How to deal with a rude/blunt boss?
June 17, 2022 6:03 AM   Subscribe

I've just started a new job in the past few months and I was so happy. It's a step up and I felt comfortable with the team, which was unprecedented for me and felt like it was going to be a good next step in my career. It made me feel more positive about doing accounting, which I've been resistant to for so long. My manager has been super busy so I've barely spoken to her these past few months. However, she's now begun training me (remotely) and I'm finding it to be a very unpleasant experience.

She's based in Latvia at the moment and I wonder if part of it is maybe a cultural difference? Maybe there's more of a directness and bluntness in how they communicate and it's not just the directness; it's a lack of any friendliness or attempts at positive interaction. It's all extremely business like and more or less only communicating when you've done something wrong.

Anyway, she never even introduced herself to me in those first few months and in our first training session she just dove right in, after saying "hello". Our first communications were critical emails from her about my work or HR admin stuff which I had done wrong/not followed correct processes. I've seen these emails fly between her and my other colleagues too and she's quite rude to an admittedly incompetent junior of mine.

She's a perfectionist and demands accuracy and attention to detail, from herself and others; which, granted you do need in a career in accounting but I'm finding that the way she goes about it is detrimental to her working relationships. I can't fault her for her own accuracy and work ethic, to be fair. I don't think she can rise to much further seniority with the attitude and communications skills she has to be honest.

I'm trying not to take personally because she interacts with everyone like this, but I honestly can't stand it. It triggers a trauma response in me I think.

I feel anxious every time I see an email from her now. I'm going to dread any one to ones with her. I'm so disappointed because I thought I had escaped my previous line manager who was much warmer and friendlier but incredibly overbearing, micromanaging and would talk over me non stop. Why do I keep encountering these managers?

I was feeling motivated and hopeful, ready to learn and grow but having her as my line manager has made me want to leave, in all honesty. I will stay for a maximum of 6 months as I need to get my accounting experience signed off, but I don't think I can tolerate staying much longer than that.

I'm now finding it difficult not to spiral into regrets about my past and the path that's led me here and feeling like this is all my fault. My entire twenties were stalled career wise, I was in entry level jobs in which you are generally treated like shit and I'm only just emerging from that. I've noticed that thoughts and comparisons about my boyfriends' ex are coming up a lot for me too again, they had quietened down before, but I'm using her to psychologically "self harm" again.

I feel really low that I keep ending up in these situations and I think it's something to do with me. Because I've kept myself small and low achieving, to hide from people, I end up in situations where people can kind of abuse you, in a way or at least treat you poorly and boss you around. I'm starting to think I am subconsciously driven to perform poorly and be in lowly positions, in order to attract that kind of treatment.

I'm on a trajectory to come out of that stage but this growth period is intensely painful and I almost don't know if I have the inner strength to survive it.

Does anyone else have any experiences with difficult line managers and how did you manage it?
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
First of all just because you're in a difficult or uncomfortable situation doesn't mean you did anything wrong. So please try not to see your current work difficulties as some kind of evidence that you've screwed up your life. Life is kinda screwed up! That's life!

Why do I keep encountering these managers?

I mean, most managers are... not that great at managing? Managing is a difficult job that people generally don't get trained to do, they just get promoted to management because they are good at the thing the the people they manage do.

Working under managers of varying degrees of crappiness is not a sign of anything about you, it's just "work" for most of us. (I say this as a team lead who is frankly mediocre at best!)

I'm finding that the way she goes about it is detrimental to her working relationships.

Not your problem! You don't need to worry about your manager's career trajectory.

It seems like your manager is at a minimum blunt and task-oriented in a way that clashes with your work style and triggers you and yeah, is quite possibly counterproductive. Maybe she's rude, maybe even abusive or bullying (although if she's sticking to criticism of the work rather than attacking people, I wouldn't see it as rising to that level)? Would it help to reframe this as a difference in work style rather than her "kind of abusing" you? You might want to read up on relationship-oriented leadership vs. task-oriented leadership. Your manager sounds very task-focused, and it would probably be good for her to recognize that some of her employees (like you) would benefit from a more relationship-focused approach. But she's not the one posting to AskMeFi, so you're probably going to have to adapt to her style rather than the other way around.

