I am a financial analyst and have always been very good with numbers. I am young and this is my first job out of college. I was happy to get the job.
My problem is that my boss is just mean. If I can get through a week without crying, it feels like a miracle. I strive to do everything perfectly but she finds things to criticize no matter what. One day she is okay with the way I do something, and the next day she finds fault with it. I don’t make errors because I always review my work.
I can never really anticipate what she will pick on. The inconsistency is confusing, but it is the sense that she is committed to always finding something wrong that is demoralizing. I just can’t ever win.
I just hate the idea that I am flunking out of my very first job. With the job market the way it is, I don’t feel confident that I will ever be able to find something else. I feel like such a failure.
What advice do you have for me?
My Boss Is Just Mean
Dear My Boss Is Just Mean,
I am sorry. This sounds hard. It is just true that some people think being a boss means catching people doing things wrong. All the time. Some have good intentions and actually believe that is the job—the constant critiques will make you better. And then there are some people who enjoy lording their power over others to make them feel cruddy and who relish the act of keeping people off kilter. I am not a big fan of speculating about the intentions of others, but in this case there might be some value in establishing what your boss’s intentions are.
Here are some questions:
- Are you sure there are no patterns to her feedback? Does she focus on content, or process, or style? There may be more method to her madness than you have been able to decipher. Since you are careful about errors, is it possible she prefers that you submit your work a certain way, or set up your formatting differently—and then maybe forgets or changes her mind?
- Is the criticism personal? Does she berate your competence? Call you names? Threaten your job? Or is the feedback always simply focused on the work itself?
I am trying to get at whether your boss is really mean or just flaky and clueless. That will help you to manage yourself around her, and to make a decision about what you are going to do about it.
In the meantime, let’s talk about you. Because here’s the thing—this isn’t the only terrible boss you will ever have. The opportunity in this situation is for you to develop a thicker skin, work on a practice of taking nothing personally, and learn to protect yourself from other people’s horribleness so you don’t end each day in a puddle of tears.
In the quest to develop a thicker skin, it can be helpful to remember that criticism is just information. If it is inconsistent and has no discernable patterns, in the end it is just noise. So, instead of seeking to avoid it, you can anticipate it and assign it no meaning. You can also ask questions. For example, if she approved of something last time, but today it isn’t working for her, you can ask what changed. You can try to get more detail on the criteria you should use to exercise your own judgment. You can even say something like: “I strive to make you happy, but I am finding it difficult to anticipate exactly what will do that. Perhaps there are some general guidelines I might need to follow so I can do a better job.” Keep track of what she says and refer back to it in the future. If she really is trying to make you crazy, you will know for sure.
Either way, remember that it is almost never about you. Which leads me to the practice of taking nothing personally.
In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz says “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
Take whatever you can from any feedback (from anyone, not just Meany) and see what there is to learn from it—what glimmer there might be in it to increase your effectiveness as a colleague, to contribute, to achieve mastery. Everything else is just noise.
A useful technique when other people behave badly, especially when it is directed at you, is to practice compassion for the person. To wonder, “Huh, if she is that critical about me, I’ll bet she is that critical of herself. Wow, that must be hard.” I know, it’s a stretch. But it is worth a shot, and with a little practice you might get the hang of it and find yourself crying a lot less.
I spent two years being beaten up by people who, I found out later, saw trying to get consultants to quit as a competitive sport. Crying in the ladies room almost daily, but sticking with it, really did make me stronger. Some days you will be better at it than others. Think of the rest of your time with Meany as training to toughen up. It will serve you well for the rest of your working life. Try to get a bead on Meany’s intentions. If she really is out to get you, you probably should try to find another job. I know the job market is daunting, but there is always a job for someone who works hard and is competent. Just take your time, be persistent, and don’t give up. But if Meany is just kind of oblivious, you might be able to learn to be okay with it. Give her the benefit of the doubt, continue to do excellent work, and ride it out. Others are probably having the same experience, so chances are Meany will be promoted out of your area (yes, it happens, the senior executives in some organizations are so conflict-averse—I see it all the time) or fired.
You can dig deep and find your courage. You can get stronger. Remember what you are good at, and the value you bring. Breathe. Cry when you must, laugh when you can. Keep showing up.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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