Can I Make Myself Like My Boss Again?
March 9, 2007 3:48 AM   Subscribe

Coming to terms with my dislike of my boss. What now?

Background: I've worked (mostly) very happily for a number of years for a quirky, non-corporate employer. I was unemployed for a couple of years before finding this job and finally finding myself amidst this eclectic, progressive and intellectual workplace cast a warm glow around my feelings for my job for at least the first year. Even when the realities of the job set in (it's not the most challenging work, even though I have a great time being here) I still felt lucky and content and grateful.

I love my coworkers. They're a fascinating, smart, wildly great group of folks with one notable exception: my boss. Putting it kindly, this person's management style and personality often conflict with the culture here to such an extent that said person is frequently seen as an obstacle to overcome rather than a resource. To be fair, my boss and I got along famously for the first 1.5 years of my time here, to the surprise of everyone from my coworkers up to the department head. As time went on, however, it became evident that at least three others in my position had left because of personality conflicts with my boss. Because the environment is so spectacular otherwise, most folks have learned to deal with this person.

Why is my boss so disliked? Imagine the platonic ideal of a micromanager and you won't be far off. This person has an almost slavish obsession with attending meetings, regardless of whether they concern him/her. My boss is insecure and seems to need to have his/her fingers in everything, even when it's not appropriate, just to demonstrate his/her indispensability. Opinions or ideas differing from his/hers are either met with direct condescension or ignored entirely. For instance, on the occasions when we have disagreed, my differing opinion, no matter how well researched, is treated as a matter of my ignorance and I am chided to "think about it more deeply," which is especially invalidating. My boss' lifestyle (without going into detail, think extreme environmentalism with some startlingly notable and hypocritical exceptions) serves as a way to assert moral authority by which the rest of us are judged. Still, this person wants desperately to be liked by his/her peers and employees, but his/her awkward attempts at casual or playful interaction are stilted and frequently result in his/her feelings getting hurt.

All that having been said, I feel I am losing my ability to deal with my boss professionally. I dread meetings with him/her and our interaction now feels strained after a couple of confrontations recently wherein I refused to kowtow to him/her and I was told that my response was inappropriate given the workplace hierarchy. Please know that I am not insubordinate; I merely want my opinions heard and validated. I don't like knowing that I have to either fight my boss or go around him/her to do something that might be perceived as a threat to his/her authority, regardless of its merit. Even though I otherwise love working here, I've entertained thoughts of quitting because our professional relationship has deteriorated so much.

How do I continue to deal with my boss? How do I communicate with a person who doesn't want to validate my ideas and priorities because of a misperceived threat? I have been told by my two previous employers that I am intimidatingly competent and articulate, while other people in my life say I am direct to the point of brusqueness. I acknowledge that the solution might be a combination of my softening my demeanor toward my boss combined with him/her letting down his/her insecure barriers. But how can I get past just wanting to avoid this person, shutting down when talking to him/her and feeling so bitter toward him/her so that our relationship can improve?

Sorry for the pronoun nonsense, but I need to feel reasonably safe that this can't be traced back to me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. This sounds familiar. My firm employed a creative director that fit this description almost to a "T". After 2 years of struggles, personality conflicts, churn, retention, etc., this person's personality finally was impacting our ability to attract new business, so we opted to terminate. I had wanted to sever this relationship with this person after the first manifestations of this behavior started to appear within six months, but my partners saw differently. That's only relevant to your situation in that, sometimes, if you're patient enough, change can happen.

If you otherwise like the company, and want to see yourself there for a few more years, I would counsel you to do the following:
  • Give the "direct approach" a shot. Have a heart-to-heart talk with your boss. Don't be confrontational or defensive, but try to voice your professional and personal concerns in as succinct (and non accusatory) a manner as possible. Follow up that meeting with a summary email of what was discussed and what the resolution was, i.e. what both parties plan to do to improve the situation.
  • do what you can to reinforce your social network within the company. This will help provide some insulation if it comes to pass that your boss has had enough of you and wants to terminate that relationship.
  • NEVER badmouth your boss to any work colleagues. This is a terrible habit to begin, and while it might seem cathartic, it always reflects poorly on everyone who engages in it. It doesn nothing but add to the toxicity in the environment.
  • Try to be persistent, be professional, and not take this behavior personally or as a reflection on you. We, all of us, have to deal with people at work that we will never get along or even see eye to eye with. That's a fact of life.
  • I know this may annoy you, but it's just work! I know you spend a third of your life there, but a job's a job. Try to do some focusing exercises and realize that as bad as it is, it's a paycheck.
  • Always keep your resume in circulation, because you just never know.

posted by psmealey at 4:16 AM on March 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Having worked for a micromanager, your story follows a familiar arc. It goes something like this:

1. Take on new position with glowy feelings and determination to succeed;
2. Gain competence in position; first feelings of disquiet supported by rumors of boss's inability to get along with any damn body;
3. Fall in love with job, coworkers, environment; begin to dislike boss with equal fervency;
4. Get really good at job, attempt to improve processes, introduce new ideas, only to get slapped down by increasingly threatened boss;
5. Get promoted or get the hell out.