How do you deal with other things that are triggering but ultimately not dangerous? Because it seems like emails from your boss are ultimately in that category.
posted by mskyle at 6:21 AM on June 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

I bought this book (Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst) a few years ago when I had a manager similar to yours. But as luck would have it, he left the company just after I received the book, so I never actually read it (the new manager is much better). But the book looked very promising. Amazon seems to have some other books that are similar to it.
posted by JD Sockinger at 6:24 AM on June 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Most jobs suck. Most managers suck. This is not your fault. You could be a perfect person/employee and still have a shitty job and manager.

Pretend she is just a badly-programmed robot since she seems to want to act like one and let the rudeness roll off you.

Longer term, it sounds like you need therapy or self-help books to learn to be bothered less and stop blaming yourself for things you have no control over.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:29 AM on June 17, 2022 [10 favorites]

Because I've kept myself small and low achieving, to hide from people, I end up in situations where people can kind of abuse you, in a way or at least treat you poorly and boss you around. I'm starting to think I am subconsciously driven to perform poorly and be in lowly positions, in order to attract that kind of treatment.

Bad managers are not limited to "lowly" positions and they are not punishments doled out to the undeserving or low-achieving. I can tell you about at least one department director (so, two steps above my own, manager-level, position--very well paid, very high on the org chart) whose own manager is just relentlessly kind of a jerk.

Bad managers are incredibly, incredibly common. Most of your managers in your career will be bad in some way. This is because of three things:

-Most people don't set out to become managers and don't WANT to be them, but that's how you get a raise
-Even very skilled and well-intentioned managers often get no training at all in management
-The kind of people who WANT, and SET OUT, to become specifically managers often turn out to be assholes who actually do want the power to boss people around.

It will be very rare in your career to hit the jackpot of a manager who knows how to manage, understands the work they're managing, AND is socially adept. The only way to truly avoid it will be to become the CEO, and no longer have a manager. (And then you'll have to deal with an entirely different kind of asshole.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:49 AM on June 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

YES it could be cultural. I had a Polish boss and she was lovely, but she could also be hugely blunt.

NO it's not personal - she speaks to everyone like that.

For yourself, if you would value a "get to know you" chat, perhaps book one in with her? We do "coffee catch ups" which are 20 mins.

Regarding the emails, if you have done something wrong, say thank you for the steer you will [integrate this into your processes to avoid the same error again]. These emails are factual and not about you. Reply factually.

Regarding the trigger - remind yourself that you are safe. These emails are not out to get you. Your boss is not out to get you. You are safe here. Take a time out when you get one. Open it, scan it so you know what it's about (did you do something wrong, is it a task you're being assigned, is it for info etc), mark as unread and have a break. Move your body. Walk about or lie with your legs up the wall (great for reducing anxiety) for 10 mins. Have a wee, make a tea, and go back for a pure facts mission. WHAT do you need to DO following this email.

NOBODY does everything perfectly. Learn what you can from this role and think where your next stepping stone is.

And yes, lots of managers are their own brand of crummy. Learn how to play the tune that gets the best out of them. Sounds like this one you just need to do your job right as far as you can, which IMO is ok, since doing my job right is kinda what I'm there for already.
posted by london explorer girl at 6:51 AM on June 17, 2022 [9 favorites]

So, one of my favorite managers was Belorussian and I've worked pretty extensively with Eastern European teams, and I feel okay saying that some of this is not personality, but it is cultural w/r/t work style. My EE colleagues were amazing people, amazing at their jobs, sometimes warm and welcoming one-on-one, but when it came to work and the quality of it, they were really focused and while I didn't find it particularly off putting, personally, I can see how the way they chose to communicate could rub some people the wrong way. It's absolutely NOT personal.

I agree with the above poster that you might get more of the type of interaction you are looking for if you have a sort of "water cooler" or "coffee chat" with your boss. My favorite boss in history was intimidating AF in a work setting but personally she was warm and funny -- she did learn over time how to bring that to her more task-oriented discussions.

