How to handle my boss's stress levels
December 10, 2019 6:32 AM   Subscribe

My demanding but usually(?) OK boss tends to accuse people of incompetence when she's feeling stressed. Specifically, she says things which are either highly personal and completely subjective or objectively untrue (e.g., accusing us of not doing things we have already done). Attempts to ask for details, or remind her that we are indeed doing X thing, are met with accusations of defensiveness and inability to take direction. Is there a way to handle this that makes me look both appropriately deferential and yet not a push-over? And preferably heads off the shouting?

My current boss is a massive improvement over the people I have previously worked for, in that she is not generally outright racist/sexist/gross, respects our personal lives and PTO, and is an expert in her field. All this to say, I've spent most of my life working under people way worse than her, and am not prepared to quit in the (very) near future.

She does however have a way of expressing stress and dissatisfaction that I find extremely hard to deal with. Particularly in moments of high tension (deadlines, interdepartmental conflicts, end-of-year closing), she corners one for a seemingly anodine discussion, then follows up with the real purpose of the interaction, which is an angry accusation that X projet is going off the rails (despite evidence and project reports to the contrary) or that the employee in question is underperforming, disengaged, hostile, not up to whatever task has been assigned. The general format is:

BOSS: "OK so please send the report by tomorrow. By the way, how is the [chocolate teapot] project going?"
ME: "Well I received quotes yesterday from three teapot designers, I think we should go with--"
BOSS: "That's not what I'm asking. I can see on your face that you don't even know what I'm talking about. This is bad. You need to pull your act together because people are starting to wonder if you're even really getting anywhere on this."
ME: "Oh. Well. I mean we're on track to deliver by the deadline and I just had a meeting with Cynthia to decide--"
BOSS: "You need to stop being so defensive and listen to me. You don't get it. I am VERY concerned. There are a lot of problems here. You always do this. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
ME: "Well to be you give an examp--?"
BOSS: "You're completely in the background! I answered Bill's question about handles when YOU should have been there with the info! I can't do your job for you! Do you have any idea how unpleasant it is to have to do this?! You need to SHAPE UP."

The opposite also happens: Boss will indeed try to jump in during a conversation to answer a question before I can respond. However, when I beat her to the punch, she also does not like it--this will be followed up, as it was today, with her shouting (and I do mean shouting) down the phone at me about how I "don't know how to have a a conversation, you're always cutting people off and getting nasty, do you have any idea how unpleasant that is!" (For the record, the rest of the time her only real performance complaint about me is that I'm too retiring and don't assert myself enough.)

And so on and so on until you're dismissed to go stew back at your desk, none the wiser as to what actual, concrete shit has gone so terribly wrong. If you bring it up later when she's cooled down ("sooo about Tuesday, how can we avoid that?"), she brushes it off.

I could maybe, maybe tolerate this in one-on-one meetings, but lately she is DOING IT IN FRONT OF MY COWORKERS, which is a whole other ball game. I'm not the only one it happens to, but whoever gets this treatment in the weekly staff meeting is shunned for 48 hours as the object of the boss's disfavor. Note that is is not occasioned by any concrete fuck-up one could point to (a missed deadline, an unhappy exec, a rejected proposal)--it's always about some nebulous source of general dissatisfaction. She walked out in the middle of my co-worker's un-thrilling but perfectly standard presentation the other week, saying as she shut the door, "this is incomprehensible crap and you need to work on it." We sat there stunned, and an intern told me later the incident stressed him out so much he didn't sleep that night, because HE had a presentation the following week. (Luckily for him it was cancelled.)

Sometimes the basic elements of these critiques are legitimate, but they are consistently couched in such hostile, dismissive language that more than one person (again, myself included) has left these interviews convinced they're going to be fired. Or ready to quit, which at least one person has. I'm at my wits' end here. Meekly sitting there and taking it doesn't work--you're a milquetoast and are you even LISTENING to her? Saying you aren't sure what she's talking about is worse--can't you listen to criticism and stop being so arrogant? Offering ways to do it differently in the future is also a no-go--she's "not interested in excuses". Currently I just sort of sit there and go "alright", "okay", "I see", and immediately change the subject once she seems to have exhausted herself, but it's a suboptimal solution because I'm still letting myself sit there and be berated for things I either haven't done or which genuinely, really aren't that big a deal. I also have no clue how to effectively respond to this in front of the rest of the team without seeming either like a fool or wildly insubordinate.

