what does it mean if your boss says you have a “bad attitude”?

usnewsYou might think that if you do good work, that’s all your boss will care about. But most managers care an enormous amount about attitude and interpersonal skills as well.

If you’ve ever been told you have a “bad attitude” or an “attitude problem,” that’s a real danger sign for your career, or at least for your current job. At U.S. News & World Report today, I break down what “bad attitude” really means. You can read it here.

{ 144 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Michelle

    I admit that I have issues with #3 (You roll your eyes or have other visibly negative facial expressions in meetings.) I don’t roll my eyes, but I have been told I have a very “expressive face”, so I do have to be careful in meetings, especially when someone hijacks them and goes off on a tangent (see previous article comment on bows).

    I generally try to sit in the back and if something is really bugging me, I use a sheet of paper or folder to shield my face until I can go neutral.

    Reply
    1. afiendishthingy

      I also have to try really hard to control my expressive face, and I don’t always succeed! Got me a lot of compliment as a choral singer, not so much in meetings.

      Reply
      1. Apparatchic

        I struggle with this SO MUCH, and it doesn’t help that I have serious RBF even when I’m feeling completely neutral. Add feeling dubious or annoyed and my face betrays me way more than I’d like. The only reason I’d ever consider Botox!!!

        Reply
    2. Artemesia

      This was one that was hard for me early in my career as well, particularly when I worked for a boss for a time whom anyone would be rolling eyes in their imagination if not openly. It is very much worth learning to control your expressiveness if you want to be a professional.

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    3. Emmy

      Yes! I have this. Early in my career, apparently I rolled my eyes in a meeting and my boss pulled me aside right after and kindly but clearly told me not to do it again. I’ve been more aware of my face ever since. I’m so grateful she said something instead of avoiding a hard conversation.

      Reply
      1. Talvi

        I got called out for this in high school. It was the first day of grade 10 and we had double math (one block before lunch and one after). Apparently my disappointment and irritation in doing more Pythagorean theorem after lunch was very visible on my face. (I was good at math and couldn’t figure out why we needed to spend two blocks on the Pythagorean theorem in grade 10 when we’d already been using it for years in junior high. I wanted to learn new math!)

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    4. Tegdirb

      I still think that one is sexist as I don’t see men getting called out for it as often – or ever – as I do for women. If they’re not actually rolling their eyes or full-on sneering than people need to get over it.

      Reply
  2. Katie the Fed

    It’s such a pain to manage people like this. And when your manager dreads talking to you, you’re in trouble. I’d far rather deal with the people who take on new tasks with enthusiasm and actually come to me to work toward a solution to problems, than someone who gives me grief on every little thing.

    And if you can’t get past your frustrations in a constructive way, you need to find a new job.

    Reply
    1. hayling

      I worked with someone who was technically great with his job, but he was super negative and never wanted to take on new work. He was ultimately let go because of it.

      Reply
  3. Laura

    As someone who has “resting b**** face,” I struggle with #3 quite often because it’s easy to interpret my facial expressions in a negative way. I’m not naturally a very smiley person, but I’m working on it. I’m also trying to improve my “fake it ’til you make it” mindset, which helped me a lot when I was stressed about starting my new job. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with my position now, so I don’t have to fake it quite as often anymore.

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    1. Jennifer M.

      I too have RBF. So I try to use other body language to counter it. Not crossing my arms unless it is objectively cold in the room to make it seem like I’m more open. Leaning forward to appear engaged. Etc.

      Reply
      1. PlainJane

        This. RBF doesn’t bother me, but when a person’s facial expressions and body language are negative, especially accompanied by impatient sighs or eyerolls, we have a problem.

        Reply
    2. Ama

      Yup, I have this problem, too. It apparently gets worse if I am concentrating, which was a particular problem when I worked a partial reception job and had a desk where approaching clients could see my face. My boss told me there were complaints that I “didn’t look like [I] wanted to help people,” when mostly I just hadn’t seen them yet, because I was focused on my screen.

      I had to get a lot better at looking up every so often so I could preemptively put my “pleasant listening face” on. It was a fine short term solution — the long term solution, when I realized that approach was making it impossible for me to complete anything complicated, was to find a job that didn’t have any reception duties in it. Now I have a job where my client interaction is event based, so I can just be “on” for the duration of the event.

      Reply
  4. Knitting Cat Lady

    You raise valid points!

    Framing it as an ‘attitude problem’ is bad communication, IMO.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Absolutely — I always tell managers to be specific about the behaviors that they’re concerned with and stay away from “attitude problem.” But since not all managers listen to me (!), it’s useful for people to know what it means when they hear it.

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      But it can also be really hard to quantify this.

      These “soft” issues can be so hard–a manager has to be really confident. Because the person w/ the “attitude” has the whole “it’s all in your perceptions” argument to fall back on. “What? You’re interpreting it wrong!”

      It reminds me of the teacher baiting I saw in high school–“I wasn’t REALLY being disrespectful!”

      Reply
        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

          I had a boss early on tell me early on that when I sunk low in my chair, I looked “like a sullen teenager” in a meeting and it told everyone I didn’t want to be included it the meeting.

          It was helpful because it was specific and actionable.

          Reply
        2. PlainJane

          And apparently a lot of managers don’t do this. I did something like this with an employee, and he thanked me. He said it was the first time a manager ever discussed specific problematic behaviors with him, and he did his best to improve.

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        3. bearing

          I use this language with my kids all the time. I still remember the sting of being castigated for my “disrespectful tone” or my “rude facial expressions” as a child. I wasn’t trying to be rude or dsrespectful! Often I left these disciplinary conversations more confused than ever, no closer than before to knowing how to avoid “rudeness” in the future, and embarrassed and ashamed that an adult thought me deliberately rude.

          It taught me never to assume that I know what a child is thinking, andto be specific. Not “don’t you give me that face, young lady!” but a teachable moment — “when you roll your eyes, adults may get the impression you are communicating irritation.” Not “don’t ignore me!” but “Please take your earbuds out and look me in the eye when I speak to you — otherwise I am not sure you are hearing me.”

          So much more positive than what I remember.