I also find it helpful to just assume everyone is trying their best and you have no idea what they are going through or why they might be brusque or stressed. Living in Eastern Europe right now has to be just incredibly hard, with Putin rattling around Ukraine. Even if she doesn't live there now, she likely has friends and family who are feeling the pressure of the political situation. I would just give a lot of grace, remember that no matter what it's not personal, and work at centering myself and letting the worst of it roll off. You are doing a good job and you enjoy the team. Focus on that. The manager will sort herself out one way or the other.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:57 AM on June 17, 2022 [12 favorites]

I totally understand your discomfort with this boss: having a supervisor who repeatedly and bluntly focusses on your faults and errors is not a pleasant experience. But I want to encourage you to at least consider reframing your thinking about this situation, based on my own similar experience.

I’ve carefully read and reread your post, and it sounds like your concern about this boss is her style and delivery, but NOT her substantive actions. You describe her as “a perfectionist [who] demands accuracy and attention to detail, from herself and others”, who has admirable “accuracy and work ethic”, and who is treating you the same as she treats everyone. You contrast her with a prior boss, who was warmer but overbearing, micromanaging and disrespectful. So it sounds like you have a “very tough but fair” boss (or, more accurately, a “blunt/untactful but fair” boss), who is pushing you to be as accurate and ‘perfect’ as possible, in a blunt and thoughtless way.

Conversely, you yourself are coming off a situation that sounds like it has left you pretty raw, and have been “[keeping] myself small and low achieving, to hide from people”. This makes a boss like this a really harsh experience: to put it in physical terms, your skin is very sensitive right now, and you have a boss who is repeatedly slapping you.

I have gone through a very similar situation myself, where I had your same post-difficult-situation rawness, and was working under a boss who had the same slap-in-the-face style. Like you, I started grappling with self-loathing, was ready to quit, and came very close. It was just too painful, and I was really starting to get down on myself.

But then I decided to take what, at the time, felt like an even more nihilistic, self-destructive option: I masochistically leaned into my bosses ‘slaps’. Frankly, I needed the money from the job, and my self-loathing was such that I just thought “I’m going to make myself the most miserable possible.”

So when he would tell me that I did X wrong, instead of trying to slink away, I would ask him for more details. Tell me how I did X wrong. Tell me in excruciating detail. And, sure enough, at first was it ever painful to repeatedly delve into these blunt, painful takedowns of my work and (what felt like) my self. Those slaps STUNG.

I did this over and over again to prove to myself how bad I was, and at first that’s what I achieved… but then something unexpected happened.

First, I weirdly started having a much better relationship with my boss. He was still extremely blunt and insensitive with his feedback, but our repartee became weirdly… pleasant. And the times when he acknowledged that I succeeded where I had failed before were deeply gratifying. I also started to appreciate the strange benefits of his blunt style: unlike with other bosses (or friends) I’ve had, I ALWAYS knew where I stood with him, and there was never any uncertainty or guessing or worrying about hidden meanings. He was a cold shower: a shock, but refreshing.

Second, I started doing my job a lot better. Turns out when you start masochistically following the directions of a perfectionist… you get better at your job.

But third, and most importantly, I started feeling better about myself, because I now could look to the first two things as concrete refutations of my self-loathing. It turned out that just reframing my actions had a deep and profound change on my thinking about myself, and my situation. This is something that, years later through cognitive behavioural therapy, I was able to retrospectively understand: that often your ACTIONS have the power to change your FEELINGS, and that it doesn’t always (or even mostly) work the other way around. A lot of the self-loathing ended up melting away as I suddenly found myself someone who felt good at their job, and who got along with their difficult boss.

Again, this strategy only worked because my boss was ‘tough (and blunt) but fair’, and his criticism was entirely focussed on work quality, and not ulterior motives. Had he been a real nightmare unfair jerk, it wouldn’t have been a good idea at all to lean into it.

But if you indeed have a boss who is good, fair but harsh – maybe this is an opportunity for you. Honestly my own experience has been a huge formative piece of my current sense of self. I wouldn’t be in the relatively happy position I am today without having gone through that.