For the record, we are both cis women, my performance reviews are consistently good, other co-workers give positive feedback on work I deliver, I received a bonus for 2018 and expect (touch wood) to do so again. So if I truly am wildly incompetent she's got a funny way of showing it. I left my last position due to severe verbal and psychological abuse and, while that issue was also department-wide, I'm beginning to think I must be the problem here. Should I just start playing the Lotto? Thanks in advance.
posted by TinyChicken to Work & Money (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I worked for someone like this and I know you don't want 'quit' as the solution but that's the best one I've got. Some other things:

I worked in an organization where my direct boss didn't do this, but a lot of other people did all the time.

The weirdest thing that helped me in that situation was martial arts training. I know it's weird, but it changed a few was I'm no longer as afraid of getting hit, I know how to block and I know how to hit back, and although that has ZERO to do with work (except one time :P), something inside me shifted to hear all the yelling as...just yelling. Like basically, it helped me disengage to a level that the words started to sound like the "waahh wahh wahhhhh" for the adults in the Peanuts cartoons as I observed the muscles in the Big Boss's shoulders and chest and how his guard was completely down. It gave me a space where I could let the rage -- and it is RAGE -- flow over me because it was not as meaningful to me as sparring. That doesn't mean I think it is right or should be tolerated. But for me, it helped me stop a flight or fight response.

And oddly, and again, this is not to blame anyone that is the target of this, as my stance -- literal, physical stance as well as emotional -- changed, the people who were all fine RAGING stopped raging at me or even around me. I think there was some kind of primate signal that changed and because I was, literally, physically, able to take a stand where I was physically ready if that person charged at me...some backbrain part of those people's brains took it in. This is horrible that anyone should have to think this way at work but...this is my true one cool trick.

Then, I quit.

There are some less extreme things you can do. You can start treating your boss like the 4 year old she is in those moments and start reflecting the feelings "Wow, you are really upset! You must be worried about the audience missing the key points in this presentation." Chances are good she then yells I'M NOT UPSET or THAT'S NOT THE POINT or IF I HAD DECENT PEOPLE TO WORK WITH...etc. But at least you've named what's actually going on. Which is that her emotions are out of control.

Internally you can try to remember that although this is shit (and it IS SHIT), her brain is a terrible place where she only sees untrue evil around her while her siren is wailing. And it is. She is in fight-or-flight stress and she is Fighting, and you're right, it's so irrational you cannot fix this for her, you can just watch her throwing her blocks and kicking at the bedpost. It's not ok, she's not okay. But this is who she is, and it's terrible for her and all of you.

Finally you should document everything, every. thing., including that presentation, and store it outside of work. This is a hostile work environment and in some areas, that's not okay.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:51 AM on December 10, 2019 [46 favorites]

There is no way you can "win" with this kind of person. I have found it best to carry around a pen & notebook and write down their big important ideas while "replaying" a few phrases I hear them saying. This is just to stroke their egos (and possibly reassure them visually), and it often works to have them feel important--which is the real dynamic happening; work is just the playing field. It has the added benefit of being a reference if the shit ever hits the fan in terms of abuse, harassment, etc.

So for example, [rant starts] and you look thoughtful, write a few words, nod your head and say, "I see...defensiveness...answering questions when the info is needed. Got it."

As difficult as it is to be treated like this in front of others, it sounds like her lashing out is fairly democratic and that your co-workers get it. For what it's worth, I would put out some feelers with co-workers about calibrating your communal experience of her. It's really shitty, but very easy, to all put your heads down and create a situation where everyone is essentially (unintentionally) gaslighting each other about her behavior. (I.e., "TinyChicken seems to think it's normal so I guess I, InternDude, am just wildly sensitive.")

Finally, if there's an HR rep, you might ask some casual questions about how to best "manage up" with this particular boss, and see if there's any opening there.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:55 AM on December 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

So, I take it that you are one missed paycheck away from total destitution? That you have no other viable job opportunities and that if you lose this job you will never have one again? Because that's the only situation I can see where you would even consider staying employed where you are.

You know that this is not normal, right? You mention your history of being subjected to abuse on the job in the past, so perhaps you don't. Let me say this again, this is NOT normal or acceptable. This is totally unprofessional and absurd behavior on your boss's part. She is an abuser and a narcissist, and you should be seeking employment elsewhere intensely, today, with every spare moment.
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 6:56 AM on December 10, 2019 [33 favorites]

If you go back through my comment history this year you will see a lot of mentions about a job that was a mistake and that I dislike, culminating in my finally finding another job and getting out this month.