          Reply
  5. Lauren

    Sometimes, it isn’t you though. I was gaslighted into thinking it was me, but my boss was just a jerk – who was trying to instill fear into me that I was going to lose my job instead of me asking for more money. When I had great numbers, the excuse of a no raise became about my attitude, which usually started with ‘you girls …’. He was lumping me in with other women in the office who were grumpy and negative. I went to lunch with them; therefore, he assigned that negativity to me. All excuses.

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    1. LJL

      Very true…I’ve been there myself. which is why you should take it as one piece of information to evaluate.

      Reply
    2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

      I often have to be the Eeyore in meetings (though AAM had a fantastic post about this a while back that was super helpful).

      There is nothing worse than hearing that “Not the Droid has an attitude problem” because I can’t bend the laws of time and space.

      Reply
  6. Christian Troy

    I am wondering if you have any advice when people interpret your personality as a bad attitude. I am a pretty quiet person who isn’t particularly emotive; I like talking and working with people but I am not loud or highly expressive. My previous boss read this as me having a bad attitude and I just didn’t get it at all. I always offered to take on new tasks and help with whatever needed done but it just seemed like being I wasn’t extroverted, I had a “bad attitude”.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer

      Honestly, this boils down to “you have to fake being cheerful and extroverted.” You have to give the people what they want and what they want are smiles.

      Reply
      1. Katie the Fed

        I don’t think that’s true. I don’t want smiles – I just want to not get a bunch of negativity when I ask you to do something.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I agree. Certainly there are some bad bosses who are looking for fake cheeriness. But in general, that’s not the deal — not being negative and all the other stuff I listed in the article does not mean you have to be fake smiley all the time.

          Reply
          1. Maxwell Edison

            Toward the end of my time at ToxicJob, my manager wasn’t happy with me unless I had a vague half smile on my face; basically I pretended I’d had a glass of wine.

            Reply
            1. Master Bean Counter

              At oldtoxic job I actually considered drinking on the job. Seriously considered it. But then the boss came in drunk all the time, I figured somebody needed to be sober.

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            2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

              Yup. Old toxic boss wanted me to respond to everything enthusiastically and I wasn’t allowed to say anything negative ever. I got so ridiculously good at couching things.

              “It’s such a great idea that you want to touch the hot stove, I’m surprised no one else has thought of it. I just want to make sure we have worked together to brainstorm all possible conclusions. Do you think that you might get burned?”

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              1. AMG

                Jamie (Hello Kitty an cupcakes Jamie) had a good response to this. It was something along the lines of ‘okay, great. If we want to do that we will need to go and print documentation for everyone advising them of the pain that comes from touching a hot stove, make sure we have cool running water, and lots of burn ointment. Resulting lawsuits will cost $X and will take Y time to resolve. Should we go ahead and get started?’ Let them know the risks and let them figure out that we should not be touching hot stoves on their own. Or they can go ahead and do it. Either way.

                Reply
            1. TootsNYC

              This is a really good tactic. Say this, even if you immediately think that it’ll snag because of XYZ, and then -later-, go back and say, “I’ve started this, but I’m finding XYZ.” Or, bring it up in the second half of the conversation.

              Reply
      2. John

        It’s not just demeanor. No one wants an employee who is burning with hostility that is thinly masked. “Bad attitude” is just that. It’s having a view toward work generally or a certain job that makes you miserable to be around (and to be!). You ask me, the key is not just to fake it but to figure out how to be happy there or vamoose.

        Reply
    2. fposte

      Sometimes it’s a fit thing–that’s another reason why “bad attitude” is unhelpfully general. Some people like a flight-attendant perky crew and see anything different as sullen, for instance.

      Reply
      1. F.

        I wanted to say the same thing: sometimes it’s just a bad fit. At my previous employer, my last manager was very emotive and loud, she wore her emotions on her sleeve. She was all about relationships and to hell with whether or not the work got done. I am rather quiet and serious and more about getting the work done first, then socializing. She said I had a “bad attitude”, though she never did tell me exactly what she meant by that, even when asked.

        Reply
      2. Laura

        So glad you brought this up. It is SO important to know the culture of the workplace you’re entering– that’s why it’s good to see the place in action when you can!

        One of my previous employers has a relentlessly upbeat corporate culture. Pretty soon after starting, I realized that it probably wasn’t a good fit because even as people quit in droves, management pretended everything was hunky-dory and refused to acknowledge the issues right in front of us. All workplaces have flaws, but I prefer companies to actually address them!

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        1. Mockingjay

          Laura, you just described my current workplace!

          I realized sometime ago that the source of my unhappiness at work was an extreme mismatch of company culture and my work preferences. I am still looking for another job.

          In the interim, I have been dialing back my RBF and BEC behaviors (mostly succeeding…). Figuring out that the mismatch in expectations was causing the issues helped me immensely. I now let go of a lot of stuff that used to irritate me no end. I won’t ever like it here, but I can get through the day.

          Reply
      3. art_ticulate

        Yuuuuup. My most recent job was this kind of workplace. I tried and tried and tried, but kept getting comments from the ED via my supervisor that she didn’t like how I wasn’t cheerful enough when saying hello, didn’t make enough conversation in elevators, didn’t smile enough during meetings, didn’t go to coworkers offices to make small talk that wasn’t work-related etc. I struggle with anxiety disorder as well, so I was having a VERY hard time there, and I had a couple of incidents where I was not at my best because I was just worn out from it all and felt defeated. My boss thought I was making great progress, even though she knew it was all fake smiley-ness on my part, but the ED kept telling her I had a bad attitude anyway. My performance was awesome, but in the end, the ED wanted someone super upbeat and perky, and that was never going to be me. I never could figure out what specifically would have made the ED happy.

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        1. Snowy Day

          Yes, add me to this concept of poor fit being equal to a ‘bad attitude.’ Where I am currently is an incredibly toxic place and people in the local community have without exception told me this. Which is good because I also find it very disorienting and toxic. Lots of mean spirited angry gossip, things like that. Good times.

          Anyway, I am a sunny and outgoing person. Happy and friendly, funny and even playful! I love people and being around them. They despise me and there is a group that always likes to point out what a failure and F#-up I am, and how I don’t fit in with them. (Yeah for that!)

