my boss is kind of mean
June 6, 2015 10:08 AM   Subscribe

My boss has been very short with me lately, and now it's bordering upon hostile. I can't think of anything that should have provoked this. How do I handle it?

Over the past month my boss, N, has been acting very short with me. Her tone in emails is very abrupt, which in general I try not to let bother me because words come across differently when written as opposed to spoken. But she's been acting very terse and weird with me verbally as well, and I don't understand why. There are no performance issues that she has made me aware of; in fact she was out of the office for a few days this week and told me beforehand that she was not worried about me being able to handle things in her absence, which implies to me that she thinks my work is good.

We work in a job function that requires interfacing between clients, vendors, and our operations team, and when things go wrong, as they do from time time (due to a vendor not delivering or a troublesome client) she flies off the handle in an anxiety tailspin and becomes very harsh and yell-y. One of our vendors really let us down recently and that's about the time I noticed her becoming snippy towards me. I don't know if she's mad because she thought I could have done something to prevent it (I couldn't, it was an internal problem with the vendor due to short staffing and was completely out of our control), or if she's just mad that it happened and taking it out on me. At any rate, now it feels like no matter what I say she'll find something to pick at. She nitpicks my word choices over email, she generally talks to me like I am a slow child, she starts arguments over small issues seemingly just so she can tell me I am wrong, and is just...unfriendly.

Again, if she has concerns regarding my performance she hasn't said anything clear about that. I also get a lot of great feedback from my peers and from members of our management and ops team who I directly support. I was just at a management offsite meeting many of our team who work in different offices around the country and got unanimous feedback from everyone I met that I am very helpful and they appreciate my work and my efforts. And yet, N continues to be super curt with me, at times bordering on hostile, and if I get complimented for my work by others in her presence, she turns away and doesn't say anything.

Yesterday while I was at this offsite she was covering a few of my responsibilities and couldn't find contact information for one of our vendors. She sent me an email full of invective saying that when she doesn't have this information it impedes her ability to react and causes problems for ops. I sent back an email really quickly with the missing contact information and she responded with more invective about how this could cause a chain effect that would impact sales. I was explaining that our vendor contact would be happy to help quickly so as not to cause undue inconvenience for ops, and also told her where my master list of vendor contacts was saved on the shared company drive and then I got scolded by the person running the offsite session I was in at the time because I was on my phone emailing, which made me feel awful and ashamed. But in that situation, what am I supposed to do when my boss is sending me several anxiety tailspin emails and accusing me of losing sales? Defend myself and help her solve the problem? Or ignore her email and concentrate on the meeting? I think she'd flip out more if I just ignored her emails. It's ironic because earlier in the week while she was out a legitimate emergency occurred with one of her vendors and I didn't have contact information for that vendor either. But I did some googling and asked around in the office and found the information and took care of the issue, WITHOUT sending her a pissy email about it. Because that's not something I would do.

I don't know what to do now. I really just feel like she doesn't like me and I don't know why this happened when we got along swimmingly before. Should I talk to her about this? If so, how? I don't feel particularly safe doing that, buf if I should I will OR, should I go to HR - not to whine about her "being mean", but for some guidance as to how to have this conversation with her? I am on very good tems with out head of HR. But would that make it worse? Other people in the company have confided in me that they don't like my boss' tone when she speaks to them either, so I know I'm not crazy for noticing this stuff.

I'm at a loss. Any advice you may have on how to deal with this would be much appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like she has unresolved issues going on in her personal life and she's bringing them to work. Just keep doing your work the best you can, and wait for whatever it is to either blow up or blow over.

And while you're waiting, don't delete any emails.
posted by flabdablet at 10:19 AM on June 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have a boss like this, and it sucks. It sounds like we both work in very high pressure environments, so when my boss is under the gun - from a client, from our VP that oversees our department - he gets super short, super invective with nitpicky emails and negative feedback, and blatantly takes his anger out on his team. So I'm just aggressively looking for a new job.

I'm beginning to learn that having a good manager is almost everything, and even the best gig in the world can be ruined by a shitty manager who behaves sporadically. Life is too short to deal with that shit.
posted by windbox at 10:22 AM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

then I got scolded by the person running the offsite session I was in at the time because I was on my phone emailing, which made me feel awful and ashamed.

Next time, it's ok to explain that your boss needed urgent information and you were taking care of that.

But in that situation, what am I supposed to do when my boss is sending me several anxiety tailspin emails and accusing me of losing sales? Defend myself and help her solve the problem? Or ignore her email and concentrate on the meeting?

I would respond once with the information, but let her know you would only be able to get back to her again after the meeting was over, so that you could return and be fully present for the meeting without checking your email constantly. It's good that you got her the info promptly--that was worth leaving the meeting for--but it's not worth interrupting your participation in the meeting to have an email conversation where you're just defending yourself against your boss' anxious accusations and angry messages.