One of the reasons why is because I was receiving PRECISELY this kind of treatment at the hand of my boss.

I promise you deserve better, and "not generally outright racist/sexist/gross" is a pretty low bar for a potential boss to clear. Start looking for something else, I promise you will find it and your life will be SO much better when you do.

(Writing this from my desk on my second-to-last day at the old job hosannah)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on December 10, 2019 [18 favorites]

I left my last position due to severe verbal and psychological abuse

This may be a different manifestation of abuse, but it's still abuse.

I'm beginning to think I must be the problem here

Nope. It's not you.

but whoever gets this treatment in the weekly staff meeting is shunned for 48 hours as the object of the boss's disfavor.

This is really disturbing - it shows that the entire work team has been captured by her irrationality and is actively supporting it. IME in similar situations the usual response from co-workers when a boss goes off on someone for totally unrealistic reasons is to do a LOT of complaining about the boss behind their back; everyone likes griping about their asshole boss. When everyone is cowed to the point that they pretend that the boss is totally right, that's a massively toxic environment.

Is there a way to handle this that makes me look both appropriately deferential and yet not a push-over? And preferably heads off the shouting?

Not really, no - warriorqueen is spot on when she says, "her brain is a terrible place where she only sees untrue evil around her while her siren is wailing. And it is. She is in fight-or-flight stress and she is Fighting, and you're right, it's so irrational you cannot fix this for her, you can just watch her throwing her blocks and kicking at the bedpost. It's not ok, she's not okay. But this is who she is, and it's terrible for her and all of you."

Currently I just sort of sit there and go "alright", "okay", "I see", and immediately change the subject once she seems to have exhausted herself,

This is really the only workable short-term strategy - you let her storm blow itself out and then go on about the rest of your day.

I'm still letting myself sit there and be berated for things I either haven't done or which genuinely, really aren't that big a deal.

So the medium-term strategy is to try to mentally "detach" from work to some extent - it's just a paycheck, you know she's being totally irrational and so whatever her criticisms of you are you know they don't accurately reflect your job performance or self worth.

The workable long-term strategy is, of course, find another job.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:25 AM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Woops, totally missed the "no quitting" part of the OP with my original answer. So, to actually answer your question, I will piggyback off of warriorqueen's answer. Perhaps, instead of focusing, as you have, on your verbal response, which (as warriorqueen pointed out) is not the part of the brain where this irrational person is operating from, you should begin to focus on your physical response. What is your body language like in this situation? From what you say your response is, it is very meek and subdued/submissive, which this predator is picking up on. Often, loudmouths like this have never actually been in a fight, or if they have, have always picked on those smaller than themselves/people they perceive cannot hurt them. Most people familiar with the reality of fighting and actual physical conflict would not yell at people like this (seems exaggeration, but think about it : in any other situation this behavior would lead likely to a physical altercation). This is coming from a place of deep insecurity within your boss, or a misplaced confidence. Until she yells at the wrong person and gets her arm broken for it, it will likely continue.

So, I would suggest mixed martial arts lessons.

No, seriously. Not so that you can be the person to break her arm, but so that you can know that you could, and that confidence, that knowledge that she poses no physical threat to you, I would bet, will be reflected in your demeanor, your body language, and your ability to handle her tirades emotionally. I would start with brazillian jiu jitsu. I have a posting history advocating for it, and honestly it's getting cringe, but I say it because it's true. It grounds you in a way I can't describe. It gets you familiar with safe physical conflict, and therefore gives you an appreciation for the magnitude of unsafe conflict, something your boss needs but doesn't have.

A verbal technique I have heard suggested for people like this is, as warriorqueen mentioned, echoing their emotions for them. Babies like this need to be babied, they don't recognize their own emotions or what is behind their tantrums, so doing what warriorueen suggests is actually a good technique.