          So yes, you could say under the circumstances I do have an attitude problem, but it is a relative concept. Sometimes you will never fit in and you need to just be careful and leave.

          Reply
          1. art_ticulate

            My office was on an entirely different floor from all of my colleagues except my supervisor, so I was often unaware of what was even going on upstairs. When I left (well… was fired), I started hearing from other people that my workplace’s reputation in the community isn’t very good, and that it’s pretty common knowledge that it’s a toxic workplace. Which was a relief to hear, because our HR person constantly tried to gaslight me and said, in front of my supervisor, that it was obvious I was incapable of understanding what was wrong with me. My supervisor told me once, “No one would care if you were good at your job if you had a different personality.”

            They actually are a quite mean-spirited, gossipy group, but put up a front of being sweet and nice. Colleagues on the other floor of offices constantly told me to be glad I didn’t have to be up there because it was unbearable, yet being on a different floor clearly didn’t help either. There was no way to win. I was the third person in four years to have this job, and I had it for two years, so that should probably tell you something.

            I can definitely be sunny sometimes! And in the past, colleagues have told me they think I’m funny. But everyone here just looked at me like I was crazy when I tried to be humorous, and I was constantly interrupted and talked over during meetings. At some point, you just give up, you know? The ED told my supervisor once that she didn’t understand why I was in a job that involved working with the public because she thought I was so bad at it, yet she never actually observed me doing my job, or saw how many compliments I got for my enthusiasm. I suppose, like you, I did have an ‘attitude problem’, but it really was more a product of the environment, and my exacerbated anxiety (which reached a point where I was having daily anxiety attacks and vomiting up food), than an actual problem.

            Reply
    3. K.

      I had similar feedback in my first job, only mine was that I didn’t seem “engaged,” even though I did all my work, regularly/positively interacted with the team, etc. While ultimately I left that job because it wasn’t a good cultural fit (and I’d never be the happy-go-lucky assistant my boss craved), it did make me think about being more proactive in my future jobs. Making sure I go to check in regularly with my managers without their prompting, saying hi in the mornings to teammates and peripheral colleagues…even if the dreaded small-talk risked me missing out on my beloved morning coffee-and-email checking ritual. Most importantly, I started making sure that I demonstrated excitement, especially about the projects that I’m actually excited about. These small tweaks have really helped a lot and they actually have helped energize me more than I expected, even if being/working alone is really where I get my true sustaining energy.

      And yeah, smiling more does help. I hate it as a woman, but I think it’s actually expected across gender lines more than we realize.

      Reply
      1. cardiganed librarian

        This is all very true for me as well, especially the part about making sure to demonstrate enthusiasm. I make a point of finding something I find interesting in my job to chat to my manager about, even when I don’t need her guidance really, which has helped build my reputation as someone who’s passionate about our field in a geeky way. I’m really not a natural leader and I’m definitely not bubbly or effervescent, but I want to make sure that’s not taken as lack of interest in the job.

        Reply
    4. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      I used to be like this — to some degree, I have had to adopt an outwardly cheerful persona to compensate for my default RBF and RBV. Even so, I’ve had my coworkers occasionally mention that I can be severe, stern, or a “take no s**t” kind of person. But it’s not so much about being flight attendant perky as it is about consciously communicating my actual feelings about my job (I enjoy it!) in a way that other people can understand.

      Example — I make a point to smile when I’m given new assignments, because I love new assignments and tend to devour additional responsibility like candy. Ordinarily I might not smile, but I’m doing it so make sure I’m actually communicating delight and not accidentally coming off as sarcastic.

      I think the mindset to approach it with is a matter of thinking about what you want to communicate and how you want to communicate it. So even if your natural behavior isn’t very emotive, maybe you determine that you need to find a way to add emotiveness so that you come across the way you want to.

      If all else fails, be an elcor and just state your intended emotional expression when you speak :P [/nerrrrrd]

      Reply
      1. Papyrus

        Appreciative, I understand this reference. ;)

        I wish I could talk like an Elcor sometimes, because my monotone voice plus RBF makes me come off like Daria or a robot most days, and most people don’t know when I’m happy/sad/joking/whatever.

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      2. darthita

        Excitedly, this is the second ME reference I’ve made today at work.

        (Wearing my N7 hoodie; I was getting lunch and the guy next to me said to his friend, “Omg, she’s got a Mass Effect hoodie!”, so I gave him my best Jennifer Hale and said, “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite cafeteria on the Citadel.”)

        Reply
    5. Heather

      Fellow introvert here; I know EXACTLY what you mean! I’ve worked in several extrovert-dominated offices and learned quickly that the most visible person typically gets the most praise regardless of the quality of their work. Also, as a woman, there’s often this expectation for us to be highly attentive and nurturing when talking to others, so if we don’t squeal with delight when a coworker brings in their dog or a baby, we’re considered “standoffish.” It’s definitely not fair, but it is what it is, so I recommend “faking the funk.” Smile, nod, walk around the office, and have a few chats….then do whatever you need to do to reground yourself. For me, that’s having lunch alone or stepping outside for some fresh air.

      Oh, and if someone calls you on it, force them to be specific. Ask them, “Can you give me an example of something I’ve done or said that makes you think I have a bad attitude so I can work on it?” If they have proof, accept it. If not….it could be gaslighting.

      Reply
      1. Rabbit

        My boss tends to label my defensiveness as “bad attitude” (in my defense [ha!], he often gives conflicting and confusing instructions, so when I’m asking for clarification or explaining why I did something the way I did, he calls it “bad attitude”), so I worry that asking for specific incidents so I could work on it would cause him to explode. :/

        Reply
        1. TempestuousTeapot

          +100

          Add to that being so excited to actually get feedback (or any information at all in my organization) that you ask questions to feel out for the details wanted and now you are also argumentative just for wanting to be certain you understand what was good, wrong, could be better, and what the actual expectations are. So very frustrating. I love my career and the mission & vision of my organization, but some days getting anyone to communicate is akin to pulling teeth. I know this can be better.