You are in stage four and I'm guessing you're terminal. It's not just your boss that's chafing you, it's the job, which isn't challenging. There's only so far great coworkers and a generally good atmosphere can carry you before you get restless if you're never challenged (unless you have a passive, unambitious personality, which doesn't seem to be the case). With a micromanager, the stultification is worse, because you're not just bored, you're walking on eggshells.

I got the hell out. Since you love your company, I'd suggest finding another job or department or a path to advancement inside it, and lay plans to get there. Start viewing your boss as a temporary inconvenience, like road construction. Change your attitude completely; knock yourself out doing the stuff you know will appease him or her. Smile a lot. Defer. Take a lot of notes. There's nothing micromanagers like better than to see someone feverishly scribbling their most mundane thoughts down for later reference.

If there's no room to advance and no other place in the company to go, then seriously: start applying elsewhere. With your personality and abilities a situation such as this will always be like shoehorning yourself into a pair of too-tight shoes. It's not worth it. Good luck.
posted by melissa may at 4:48 AM on March 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

You can have pity for your boss. Think how alone your boss is. Imagine what happens when your boss leaves the office where he keeps trying to get so much validation.. what a sad person they must be.
posted by By The Grace of God at 5:24 AM on March 9, 2007

Seconding Melissa May:
It's not just your boss that's chafing you, it's the job, which isn't challenging. There's only so far great coworkers and a generally good atmosphere can carry you before you get restless if you're never challenged (unless you have a passive, unambitious personality, which doesn't seem to be the case). With a micromanager, the stultification is worse, because you're not just bored, you're walking on eggshells.

My guess is that you're pushing a little bit to have your voice heard because you need to stretch outside the confines of your position. Your boss probably doesn't understand the situation, so you push a little, he pushes back, and again and again.

Can you go to your boss and ask for an extra project, or to help with something outside the realm of what your normal duties are? Can you find a time when the two of you are getting along, and have some coffee with him - and (very nicely) tell him how you feel about having your voice heard?

It's not fair, but you have to get with his program or move along. Separating your personal feelings and your emotions, is he really all that unreasonable? What are the chances that you could jump ship and end up with someone even worse?

Don't worry about how he fits in with the culture, or what your co-workers think. There's something about bitching with co-workers about a boss that makes it take on a life of its own, and suddenly your boss is twice as bad as you thought he was before. Yeah, it's great to have all that validation, and it's great to have people who really understand the situation, but in the end I think it usually is more harmful than helpful.

Just focus on how he affects you and your job, and think of some practical strategies to minimize his impact.
posted by KAS at 6:47 AM on March 9, 2007

Read Difficult Conversations and use it -- it's a great book on how to have a talk on this kind of thing while being tactful and constructive.
posted by shivohum at 7:01 AM on March 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

The only way to have a relationship you can build on is to open up and say how things are for you. You might find that part of the problem between you and your boss is that you think your job is beneath you and that you are better suited for your boss' job than he/she is. Being around a co-worker like that isn't much fun for a supervisor either, just so you know.
posted by pissfactory at 7:01 AM on March 9, 2007

Also, regarding jumping ship... I've always left jobs because I wasn't appreciated. Company A- company reorganization gave me a different, lesser title (which meant I was not appreciated), company B, we bickered over 2K... out of almost 100K (!) so I felt under appreciated (didn't notice all the other Ks... got stuck on those 2 I didn't get), Company C - wouldn't implement my plan for integrating marketing and technology into a new media center- They said “not now”, I heard that I wasn't appreciated. Meanwhile they bent over backwards for me in so many areas. I still left. Once I finally realized that it was ME who got to say if I felt appreciated- it was all inside of me- could I truly be content. I was the common denominator in not feeling appreciated in my work at job after job.

I suspect you won’t be heard and your ideas won’t be validated at your next job either… and the next one, until you realize that the notion that you’re not being heard is a simple matter of how you are interpreting your environment. We all have our flavor of this type of thing, I think. Mine is not feeling appreciated enough and, man, I bet it sucked having me as an employee when I was being that way- regardless of how good of a job I did.
posted by pissfactory at 7:16 AM on March 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's a strategy that will help you. Don't disagree with your boss. Instead, agree with him.

If you are about to say something contradictory in any way or share an opinion of any kind, first state what you agree with about what was just said. For instance, "You have a great point that such and such is the overall approach we should be using. I also think it's important that to reach our objectives we (insert your idea here)."

If you can find nothing you agree with at all say something positive anyway to start. Something like "You make some great points. I also think we should consider..." You will be surprised at how far this can be stretched. You can say something is a good idea and propose nearly it's opposite without anyone blinking an eye.

Many, many people in life will simply not be receptive to any idea presented to them in a way that is contradictory or makes them look wrong or simply casts any kind of shadow of negativity. This is not your boss necessarily being dumb. It's just human nature.

Also, consider the idea that many, many people in the company, including your boss do not get what they want or do not have their ideas heard (from their perspective) nine times out of ten. This is realistic in my experience. If you can accept the expectation that nine times out of ten you will not be listened to or your advice taken you won't be crushed each time.
posted by xammerboy at 8:33 AM on March 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

"Sorry for the pronoun nonsense...."

Not related to your main issue, but Australian English very conveniently uses "they" as a generic, singular personal pronoun; no reason why that usage should be restricted to the colonies.
posted by ponystyle at 1:46 AM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

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