Good luck. Stay strong, don't let this womanchild get to you. It's not about you, or your fault.
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 7:31 AM on December 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you already think maybe you'll get fired sooner or later, because this woman is a loose cannon, so good news! You have nothing to lose. I don't mean haul off and start yelling back at her, but there's nothing wrong with saying (in a calm, even voice) "I don't agree with what you're saying / I'm not going to have this conversation while you're yelling / it's not appropriate to speak to your employee this way." And then walk away. And if she follows you down the hall yelling, you keep calmly repeating "I'm happy to discuss my performance when you're not screaming at me. This is not appropriate."
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:29 AM on December 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

One tactic you can take personally is use some “love and logic” as though they are a tantrumming toddler. I did this with a (male) boss who would become similarly unhinged when stressed. “I hear you. You are stressed about this project. I hear that you are worried. I am here to help. What next step would you like me to take to assure you that this project is on track/will get back on track/is going to be successful? I want you to feel less stressed about this. You are frustrated, I hear that.”

With another boss, not so crazy but he would assume that things “weren’t getting done” because he didn’t have ongoing information because as the boss it’s not appropriate to still be running all the things once you’ve delegated. Our whole shop got behind Scrum in no small part because it defined his role (out of it) and made snapshots of progress simpler to convey. Scrum in terms of project management and role definition might be something to look into.

Another workplace, I self advocated and said I wouldn’t work under these conditions. In that case, we parted ways because the bosses didn’t know any other way to operate. Oh, and toddler boss, that also didn’t work out.
posted by amanda at 8:34 AM on December 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

She's completely inappropriate, and you shouldn't have to deal with this, at all. And I'm am completely unsure that my suggestion below will work, but even if it does work, you absolutely should not have to do it.

That said. As far as I can tell, she's coming into meetings terribly upset about Topic A, and then throwing a baseless hissyfit about Topic B. This only works if you have some idea of what the real problem, Topic A, is, but can you do quick reassurance on Topic B and then redirect to making Topic A the subject of the meeting? Boss says "The chocolate teapot project is all fucked up!" and you reply "Chocolate teapots are on track, but you're clearly super concerned about the lefthanded screwdriver deadline. What can I do to help out with that?" Just doing what you can to drag the genuine problem out into the open and making it look tractable.

The likely problem with this is that you don't necessarily know what she's really upset about, and you can't necessarily do much toward fixing the real problems. But to the extent you can, that might disrupt the pattern.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:41 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just to echo what soundguy99 said, what your boss is doing is verbal abuse. It might not be as bad as past verbal abuse you experienced but it’s not okay and it’s not your fault.

Something you might try is visualizing some kind of shield or forcefield around you, that can absorb or redirect the anger your boss is inappropriately throwing at you. That could be a waterfall or a Star Trek style shield or a mirror that reflects it away. Like the martial arts training, this might help you shift your internal stance so that there’s less of an impact on you.

I also like the “imagine she’s a four year old” idea. You might find other scenarios that you can imaginatively overlay that will help you remember that you’re not to blame, that she’s being seriously inappropriate, that you’re a capable adult, and that you’re choosing to remain in this context because of the other benedits. Like maybe she’s a rockstar who breaks her own instruments and you’re her long suffering but well compensated manager?

I would also encourage you to ask yourself: what are the benefits to staying? What are the costs? Is it worth it? Because you don’t deserve to be abused like this and I believe you can find something better.
posted by overglow at 8:44 AM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Other thoughts -- it sounds as if this has been going on for a while, meaning that you've got a track record of projects that she's been freaked out about in the middle that went fine. Can you calmly appeal to past history? She says "The Chocolate Teapot Mark VII project is completely off the rails!" and you respond with "Nope, we're fine, we're just where we were at the same stage with CT Mark IV, Mark V, and Mark VI, and we got all those done on schedule. "
posted by LizardBreath at 8:48 AM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: She’s brushing it off afterwards because she’s embarrassed—because she knows she was in the wrong. It’s normal to feel stressed and like a project is out of control when you’re in a stress period, and I’d say it’s even normal to have a reaction like hers once or twice in your career—but reasonable bosses realize that it’s wrong and it’s triggered by internal stress and learn to isolate themselves when they feel like this: have a little tantrum in private, hold any fire they feel like throwing at others, and wait for the storm cloud to pass. That she hasn’t learned this yet suggests she never will and that she’s not mature enough to deal appropriately with stress. As the employee, you’re not in the position to get her to realize it—she already knows, she just won’t change.
posted by sallybrown at 8:49 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I had a boss like this for the better part of the past year, where nothing I did was right, and I wasn't trusted to do the part of my job I'd been doing for the two years I had been there before they joined. It ended up with me getting fired, but the universal advice I got before then was to quit. I should have done that.
posted by SansPoint at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just reading this was triggering as hell and much worse than I was expecting. Simply reading these words made me anxious.