          Reply
  7. hayling

    I worked with a guy who was super concerned about what was in it for him. He was constantly complaining about his salary (and he was in Sales, which meant that if he spent more time working instead of complaining, he could have increased his comp!). He didn’t want to take on new projects without getting a raise first. He didn’t get that raise — he got a pink slip.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      I tried to counsel one of our admins on this. Her main source of work left the company and we just didn’t need what she did; he was the last of the productive stars who dictated rather than just typed his own drafts. We did have a couple of important needs quite different from what she was doing but that required only effort and willingness to make a change, not some scary technical expertise. All she could do is complain about new work and not getting a raise, when the issue was ‘we don’t need you.’ She could simply not hear me when I said ‘You know if you could step up and do A and B you would have a job here forever, because we can’t hired a new person for that and we desperately need it.’ I was pretty much that direct with her and she still couldn’t hear it and ended up being fired. To the end her issue was ‘why am I not getting more money because people want me to do new things.’

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      I work with some people who frequently say, “it’s not my job,” and their slightly frowny expressions when you bring them their work (they’re next in the process to us, so it’s just how it goes), and their slightly skeptical and annoyed-sounding tone of voice make them seem like they’re annoyed with you for asking the slightest thing. I could actually have some specific comments on actual actions they do that make them just ultra annoying to work with.

      Reply
  8. CMT

    I’ve been going through (a hopefully temporary) cynical period lately. In all areas of life, not just work. I’m pretty conscious of it, and I really, really try to keep it at bay at work because I know it’s not professional, but if anybody has any advice on how to do this successfully, I’m all ears!

    Reply
    1. LQ

      When I had a period that was really severe of this I focused on the 2 p’s and put all my effort and enthusiasm into them.
      Projects and problems. If you brought me a project or a problem I would happily focus in on that. Because a project or a problem is something I can work on. Printer isn’t working? I can fix it. You have a project to talk to 10 people a day? I can do it. I couldn’t hold onto enthusiasm for the nebulous things, but I could remind myself to focus my effort on the Projects and the Problems.

      Reply
    2. Artemesia

      I am deeply cynical and find that my dubious view is pretty much spot on most of the time — but it is very wearing to be around people like that and so I really have tried to rein it in as much as possible. It helps to be conscious about the occasions when it is likely to emerge and a. just shut up and say nothing unless you are sure your grim prognosis will actually change the outcome b. have a set of positive responses you trot out whenever possible ‘I’d be happy to do that.’ ‘What a great idea.’ ‘Let me take care of that.’ It does work. And the acid should be saved for when it might actually be helpful rather than just ‘right.’

      Reply
  9. Jennifer

    *sigh* I do everything but 5 and 7. I know I have a bad attitude and am miserable. I can’t get another job, I am trying to fake being happy and perky as hard as I can. Though the cynicism actually helps me cope because it’s just easier to go “That’s how things are here” and accept it rather than get angry when something else happens again. I’m trying to lie down and do what they say and smile so hard my face falls off. But I admit it’s hard to hear feedback because we are nitpicked about the slightest of things all the time and it’s exhausting and depressing.

    Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Are you getting shit for not being optimistic and hopeful or for being negative and cynical? There’s a difference, and you say above that you’re doing five of the seven problematic things I talk about in the article, which would lead me to think it could easily be the latter.

          For what it’s worth, I think that mindset comes across pretty strongly in your posts here (to be totally blunt, it’s painful at times to read how negative your job has made you, because it’s such a damaging thing) so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what you’re hearing about at work too.

          Reply
          1. Dynamic Beige

            That’s what’s so insidious about a bad job. I started LastJob full of enthusiasm for all the great things I was going to get to do and learn. I’m not going to say it was a total bait and switch but… cultural dynamics and institutional structuring (or not) of a workplace can turn a good employee into a bad one. That whole “corporations are people” crap just gets me angry. No, they’re not. They’re run by people. Lots and lots of people. Those people may be awesome or they may be awful. Someone I know was in a division with a manager who was terrible. They were put into such a bad state by the way this person “managed” their team that they went to therapy. After admitting defeat (and who really likes to do that?) and transferring out to a different project team, they were astonished by how they had been set up to fail and allowed themselves to go down that path. They are now happy with their job at the same company.

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            1. Doriana Gray

              This sounds like me and the story of my last job within my same company. I went into my previous division with so much enthusiasm to learn, and loved all of the really cool cases I was able to work on (I was the junior-most member of the team, and yet, I was the only one handling cases across all of our lines of business). But my manager’s constant negativity and bullying behavior towards my coworkers wore me out. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I told her I wanted to leave, and then she turned on me too.

              It was an awful three-four months while I desperately applied to dang near every internal position in sight. She went out of her way to try and make my life hell. I was miserable, and it showed. People were constantly asking me if I was okay because I wasn’t the happy, smiling person I was before. But now that I’m in my new position and thriving, I’m back to being my regular old good natured self. Sometimes all you really need is a change of scenery to change your outlook.

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            2. A Definite Beta Guy

              That’s what’s so insidious about a bad job

              Yep.
              Toxic Jobs warp you in ways not easily fixed.

              Jen,
              I feel your pain. My Team Lead is actively picking out obscure facets of the job to show I am not “catching” things. Today he “found” a file our BPO team submitted without review over the weekend….on an assignment not assigned to me, of course.
              I may have brought in $850,000 over the last month but that’s just not anyone’s concern. There’s an infinite amount of work and always SOMETHING not working at 100%.
              We also received an all-corporate communication encouraging us to wear flair. So we can express ourselves. Seriously.

              Reply
          2. Katie the Fed

            I have a friend right now who is in kind of a death spiral with her job – they treated her really badly, so she got really negative about it. But when she got new management she was still SO bitter about the way she was treated that she made a terrible impression on her manager, who then then sidelines her, which makes her angry, and so on.

            As a friend, I’m sympathetic. But as a manager, I’ve told her the best thing she can do is pretend she loves her job and make an effort and see if things start to improve. Because right now it’s just this self-reinforcing cycle that keeps getting worse.

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          3. AMG

            I have so been in that death spiral where you hate everything. What a gift to have a place like AAM where a pro like Alison can recognize it in you and help you with it. I hope you get out of there soon. It can really change who you are and how you view yourself.

