I work as an assistant for the development team of a nonprofit. I’ve been in this role five years. My manager, Jane, who is far and away the most influential person in the organization, never praises me. Ever. She’s very good about addressing my mistakes (articulating what I did incorrectly, giving me concrete ways to make it better) and isn’t punitive in any way. But she never praises anything I do right. And when I do anything on my own initiative, she reacts with surprise and discomfort. The closest I’ve ever had to a compliment is “It wasn’t bad. It was just …”
Her indifference to my effort is sapping my morale. She freely praises other people for their independent initiative, but never me. I did once try to clearly express what I needed: “I worked really hard on [X project], and I need you to tell me I did a good job.” She blinked at me like I’d grown horns and asked, “What, like right now?” She then gave me a laundry list of things that she wanted changed and left. It’s gotten to the point that I hate opening emails or texts from her and jump when she enters my office, knowing that every interaction will be negative or neutral but never positive.
Our annual performance evaluations are more of the same. They generally include a few minor things she’d like me to do better, which I never argue with and do my best to address, and a looking over of the list of my responsibilities. I carefully point out which new responsibilities I’ve taken on; she agrees that I have indeed taken them on. We finish with a “Well, then.”
About two years ago, I used one of these evaluations to request a raise, citing the new skills, responsibilities, and initiatives I’d undertaken since I started. She took several weeks to get back to me on the question before explaining that I was already getting paid plenty. Then, the next week, there was an organizationwide meeting to explain to everyone that merit-based raises are not a thing in our organization, and you are paid based on your job title alone; if you want a different pay rate, you must get a different job. I took the hint and dropped the issue. I also, not coincidentally, lost a lot of interest in seeking out new skills and responsibilities.
I get the impression that she thinks I’m an acceptable employee, but not a good one. And I know how she responds to good employees because our other team member is such a one. We have a team meeting every week in which I hear her praise his good work, good ideas, good initiative. It’s an emotional roller coaster because our names start with the same sound, so I get all excited when I hear “You did a great job, J … onathan.” And then down it crashes. It’s the same story with folks in other departments; she lights up when they enter a room, tells them what great work they’re doing and how much she appreciates it. While I, her direct report, am sitting right there.
But I do good work. I’ve streamlined and organized processes, brought in tens of thousands of dollars … and that’s not even counting the work I do for the organization on my weekends and PTO because I love the mission and the team and working with our clients makes me happy. I’m valuable to the organization far and away beyond my compensation. I know it — I just don’t know that Jane does.
How can I clearly (and safely) communicate that the marked lack of positive feedback leaves me constantly stressed, nervous, uncertain, unwilling to take initiative, and straight up angry?
This sounds so frustrating. I’m sorry it’s happening!
From what you described, it does seem like Jane sees your work differently than you do.
If you didn’t see her freely praising other people, I might think she’s just a manager who doesn’t understand the importance of positive feedback in keeping a team motivated and happy. There are lots of those managers, and while they’re no fun to work for, you can at least figure that it’s not personal since they’re like that with everyone. But Jane is praising other people, just not you.
Even if the explanation is that she sees you as an acceptable employee and not a good one, it’s bizarre that she’s literally never found a positive thing to say about your work. Even if she has significant concerns about your performance — even if those concerns are legitimate! — surely in your five years there you’ve done something she could say something positive about. The fact that you’re not getting any positive feedback at all (while others do), and even after explicitly asking for it, alarms me.
I know you’re looking for ways to talk to Jane about this, but I want to be up front: I think you should seriously consider leaving this job. For whatever reason, your boss doesn’t see your work the same way you do, and she’s had five years to change her mind. That’s a very tough situation to be in, and even if you succeed in getting her to toss you some occasional praise, you’ll still be working for someone who just doesn’t like your work very much. That’s terrible for your quality of life, and it’s bad for you professionally, since it means you’re not going to get the kind of development and opportunities that you’d get if she were a champion of your work. (Not to mention it puts you in a highly precarious spot if your team ever needs to cut positions.) Plus, you’ve been there for five years — it’s a natural time to be looking around at other roles anyway.
But if you want to try addressing it with her, I’d approach it less as “I want more praise” and more as “I’m concerned about how you see my work” — because ultimately that’s the issue underlying all of it. Don’t do this in passing; ask for a meeting to talk about how things are going, so it’s clear it’s something you want her to take seriously. When you sit down together, say something like, “I wanted to check in with you about how you think my work is going overall. I think I’m doing well — I’ve done X, Y, Z this year and exceeded the expectations we initially set for A and B. But I wanted to touch base with you because I’ve gotten the impression that you might see my work differently. I’m not sure if you’ve realized that over the time we’ve worked together, I’ve gotten very little positive feedback from you — maybe even none. I’ve tried asking for it a few times, and I’ve seen you be very generous with praise of others, so the fact that you don’t comment positively on my work has me wondering if your assessment of how I’m doing is different than mine.”
If you get another indifferent response — or a list of things you need to improve — then say, “I want to make sure I have the correct takeaway about your overall assessment of my work. Is the reason I don’t hear positive feedback because you have serious concerns about my performance overall?” You could add, “I’m always interested in hearing how I can improve, but it’s also important to me to be told when things are going well. Is there room for you to do more of that with my work, or is your sense that it’s really not warranted?”
The idea here is to either nudge her into realizing how lopsided her feedback to you has been or to draw out that it’s been an accurate reflection of her overall assessment of your work. As painful as the latter would be to hear, it’s incredibly useful for you to know if that’s the case so that you can make good decisions for yourself about whether it makes sense to stay in this job longer-term.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.