I wish you well and hope you find a way to transition to a job with a saner boss when you're ready to leave. None of this is remotely ok and I hope you're working with a great therapist to minimize the damage she's doing to you
posted by shaademaan at 9:01 AM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

I would say get HR involved. Deference seem like an inadequate defense.
posted by Zudz at 9:07 AM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had a boss who behaved similarly, although when my particular boss got upset those yelling sessions or finding seemingly random things to go off about ...those meetings could last for hours and more people would be pulled into them and we had to stay overtime to finish work we couldn't do because the meeting went on and on...shiver ... I concluded early on as did many of my coworkers that the only way out was to get another job because the bouts of my boss were unpredictable and it was not a pleasant place to work. I can see that you don't want that answer, but here are are a few things that made the work things better:

-Send a weekly bulleted list by email with what was done for each project for the week, along with a bulleted list for what will occur for the respective projects the following week (it seemed to slightly allay the anxiety of my boss, although it did not stop them). It also serves as documentation for yourself and others (i.e., you can share it with teammates so that you all know what is happening and can refer to another person's status report, etc.)

-Keep track of coworkers you are on good terms with now or ones who have recently left (aka LinkedIn). Since you know that you do not like what is occurring in your current workplace and you have had at least one coworker leave because of those conditions - keep contact with all these coworkers. It helped me because ... I did a lot of research about the next workplace by asking what people knew and if they knew people that worked at place X, etc., specifically so that I could avoid a boss that was similar to the first one. Many of my coworkers were very committed to helping each other, either by serving as references or providing detailed info about other workplaces -- I think it was because we bonded because of the hostile workplace (related to the next suggestion)

-Find support and laugh at the behavior (I know other mefites might disagree with part of this, but it made my work life more tolerable) - we would laugh and share each incident of "boss did X again" or "hahahah five of us were pulled into spontaneous yelling session for two hours). Imagine a bingo or whatever. If you do not trust your coworkers or feel this is inappropriate, share this with outside friends who are ok with you occasionally venting about this.

Good luck. Even if you do plan to stay there, it's not forever.

One more small thing - I don't think we can guess if there is a way to stop this (we don't know your boss), but you might be able to observe and find a solution. Does your boss do this to everyone? If there is someone your boss does not do this with - observe and watch their behavior and see if you can find what that person/people might be doing and then do the same.
posted by Wolfster at 9:21 AM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: shaademaan I'm so sorry I didn't think to add a CW. Can a mod perhaps put one on there?

Thank you everyone for your support and ideas. It's good to know (in a depressing way) that other people have had bosses like this.
posted by TinyChicken at 9:21 AM on December 10, 2019

With the caveat that 'all happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in their own way' ...

If you know when the moments of high tension are coming, you can try to alleviate that tension proactively by preparing well in advance. What worked for me was recognizing that thee stressors came with deadlines, and that if I started preparing drafts three weeks out and updating them, they wouldn't get SUPER STRESSED a few days before. They would only get kind of stressed.

What worked for other people was picking their battles and pushing back strongly. Some people think that the "yelling is just how we communicate" and don't always recognize that it's a difficult thing if there's a power discrepancy.

What didn't work for people was avoiding the boss because it would eventually catch up with them and then you were in for it way way worse.

I would also like to say that it is not normal to be treated like this, and that you do not deserve to be treated like this. Unfortunately, to some people it can feel familiar to be treated like this, and I feel like they can put up with it more. Others are just like "What, this is ridiculous, I quit." I think being treated like this in the long term is unhealthy and may normalize things that certainly aren't normal. I think in the end you have to realize that this is about them and not about you.

The other thing is having an outside hobby that you enjoy and lets you feel competent. If you spend your whole work time being told you're terrible, it's always good to have a reminder that you're not.

Good luck.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:52 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hi, fellow female employee here. Totally been there in terms of the behavior you described of your supervisor. I realize how tough it must be on you and your team and I am glad you are looking to change the status quo.

First things first: if your goal is to have better outcomes with your supervisor, you won't make much headway until you recognize that (1) you are experiencing abuse (2) your actions won't change your abuser into a non-abuser. Any strategies you adopt needs to take this into account. You're energy is precious and finite; you don't want your efforts to result in you spinning your wheels.

Because you are experiencing abuse, because what you described is abusive behavior, the true optimal outcome is to safely leave or otherwise find or create a safe distance between you and your abuser - just like you would if you were experiencing physical abuse.