I suspect what flabdablet does--that your boss has issues elsewhere and is taking it out on you. I doubt it's personal, but I'd keep all emails and document her behaviour for now.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:30 AM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Talk to her. Ask if she's got a few minutes to talk, go into her office (or somewhere private) with a notebook/legal pad and pen, close the door behind you, and say, "I feel like you think my performance is slipping, and I'd like to understand what I could be doing better." Be prepared to give a few examples (especially ones where you were clearly in the right and she was just being mean, but don't say that).

And then listen. Don't be defensive -- if she says something that is factually untrue (e.g. "You left early yesterday" when you were in the office after she was), then correct her once, mildly, and leave it alone even if she doesn't. Just say "Okay" a lot and take notes. Make sure the notes are all about how you can do better, and not at all about how she is being a wackadoo.

When it's over, recap some of her suggestions and ask to meet again in a week to see how you're doing. In a week, one of three things will happen:
1 -- She'll realize that you're making a genuine attempt to get better.
2 -- She'll fly off the handle about some other damn thing, which she would have done anyway, and you'll be ready for it.
3 -- She'll have realized that she was being needlessly cruel and either apologize or act like now you're doing a good job.
I would bet on #3 -- I agree with the other people that she's just letting personal stuff tick her off at work, and this is a good way to call her on it without saying, "Whoa, did you get dumped or what?"
posted by Etrigan at 10:42 AM on June 6, 2015 [10 favorites]

I will suggest you watch The Devil Wears Prada and take your cues from that: Be excellent at your job. Do the unreasonable things your boss asks. Be very professional. Be polite. Be respectful.

If you handle it that way, odds are good that you will eventually mollify her/win her over. Alternately, based on your remark that others also don't like her tone, being ultra professional in the face of this is your best shot at coming out smelling like roses should she wind up reprimanded or fired.

This most likely isn't really about you. So don't let her make it about you. There may be things going on in her personal life that you don't know about. Or, yes, stuff is not going well at work and she is looking for someone to blame/take it out on. Yes, it is possible you will get screwed. Sometimes that happens. It is also possible that other people are well aware of her bad behavior and will judge her negatively for it, not you.
posted by Michele in California at 11:00 AM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Other people in the company have confided in me that they don't like my boss' tone when she speaks to them either, so I know I'm not crazy for noticing this stuff.

To me, that's the most important part; it indicates that she's this way with everyone, not just you. Which means there's no reason you need to assume it's personal or about your own performance. It may help lower your own anxiety to remind yourself, when she's being this way, that it's got nothing to do with you.
posted by jaguar at 11:26 AM on June 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I would NOT recommend going in to her office to say you feel like she is acting like your performance is slipping lately. That puts the blame on you and could cause you issues down the road. I don't have much more advice to offer but I would figure out a way to talk to her that doesn't place the blame solely on you. "I've been feeling like things are going more poorly lately in general" or something like that might work.
posted by sockermom at 11:35 AM on June 6, 2015 [10 favorites]

Tiny point -- in the offsite meeting, if you need to respond to a message, excuse yourself quietly and leave the room to deal with it. That way, the moderator is alerted that this is business and not personal fucking around that might indicate disinterest or lack of respect, and you won't be distracted while you respond. Generally, if you can, respond with a call because that's faster and less prone to misunderstanding.
posted by janey47 at 11:37 AM on June 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

You have proof that this is how she is because other people have told you they have the same experience. If you can't get your free-floating shame locked down (I can be really timid in confrontations, but getting called out in the meeting would have popped my claws straight out - I'm sorry, MY boss needs something, it's my job).

If you can't hang with that kind of personality, you have to find a new job before it starts affecting your quality of life. If you can learn to eyeroll privately to yourself, and maybe adopt a protective attitude toward her (it's surprising how much that changes your perspective and gives you internal permission not to take her massive quirks personally when you appoint yourself Defender of the Realm) and find a way to be comfortable, do that.

But you can't change her. You pretty much have to take her or leave her as she is.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:51 AM on June 6, 2015

I would NOT recommend going in to her office to say you feel like she is acting like your performance is slipping lately. That puts the blame on you and could cause you issues down the road.

Yeah, christ, don't invite her to come up with some issues that are not there with your performance. No no no. As others have said, it's not about you - and do save your emails and document incidents.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 12:33 PM on June 6, 2015 [9 favorites]

I would talk to her, but I too, wouldn't not bring up the issue of my performance. I would say something like this...

Boss, we seem to be having some communication issues. I have received a few emails from you with very strongly worded language and you've been very brusque with me in person. We work in a high paced, high pressure environment and I want to make sure we can all keep our cool when the heat is on.

What do you think? What's your perspective?

Then hopefully, if she's actually a good boss just going through a stressful period, she'll own up to her own poor communication and tell you that she's just under a ton of pressure from above and stressing out. Then you can come up with some solutions like - quick huddles at the top of the day to make sure that everyone is on the same page about priorities and has what they need, regular 1-on-1 check-ins to get ahead of any issues, agreed upon times to check-in via email, etc...

Under no circumstances should you bring up your performance. You're doing your job and meeting expectations and if you're not, then it's your boss's responsibility to bring that to your attention and explain clearly what you need to do to meet expectations. She's not doing that, so don't put words in her mouth or give her an excuse to blame her bad behavior on you.