If you’re familiar with kung fu movies or anime or anything like that, I consider that chapter of my life to be my ‘training arc’, complete with harsh but wise teacher. It was rough, and painful, but I wouldn’t have been able to succeed without it. Maybe this is yours?
posted by ordinary_magnet at 7:00 AM on June 17, 2022 [52 favorites]

Regarding the general feelings about your career path you've had a lot of good advice already on the green. A few specific thoughts then on your relationship with your boss.

- Cultural differences are most definitely relevant. There is always random chit chat in the UK around meetings. There may be a much greater focus on the actual agenda of the meeting and the facts and figures in other cultures. A lot of other languages and cultures are also much more direct. You could read up a bit about Latvian business culture and culture in general if you want to explore that a bit. But such differences are just a fact of life if you work in an international environment and learning to navigate them well is a good skill to acquire.

- You say your boss was too busy to connect with you initially but is now making an effort to meet with you regularly and train you. Take that at face value. She is putting in the effort to help you learn and thus allow you to meet her expectations. She is literally carving time out to set you up for success. If you can get over the cultural differences, this is probably a person who is very easy to get on with as long as you focus on doing your work well and implement what you learn into your working practices.

- You say she's been rushed off her feet the last few weeks/months. I bet she still is extremely busy, even if things are slightly more sustainable than they were. Her focus on getting s#{t done (GSD) is how she manages to stay on top of her workload. She simply doesn't have time to cover what she wants to cover for the remote training session and have a chinwag for 15 minutes. And she probably has back to back meetings most days. If she has family commitments her normal work hrs are probably bookended by dropping children off/picking them up and she may end up doing things she has to focus on later at night as well. So every 15 mins she chats about the weekend may literally come out of time she gets to spend with her family or sleep. Perhaps I am way off base but there are plenty of people for whom that is the case.

> It is extremely unlikely that any part of this is a reflection of you or her appreciation of your contributions. It is most probably a combination of cultural preferences, workload and other constraints that mean that she has to focus on GSD.

As to how you stop being so stressed by her - have you asked her to meet with you for a remote coffee? Half an hr to build a bit of a better rapport, check in. You've been there for a while now and want to understand how you're doing. Confirm you understand her expectations. Perhaps you're looking for a mentor or to understand what your prospects are in the organisation once you're qualified. [It is entirely irrelevant if you plan to stay after qualification or not for that kind of conversation. But do be prepared that she may ask you what your goals are and have some if asked.] the point here is to figure out how to connect with her in a way that is not entirely task related. You may find her to be both a very supportive person and also a very no nonsense person but that may well get you over feeling so stressed by her bluntness.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:07 AM on June 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you feel that you're able to address her criticisms, this might be a self-resolving problem. As you get better at your job, you'll have fewer negative interactions with her. This will especially be the case if your job is routine. Is she the sort of person who will find fault regardless of how competently you perform your tasks, or will she leave you alone if you are doing well?
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 7:14 AM on June 17, 2022 [7 favorites]

You're getting a lot of good advice here, so one practical suggestion: can you carve out some time around those one-on-ones? Say, always block off thirty minutes afterward? You know they're not going to be a good time for you so plan around that. Know that you just have to get through thirty minutes of Blunt Boss Time and then you will have a restorative chunk of time when you can do whatever feels good to you - take a walk? Meditate? Have a quick chat with a friend? Watch some cute animal videos? Make that your weekly coffee shop trip time? Whatever's going to be restorative and motivating for you, give yourself that to look forward to.

Many years ago I had very blunt and difficult boss and absolutely dreaded our weekly one-on-ones, and I think disappearing after those for half an hour to walk to the coffee cart and take some deep breaths and get some sugar and caffeine into me was life-saving.

I also leaned hard into having good relationships with other members of my team. It was helpful to know that other people valued my work. And I did have a fixed time at that job - I'd promised him two years and I gave him two years but I was always counting down and I left the second my commitment was up. That helped a lot. So yeah, go ahead and promise yourself that you're going to reassess in six months and if you're still miserable you'll start a job hunt.