For me, this looked like reducing my work hours to a minimally viable level and then shifting the focus of my work in a direction that would reduce the amount of interaction I had with the most toxic elements of management. The downside is that I was knowingly choosing to temporarily pursue a career dead-end, but not making those changes would have been infinitely worse. It was that, or leave, so I chose that route until I felt safe to leave.

Less drastically, these steps helped on a day-to-day basis:
- Whenever practical, I looked for buffers (people) that could serve as go-betweens when something needed to be communicated or decided with the toxic boss so that I wouldn't have to be there in person.
- When in-person conversations were necessary, I almost always took an ally with me into the conversation so that (1) there would be a witness if there was any bad behavior (2) sometimes brought an air of accountability and reduced the likelihood of a lashout, but most importantly (3) there would be someone to strategically intervene when things got really hot.
- Tried to conduct conversations electronically through chat or email so that (1) there was always a record of what was said (2) adds some distance which reduces the likelihood that toxic boss throws a fit (3) when toxic boss's communication devolves into emotional nonsense, I could choose to temporarily ignore instead of just accept the abuse so that (4) I could then control when and how to respond in a way that was comfortable to me.
- Reading this book Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People--and Break Free also helped.
- Always, always, always getting things in writing. If a request came in verbal form, I sat down, typed it up and sent it to involved parties via chat or email for confirmation and clarification in case anything was missing or misunderstood. I would later send my supervisor a chat message or email confirming what I completed and when and if there were any outstanding components they needed to be aware of. This level of documentation was helpful for the eventual reckoning that would happen when they were stressed out and something went awry. I also like to think because I established a track record of being fairly meticulous and communicative with my tasks and their requests, they pre-emptively had an instinct that their fault finding missions wouldn't get as far with me which made them less-inclined to go down that path.
- When they did go off the rails with/in front of me, I redirected the conversation back into a state of objective reality and avoided "taking the bait" of getting into an emotionally escalated debate based on Straw Man arguments. As much as possible, I focused on keeping conversation based on facts and external metrics and avoided expressing personal opinions or defensiveness. It's hard for them to argue if you don't take their bait, and they eventually will run out of steam if you don't feed the fire.
- I adamantly avoided sharing personal details about myself or my life outside of work with a toxic boss. I knew they could use that information against me when it suited them. In front of them, being at work always needed to be about the work. I was not there to make friends or be interesting in non-work ways in front of them.
- Politely but firmly called out that a conversation was getting too heated and no longer productive until we (i.e. they) could take a step back. This worked way better in small group settings than larger meetings because it's more personal in the former instance. In the latter instance, I'll be honest, this got very tiring to do over time and lost effectiveness when it happened 3x/week, and often the person doing the calling out ended up as the new target.
- Probably most important and effective was building a big community of allies within the organization so that we could have each other's back whenever possible until we all got out of there.
posted by anonymous donut at 11:07 AM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Since she sounds like a somewhat equal opportunity asshole boss, I think your respite may be in your colleagues. At very least, you can find solace and support from your co-workers when you have a chance to roll eyes, laugh at this goof, blow off steam.

At most, you can organize a collective effort to eventually confront her about her behavior. If you had built enough trust over time, a well-timed intervention during one of these awful staff meetings you are describing could have a powerful impact on her nastiness.
posted by RajahKing at 11:09 AM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

So, if this was your sister or your beloved friend or your significant other, then I would suggest that you point out this pattern to them at a time when they are calm and relaxed. I'd suggest that you do it in a nonjudgemental and nonthreatening way, like, "Hey, have you noticed that when you are anxious about something, you are often short tempered with me? Like, in some ways I get it, we all react badly to stress, but I wanted to bring it up because it does hurt my feelings, and I don't like holding grudges against someone I love." And then, hopefully, the next time it happens, you'd have a shared vocabulary for saying, "Hey, look, you're doing that thing I talked to you about!" and they'd catch themselves and their behavior would slowly change.

But this is your boss. You have zero obligation to work on your relationship with her. She is breaking a LOT of rules surrounding professional behavior and you do not have to put up with any of it.