            Reply
            1. Windchime

              I’m in that death spiral right now. I know I need to break out of it but I don’t know what that means. I probably need to keep trying to pull out of the dive but there comes a point when pulling the eject lever is the prudent thing to do.

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          4. Not So NewReader

            We have had a couple times now where people asked on the open work forum about their toxic jobs and how to cope.

            Alison, have you done a post about what happens if you force yourself to stay in a toxic job? The back sliding starts off so slow and people do not even notice how far off course they have gone after a while.

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        2. Dynamic Beige

          This has always been my attitude. I’m a realist. But because I’m not overflowing with joy at whatever someone has proposed (because I’m thinking it through, usually and often because my instincts are yelling about how this is No Good), I’m negative. I just can’t fake enthusiasm. If I could, I know I would have gotten much further ahead.

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        3. Shell

          I don’t remember anything about your job so this is a shot in the dark. Alison likely will come up with a more nuanced response, but I think the difference between cynical and realistic is often the way you phrase it.

          Clueless colleague: Let’s do Impossible Thing X because that sounds so fantastic and everyone will love it and Team A can just add it to their plates, no delays or overtime needed, right? Awesome!

          Realistic response: Actually, Team A is pretty swamped with Priority Y and Z. I also think executing X will be difficult because of Reasons. The advantages to X may also be limited due to More Reasons. What do you think?

          Cynical response: *eyeroll* X will never work, are you kidding me?

          The point isn’t that X will never work, but that X will not work given the particular circumstances–which means if the circumstances change (Team A gets taken off Y and Z, or the difficulties in executing X are solved, or whatever) it can very well be possible again. Both cynical and realistic perspectives are clear that X will not work with the present circumstances, but cynical presents it very negatively (often in absolutes) while realistic presents their perspective contingent on the current factors.

          A lot of times the difference between cynicism and realism–at least with reasonable people–is just presentation.

          Reply
          1. AMG

            In a case like this, data is your friend. Team A is spending 53 hours a week on tasks A-F. Adding G will add another 3 hours per person, per week. If there are delays, we are looking at 2 more hours, and the cost of overtime will be $X. So the whole cost for New Process is $X+$Y. Here are 2 other options that may also be a value add. Here is the cost and the impact to the team. Let’s look at the best option.

            Reply
            1. Shell

              I love quantifiable numbers, and I totally agree that they back up your case wonderfully. But I think you can still make your case without the numbers if you don’t have them on hand (though of course, the numbers makes for a stronger case). Sometimes pointing out the downfalls in a polite, collaborative fashion, even without hard data, can get the visionaries to reconsider their rose-coloured-glasses outlook.

              Sometimes.

              Reply
              1. JaneB

                My boss HATES when I use numbers and a calm tone, he says it’s “patronising”.

                Basically ANYTHING other than “wow that’s brilliant” is punished with a bad attitude accusation.

                As he’s been imported in as manager from an organisation which served a much better prepared student base and was much more affluent, many of his ideas would have been good in that environment but have either been tried and failed here repeatedly, or just aren’t feasible with the resources we have – he gets really annoyed that students don’t come to ‘optional’ events here, for example, and blames it on negative attitudes from the staff, but many of our students work near full time jobs and have family responsibilities as well as their studies, so these things aren’t a priority for them. Pointing that out to him, and maybe suggesting an event should take place between two classes during the day rather than an evening, gets branded as having a negative attitude, when all I was trying to do was make his idea work for our context.

                And yes, this IS making me more likely to be cynical, have a bad day etc., surprisingly enough. I have depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, which are medicated but not perfectly controlled, especially the GAD – even though my job seems to be quite secure I am irrationally afraid it will disappear tomorrow, every time he complains about my attitude, so I have layers of over-reaction to deal with too!

                Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        the advantage of realism over cynicism is that I think a cynic still partly wants it to be different. A realist says, “This is how it is, and I will cope with that, and not waste time and energy complaining that it should be different. I’ll detach, and not get upset or unhappy when things are different than I wish they are.”

        There is POWER in “that’s just the way they are” and “it is what it is.”

        Reply
        1. LQ

          I think this is important. As a realist you can focus on what you can actually do something about. Oh the printer isn’t working. I can do something about that. We have a working printer, success!

          Not everyone is angry and upset because the weather is bad or the supervisor is unhappy or a law passed. I can’t do anything about those things so that’s just what it is.

          (It doesn’t mean I never go home and be upset with it, but when I was at the worst job for me this was absolutely how I got through things, focus on what I could do something about.)

          Reply
        2. Murphy

          This is so true. I’ve worked hard to get to a “it is what it is” place a lot of the time. We’re going through a horrible re-org right now with no end in sight of the badness. I’m at the point where I just shrug my shoulders, try to influence where I can, and shake my head at the rest. I can’t fix it all, so why am I using my mental energy to control things that are out of my control.

          Reply
  10. The Alias That Gloria Is Living Under, A.A., B.S.

    Oh, yes. My manager told me I’m too cynical. And I don’t think she’s wrong, I think I can be cynical. But I also think it’s more like I’m managing my expectations. Which are very, very low based on previous experience here. I didn’t start this job being cynical.

    Reply
    1. Mike C.

      I don’t understand why being cynical in general is a bad thing. Being able to anticipate failure is a rather useful ability.

      Reply
      1. LQ

        I don’t think being cynical is anticipating failure. I know plenty of people who are cynical but who can’t plot things out 2 days or 2 months or 2 years in advance and go, oh this is likely to be the points where this is going to fail and this is ways to work around them.
        I think you can anticipate and plan for potential failure without being cynical too.
        (I do think anticipating and planning for failure/pain points/whatever is an extremely good skill though.)

        Reply
        1. Windchime

          We have a manager who has come up with ideas that simply will. not. work. Not “will only work if A, B, and C can happen”, but “will not work due to the current laws of physics”. Expressing that will get you nothing but grief from Manager and Grand-Manager, though, so we are all learning to just stay quiet and let things fail. Of course, when it does fail, then it’s up to the team to figure out how to fix the production system while we are under the gun.

          So yeah, I can see that I’m getting a little cynical. It’s hard not to when in this type of situation.

