to step away. Eye contact. Anytime I felt that he was getting under my skin I made sure to put on my neutral, patient face and look him right in the eye. I'd take notes while he talked if it seemed called for. And count your dollars. At the end of the day, you walk away with money in your pocket. Oh, and keep a supply of really excellent chocolate in your bottom drawer. Reward yourself at the end of the day. And, reward good behavior from your boss, pull out a fancy bar of chocolate that you know they might like and offer them some while you're working. I'm not above killing with kindness and it really can change the dynamic.

Next time I'll tell you how things went to hell with the "good" boss. Sometimes you just have to accept that it's not a good fit and move on.
posted by amanda at 7:06 PM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you are, as you say, ready to leave if nothing changes, then you should definitely communicate your level of frustration to both your bosses. Just be ready to leave.

You're not doing yourself, or the rest of the staff who have to put up with your overbearing boss, any favors by submitting to her bullying. However, by asserting your value, and by taking your value away if they don't change their behavior you are potentially helping the rest of the staff and the organization to improve by removing this drag on the organization's effectiveness. Worst case scenario is you walk away from a situation which is bringing you to the verge of tears, best case scenario is that things change for the better.

The people upthread who are telling you to just accept it, especially those who are reading your question from the point of view of a manager aren't in your shoes. You may not be able to 'fire your boss', you might not be 'indispensable', but that doesn't mean you have to roll over for this sort of demeaning subjugation.

You have value, and you have power. Speak up, use your power, and take away your value if they don't respect it. If you don't stand up for yourself, nobody will.
posted by Reverend John at 7:36 PM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your example sounds like a matter of not right or wrong, but mere preferences. Since she is the boss, she gets to decide. And I absolutely empathize -- I do a lot of writing and I have had overbearing bosses who want it to be in their preferred style, so they change everything to an aesthetic that is not mine. But this is really one of those things you just have to let roll off your back. She is not wrong, she just has a preference. She wants it done differently and you should just do it her way if it's going to be your organization's "house style" or whatever.

I have definitely had bosses who I felt made changes for the sake of it, or wanted to remove my voice/style entirely and replace it with theirs. They also would want to do things themselves sometimes. And it's certainly annoying, but I had to look and think, "Does this person have more experience than me? Is she smarter than me? Is there something I can learn from her? Will getting on her good side mean more than me getting to keep the format I want for this document?" It's very difficult for me to bite my tongue -- believe me -- but unless she is making your work incorrect or bad, it's not worth the tension. You need to pick your battles and you need to pick them knowing the odds are stacked in her favor as the boss.

For what it's worth, Oxford commas are considered wrong in AP style. Other people love them, like academics. It doesn't mean you still didn't produce something that was high-quality, thorough and met the staff's needs. It only meant that she wanted it formatted differently. As a writer, I get very precious about my writing. But I do think you are taking this more personally than you need to. She is editing slashes and commas -- it's seriously not a big deal. The day I accepted that my boss wanted my documents in Times News Roman (which I abhor) was a day my life got a whole lot easier. I got over it, accepted it and didn't have to deal with her not liking the way my stuff looked. And do I agree with AP style? Not really, not when for years they wanted "website" written as "Web site." But I had to write it the way I was told. I really suggest you get over it and do the same. Chances are, she does recognize the quality of the substance and content.

As for your ideas, pitch them to someone else and get a group behind it. Maybe then it can be presented as "X came up with this idea and we think it could really have an impact" or whatever. In organizations I've worked in where ideas are ignored, I'd team up and suggest an idea and then have someone separately say they spoke to me about my idea and they loved it. But again, pick your battles. Some ideas are good ideas, but some won't be or will be unnecessary and maybe that's why your boss is shooting them down. Does she ever give you a reason why she shoots them down? You might want to get into discussions about problems and offer solutions rather than just pitching ideas. Just a thought.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:16 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rather than searching "perfectionist boss" I suggest you look up ways to deal with micromanagers. I googled it and saw lots of tips that seem relevant for your situation. Primarily, it sounds like it's really important to be non-combative and make your boss feel you're on her side. I think you can express your concerns and confusions directly, but frame it in a way that makes it about how you want to help her.
"Oh, why don't I write up an in-house style guide based on this so we employees don't have to waste your time with these low-level edits anymore?"
"Would you like me to take care of [x task that you thought was yours in the first place]? I know you are really busy with [stuff that's actually her job]."
Micromanagers are unfortunately not that rare from what I've heard, so maybe if you view this as an opportunity to learn how to handle them that will make the whole situation a little less discouraging. It sounds like an interesting challenge to try to sort of manipulate her into behaving like a good boss despite herself.
posted by Gravel at 10:29 PM on November 12, 2013

From the OP:
As a good friend would, you have challenged my statements and assumptions.

Seeing the situation through your eyes has helped me to evaluate how I am reading the boss and reacting to her. Additionally, I have realized the degree of my oversensitivity. The example I gave was indeed minor, and I regret not taking more care in describing my situation. I feel strongly that the criticism is a problem, but I have a broader perspective after this input! The suggestions and support have helped me. Thank you AskMeFi!
posted by jessamyn at 9:06 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

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