I would strongly suggest you

(1) write down as many of these incidents as you can remember, in as much detail as possible, gathering up as much corroborating data as you can muster. Dates are great. Emails showing you had completed the work she was yelling at you about are great. The more incidents you can recall and document, the better. And then,

(2) take this to HR. Your demeanor can be ever so professional and personally unflappable, and you can say things like, "I have a good professional relationship with her, and we have worked very well together in the past. But honestly I'm concerned that this behavior has become too regular, and it's creating a hostile work environment." i.e. don't mince your words but also don't let on about how emotional this is making you. (It's fucking unfair that you will need to do this, but that's usually the way things work in the office.)

(3) Start looking for a new job immediately, and jump ship as soon as you get a good offer. Until then, KEEP MAKING NOISE WITH HR AT THE SLIGHTEST BAD BEHAVIOR BY YOUR BOSS. You want to leave a trail of documentation. You want to accept zero mistreatment silently. You want your boss's true colors to be fully known by HR so that they do something about her. Or, failing that, you want to become known as such a big "troublemaker" that they let you go and you get to collect unemployment.

(4) In spite of suggestion #3, don't stay in this job too long. Quit, if that's what's best for your mental health. I wrote #3 under the assumption that you can tolerate another 4-6 weeks in this place even if nothing changes. If you can only make it 2 weeks, that's good too. If you can make it 0 weeks more, bless your heart, you deserve to care for yourself. Let HR know that the reason you can no longer work there is because of your boss's harassment. Ask to go on short term disability - that's what it's for. Use the Employee Assistance Program, if you have one, to get a psychologist to sign off on your need for FMLA or Short Term Disability. There are a few ways you can try to minimize the financial impact of quitting your job... explore them ASAP so that you know what your options are if/when you hit a breaking point.
posted by MiraK at 11:54 AM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Record her. Make it very obvious. I’m serious. Pull out your iPhone, get the recording app, put it on the table and press play. When she asks why you’re doing it, tell her you don’t want to forget any of her instructions (you know, because you’re so completely useless at your job, according to her) but you know and she knows why you’re recording it.

The fact that you trying to get a verbal record of her abuse will stop her in her tracks and make her consider EXACTLY WHAT THE FUCK comes out of her abusive unprofessional mouth from now on. Trust me, now that she knows you’re prepared to do it and you could do it at any time without her knowledge means she’ll start to tiptoe around you and treat you with just a touch more respect. Best of luck, she sounds heinous.
posted by Jubey at 12:48 PM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am in a similar situation, and I have come to accept that there is nothing I can do that really will change the way things are initially received. My boss has no internal filter, and jumps to conclusions quickly and tends to catastrophize. All this means that everything I turn in, every decision I make - whether I've done it right or wrong, whether it's excellent or terrible, it will all be met initially with disdain and second guessing and anger and frustration. With this in mind, I do my best on things, and then I pretend I am a duck and she is a river and I just keep bobbing along regardless of how rough the water gets. I apologize for things a lot, I smooth things over, and I am sure this has an impact the ways she ultimately sees me and my capabilities, but in the moment, it's the easiest and least stressful way to get through work and get things accomplished. In 9 situations out of 10, she will follow up within a day and say that she misinterpreted things. What's been most helpful for me is knowing ahead of time the way things will be received, and knowing that none of it is a reflection on my work. Good luck - it's mentally and physically exhausting.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:00 PM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

My current boss is a massive improvement over the people I have previously worked for, in that she is not generally outright racist/sexist/gross, respects our personal lives and PTO, and is an expert in her field. All this to say, I've spent most of my life working under people way worse than her, and am not prepared to quit in the (very) near future.

I worked at a place with several younger coworkers, and sometimes they'd complain about the boss and I'd say, "hey, maybe, but she's way better than every other boss I've worked for!" And at the time my mindset was "ah, these idealistic young things will learn about bosses in time"... but now, I think it was actually more like "these people are not traumatized by a series of heinously terrible workplaces and so are still able to recognize bad behavior when they see it, rather than minimizing it because 'it could be worse.'"

Just something to consider.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:00 PM on December 10, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I would politely shut this shit down, item by item.

I find that often when you name a bully’s bad behaviour in the moment, and then express to them directly that is unacceptable, it really helps.

Most bullies are actually afraid of conflict and feeling vulnerable, so they instigate unfair fights that they can completely control. They use anger like cocaine to make them feel powerful and invulnerable.

Attacking helps them feel tough and gives them an upper hand when the other party is too off balance to bite back, and it’s a form of psychological warfare that makes others too afraid to ever approach them with critiques, thus keeping them “safe” from
conflicts instigated by others.