          Reply
        2. TootsNYC

          I’m not cynical at all, at least not naturally–but I can totally anticipate failure or difficulty.

          Reply
      2. LQ

        Also “this is going to fail” isn’t the same as “this is going to fail when we turn it on because we don’t have enough bandwith so we need to increase our bandwith by 15% and then ideally we should do a graduated rollout to smooth it out”. One of those is incredibly useful, the other less so.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          Or, “This needs X bandwidth; can we increase ours by 15%, or switch to a graduated rollout? Otherwise this could fail.”

          Sometimes it’s all in how you start the conversation.

          Reply
          1. JaneB

            My boss just says I’m wrong if I say anything like that, and that I have a bad attitude.

            I cannot win, basically!

            My FORMER boss knew I could be kinda negative, but responded well to those sort of phrasing… so it’s not entirely me!

            Reply
      3. AMG

        I think that’s being a realist. I would look at cynical as saying, ‘who cares, it all fails anyway because of this whole company’.

        Reply
  11. Rebecca

    I know need to find a new job before I get fired. And no, I can’t take on any more work. I’m saddled with a double workload as it is, and due to other coworker’s medical issues, even more work on top of that. Our system is horrible, and one of the primary blockades to any type of meaningful productivity. I have been told not to expect any further raises, ever. So, no matter how cheerful I am, or if I kill myself by working 24 hours a day, there is no reward in the end. My manager is openly hostile. Just today, she approached me about another coworker who needs to be trained on a process, and it’s not something I do and I’m not familiar with in the context of coworker’s issue. I said “I’m not familiar with all the steps needed for that process, but Jane uses this all the time for ACME Corp, so -” and I didn’t get to finish my statement. She frowned at me and stormed away.

    I tried to say that I would talk to Jane and perhaps we could come up with something together, but she never left me finish. She went to Jane about it, but didn’t explain much to her either, so whatever. This is just one example of many.

    So, it really doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do. It’s patently obvious I’m not wanted any longer. Not sure if it’s due to age, because I’ve worked here for a long time and because when we actually got merit increases and cost of living increases, I’m expensive to keep around, or what, but sheesh – try to at least cover up the open hostility until I can find a new job. I’m trying, honestly!

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, you can name for the person what you’re seeing and what the impact of it is, and what you’d like them to do differently. I’d also ask questions designed to ferret out if it’s in response to something fixable in our workplace, or even if it’s something I might be able to give them a different perspective on.

      After that, if it keeps happening, I’d repeat the above a second time if they otherwise do good work. But after that? It’s on them to fix it on their own, pretty quickly. If they don’t/can’t, they’re probably not the right person for the role.

      Reply
      1. Laura

        It’s also a good way to prompt the employee to think about how their personal life might be affecting their work life. If there’s turmoil at home or someone close to you is sick, it’s all too easy to allow those emotions into your “work self.”

        Reply
      2. Argh!

        What if it’s your boss that’s cynical and negative? It’s totally demoralizing and I know it’s not just me. There’s no point bringing a creative idea to her – she’ll shoot it down or say something snarky, then she wonders why I’m not creative.

        Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      I think that focusing on behaviors is really good. Do some thinking and observing: what is it that they specifically do (tone of voice, expression on face, gestures, posture, words, their framing of the problem or wht they’ll do) that makes you think they have a bad attitude.

      And, as Alison says above, what is the impact? Not just how does it make other people feel, but then what does that translate to in terms of productivity, accuracy, quality of work, etc.?

      I worked with a guy who was really mad all the time. He was in charge of meeting deadlines and workflow; we had a potluck lunch on a deadline day. We were actually all keeping things flowing–those of us with work arriving would whip back into our offices, close the door, and move the file along. But he was slamming around, tossing things on people’s desk, frowning expressions, barking orders at people (short imperative sentences), writing in slashing comments.

      I got the boss to sit down with me for a minute, and I said, “these are the things he is doing. And what happens is that when he treats people this way, they spend 7 to 15 minutes complaining to one another about it. It’s a ‘wound,’ and they apply a ‘salve’ right away–and we lose productivity because people are upset, and they’re expending energy to deal with that. It means we’re actually slower than we would be, and we aren’t as accurate in what we do. It’s having an actual cost, it’s not just that people don’t like it.”
      he said, “You’re the first person who has ever explained it that way.”

      So–think. observe. Write it out–specific actions they are doing.
      then tell them you want to see what OTHER actions. (We made the angry guy stop using red pens–it was hugely helpful.) Longer sentences; no commands, always would “would you?”, walk slower, always put new work in the in box instead of throwing it onto the desk in front of the person or jabbing it out at them imperatively.

      And tell them, “You can be annoyed–I don’t actually care what you think or feel. but you cannot act in ways that indicate to other people that you’re annoyed or pissed off, or that you think they’re stupid.”

      And tell them WHY: “Other people react to it this way, and then we lose focus, productivity, ease of communication.”

      Reply
      1. AMG

        And this is why I love data and metrics. When you break it down to people this way, it’s hard to lose.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          I hate mentions of data and metrics. I’ve so seldom had a job that could be measured, so when people advocate for numbers and quantified results, it just makes me itch and squirm.

          I could conceivably measure every thing I do at work–but that would be a full-time job.
          For a while, I *was* measuring every single thing my team did–it took forever. And I didn’t end up with information that was in any way different from what I was garnering from simple observation.

          Reply
  12. Sarah

    Do you think it’s worth going back later and apologizing when you acted in a visibly frustrated or annoyed manner, or just trying harder in the future not to let the irritation show?

    Reply
  13. Sami

    This is why I’m so glad I was a theatre major in college (for a hot minute) and took three or four acting classes. I know I have a RBF and the skills I learned in class really help.

    Reply
    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Ditto! Doing improv has done an enormous amount of good for my ability to consciously choose how to present myself. “I’ve got a stomachache and I sort of want to lie down and die, but I’m playing a super bouncy cheerleader right now — gotta do what I gotta do!”

      Reply
    2. Walnut

      Also all those creative writing workshops where all I was allowed to say was, “Thanks for your feedback,” with a pleasant and neutral expression!

