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‘I Got a Terrible Review on Glassdoor, and I’m Spiraling’

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Dear Boss,

I work in a niche industry, for a tiny company, and manage a team of eight people. There is a fair amount of turnover, generally by design — people often take these jobs with the explicit goal of going to a particular grad school in a few years. I recently learned that someone left a very negative review about the company and me on Glassdoor and I cannot figure out how to handle it. 

Some things were true enough — i.e., inconsistent workload and some weekend work (though those are both normal in our industry, which has seasonal schedules, and we are upfront about that when hiring). However, it also said that “management is mean and mistakes are not tolerated.” I am flabbergasted. I work very hard on providing feedback that focuses on explaining the impact of the mistake and working on the way forward, and we expect mistakes due to the nature of our work, where people are learning as they go. In fact, people have been promoted after committing errors that cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, as they were really strong in other areas and learned from their mistakes. I am not particularly touchy-feely, but I think I have warm and collaborative relationships with the team members, and I’ve served as a reference for most people who leave. 

My boss does exit interviews when people leave and the feedback he’s given me following those has been generally positive about my management (though I understand people are under no obligation to share negative comments in their exit interviews). 

Now I feel stuck. I don’t know what to fix and how to fix it. I am feeling anxious and awkward around my team (do they all actually hate me?!), and I am barely sleeping. I also am having a hard time giving feedback on ongoing projects, which results in me being vague and only makes things worse. I feel that I fundamentally failed at my job — and failed the company, as the only other review of us is from an outside contractor, and so is not that relevant and does not speak to the same things. Other than quitting my job and never managing again, where do I go from here? 

It’s good to be open to feedback about yourself and your management style, but letting a single anonymous review affect you to this extent is counterproductive.

First, are you absolutely sure that the review is about you? Unless the reviewer used language that referenced you specifically, it’s possible that the “mean management” remark and other issues refer to problems above you. That would be a different concern, but not the one you’re worried about.

But let’s assume for the purpose of this answer that it’s clearly about you. The reality is, when you’re a manager, not everyone will like working for you. You could be the greatest boss in the world and some people still wouldn’t like you. Partly that’s because being a good manager means giving feedback, addressing problems, and holding people accountable in ways they might not like. If you need to correct someone a lot, or have difficult conversations with them about their work, or say no to something they wanted, it’s human nature that you might not end up being their favorite person. Or you might have a style that doesn’t align well with theirs — maybe you’re very direct and matter-of-fact and that feels brusque to them, or maybe you’re a planner and a devotee of process and they work more spontaneously. That wouldn’t mean either of you is in the wrong; it would just mean you don’t mesh well together.

Sometimes, too, people dislike a job or a manager for reasons that aren’t as much about the manager as they are about other things going on with that person — a dislike of their career path, stressors outside of work, a generally bad fit with the role, or all kinds of things.

Or, frankly, you might be an imperfect manager — most of us are — but that doesn’t mean you’re a horrible one. Managing people is hard, and every manager will get things wrong now and then. Ideally you’ll establish a track record of fairness, transparency, and good judgment so your mistakes are judged within that context … but you still might encounter an employee who judges your mistakes harshly. You’re basically on a stage when you’re the boss; you’re going to be scrutinized by the people under you, and there will be things they take issue with. It’s part of the job, and you’ve got to be okay with that.

Or, yes, you might be a terrible manager! It’s possible. There are lots of terrible managers out there. But I’m skeptical that you’re terrible in the specific ways the review described (mean and intolerant of mistakes), because your detailed explanation of your approach to mistakes sounds pretty healthy and because you sound genuinely thoughtful and caring toward team members. People can delude themselves, of course, and managers aren’t always reliable narrators of their own management styles. But the way you talk about how you operate — and your reaction now — doesn’t seem to line up with that review or with the feedback people have given your boss about you. That doesn’t mean that review is definitely wrong. I obviously can’t say that with certainty. But I don’t think it warrants the self-flagellation you’re doing.

That said, all managers have ways they could improve — things they’re doing that irritate or upset their teams, or make things run less effectively, or allow problems to fester. I can say with confidence that you could be a better manager, because we all could. So one option is to take this as an impetus to do a real inventory of the way you manage, figure out where you could improve, and lean into doing that work.

One way to do that is to gather feedback from your team. You can do that formally (for example, by asking your boss to solicit anonymous feedback from them), although people won’t always provide candid answers when you do that. You can also do it in lower-key ways, like by asking informally as you talk with staff members about ways to make the team operate better or what would improve their lives at work. Of course, for that to work, you’ve got to make sure you’ve built an environment where people feel comfortable offering input, including dissent — and if you realize you might not have, that’s probably the first issue to work on.

You should also pay attention to things like: Do people seem happy and engaged with their work? Are they open with you when they have concerns? Do they take risks, or seem scared to try anything new? When they make mistakes, do they panic? Is there a generally positive energy on your team or do people seem guarded or downtrodden?

You can also talk to your boss and trusted peers about the review and how it lines up with what they see of how you operate. They won’t have the same perspective on your leadership as the people you manage do, but they might have useful insights.

What doesn’t make sense is to stay mired in how bad it feels to read something like that about yourself. If the review is off base, you’re punishing yourself needlessly (and potentially making things weird with your team). And if there’s truth to it, you’re preventing yourself from learning what you can from it and figuring out what you can change.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Got a Terrible Review on Glassdoor, and I’m Spiraling’