The other thing about that job was that everyone knew he was difficult and everyone wanted to blow off some steam when he wasn't around so whenever he traveled we secretly cancelled an afternoon of work and went out as a group for lunch and a movie or lunch and ice cream or a picnic in the nearby park or whatever. I've never had any other job where the entire team quietly collaborated to say "fuck that guy, we need a break, no one tell him, we're just leaving for four hours" but that's what it took under that guy. I don't know what a remote team equivalent of that might be but it might be something to consider.
posted by Stacey at 9:00 AM on June 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

You might find The Culture Map helpful. While they don't specifically cover Latvia, here's what they say about one of Latvia's neighbors (Russia): In Russia, there is no reticence about expressing your negative criticism openly. For instance, if you are displeased with the service in a shop, you can tell the shop assistant exactly what you think of him, his relatives, his in-laws, his habits, and his sexual bias.
posted by elmay at 9:12 AM on June 17, 2022

You’ve got many great answers here so I would like to just throw in my 2c as a introverted, task-oriented person who has at different points in my career been a (mediocre) manager:

I have difficulty with making small talk, especially with people I barely know. I am bad with the touchy feely side of things and it’s also a reflection of my own neuroses. I guess at least some of my colleagues have found me rude/ unpleasant at some point. Certainly no one would say I am a warm and fuzzy person. Remote working certainly doesn’t help things in this aspect as the lack of face time can result in misread and unintended signals. Also small talk makes me anxious and fatigued and sometimes I’d rather quickly get past it and get down to business. Being stressed and extremely busy also makes it harder for me to project warmth.

I find that I build rapport slowly through repeated exposure to a person - it takes time for me to warm up, so try to get one on one time with her even if the thought of it pains you.

While I don’t like to make small talk or talk about my personal life, I don’t mind guiding or supporting those who come to me with specific questions or problems or for brainstorming. Discussing how to approach an issue or raising something proactively for me to feedback on actually helps me understand how you think and work better, and helps me to build rapport, which in turn produces more human-like, less robotic behavior from me.

My best working experiences with subordinates have been with those who are proactive in asking questions and clarifying things. You could say I build rapport from actually working together with a person first, then getting to know them better on a more personal level. You could try to show your interest in the work more proactively and the issues she is tackling (which I’m sure are plenty if she seems super busy and overwhelmed herself). Ask for feedback on the work you’ve done and how to improve and you may get more positive reinforcement (if you can also stomach the bluntness)

I’m not saying I’m 100% like your boss but hope this gives some perspective from the other side of the fence.

Also on the feelings of anxiety/ spiraling into regret - there is a lot to unpack here. You seem to suffer from a great deal of rejection sensitivity and intrusive thoughts. I empathize because I used to feel worthless and bad and take it very personally when my work was not received the way I expected it to be. It’s taken me a long time to decouple my self worth from work. It’s definitely worthwhile working with a therapist on coping strategies for such thoughts (e.g how to reframe them and not let them overwhelm you)
posted by pandanpanda at 10:46 AM on June 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

She's based in Latvia at the moment and I wonder if part of it is maybe a cultural difference?

Since she's based in Latvia, English is probably not her first language, and that in itself could be the cause of her bluntness:
We discovered that people using a foreign language were not any more concerned with maximizing the greater good,” said lead author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UChicago doctoral student in psychology. “But rather, were less averse to violating the taboos that can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices.”

The researchers, including Albert Costa and Joanna Corey from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, propose that using a foreign language gives people some emotional distance and that allowed them to take the more utilitarian action.
posted by jamjam at 11:30 AM on June 17, 2022

When you searched for this job, were there other jobs that were equally good for your career, but with a warmer manager? If so, go ahead and interview for those jobs now.

If not, and you quit this job without another good job lined up, your brain could start ruminating that again you've "kept yourself low-achieving [by quitting a good job], to hide from people [your Latvian manager]".

Blunt-but-fair feedback is not unique to lowly positions. CEOs get blunt-but-fair feedback from their board. Prime ministers and presidents get blunt-but-fair feedback from the press and their approval ratings. I bet your boss has gotten her share of blunt feedback. She probably used that feedback to improve her skills and rise to her current position.