If this conversation is unproductive, then you can approach HR.
posted by brookeb at 12:38 PM on June 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

And yet, N continues to be super curt with me, at times bordering on hostile, and if I get complimented for my work by others in her presence, she turns away and doesn't say anything.

This makes me wonder if you're outshining your boss or if she feels threatened by you. You had a major vendor issue, she may be getting blame for that, people may be questioning her work, and then people are praising you. It is probably a matter of her position becoming less certain/stable/appreciated and you getting increasing recognition for good work and helpfulness at around the same time.

I had a situation sort of like this (although my boss was much more subtle and undermining than directly confrontational) so it is possible I'm projecting my experience on to yours. It is possible this is just related to something personal, but is worth thinking about whether she might be threatened by or envious of you.

As to what you do about it, my strategy was to continue to build relationships outside of my boss and move to a different group. Took some time, but was worth it.
posted by jeoc at 12:52 PM on June 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm in the sad position of having to disagree with Michele from California, since I've found that in real life, few bosses like this are "won over" with impeccable work and a good attitude. That's just a fictional arc. In real life, when you're an excellent worker and team player, an unreasonable boss who dislikes you for issues unrelated to performance will just expect more and more and more from you until you are eventually presented with an impossible situation and of course fail. I've had a boss like this, and have seen objectively excellent colleagues deal with it as well. The best thing to do is look for a new job. You can't win someone over, and they resent it if you try.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 1:03 PM on June 6, 2015 [18 favorites]

Since you say you have a good relationship with HR, do you think you could ask to be reassigned to a different supervisor? If you can't transfer within your company, you're probably better off looking for a new job. It sounds like your skills are widely applicable across many industries, so you should start, like, yesterday.

I don't think these issues are going to be resolved with a conversation about your performance or about communication styles, unfortunately. I also don't think boundary-setting will solve this. Based on my experiences attempting to set boundaries with highly anxious people who take their anxiety out on others, she will probably take it as an attack and double down.
posted by capricorn at 1:03 PM on June 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I should also mention that in my situation, I did have a meeting with my boss where I couched her terrible behavior in language about how I noticed she seemed annoyed with me, and was there anything I could do better, and how could I help her do her job, etc. She started sobbing (after moving to the actual floor so she could sob on the ground for whatever dramatic reason) about what a terrible person she is and how much I must hate her, and just made it a whole thing where I had to comfort her for being such a horrible bitch to our entire team, and though she wound up treating me with a bit more respect afterward, it was in this exaggerated and disingenuous way that made the whole thing so not worth it. I stuck with the job until I was laid off, but now that I have a mostly sane boss (no boss is completely sane), I don't know why I dealt with the old one's nastiness for so long in the hopes I could win her over.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that a meeting won't work either. She will definitely make it about her and her anxiety, the way she did in all her emails to you when you were offsite.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 1:28 PM on June 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, why *didn't* she have the vendor contact information when she was covering for you while you were offsite? If she was covering for you, she was probably doing that while also doing her job, which is pretty stressful and a lot of work.

I don't want to excuse her behavior, but it might help you to be a little more buttoned up, overshare and overprepare for your interactions with her, as this might alleviate her stress a bit, and it's also good practice in managing up. Sometimes you sort of have to train people in how to manage you and what to expect.

Also, it doesn't really matter how much other people like your work. It matters if your boss likes you and your work. Given that the other people have good feedback, it's good indication that you're doing your job well, but I wouldn't try to use that in your back up points in any conversation you have with your boss on this.
posted by sweetkid at 3:18 PM on June 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a boss like this.

Be excellent at your job, save all your emails, and don't hesitate to go to HR now instead of later. If she's blaming you for things that aren't your fault, you need to protect yourself.

In my old boss's case, there was this weird jealousy / possessiveness things going on, plus a lot of personal issues spilling into the work place. Going to HR helped me not feel like I was crazy and there was already a ground work of recieving this boss's abuse by the time things got really bad.
posted by mibo at 6:47 PM on June 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I will add: Don't engage her emotional crap. So the first email where she asked you for info she needed, sure, answer that. The second email where she has a snit about losing sales, you could have possibly ignored entirely or replied later and as briefly as possible to communicate "My reply is delayed because I was attending (thing). I don't think we will lose sales. The vendor seems (really brief explanation in one sentence)."

Pretend she is a toddler having a tantrum. It is really poor policy to try to bribe a tantruming toddler with toys or whatever if they will calm down. That just gets more tantrums. Similarly, with adults who are tantruming, you need to do your best to NOT reward their emotional bullshit. It only magnifies the problem. It is not your job to cater to her weird emotional crap. It is part of every job to be reasonable about the fact that we are all human, we all sometimes get in a snit or have a bad day or whatever and it can be productive to have some tolerance for that. But with this kind of neurotic and entrenched stuff -- do your best to engage the emotional nonsense as minimally as possible. Making it your job to calm her down will just make you her bitch. It's a really bad idea.
posted by Michele in California at 1:06 PM on June 7, 2015

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