      Reply
  14. voluptuousfire

    I cringe at the thought, but I was “that person” in a job a few years ago and it was awful. I mainly had a negative attitude because I was so stressed out due to micromanagement and little to no feedback (and any feedback was mixed). In a way, I’m still a bit embarrassed at how I handled some things there but when you’re stressed and not used to it

    I also have RBF and also have a bad habit at rolling my eyes at things I find ridiculous, which is luckily rare.

    Mindfulness (which is something I’ve been trying to practice lately) does help! Realizing what you may be doing involuntarily does help.

    Reply
  15. Lady Kelvin

    I have RBF, and I’ve found that I can reduce the severity of it by putting my tongue between my teeth (mouth closed, obviously). This works to un-clench your jaw, which then lessens makes you look less unhappy/annoyed.

    Reply
  16. Jeanne

    Bad attitude can mean the things listed in the article. It can also mean that your manager doesn’t like you and is trying to put you down. I had a manager who started with the bad attitude stuff. I asked for examples. Some were things like questioning things in meetings. Others were that I breathed funny and she took that as criticizing her.

    Because bad attitude is used by bad managers in such a “bad” way, it would be better for good managers to be more specific. Try new things before criticizing. Ask me before you reject assignments. Etc. Blanket statements like bad attitude aren’t really helpful.

    Reply
    1. Maxwell Edison

      I hear ya. I was told by my manager that I walked around with my head tilted, which was bad for reasons she couldn’t/wouldn’t explain (she also refused to believe me when I said I was unaware that I was doing this). So in addition to pretending I was mildly intoxicated so I’d have the facial expression she liked (a vague half smile) I also would pretend I was balancing a book on my head whenever I walked past her.

      Reply
  17. Newbie

    It’s somewhat implied within a few of these, but I’ve found that a person who is extremely resistant to change (“but we’ve always done it this way and no other way will ever work!”) is another behavior that comes across as a bad attitude.

    Reply
  18. Jimbo

    In my experience, “bad attitude” is often code for constant cynicism. I’ve seen this several times when a valuable employee resigned because they are unhappy, got a counter offer and then stayed. That employee will not magically be happy when money was not the primary reason they were leaving. I think you need to seriously consider why an employee is leaving and decide if you can actually address those concerns. A pay raise isn’t the answer for someone who is not being challenged by their work. If the response is we need you to keep stuffing envelopes but we’ll give you a 5% raise, the employer should just let the person leave.

    I’ve also seen this scenario play out many times when I worked for a poorly run company that overpaid their staff. Luckily, I was one of the very few that were paid accurately so I eventually left for a small increase but others were taking $15-20K decreases to leave. This was the perfect recipe for unhappy employees with bad attitudes that stay for literally decades.

    Reply
  19. SerfinUSA

    Retraining my RBF to a RVS (resting vapid smile) has done wonders for me. Wasn’t easy, and made me feel like a traitor to myself, but it cuts off about 75% of anyone giving me grief based on facial expression, and seems to allow more wiggle room for my cynical and snarky verbal expressions.

    Reply
  20. Just me

    In all honesty, sometimes your boss just pegs you as something negative and that colors their perception of you. I speak from experience. I also have resting bitch face, which he was very patronizing about. The only solution was to get out of there and find a new boss who doesn’t have a bad perception of me (I succeeded).

    Reply
  21. LAsouth40

    I was once told in a review that I needed to “be sweeter.” While there were some performance related issues I certainly wanted to improve on, the “be sweeter” really stuck under my skin and actually had the opposite of the intended effect. I improved my work performance but I was upset to get a sexist criticism like that and let it affect my attitude about anything else that came out of that manager’s mouth. I stuck it out for another year to get the marks for improved performance and quit the next week. I think everyone (me, manager, the company) are improved for the better.

    Reply
  22. Allison

    I had an attitude problem in my first job. Everything was fine at first, but after a reorg and some awesome people leaving I found myself working for someone I didn’t like, with people I didn’t like, and it really wore on me after a while. I haven’t really heard any complaints about my attitude in any job since, in fact people sound surprised when I mention the issue in my first job.

    Sometimes the person is just a mean, grouchy sourpuss, sometimes it’s the environment causing the problem.

    Also, I suspect the whole “bad attitude” thing is a great way to manage out someone you just don’t like. All you have to do is be a jerk and deliberately do things to make them grouchy, then give them a hard time for being grouchy which will make them even grouchier, and repeat the cycle until you have an excuse to fire them.

    Reply
  23. Nervous Accountant

    Someone (not a coworker) told me that maybe it was my eyebrows that made ppl think I was mean or not a nice person. (thin, high arch that looked good when I had a slimmer face but not so much when I gained a little).

    Very recent issues aside, that kind of did stop after I grew htem out to be a little fuller, so…maybe ther ewas truth to that.

    But teh whole “bad fit” thing just upsets and confuses me…I feel like it just gives managers and coworkers another excuse to bully those they may not like personally, like the breathing wrong example above.

    Reply
    1. LQ

      The eyebrows thing makes me want to blame cartoons. (And I love cartoons, but cartoonish eyebrows are absolutely a thing.)

      Reply
    2. LQ

      I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain how the bad fit thing can be really helpful. So I have 2 examples of places where I was or would have been a very bad fit. But not places where I would have been disliked or discriminated against or anything.

      A job that required talking to people all day. Helping them, being thoughtful and compassionate. Absolutely a job that people do and love, that for some people is deeply fulfilling. (It was for me too, it was just also completely and absolutely exhausting, I went home and to bed every day, it was horrible.) That job was a very bad fit. But the supervisor and coworkers all liked me just fine and I did well. It was a bad fit though.

      Another was a job I didn’t go for because I had a chat with a friend. The work environment was very friendly, lots of going out for drinks after work, lots of hanging out together. Parties for everything, baby showers, wedding, birthday, etc etc. It wasn’t required that people participate, but it was expected, more by the coworkers than supervisors. She loved the job because she loved her coworkers and really liked all that hanging out and being friendly stuff. It would have been a really bad fit for me. Not that people were bullying or being jerks. Just a bad fit for me. (I actually liked several of her coworkers that I met once when they ran into us in a restaurant. They were very nice. But going out for drinks with other human beings 3-4 times a week sounds awful to me.)

      (I’m an introvert!)

      Reply
    3. Katie the Fed

      I was talking to a fellow manager about this last week – specifically how hard it can be to separate our thoughts on someone’s personality from their performance. Because I have some employees who are good at what they do, but have really offputting personalities. And it gets hard to think of them seperately, especially because at some level your personality will affect your work. For example, what we do involves a lot of working with others – so if other people don’t want to work with you – that does become a work issue. But I also have to focus on the specifics – I can’t just tell someone “hey, your personality is bad – fix it.” But I can say “I’ve noticed you tend to be dismissive and blunt with other people and it’s impacting your ability to get what we need from this other team. Please be more receptive.”

      I don’t think there’s anything bullying-ish about that. There are some behaviors that fly in some offices that don’t fly in others.

      Reply
  24. Kate

    Is there a way to push back on criticisms in this vein if it is obviously gender-based? Before I was laid off from Oilfield Job, my final two reviews were completely positive with regards to progress and competence, but I was dinged for “not smiling enough” and “not making people comfortable”. I know for a fact that the men I worked with did not get feedback in that dimension. It’s bothered me for a long time, that I didn’t say anything in my own defense, but I still have no idea what I could have said.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’d try depersonalizing it a bit: “You know, there’s a lot of research that this type of feedback is often gendered — that women are dinged for not smiling enough while men don’t get similar feedback. I think Fergus and Bob are extremely effective, for example, but they’re not particularly smiley.”

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Meaning depersonalize it from the manager, that is. So it’s not “you are a sexist” but more like “this is a known problem that a lot of people have.”

        Reply
      2. Katie the Fed

        I spoke up in a meeting a couple weeks ago about this – the managers were discussing some personnel and it got a little uncomfortable in this regard. I said “statistically, women get criticized a lot more on personality traits vs performance, so I think we should really try to focus on performance because that more measurable and useful in feedback.”

        Reply
          1. Katie the Fed

            The women (the very few) were like “YES!” and the men didn’t really respond. But the funny thing is it was a woman doing much of the more personality-based criticism and I’m not sure she made the connection

            Reply
      3. Kate

        I think this would work really well in an office setting! I just can’t imagine saying it on an oil rig- it would sound so foreign, and not nearly aggressive enough to be effective. :)

        Reply
  25. Anonymity

    Cynicism bit me in the ass at my last job, enough that I was eventually put on a pip and later fired.

    It was probably not salvageable at that point, but it might have helped if my boss had kept her promises about alleviating some of the stress of the awful job* I was doing.

    *Awful as in the actual work was terrible and draining and nightmarish, not that I was awful at it.

    Reply
  26. Not So NewReader

    I think the open forum is generating more topics for your posts, Alison. Are you seeing that, also or am I over estimating what is there?
    The supply of questions and situations seems bottomless.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I have no shortage of emailed questions (too many to answer, actually!), so I don’t typically use the open thread that way (although occasionally I have asked someone if I can use a question here as its own post). I often also can’t read everything in the open threads anymore, although occasionally I get to and it’s quite enjoyable!

      Reply
  27. Catherd

    Got called into my boss’s office today to discuss a co-worker’s complaint that I had cut them out of a project. They had actually been invited to every project meeting and had refused to attend any m.

    By default I should be this co-worker’s greatest ally and they are doing themselves no favors with this behavior and I told boss as much. I did not mention the way coworker talks about the job or the organization, or certain other “bad attitude behaviors” …but we are to meet as a trio and work this out this week. I’m curious to see how this plays out, but I’m also quite furious.

    Reply
  28. V.V.

    I scanned the comments a bit, and would just like to mention that if you feel these things happening to you, whether it is because you have fallen into a rut or being gaslit, you may need to take it as a sign to find a way to move on.

    Once I realized I felt this way, and realized that I felt justified (whether I was or not) in feeling this way, I knew I could not continue on at Old Job. Once I knew my boss saw me a certain way, and realized that short of donating part of my liver that I’d ever change his perception (and vice versa), I could not see myself in this holding pattern.

    Possibly for years – him never having enough to fire me – though he really, *really* wanted to – and me stubbornly holding on to this situation despite being desperately unhappy – because I don’t quit.

    And it didn’t matter how I got to that point. I had a bad attitude and I knew it. I knew I would have a bad attitude as long as I worked there. I eventually figured out the only way I felt could redeem myself was to call it a day, and promise myself that next job I would fight not to let this happen again… because if I didn’t, I may as well have stayed at the highest paying job I have ever held.

    This was my personal experience of course, and I don’t know everyone’s story. Make no mistake, I put my family through hell when I made the choice to leave this job – a debt I struggle with to this day, but it was no good to stay, and let the bad attitude fester and get the better of me. In the end it would have crippled me.

    Reply
    1. NicoleK

      I agree that once your boss thinks of you as x, it is very, very difficult to change their mind. Thankfully, I came to that realization in a couple months and not a couple of years. I was not going to stick around after I realize that she would always see me that way and it would affect my future raises, bonuses, and our working relationship.

      Reply
  29. VictoriaHR

    I have struggled my entire working life with the nonverbal part. Only a couple of years ago did I finally see someone about my problems at work, and I was diagnosed with Asperger’s. I wish I’d known, when I was in my 20’s, that there are some conditions which make it difficult to mask or adapt one’s nonverbal communication. I spent way too many years feeling like I was a terrible person, because I was “spoken to” so much at work about having poor nonverbals.

    Reply
  30. Jessen

    Would anyone have advice on this topic for those of us dealing with mood disorders at work? One of my issues is that I have PTSD funks where I’m often barely holding myself back from crying. It has nothing to do with work, but I realize it can come across badly at work, especially when I feel extremely overwhelmed (again, usually nothing to do with work). Would it be good to make a manager aware that there might be an underlying mood disorder?

    Especially curious because I’m looking to mess with my medications and my reactions to them can be incredibly unpredictable – it might work, or it might make me an absolute mess, and there’s no way to tell in advance.

    Reply
  31. Vicki

    It means you and your current manager don’t sync well.

    It also means you need a different manager (or a new job).

    Reply

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