It'd be worth calibrating your expectations with accountants at other companies. Is your boss especially rude and blunt, more than the majority of accounting bosses? Or would you be getting this type of feedback at most accounting firms?
posted by cheesecake at 12:13 PM on June 17, 2022

Every interaction, try to get personal information, even if it's Do you have any weekend plans? Try to share 1 personal item, not really personal, more like I like jazz, esp. So-And-So. If she says she's going to a show on the weekend, ask about next time you talk. Find out about Latvia, ask about holidays. This is a key way that relationships develop, and people are nicer when they have a relationship with (I mean, not family always, but this isn't the same). When someone sees you as an individual, it just helps. Use whatever slack or other channel to send a very occasional accounting cartoon or nice image. Tuesday's full moon was exceptionally lovely; hope everyone had a chance to see it.

Be a cheerleader and resource for your team if you can. Lee, that explanation of that tax detail was really useful, thanks. It helps people see you in a good light if it's honest and not suckup-ery.

Advice above about reminding yourself it's not personal, etc., is spot-on. And while you dread a 1-to-1, people really vary and she may be different in person.

I've kept myself small and low achieving, to hide from people It's my experience that this makes you a target for all sorts of bullying. Bullies like easy targets. Take Tai chi, which is exercise and a martial art, or something similar. It helps you build your resistance to crap.
posted by theora55 at 12:33 PM on June 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think it's something to do with me. Because I've kept myself small and low achieving, to hide from people, I end up in situations where people can kind of abuse you, in a way or at least treat you poorly and boss you around. I'm starting to think I am subconsciously driven to perform poorly and be in lowly positions, in order to attract that kind of treatment.

It's very possible for this to be broadly true of you and not apply in this particular instance. The above pattern is more common in friendships and romantic partners, since we all have a great deal more choice and agency in who we keep around in those relationships of ours. But for a manager at a job? She's your manager because she just happened to be the person in that position when you came on; nothing in your description suggests you accepted this position because of her, even unconsciously.

As far as what to do about her: don't let yourself forget that her brusque demeanor, whatever the reasons for that, is much more about her than about you. You've even seen it and said it yourself: she acts like this with everyone. I imagine it's hard to believe this in the moments of reading an email from her because of your own history with critical authority figures (I remember your other questions), so this would be something that your therapy would be perfect for addressing.

FWIW I had a previous supervisor who came across very similarly, and is also a woman from a former Soviet block country, and I think I talked/vented only about her every session for about 4 straight months in my own therapy. Working through that, especially the resemblances between that relationship and the one with my mom, cleared up a significant amount of mental space for me to keep ahold of that thought: "this is much more about her than anything else." Once that started to sink in, it took enough of the edge off any critical comment or blank stare she might throw out there that I could not make it personally about me.
posted by obliterati at 9:36 AM on June 21, 2022 [1 favorite]

As an autistic person, I encounter people who feel harmed when I make a critical comment about something they have produced, whether it be behavior, work product, etc. The shit sandwich strategy is uncomfortable, I cannot make sense of the act of fluffing people, and environments where it is required so that people don't get triggered by their own subjective histories are genuinely so much extra work.
What you have described is your manager (rightly) criticizing your work product or your actions, and you have not described her addressing your actual person as undervaluable. The association between the value of your work product and the value of you personally seems to be happening within your interpretation. This isn't uncommon!
Though, if you can imagine your core being, your person-ness as inviolable and accept no insult, while also being open and curious to feedback about how what you produce is perceived by other people it affects, you may require less explicit warmth to remain comfortable.
Perhaps an imaginative exercise could be useful or fun:
Clothes shopping with a friend... They let you know that the current outfit is not the best one for you. This is helpful! Friends let us know these things!
If they insult YOU about the clothes, that's something entirely else.

Maybe imagine her as trying to outfit you with the best capacity to be really good at your job, while also just possibly not having an interest or capacity in all that warm, fluffy, filler stuff in the course of HER work.

If you find the actual content of her feedback to be valid, you might be able to adjust your view so that it is valuable. Side effect of this strategy may include self-sourcing of affirmations and better capacity to appreciate people even if they have different interaction values than you do.
posted by droomoord at 11:26 PM on June 27, 2022

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