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‘My Manager Is a Jerk’

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Dear Boss,

I’m writing about an ongoing issue I have with my immediate boss — let’s call her Ann. Ann is a national leader in our industry, the only person at our institution with the authority to approve my team’s work, and pretty much my exclusive point of contact for all my training. Given that I have been in this field for less than a year, she and I have had to work on every one of my assignments together. But I’m not the only one she manages. There are a handful of other staffers who also need her step-by-step approval for all their work. So, suffice it to say, Ann is very, very busy. 

Ann is very detailed in making corrections to our work. To be fair, I am aware of my gaps in knowledge. I try to use her corrections on my work as an opportunity to improve for next time. I have learned that, in most cases, it isn’t helpful to explain why I made the mistake but to listen to the correction, say “Thank you,” and take note for future cases.

However, it’s becoming difficult to use her criticism to do better on future projects. She interrupts or talks over me and my fellow staff constantly, even when we’re answering her questions. I use the templates she provides without making many changes but, when sent for her approval, it is “unreadable.” She has asked me to email people on her behalf with requests, but then, when they balk, she jumps in to say I’m still in training and not to make requests like that again. I get corrected on minor issues, like the manner in which I’ve saved our documents, in front of people outside of our team who don’t even have access to our files. Sometimes, instead of providing the small clarification I ask for, she goes back to square one of my job training and starts explaining my fundamental tasks again.

In some cases, her wording is hurtful. Recently, I went to her office to ask a question about a project we’ve both been involved in and, about 15 seconds into describing the situation, she interrupted with “I didn’t realize this would be a question I’d have to listen to fully. Start over.”

At a team meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of my co-workers called her out (politely) on the way she talks to us. He was providing an update on his work to our team and she interrupted to explain it to us all instead. In response, my colleague said, “You just repeated what I said, just as I said it. I want you to know that this can appear condescending and you should be aware of that when speaking to teams who aren’t us.”

At this point, I don’t see Ann’s tactics changing. There is no one in our organization who does the work she does, and there are very few people willing to call her out.  Do you have any helpful tips that might help me deal with this kind of management style better? Are there ways to still stay motivated with work even though I know it’ll likely get undercut before approved?

First, let’s be clear: Ann is horrible.

This isn’t a style of management so much as it’s a style of being, and fundamentally, Ann is a jerk.

It’s one thing to micromanage — that would be a problem on its own, but at least not a terribly uncommon one. But Ann isn’t just micromanaging. She’s belittling you, she’s undermining you, and she sounds like someone who enjoys abusing power. Authority is supposed to be a tool to get things done, not a permission slip to be cruel.

I’m relieved that your question wasn’t “How can I make Ann change?” That’s what people in your shoes often (and understandably) ask, but it’s often impossible to make this type of boss change, unless you have the ear of someone above her who’s willing to intervene. So, if Ann’s not likely to change, what can you do to cope while you’re stuck working for her? The most important thing is to get really clear in your own head that Ann’s behavior is about Ann, not about you. This is the kind of boss who can really mess with your self-image and make you doubt yourself, and that’s something that people sometimes carry with them to future jobs. You don’t want Ann’s voice in your head when she’s not in the room anymore, and you should actively work to make sure it doesn’t stay there.

In fact, if you can see Ann as a ridiculous caricature of a bad boss, even a cartoon-villain type of bad boss, embrace that. Seen from a certain angle, there’s humor to be found in someone who’s as flagrantly awful as she is — and if you can find it, you will be better off. In part, it will help you disconnect her behavior from the idea that it might be anything you’re causing. But it’s also partly because this type of manager tends to suck all the joy out of your work, and you’ll be happier if you can add some levity back in.

Think, too, about talking to that co-worker who called out your boss during that meeting. I bet he was thinking about saying something like that for a long time before he did it; he might have interesting things to say about why he finally did, and what kind of reaction he’s received from her since. Sometimes bullies like Ann back off when people stand up to them. Other times, they double down. It could be useful to find out how she’s interacted with him since then. And, if nothing else, it might make the situation more bearable if you build some camaraderie with someone who sees things the same way you do.

You asked about how to stay motivated when you know that Ann will undercut your work. This is tricky, because on one hand you need to disconnect emotionally from her reaction to it. But you don’t want to take that so far that you no longer care about doing a good job, because that can affect your reputation and make it harder to move on to a new job with a better boss in the future. One way to navigate that is to decide that your bar for success won’t be “I’ve turned in work that Ann likes,” but rather “I’ve turned in work that I think is high quality, and that I feel good about.” Let her criticize away — I mean, really, she called work based on her own templates “unreadable,” so don’t consider her the real judge.

But that will only get you so far. Working for this kind of boss just isn’t something you can do long term, at least not without developing an incredibly thick skin, or getting seriously demoralized, or starting to question your own abilities. You should also be thinking about an exit plan. It doesn’t have to be this month or this quarter, but I wouldn’t plan to stay long. Partly that’s for obvious reasons of self-preservation, but it’s also because working for someone hateful and unsupportive can limit your career in real ways: You’re less likely to get the useful feedback, good projects, raises, promotions, and training and mentoring opportunities that you’d get with a good manager. That’s a serious opportunity cost.

And of course, knowing that you don’t plan to stay there forever can make the “right now” a lot more bearable, too. In fact, that’s really the ultimate survival strategy when you’re working for a bad boss.

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‘My Manager Is a Jerk’