A reader writes:
My boss frequently tells me I “have a face on” while he is conversing with me about issues that have arisen in meetings. Obviously I’m not doing this on purpose, and I keep my face as neutral as I can. But I’m young, I’m extremely busy/stressed at work, and he is often incredibly unhelpful.
There is also a small part of me that feels like he says it to belittle me. Because I honestly have no idea what my response should be, and I don’t know what it achieves to point out that my face is showing frustration (or whatever it is he’s seeing).
How would you respond? Is there a secret way to keep everything I’m feeling off my face?
I wrote back and asked: “Do you think that your face does look frustrated? Are you feeling frustrated/stressed during these conversations (and is it believable that it might be showing)? Or is it just like your normal face and he’s mis-reading you?” The letter-writer’s response:
I’m often stressed during the meetings, so yes it’s entirely possible I’m pulling a face. But definitely not on purpose.
Okay. So, if in fact your face is showing frustration, your boss is making a reasonable point (although using rather juvenilizing language to do it).
If he’s giving you feedback or delegating work or having any of the other routine conversations that a manager will have with you, it is a problem if you regularly look frustrated. With most professional jobs, you’re expected to manage your emotions so that you’re not injecting negativity into these sorts of interactions. Regularly looking pissed off while talking with your manager isn’t good; you’ve just got to have more of a poker face than that.
Obviously that’s easier said than done, but a lot of it stems from mindset. Ideally in these conversations your mindset would be open/collaborative/problem-solving. You want to come across as if you’re seeking to understand your boss’s point of view more than feeling resistant to it. It’s not that you can’t disagree, but you’re going to get the best results if you listen to him with an open mind, even if after mulling it over later, you decide you totally disagree.
It also might help to simply practice keeping your face in a reasonably neutral position. You don’t need to have a rah-rah expression, but there’s a difference between “I’m calmly taking in what you’re saying” and “I hate what you’re saying.”
There’s more advice on developing a poker face here.
Meanwhile, assuming that you’re not going to master this overnight, if he says something about it again, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t mean to. I’m focusing on listening to what you’re saying/trying to figure out X/working with you to address Y.” If relevant, you can add, “I’ll admit that I am pretty stressed because of X” or “I’m having trouble understanding Y — can we talk more about that?” or whatever makes sense in the context.
But all that said, it sounds like the bigger issue is: What’s going on that has you so frequently stressed and unhappy in your conversations with your boss? Are the two of you regularly out of sync on how work should be done? Is he just a jerk? Not good at his job? Giving you lots of critical feedback? Giving you an unrealistic workload? Ideally, with whatever’s at the root of it, you’d either discuss it head-on, or decide that he’s not going to change and that you need to decide if you can work there reasonably happily knowing that this is part of the package.
But continuing to work there while looking obviously upset a lot isn’t a good option. That’s going to impact how others perceive you and over time will impact your reputation.