If you bite back it shows them they do NOT have control of the fight, and they will often step down and be much more reasonable with you in future.

These bite-backs can be effective even if fairly small (simply using her name and maintaining eye contact while reframing may actually be enough: “wow, ok Sharon, I hear that you are feeling quite stressed about the deadline, may I continue the progress report so you will have a more accurate picture of how we are actually ahead of schedule?”

The trick is that the bite-back MUST happen in the moment, because if you wait till later, the bully’s adrenaline will have worn off and they will have mentally erased what happened, and will start to rewrite history. They don’t even remember what happened.

Use her name each time- it is a slight but allowable escalation and show of counter dominance, and slightly let your tone show that she’s out of line - drop your voice and speak slightly more loudly and slowly than usual, but keep momentum, don’t yell, don’t scowl. Call out her behaviour and then bring it back to the project.

BOSS: "That's not what I'm asking. I can see on your face that you don't even know what I'm talking about.

YOU: Sharon, one sec please. I definitely know what you’re talking about, you’re talking about the teapot status. I’m going to ask you not to assume what I’m thinking based on your interpretation of my facial expressions- let’s stick to facts instead of conjecture. I know this is a stressful moment so let’s try to calmly talk through the progress.

BOSS - This is bad. You need to pull your act together because people are starting to wonder if you're even really getting anywhere on this."

YOU - Ok Sharon I’d like to address what you’re saying. Can you tell me more about the specific people and what they said, so I can be sure to follow up with them and ensure we’re on the same page? I ask because I chaired a team meeting yesterday and the entire team and client are all in agreement that things are going well. I can give you an update on our status from that meeting if you’d like.

BOSS: "You need to stop being so defensive and listen to me. You don't get it. I am VERY concerned. There are a lot of problems here. You always do this. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

ME: Yeah, wow Sharon I definitely hear your concern. A lot of the statements you're sharing feel like general comments about my personality, which I’m open to discussing in our next progress report... but since we are on a rather urgent deadline today and the entire team is present, I think the best use of the group’s time is to stick to the facts and deliverables for this specific project. So if you like I could give the status report, or maybe we can discuss what you’d like us to prioritize for the next week?

BOSS: "You're completely in the background! I answered Bill's question about handles when YOU should have been there with the info! I can't do your job for you! Do you have any idea how unpleasant it is to have to do this?! You need to SHAPE UP."

ME: Hmm Sharon, I’d like to address that comment. it sounds like Bill chose to ask you, I wasn’t in the room so I couldn’t answer at that moment. Thanks for jumping in with Bill at that moment; please feel free to direct people’s questions to me! I am more than willing to reply to those Qs in detail when they are actually asked of me. I will make sure in my next report to make it clear that teapot questions should come to me.

.... Also, fuck she sounds terrible, seriously, you need to look for a new job. Sorry you have to deal with this! You do NOT deserve this abuse.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:48 PM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

You cannot change this person’s behavior, only they can. You can only change your response to it.

One thing you can do is explicitly tell your fellow team members that you are on their side. Next time this happens to someone else, make it a point to include that person rather than shun them. Invite them to eat lunch with you, stop by their desk to ask about chocolate teapots, whatever. Best if it can be public; but if not, it is still worth doing. Done enough times your fellow coworkers will see you as an ally.

Otherwise I think people above have given you good suggestions for handling this abusive situation. So instead I have a little more advice, for after you leave this job (however long that may be). Abuse on the job warps your perspective. I currently supervise someone who was downright abused by their previous boss; this person (who is otherwise pretty great at their job) still struggles with the after effects. Get a therapist and get help, for you (for managing the job now, but also for the future). Sliding scale exists if you can’t afford it or don’t have employee insurance that can cover it. And if you can’t in any way pay a professional, get the help from someone else you trust, someone completely disconnected from your career. This treatment is not normal, and you do not want to be forever wincing at all future bosses because you think they might blow up at any time. Some bosses might, it’s true, but it is not universal and shouldn’t happen at all.
posted by nat at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey all, late to the game on this one following a ton of non-work-related stuff--thank you all SO MUCH for your responses, advice and commiseration. I have my annual review in a few days and have begun looking around for certificate programs to try to polish my resume a bit. I will also take advice about bonding with teammates to heart. My goal is to move on by the end of the year because honestly this is nuts. Thanks again!!
posted by TinyChicken at 5:30 AM on February 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

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