My boss picks at me when she’s stressed. Or embarrassed. Or when she has screwed up. Basically any time she has an uncomfortable feeling. She immediately follows it up by pretending like she’s my best friend. No thank you, Satan. Eventually enough time will pass and I’ll let her back in.
But, without fail, she flips out on me for some loony reason (like not acting upset enough for her that she embarrassed herself or having the nerve to print a document on white paper rather than colored). It’s a cycle: good, crazy flip- out, ‘I’m your best friend’, reel you back in, and then BAM back to crazy flip-out. Sound familiar?
It’s the same cycle seen in domestic abuse.
A few things that your boss may do to exert control over you include:
- Making you feel stupid or slow.
- Changing the expectations, rules and requirements without actually letting you in on the change.
- Not providing you with adequate time to complete a task.
- Keeping you so busy with minor tasks that you’re not able to complete job-essential functions.
- Continually adding to your workload and then acting shocked and/or offended when you make a slight mistake.
These things are all meant to undermine your self-esteem and throw you off balance. My boss is particularly big on number 5. It’s like having baseballs thrown at you from every angle. You whip this way and that, trying to keep up. When you finally drop one she stares dumbfounded and says, “I just don’t understand. It’s like you didn’t care about that ball I just threw at you. Why would you just drop it?”
A normal person acknowledges that you have a lot on your plate and is understanding. Someone who is in a power play with you will not. But here’s where it gets tricky. They may act like the normal person sometimes. They may even seem sympathetic and understanding. This is part of the power play. This is how they keep you off balance.
How do I fight back?
Step 1: Know Yourself
- The first step is to ground yourself. You are not stupid. You are not crazy. You do not deserve this.
- Talk to other people. My first reaction was to talk to my husband. “Be honest- have I been off lately? Have I been making careless mistakes?” He assured me that I had not.
- Write down your positive attributes and put them somewhere that you will see them daily, like your bathroom mirror. Remind yourself that this is about your boss and not you. Whatever is going on in their world has nothing to do with you.
My boss began to turn on me around the time I started to get closer with a female colleague. My boss does not have any female friendships from what I’ve observed and I think she was jealous of our bond. But it is not necessary to understand the root of your boss’s hostility to know that it isn’t about you. You are not their therapist and it is not your problem. Plain and simple: it is not your problem.“But it IS my problem!” you say. This brings us to step 2:
Step 2: Say It
Be honest and communicate your feelings. Abusers thrive on silence and secrets. Call it out into the light of day. I finally had a come to Jesus with my boss. It went something like this, “You’re obviously not happy with my performance. I’m honestly doing the best I can. And I’m not doing any less or anything differently than I have been for the past 8-10 months, when you did not seem to have issues with my performance. What’s going on?”
No hostility, no emotion. Then I followed up with, “What can I do?” and “What areas would you like me to work on?” She had no real answer and it all boiled down to the fact that she expected me to be mind reader. She also felt like I “just didn’t care.”
Let me break down how I got to that point for you. I am a hard worker. I put forth a lot of effort because it’s important to my self-esteem. If I feel like I’m not doing well or letting people down, I get really bummed out. So I start out with maximum effort.
Then she would make a random sharp remark. It would catch me off guard. Maybe it was a one-off or maybe she just had a bad day I would think. A few days later, more criticism. Accusing me of not working on things that she had not told me to work on in the first place. I turned these moments over and over in my head. “What did I do? Am I forgetting stuff? Geez what’s going on with me?”
I internalized it all. THIS IS ALL MY FAULT. I would cry in the bathroom. She kept chipping away and I slipped further into churning guts and low self-esteem. Until I reached THAT POINT. The point of being so worn down that you don’t care.
I was all kinds of beat up on the inside and just trying to survive. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t care. I still do my job. I still do it well. But is there a big grin slapped on my face? Nope.
Our conversation was eye opening. Probably for me more so than her. But she did promise that she would communicate her needs and expectations better and I assured her that I was doing my best. I did very little differently after that. I left post it notes on unfinished projects, letting her know that I was aware of it and would take care of it as soon as I finished X (the new project that she had bumped to the front of the line). This prevented her from stumbling across it and thinking I had abandoned it. We had a system and were moving in the right direction. Or so I thought…
Step 3: Know When to Go
As with any relationship, you can’t just “set it and forget it”. Unfortunately, you will most likely have to keep re-visiting the uncomfortable conversation. The question is when is enough enough?
In some instances, this may be an immediate response. The offenses may not be of the sort where you can continue to go to work. There may not be an acceptable resolution where you and the boss can repair a relationship. You may know when to go the moment it happens. But as in my case, there were options for me to try first and things for me to think about.
There are a few factors to consider- does your boss seem to be taking any of this to heart? That is to say- they listen, they hear you and they change; they just sometimes they need a refresher. Or do they put on a good show for a few weeks before sliding back into the same behaviors? If it’s the former, the relationship can likely be salvaged if you’re willing to put in the work. If it’s the latter, chances are they aren’t interested in changing and never will.
Something very telling that my boss said when I finally talked to her was “I’ve had this kind of feedback before”. Whaaaat? For her this was not a character flaw that she wished to work on but rather something she felt others should work around.
Another thing to consider is the degree to which the behavior continues and the amount of time that elapses between abusive behaviors. Is she micromanaging as much as she used to? Does she ride you on every little project or has she began to give you a little slack? If the degree is decreasing and the amount of time in between incidences is increasing the relationship may have hope. But once again, if after a brief honeymoon period you’re right back to the same level of intensity and frequency it’s time to go. Develop an exit strategy and remember: THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU!