am I the office jerk?

A reader writes:

First, some background: My manager is pretty terrible. She’s very loud, rude, walks up to you while you are talking to a customer and just begins talking over you, and doesn’t have any idea what her direct reports are doing. It’s crappy, but she’s definitely not leaving any time soon. Her boss seems to know that she’s crappy in these ways, but doesn’t manage her much either. It is a given that neither of them will change.

Today, my manager pulled me into a meeting with her boss (our director) and told me there was a “concerning pattern of behavior.” There were three incidents in the past two months when I snapped at a coworker and upset them. As a regular reader of yours, I was very conscious of how I took in this feedback. I listened to what they had to say, and let my director know that I will definitely watch my volatility and reactive snapping moving forward. I also suggested that they give me feedback more immediately after the incident so I can see that it happened and apologize, if need be. I was calm in my demeanor and tone, if I do say so myself. Throughout the meeting, if I made any comment that seemed like it could be feedback back toward my boss, she immediately began arguing with me. Her boss was much more calm and simply had to talk over her at several points. I was reassured at the end of the meeting that this wasn’t a job-threatening incident and that, on the whole, the director thinks I’m doing a great job.

I did immediately apologize to the person who I had offended. She is someone I am friends with, and accepted the apology and was somewhat appalled that I had been slapped on the wrist for it. I take full responsibility for the fact that I had been too harsh in my tone and used aggressive wording. Hours later, however, I’m still feeling anxious and angsty about the issue. While I am glad we had the conversation, is the feedback just that my personality sucks?

What can I do to not be the office jerk? I don’t want to be the office jerk!

It’s hard to say! Usually the office jerk isn’t too worried about being the office jerk, sort of by definition … but there are definitely times when people are coming across as more difficult or prickly than they realize or intend, and it’s possible that’s you.

This is muddled by the fact that your manager doesn’t sound like an especially reliable source of feedback — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still have bad habits. Fortunately you sound pretty self-aware and open to being wrong, so we don’t have to rely exclusively on your manager’s assessment.

Do you agree that there have been three recent incidents where you used too harsh of a tone, snapped at someone, or used what you called “aggressive wording”? If so … yeah, that’s a problem. Snapping at a colleague is one of those things that’s so out of sync with what’s acceptable in most workplaces that doing even once is somewhere between notable and bad (where on that scale it falls depends on how harsh you were) — and doing it twice (regardless of where it falls on that scale) is enough to make it seem like a problematic pattern.

Since it sounds like you agree that there was at least one incident of this and possibly more, I’d take a look at what’s driving that. Are you frustrated by your job and it’s making you act in ways that are out of character for you? If that’s the case, that’s a flag to either find a way to keep it from impacting the way you’re operating or, if you can’t, to actively work to find a different job before the impact gets worse. Or did you sort of think the way you were talking to people was normal/okay? If so, it’s worth figuring out where that’s coming from — which could be anything from terrible modeling from your manager to more general workplace dysfunction to much more deeply-rooted stuff, like a family where harshness was normal.

The good news here is that you’ve done everything right since your manager and director raised this: You listened to the feedback with an open mind (despite the source), you promised to work on it going forward, you asked for more feedback in the future, you apologized to someone involved, and you’re trying to figure out if there’s more you need to do. Real jerks don’t do that stuff.

I’d say keep reflecting on it, maybe get some input from any trusted colleagues with good judgment and a decent amount of experience, work on your temper if in fact there’s an issue there, and consider if you’re operating in sync with the kind of coworker you want to be.

{ 101 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. WG

    You noted that the coworker that raised the concern is someone you consider a friend. Are you friendly enough that you could ask that person to call you on any future inappropriate behavior in the moment it’s occurring? It’s always best if you can self-regulate your behavior and actions so that issues don’t arise and apologies aren’t necessary. But having it called out should it happen again might help you determine the underlying cause to better manage/eliminate it.

    Reply
    1. Willow

      I got the impression the coworker didn’t raise the concern, since she was “appalled” that op was disciplined. Maybe the boss or another coworker witnessed the incidents?

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    2. FlibbertyG

      That said, I have dealt more than once with shy coworkers who could never admit to someone’s face that they HAD actually complained and that they WERE actually discomforted. They were extremely motivated to maintain the peace in-person and wanted to seem like they weren’t part of the problem. Even when directly confronted they denied making the complaint – but they had. They just felt like management should mediate for them.

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      1. Kindling

        This certainly happens, but I think even people who aren’t overly shy could be hesitant to confront a co-worker who has snapped and reacted poorly to criticism in the past. And in that case, management probably should be mediating for them – it is typically a part of their job.

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        1. Amber T

          It’s also possible that coworker might have mentioned it to boss in passing, like, “Ugh, Fergus is in a bad mood today, he just snapped at me for X.” Hopefully OP can figure out the root of what’s bugging them, but management definitely isn’t helping.

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  2. The Southern Gothic

    Your manager sounds like she may actually be the problem, and is “flipping the script” onto you. Alison is right about the office jerk – these people (like your manager) don’t care about being jerks because they’re not self-aware enough to perceive their behavior as a problem.
    True jerks blame everyone else instead of taking the criticism to heart as you did.

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    1. RVA Cat

      I agree the boss is the office jerk, but it sounds like her jerkiness may be rubbing off on the letter writer. Her behavior sounds utterly crazy-making and LW is understandably frustrated. One thing that leaps out at me is that this is a workplace where people routinely talk over each other and that won’t change any time soon – LW needs to decide if that is a dealbreaker.

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    2. paul

      People can also be unintentionally prickly and/or rude though; I have been and I was fortunate enough to have a manger that handled it fairly well (didn’t let it slide but didn’t flip her lid).

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    3. ZVA

      I agree that OP taking the criticism to heart is a good sign—but I just want to say that it’s possible to be a jerk without intending to or even realizing that you’re doing it! Jerkiness isn’t always malicious or premeditated. OP acknowledges that “I had been too harsh in my tone and used aggressive wording”—that does sound like her issue and not just her manager’s.

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    4. Not So NewReader

      I had a manager accuse me indirectly of lying, when I offered documentation, she would not look at it. The irony here is that one of the biggest complaints about her was that she lied constantly. Over time I saw enough evidence to think that this was probably true, she lied all the time.

      It’s not unheard of people to accuse others of what they themselves are doing.

      My gut reaction here is to say, start looking, OP. If she is anything like my old boss this will be a constant theme with her and she will have you questioning yourself. I hear you, “but-but-but”. OP none of us is a perfect employee. But all of us deserve to be in a place where people carry themselves in a professional manner.

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  3. Boo

    I wonder if your manager is the real problem. Obviously we should always reflect on feedback we are given, but: if your coworker seemed surprised you were taken to task about it, I wonder if it’s something she mentioned offhand or even jokingly not expecting anything to come of it, and your manager has blown it out of proportion? It kind of sounds to me like you and your coworker are friendly enough that if she had been truly upset she’d have talked to you first. Your manager may be using you as a diversion from her own jerky behaviour.

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    1. Rachael

      yes. It seems to me that the manager saw these instances and made her own conclusions. By the way you describe her behavior it seems as if she may not have a grasp on appropriate interaction and is wrong about your “snapping” at other coworkers. It would hold more “teeth” if the coworkers had complained to her instead of her just saying she “saw” it.

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    2. CBH

      +1000 as well.

      I read this and was under the impression that OP might of had a bad day but acted professionally. To me, it almost sounds like the manager has ongoing issues and is trying to deflect them by bringing up OP’s behavior that happened on a bad day.

      Regardless OP you handled everything the way one should in a professional environment.

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    3. FlibbertyG

      That said, I have dealt more than once with shy coworkers who could never admit to someone’s face that they HAD actually complained and that they WERE actually discomforted. They were extremely motivated to maintain the peace in-person and wanted to seem like they weren’t part of the problem. Even when directly confronted they denied making the complaint – but they had. They just felt like management should mediate for them.

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    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s possible, but the OP acknowledges that there have been recent times when she’s used “aggressive wording” or snapped at people.

      I think the bad boss is actually a side issue here that’s making it harder to see the full situation. You can have a bad boss and still need to change something yourself. (And it’s really common for coworkers in this situation to say, “Oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal” when it actually was.)

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    5. Sononymous

      I am currently in the reverse side of this situation, as I’m the friend of a coworker who snaps at her fellow coworkers when she’s frustrated. I try to let her remarks roll off my back, since I know what’s behind it all, and would never report her to our manager, myself. But if someone else mentioned it to our manager and she spoke to me about it, I would probably downplay it, too.

      Even though she’s great and we consider each other friends both in and out of work, I am annoyed whenever it happens and it IS a problem, both for our working relationship and for her professional reputation.

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      1. Kate

        As a friend, I think this is something you really need to tell her. This not only affects or will affect her current job, but also all future jobs, and her personal life.

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        1. Sononymous

          I agree, but I have to admit that because we have the personal relationship we do, I am finding it difficult.

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          1. Sam

            Can you not use your personal relationship to your advantage here? Like a “I’m sharing this thing I’ve observed because I care about you and don’t want your career to be impacted or held back in any way” framing?

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    6. Stranger than fiction

      Yes and I’m wondering if she’s using this to build a case. Please watch your back.

      Reply
  4. my two cents

    I find that if I’m in a particularly unpleasant mood, it helps if I know what’s been bothering me. There will be times that you’re upset about the specific coworker or workplace somethingorother, but I find that if I’m particularly ‘snippy’ it’s usually a different underlying issue with the specific instance having been the proverbial straw.

    The faster you can understand/resolve your own mood, the faster you can repair the relationship(s) with coworkers – even in the moment. As in, immediately after the offending snippy bit falls out of your mouth, claiming responsibility for the unwarranted tone/nastiness can help quite a bit. “Oh geez, sorry. I’m still irritated about the other things. But that’s not on you. Sorry ’bout that!” You might not regret the actual words that came out (like COME ON, COWORKER, JUST SEND THE FOLLOW UP EMAIL ALREADY) but you can readily offer an apology out of awareness. You may not necessarily be sorry you said it, but you can still be apologetic about how it was relayed – the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

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    1. Parcae

      I agree; apologizing in the moment can be very effective. I naturally become prickly when I’m frustrated. I don’t berate coworkers or swear at them, but the words “I already TOLD you that” and “I don’t know; have you tried googling it?” have been known to come out of my mouth. That sort of stuff is unacceptable at my workplace (we put a high value on being warm and accommodating, both internally and externally) so I have to apologize when it happens. Saying “I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that. I’m not mad at you; I’m frustrated with this spreadsheet” is easy to do and helps people put my behavior in context.

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      1. Not So NewReader

        What is great about apologizing in the moment is that it really helps to retrain the brain, so words are less apt to randomly fly out of the mouth.

        And for the most part people are great. If I apologize quickly, they seem to forgive and move on quickly. It’s helps if I don’t make the same or similar slip up twice.

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    2. Chalupa Batman

      Exactly what I came to say, but you said it better. There’s nothing wrong with saying “that didn’t come out how I wanted it to, I’m sorry!” and rephrasing in the moment. It’s good for personal relationships, too-a lot of fights with my husband didn’t start because one of us acknowledged an unintentionally negative tone and was granted a do over.

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    3. Dinosaur

      This is exactly right. I’ve worked for a boss who was just terrible and changed the workplace in a bunch of negative ways. I snapped at a coworker once during that period, even though I was upset at my boss and not the coworker. I apologized right after the words left my mouth and everything was fine. It’s not a great habit to snap when stressed, but if it does happen rarely the best way to handle it is to apologize immediately and take stock of your emotional landscape.

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    4. CM

      +1 to apologizing in the moment and identifying what makes you snappish. I do both of these with my kids — I realized that normally I’m very patient but the big exception is when I’m trying to do multiple things at once that all require my attention, so I’ve learned to ask them to wait until I’ve finished with what I’m doing. And if I do snap at them, as soon as I’m able to, I apologize and explain why, and sometimes let them know that I’m trying to do better. It’s always better to let people know that you’re frustrated about the situation, not them, and that you understand that it’s not appropriate for you to react with anger directed at them.

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  5. BWooster

    OP, you could be talking about me when you write this. You handled it very well, and I would take your boss’s word for it that this is an issue that they want you to work on but isn’t job threatening.

    I have the same issue as you do. When I got promoted at my last job and started managing people, I would snap at people when I got very stressed. One time, I called one of my employees and I must have done it so aggressively, she actually flinched! Woah, what a wake up call that was. I immediately apologized and then set down with my boss to figure out how to go forward. I started thinking through situations that would most likely lead to me losing my cool, and worked out ways to handle them more productively. I didn’t fix my behavior overnight, but when I moved up to manage 50 people rather than 6, those kind of incidents dwindled and eventually, when I left, people from my department said I was one of the chillest bosses they’d ever worked for. (I am NOT chill by any means, but it’s nice that I can at least fake it…)

    As far as feeling that they’ve criticized your personality or character, they didn’t! Most of the time snappishness is not a personality trait but just a means of dealing with stress that is exceptionally counterproductive. You’re not a jerk, you just act jerky sometimes. It’s very reasonable to be pulled up on that by your manager — it’s a very good thing actually, because if managers ignore stuff like that, people are going to be very unhappy to work in that kind of environment.

    You seem willing to do the hard work. Start with thinking through why you snap when you do and figure out how you can adjust your reactions. Best of luck to you!

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    1. BWooster

      One important tip: Always be willing to apologize unreservedly. I think that was one thing that really kept people patient with me while I worked things out was that I was always willing to own it when I did something wrong. Never any but’s or non-apologies or anything like that. Always “I am so sorry, that was completely uncalled for. This is wholly my issue and I am working hard on resolving it.”

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      1. my two cents

        One of the best bits of advice I’ve carried with me is to never use the word ‘But’ when apologizing.

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        1. FlibbertyG

          So agree! I wish I’d been able to put that into words for the letter writer earlier whose sister had abused her employee discount. There should be a way to say “I’m sorry and accept responsibility AND here’s some additional information so you don’t think I have this level of poor judgement generally.”

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  6. Rex

    I’m wondering about this part of the letter:

    “… if I made any comment that seemed like it could be feedback back toward my boss, she immediately began arguing with me.”

    I’m not saying your boss isn’t crappy (it sounds like she is), but if you took a disciplinary meeting as an opportunity to criticize her, that doesn’t reflect very well on you, either, unfortunately. Probably that needs to be taken up separately.

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    1. Kyrielle

      I was wondering if that part was in relation to the letter-writer wanting to be given the feedback closer to the time of occurrence – whether the boss got defensive around that topic.

      I agree the meeting isn’t time to be criticizing your boss, but if you’re asking for help working on your issue, I can see it being taken wrong, too. Could be either way.

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      1. Rex

        Fair enough. We don’t really have enough context to know, I just wanted to raise it in case it was helpful to the OP.

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        1. FlibbertyG

          I feel like we’re missing the key parts of this letter too! I’m not really interested in how much of a jerk the boss is, I wish I knew I more about the snapping incidents – but the letter focused much more on the former than the latter, so we really don’t have much information here to go on.

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    2. Allypopx

      In general I agree, but I think context matters here. If she was reacting to OP asking to be corrected in the moment, that’s a reasonable request and a hostile response.

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    3. Russian Kat (France)

      I read that as, for example, when the OP said :

      “… suggested that they give me feedback more immediately after the incident so I can see that it happened and apologize, if need be.”

      I see the boss blowing up then, as in “Oh, so this is my fault that you snap at others? How dare you?!?! etc. etc.” and just generally being a crappy person. But that’s maybe just a generous interpretation that’s based on the other descriptions of said boss.

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      1. Russian Kat (France)

        Oh jeez you have to reply fast here! Sorry for the pile-on, those other comments happened as I was writing :-)

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    4. Zip Silver

      Yeah, it’s hard to tell with this one. OP seems self-aware, but at the same time it sounds like there’s a lot more to that backstory.

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    5. Liane

      Possible, but it sounds less like the OP “took a disciplinary meeting as an opportunity to criticize her” boss than the boss took something that OP said as “feedback” that wasn’t. For example maybe the OP said, “Actually, I said, ‘Coworker, please just send the email and be done with it.’ I never at any point said I was done with Coworker.” However, Boss interpreted it as, “Boss, you got it wrong because you never pay attention.”

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    6. bridget

      Very possibly, but I agree that in conversations like this, it’s preferable to just listen, show you understand, and demonstrate a commitment to changing going forward. Anything resembling a “but you” is very likely to be read as OP being defensive and trying to deflect blame from herself (whether that is fair or not).

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    7. Stranger than fiction

      I don’t think she meant literal direct criticism, just like if she needed to mention her manager regarding any of this or how she’d wished they’d have told her sooner, that she got real defensive .

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  7. FD

    First of all, I’d avoid thinking of yourself in terms of ‘the office jerk’. It’s more useful to think of the specific traits you want to change, because it puts the focus on ‘things I can change’ instead of ‘who I am’.

    Second, it sounds like your problems come from acting hastily in anger. Do you have issues with that at other times? For example, do you get easily frustrated in traffic or with slow lines at stores? Or does it seem like the problem only happens at work?

    If you feel it’s a more general problem, I would suggest focusing on consciously slowing down. When someone annoys you, try to take one or two seconds. Consider, is the thing you’re annoyed about their fault? If it is, what response has the best chance of getting the outcome you want? For instance, even if someone is 100% in the wrong, snapping at people tends to make them defensive and reduces your chances of getting the result you want.

    If it’s specific to work, it’s probably pent-up frustration coming out in inappropriate ways. You may want to think about job hunting–your manager sounds terrible and probably won’t change. And in the meantime, it might help you to focus on why you’re staying at this job. Do you have something you can look forward to, like a vacation? Or is this job going to help you step into a future, better job?

    Good luck to you and thanks for recognizing this and trying to change.

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  8. Roscoe

    One thing I’d add is perception of outside observers vs what you think. You say that one of the people you were aggressive to was your friend. I know that sometimes you don’t worry as much about what you say to your friends as what you say to others. I know that is me. I’m a lot more measured around people I don’t have a close relationship with, because I don’t want them to be offended, but when it is my friend, I know they won’t be offended, so I may not use the same caution. As your friend, they may be perfectly fine with it, since you have that relationship. But it can still make others uncomfortable. This is something that was hard for me to get, because if the person I’m talking to is fine, its no one else’s concern. While I still belive that, I know a lot of people get offended or stressed out on behalf of someone else (there was even a letter here about that a couple of weeks ago with people who yelled and cursed at each other a lot). So just be sure to try to use the same level of caution with everyone, no matter what you think the person you are directing it to may think

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    1. FlibbertyG

      True, and it can color other people’s perceptions of you, to see you joking around or acting casually with someone else – they may not know you’re good friends and this is reciprocal, they just think you’re unprofessional. I try to keep a lid on all the in-jokes with work friends for this reason.

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    2. Sam

      I have this problem, too. The sole piece of critical feedback my boss gave me in the last year was about dismissing a coworker’s suggestion in a meeting. This coworker happens to be the person I work with most closely and who has a fairly blunt communication style himself, so I am used to not mincing words around him. Even though I don’t and wouldn’t be so abrupt with any other colleague, it definitely reads differently when you’re surrounded by other people.

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  9. LBK

    I wouldn’t say I’ve ever snapped at a coworker but I’ve definitely given some less-than-pleasant responses when people ask me stupid questions, especially when it interrupts me while I’m trying to work on something else.

    I don’t think it inherently means you’re a jerk or that you’re generally a bad person to work with. Snapping is almost always the result of frustration or impatience, not intrinsic rudeness – I think generally something is identified as “snapping” specifically because it’s out of character and it results from being pushed by some kind of stimulus to react in a harsher way than you normally would.

    So, all this to say that it sounds like you’re probably annoyed with other things that are going on and that annoyance is bubbling over on occasion. I’d say from the rest of your letter that that annoyance is because of your boss, and unfortunately I don’t know if there’s a whole lot you can do about it, unless you have a close enough relationship with your grandboss that you could go over her head with that being a huge deal (since she doesn’t sound like a particularly reasonable person herself).

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  10. Sara

    On the suggestion of considering whether this is a red flag for how you’re feeling about your job: snapping at and being short with people was absolutely one of the things that convinced me I needed to get out. I left a job after dealing with a year of toxic stress and burnout, and in the last few months I was there I’d catch myself being short with someone or rude at least a few times a week. Though I always apologized quickly and would resolve to be nicer, I couldn’t seem to stop my temper from flaring up again. But in my new job, which has a much more manageable workload, it’s never been an issue.

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    1. NicoleK

      I’ll second this. Several years ago, when I had to deal with a BEC situation, I found myself doing things and saying things that were out of character. I was on edge pretty much all the time. It was a huge sign for me that I needed to leave.

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  11. FlibbertyG

    I say this from personal experience – it’s so easy to dismiss feedback by thinking “my manager is a jerk, and the coworker I ‘supposedly’ offended didn’t even seem upset.” This may be totally true, but I think it’s to your own advantage to try and take this as seriously as you can, try to see if there’s any possible merit in the criticism, and try to remedy it. The manager’s boss felt this was worth raising with you too. Maybe your coworker did complain but was just too embarrassed to say it to your face. Now maybe your boss *is* a jerk and just has it out for you … but since that’s not really actionable on your part, I don’t think it helps to linger on that point.

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    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yes, very much this. It’s really common for coworker friends in this situation to say, “Oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal” when in fact it kind of was.

      And really, the OP acknowledges that there have been recent times when she’s used “aggressive wording” or snapped at people. I think the bad boss is clouding people’s reading of the situation. You can have a bad boss and still have a habit you need to change.

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      1. LQ

        So much to your last line here. It is possible that both are true. And often when you are in an environment where you are seeing other people behave inappropriately it is easier to forget what appropriate looks like and that’s really hard. How do you make good judgement when you look around and don’t see good examples.

        I’d say it is important to sort of exclude the way your boss is behaving from the way you are approaching things at all. Compared to a great employee how are you doing on those interactions? Emulating that person and thinking about how they’d treat their coworkers/customers and focus on that.

        The problem with leaning on the “my supervisor…” isn’t just here, it’s learning bad habits that carry forward into future jobs.

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      2. peachie

        Yes, I think “Oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal” in this kind of situation often really means “I was hurt/upset, I forgive you, please don’t do it again.” (I know it’s not the clearest way to communicate, but I’m so conflict-averse I’ve said something like this before.)

        In fact, I’d even say there’s usually a clear difference–if I’m actually not bothered, I’ll generally reassure the person (“Oh gosh, don’t worry about it! That’s absolutely fine.”), whereas if I think the behavior crossed a line but can write it off as a one-time bad call, I’ll say something like “It’s okay, I understand” (or even, “It’s okay, I know you’re [busy with x/trying to meet deadline y/etc.”).

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        1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter

          This. People often use too similar expressions for both “you hurt me but I forgive you” and “what you did really didn’t hurt me”. They are different situations though. In both cases you get the info that this person isn’t going to hate you forever, but that’s not the info you’re usually looking for. The important info would be, is this thing something I should avoid doing in the future? Should I try to change my communication style when talking to this person or in general, in order to avoid hurting people? For someone like me, who has sometimes difficulty to “read” people’s feelings when they don’t express them directly, this knowledge would be crucial.

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      3. bridget

        And the coworker went to the boss instead of OP with the concern – perhaps indicating that she wanted to avoid a direct confrontation about it. When OP asked her about it, she may have felt on the spot and uncomfortable discussing it with the OP, so she minimized it to get the conversation over with. It’s really hard to say “yes, actually, that really bothered me that you did that.”

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        1. TootsNYC

          I wanted to say something regarding this point–
          When OP asked her about it, she may have felt on the spot and uncomfortable discussing it with the OP,

          The OP must have referenced “the boss told me you objected” or “I got spoken to,” bcs her colleague said “wow, they scolded you for that? That’s over the top.”

          If you wanted to apologize, you would have been best doing it by NOT making any reference to management having said anything to you, but to say, “I’ve realized I’ve been snippy a few times lately, once to you that I remember, I want to say I’m so sorry. I have such a high opinion of you and enjoy working with you, and you deserve better treatment from me.”

          Try never to put the apologize-ee in the position of hearing that you were prompted by any outside force to apologize.
          For one thing, that cheapens the apology.
          But it also puts them on the defensive, or makes them feel that need to reassure you.

          Just say, “I’ve realized I made this mistake, and I’m really sorry.”

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      4. fposte

        The bad boss may be clouding the issue for the OP as well; if you have an example of significant jerkery, it can feel like as long as you’re not as bad as that what you’re doing is okay.

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        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Yes, so much of this. When your boss is not great, it’s easy for your norms to slowly shift without you realizing it and then to brush off feedback as part of the larger “my boss sucks” picture. I think Alison’s framing the issue as “You can have a bad boss and still have a habit you need to change” is spot on and really apt (as is the advice re: identifying why you’re mad, apologizing without reservation, and accepting the feedback even if you don’t really like/respect your boss).

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    2. Amy

      This. Your boss sounds like they’re not very much fun to work with, and their feedback may or may not be reliable…but the feedback did come from somewhere, you yourself acknowledge that there have been moments where your responses could have been better, and your boss’ boss also thought this was worth bringing up with you. All of that suggests that you probably some merit to the feedback you got, even if your boss is the actual worst.

      I think all you’ll probably need to do to fix it is to follow through on what you’re already planning–be more aware of your responses, try to moderate your responses when you’re feeling frustrated or angry, and apologize if you realize you handled something badly. If you were really an irredeemable jerk, you wouldn’t be worried about this. It’s not about your personality; you just need to professionalize your communication style a little more.

      Also, the bright side of this meeting: It sounds like your boss didn’t come off all that well in front of her boss, either. He had to talk over her to get anything across? That’s not good. Hopefully it will lead to him doing some more active management there, so your bad boss problem might improve as well.

      Reply
  12. Emm

    Jerks don’t know they’re jerks; they think they’re the best thing since sliced bread and that everyone ELSE is the problem.

    You’re probably fine.

    Reply
    1. ZVA

      I said something similar in a comment above, but… I don’t think “jerks don’t know they’re jerks” is always true. What if you know you have a temper & are working on it but still lash out at people sometimes? What if, like the OP, you actually did snap at someone but feel bad about it and are taking steps to make sure it never happens again?

      I just think self-awareness isn’t the cure-all some here are making it out to be—you can be self-aware & still have issues to work on. I’d say most of us are and do (myself included!).

      Reply
    2. Statler von Waldorf

      Not always true. I’m the office jerk, and I’m fully aware of it as it’s part of my job description. It’s the biggest part of the reason I make the “big” bucks.

      Reply
        1. Statler von Waldorf

          Yeah, it does. The owner of the company and CEO likes to play good cop, while I as the office manager get to play bad cop. It is actually written like that in my official job description. From what I gathered, my predecessor was extremely nice, so much so that the staff walked all over her and it was negatively impacting the bottom line. Shortly before she retired, I was hired on to fix that. It was rough at first, and I’ll never be friends with anyone I work with, but the CEO is awesome and always had my back, so it actually worked out well. It turns out that I’m a pretty good jerk.

          Reply
          1. ancolie

            Huh, interesting! Sounds like basically you need to be a needed hard-a**? I can appreciate that. :)

            Reply
  13. AnotherHRPro

    OP: I just want to say good for you for taking this feedback to heart and wanting to do better. I understand the urge that many of the commenters have about the problem being the boss, however if you have been overly aggressive a few times, this is a a problem that you need to address. The cause is really irrelevant nor does it matter if your reaction was “well deserved”. Your manager and your Director have identified what they are seeing as a trend (more than once) in unacceptable behavior.

    I would encourage you to think back to each of these incidents to identify why you responded the way you did. Where you under time pressure? Where you dealing with difficult people? Some sort of conflict? If you can identify a common element then you might be able to figure out what is triggering this behavior. From there, when you know you are in a similar situation you can be more cautious and monitor your reactions more closely.

    Most everyone, even the rudest office jerk does not actually want to be a jerk. They just haven’t managed to learn how to express themselves in a positive way.

    Good luck to you.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Most everyone, even the rudest office jerk does not actually want to be a jerk. They just haven’t managed to learn how to express themselves in a positive way.

      I’ve been reading lately about new disciplinary tactics with “problem” kids in elementary school, the ones who have tantrums, or argue with the teachers, or act willfully defiant. Some teachers and schools have said, “this is not defiance or misbehavior; this is a lack of skill. This kid doesn’t know how to respond to this emotion, or this situation. This kid doesn’t have patterns for controlling his own emotions, nor does he have communication or cognitive skills or information to help himself through the delayed gratification, to convey his problem, etc.”
      And so instead of cracking down on the kid w/ punishment, they address the “misbehavior” as a training opportunity. And work on giving the kid skills (emotional, cognitive, communication skills.”

      So–see this as something you are going to train yourself on.

      And if you want, you can even sign up for a few sessions w/ a cognitive-behavioral therapist and ask them to help you learn some tension-relieving exercises, or some other tools for detecting and dealing w/ frustration. It’s amazing how useful those tools are.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Other tools–maybe some meditation on positive things before your day starts, even just three minutes of picturing everyone in your office, one by one, and saying to yourself, “This is someone I respect; I wish good things and a pleasant day for them,” might help you buffer yourself from the irritants of the day.

        Good luck!

        Reply
  14. That Would Be a Good Band Name

    I’m just going to suggest this since this reminds me of myself…is it possible that you snap at people when anxious? I mention it do to your saying “Hours later, however, I’m still feeling anxious and angsty about the issue.” I have this impulse under control at work, but at home when my guard is down, I resort to snapping and even yelling if my anxiety level is high. It took me much longer than it should have to connect the two.

    Reply
    1. FlibbertyG

      For what it’s worth, OP I think it’s normal to feel agitated for a whole day after a correction from your boss, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something unfinished in the conversation. Even if it’s a minor or manageable thing, it’s just a bad feeling; I can’t stand knowing that people are thinking ill of me. Be nice to yourself tonight, take it easy, and then come back tomorrow ready to tackle the issue. But don’t be surprised that you’re still a little shaken up today.

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        I agree, be nice to yourself.

        I found that the criticisms that bothered me the most for longer were the ones that felt true to me.

        So, smart you–you’re willing to use that signal to truly look at what you’re doing.

        But I agree w/ others–don’t focus on “what bad thing I am,” and focus instead of “what behavior is causing some trouble for me, and I’d like to change?” And maybe “What skills am I lacking?”

        Reply
  15. FCJ

    I’m curious about what “snapping” means in this context. Some people tend to get brusque when they’re in the middle of working, and that can come across as snapping. I’ve learned to try and pull myself out of Work Mode to talk to people, and make an effort to smile and temper the way I phrase things, where it’s sort of my instinct to say, “So, to get this task done we need to do A, B, and C” pretty matter of factly. Some people don’t mind it (I had a boss once who worked the same way, and we barked orders back and forth at each other all day. It was glorious), but for others it comes across as arrogant and bossy (this is also, by the way, often quite gendered, so if the LW is a woman that might affect how people are viewing her working style).

    That’s not all to say you shouldn’t address the feedback, of course, but understanding how your working style might contribute to the issue will help you address it, and will help you stop thinking of it as a character flaw or something you need to beat yourself up over.

    Reply
    1. Allypopx

      I know I’m guilty of that, and as you say it can come off as bossy or brusque from me when I know male coworkers get the same way and it’s considered efficient and focused. But, regardless of the reason, it’s something I’ve worked on because perception can be important in working relationships. OP, I think if you’re mindful of the impulse you’ll be fine.

      Reply
    2. FlibbertyG

      I can be very short when I’m interrupted, and it’s a big enough departure from my usual “patient training tone” that I think it comes across even more harshly. Haven’t figured out at all how to deal with this yet. I’m just not very good at abruptly transitioning between tasks.

      Reply
    3. Statler von Waldorf

      I was curious if anyone was going to bring gender up. At least in my experience, this tends to be a very gendered complaint. What is considered “snapping” is significantly milder if it comes from a woman instead of a man.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I really don’t think this is an especially gendered complaint. Snapping at someone is a pretty specific thing; it’s not like when “abrasive” is used as code for “just as assertive as a dude.” In fact, when I think of the people I’ve seen get feedback on this type of issue, it’s been *significantly* more men than women.

        Reply
        1. Statler von Waldorf

          I think I phrased that badly, let me try again. First of all, I agree that the majority of “office jerks” are men. It’s that there seems to be a tolerance of it when men do it that doesn’t exist for women. For example, everybody knows Joe is a cranky grump, but that’s just Joe. However, when Joan is the exact same cranky grump, then it suddenly seemed to be a bigger problem that required management’s attention.

          Of course, I could be way off, which is why the plural of anecdote is not data.

          Reply
      2. Loons with Gumption

        I wonder if the LW could possibly share what’s meant by “aggressive language” if they’re comfortable — I think that could clear up whether there’s any gendered element. I do think sometimes women can more often be expected to include more “softening” with their language (which maybe is fine and appropriate, I don’t know) to keep it from being aggressive or pushy.

        Reply
  16. The Supreme Troll

    OP, no, I definitely don’t think that you’re the office jerk. However, I think that, maybe, because of the hostile & disrespectful way that your immediate boss is treating you, that maybe it is increasing the immediate tension that you’re experiencing at your job. And this could be coming out when dealing with co-workers. (Although, even with what I’m saying, you can take it with a grain of salt, as I think, unfortunately, your immediate boss might have a personal dislike against you).

    Please follow Alison’s advice. If there really is a problem on your end (which I am kind of doubting), you have the excellent self-realization and openness to make any corrections.

    If you are getting other critiques from your boss that after a lot of “self-checking” you can determine are unfounded, I think it would be best to reach out to your boss’s boss and see if there is any way you can transfer to another dept.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      Employees grow in the direction of their bosses. Okay not all the time, but there is that tendency. Like most of the life somewhat unfairly the cure is on us. It the boss is a jerk, we have to be careful not to fall into that same pit with the boss. Crappy role models are tough to follow.

      Reply
  17. stk

    OP, I think it does you credit that you’re looking for what truth there might be in your manager’s assessment. It’s really easy to go “that person sucks, I’m going to ignore them”: it’s a lot harder to sit back and ask yourself seriously whether they had a point.

    For me, on top of Alison’s advice, I think there’s two other things that might be worth doing.

    1. Think back to yourself on what happened, and do your best to put yourself in the shoes of everyone else involved – not just the specific person you were having the conversation with, but anyone who could overhear it, too. If you were them, if you didn’t get to see inside your head and only heard the words coming out of your mouth, what would you think? Does that tell you anything about your behaviour, or give you any clues for improvement going forward?

    2. Do you have any friends/family who you can trust to give you honest feedback? Can you ask them about it? If you can, it might be worth asking them, both in general terms and about specific incidents, whether there’s stuff you could improve on there. (I’d go with something like “anything to improve on” or “things I can change to come over better”, because that tends to both lead to more honest answers and feel less horrible than “ways I’m currently doing it wrong”.)

    These sorts of social things can be really tough, but it looks like you’re doing your best, OP. Good luck.

    Reply
  18. AFRC

    OP – I’m so glad you wrote in! I have a similar issue (for many reasons, including ones that Alison described). I have two managers who are kinda bad, and a big boss who’s downright awful, and it’s hard not to talk to them in a tone that sounds complainy or abrupt (when I’m squashing the urge to say “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”). I’ve been dinged on my performance evaluation for crossing the line, and while I’m trying to work on it, there’s a fine line between being passionate (which is encouraged) and coming across as non-solution-focused, even though we have very real problems, and my solutions aren’t what the big boss wants us to do, so they’re seen as a complaint/criticism. But we have a pretty dysfunctional team, so it’s hard. And yes, I’m looking for another job.

    So, I hear you, and I hope you can find peace in this job or get a new one quickly!

    Reply
  19. Amber Rose

    You, like all the rest of us, have days where maybe you were a bit of a jerk. But that doesn’t make you the office jerk. The office jerk has a consistent pattern of jerkyness, and rarely shows any sign of introspection or regret for their actions.

    More like your manager, tbh. I’m sure you’ll be fine.

    Reply
  20. J.B.

    OP: I congratulate you for your self awareness, and for taking the feedback thoughtfully even if you have reason to distrust the messenger. However, if the enviornment is making you snappish, please look elsewhere. That ain’t worth it to you or to your colleagues.

    Reply
  21. Cassandra

    “Office jerk” comes in two parts: “office” and “jerk.” Based on my own experience behaving like a jerk in a particular employment situation, I encourage you to think hard about the interactions between yourself (mood, reactions, etc) and your job (colleagues, boss, work, etc). You and your job may be a dysfunctional pairing.

    How can you tell? Well, a few ways, maybe… Have you behaved in this fashion in other jobs, or at home, or with friends, or on social media? If not, something in the you-job relationship is out of whack, maybe multiple somethings. As other commenters have suggested, can you find patterns in what triggers an episode of the behaviors you want to change? If so, what do those patterns say about what needs to change?

    Try to do this as a no-fault root-cause analysis. If you can’t — if your shoulders start reaching for your ears, or your sotto voce muttering gets harsh, or the process turns into endless rumination — that in itself is indicative.

    Once you have a handle on that, ask yourself how much of the problematic office stuff is amenable to change, and if some is, how to go about changing it. Then ask yourself whether whatever can’t be cured can be endured without setting you off again. If not… well, the writing’s on the wall; burnish up that resume.

    I wish I’d done this exercise a lot sooner in Toxic Ex-Job; I’d have left much faster and been much better off for it. I did succeed in curbing my jerkitude in my last year or so in that job, which has served me well since, but I wish I’d confronted myself a lot sooner with “this place and this boss ain’t gonna change no matter how much they promise to, and they are not doing good things to my psyche and behavior.”

    Good luck, OP. I think you got this.

    Reply
  22. Just Another HR Pro

    This reminds me of that episode of “How I Met Your Mother” when Barney Stinson explains the “cycle of screaming”. Your boss gets screamed at, so they scream at you, you in turn take it out on some one else, and so on and so on. I don’t think this is your fault, at all, and I think you handled it beautifully.

    Reply
  23. hbc

    I think labels like Office Jerk, Friendly Boss, and Database Wizard are great shorthand for when you’re telling stories about work to non-coworkers, but they’re really not something we should actively chase or avoid. That’s a route to bad decisions: someone trying to be Friendly Boss isn’t going to give necessary critical feedback, and someone trying not to be Friendly Boss is going to be unnecessarily strict just to avoid looking like a pushover.

    You did something you agree isn’t good and is impacting others, so you’re trying to change. That’s pretty much the extent of your control over how others perceive you, and it’s the right thing to do regardless of whether you’re the reigning Office Jerk or Office Martyr or anywhere in between.

    Reply
  24. peachie

    In addition to what everyone is saying about thinking about how to control snapping at people, I think it’s worth considering what you can do to help others perceive you as “not a jerk” other times.

    (Anyone read The Handmaid’s Tale? In the book, at least, she talks about how she was convinced that her ‘shopping partner,’ another handmaid, totally bought in to the whole evil government–and she finds out later that her partner also thought that about her! I think it’s a great example of how we project all these complex motivations and personas onto people when we don’t know them well.)

    I think adding ‘context’ through your other interactions with your coworkers will help enormously. One thing is acknowledging and having gratitude for the work your coworkers do. Of course, you don’t need to thank someone for, you know, just doing their job, but I think a sincere “Thank you so much–I know how swamped you are right now!” can go a long way to building a mutually empathetic relationship.

    You can do the same thing for yourself–if I know I’m going to be bugging a coworker for information and demanding it RIGHT NOW, I’ll stop by their desk or give them a quick call and say something like, “Hey, I know I just sent you a few emails about [x]–I have a high-level donor who’s demanding this right away, so I apologize for the onslaught! Could you let me know if this can be done by [time]? Thanks, I know this is a last-minute request.”

    I think making an effort to communicate in this way all the time, not just when you’re particularly irritable, will make it much more forgivable/understandable for your coworkers if you do end up snapping or sounding short.

    Reply
    1. LQ

      Building up a pool of goodwill is really good for people who tend toward jerkishness easily. I know I tend toward very brusque and even jerkish depending on how you define it. I’ll say please and thank you but I won’t be nice and I might be sharp about “Do this please.” So I worked really hard to build up a pool of goodwill. (I also tell people I’m not pleasant, it lowers expectations.)

      Having a good pool of good will can do the best thing which is having someone who isn’t your supervisor tell you and tell you early. I think a lot of times the jerk doesn’t get told their a jerk because jerkish behavior indicates I wouldn’t like it to have that conversation. But building up goodwill, making sure you have those good relationships at not a jerk times means they’ll pull you aside and say, “Hey, I know it’s really obnoxiously busy, but you’re kind of being a jerk right now, can you tone it down?” And then responding to that with a OH NO! I’m so sorry I will fix that! (Or whatever’s appropriate, for me recently it was I’m incredibly swamped can you help me pull off questions that I’m not needed for right now? And she did and it was much better. It also helped that I had a very clear time scope on it, I’ll go back to normal after this block of project, which I did.)

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        (I also tell people I’m not pleasant, it lowers expectations.)

        I am normally pretty pleasant and complimentary and helpful.

        And on days when I know I am crabby or testy, or someone else (or the situation at work) has made me annoyed I announce it to everyone. And I apologize in advance.
        “I’m so crabby today! If I snap at you, or I’m short, please forgive me, and don’t take it personally.”

        This does a couple of things.
        First, it reminds me that *I* am the problem, and I find myself not being as crabby in my actions.

        It also reminds me that the other person is not the problem, and so I might speak in a testy or crabby tone, but I’ll treat them like an audience, not a target. Not sure if that makes sense, but that’s how it feels inside, and I notice that they react as though they’re watching me “be a crabby person,” not reacting as though tI was crabby at them.

        And it seems to make them more sympathetic to me if my crabbiness shows up in tone of voice.

        Reply
    2. Cassandra

      Wise comments above are wise.

      The only thing I would add is for you, OP, to estimate the possibility of building up a goodwill store in your specific situation. If things have deteriorated so badly that you don’t think they’ll ever think well of you, it’s time to plan an exit.

      It doesn’t sound like things are that bad, thankfully!

      Reply
  25. RB

    Hi OP. Is it possibly that you’re one of those people who, like me, can never think of a snappy comeback in the moment and wind up putting your foot in your mouth or using the wrong tone in an effort to be witty? I’m not great with snark or sarcasm and can wind up saying something offensive if I’m not careful. So I just try to stay out of conversations that have that potential, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution and professionalism.
    Self awareness is a long process and takes years or decades to refine.

    Reply
  26. Stevenz

    From how I read the post I wonder how valid – or true – your manager’s criticism was. Be that as it may, I understand how someone can come off as abrupt. The heat of the moment, feeling defensive, passion about a subject and all that. That doesn’t make you a bad person or a jerk unless there is real arrogance or intolerance behind it.

    I have gotten into the habit of hesitating a microsecond before responding to a coworker regardless of situation. That can take some unintentional heat out of a response and also make you look thoughtful!

    Reply

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