help — manager is giving me negative feedback

A reader writes:

I have an issue with my manager. She often gives me negative feedback without specific resolution. She has said to another manager that I am belligerent. This has bothered me for weeks and had a negative impact on work and virtually everything. I never got such feedback until this year when I moved into this new group and it is a challenge every day to say the least.

I have no details or examples of why she said this or specifically what she is referencing. Her behavior has been such that I am experiencing a degradation of my character. She micromanages me, singles me out and pings me when I have a call or meeting that she doesn’t know about. I have to give feedback for the year-end review.

You need to talk to your manager. She gives you negative feedback without you understanding why, and she told someone she thinks you’re belligerent? These are not good signs.

There are two possibilities here:

1. You are not performing well and you are belligerent. You didn’t get this feedback previously because you had a manager who was too wimpy to address it, and now you have a manager who’s more assertive about problems (or the problems didn’t come out until you moved into this new job). She is micromanaging you because she’s concerned that if she’s less hands-on there will be problems with your work.


2. Your manager is the problem. Her feedback is unwarranted or she doesn’t know how to deliver it properly, and she doesn’t know how to exercise appropriate oversight without micromanaging inappropriately. Hell, maybe she even has a personal problem with you.

We don’t know which one it is. Remember that if it’s #1, chances are reasonably good that you wouldn’t realize it, because many people in situation #1 have trouble seeing that and assume that it must be #2.

But what we do know for sure is this: You can’t just let this go on without addressing it, or you risk having your professional reputation affected or even losing your job. You must address it with her.

I recommend sitting down with her and telling her that you can see she’s unhappy with your work and you’d like to get a better understanding of what she wants you doing differently. Then listen with an open mind. Don’t focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she’s vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: Don’t focus on defending yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work. (In fact, read and practice the advice here on hearing critical feedback.)

Then thank her. Yes, really. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her assessment or not. Thank her for giving you honest feedback. This can be disarmingly effective.

Now, once that’s over, hopefully you have a better idea of how she views your work. Spend some time thinking about it. Don’t react — even in your own mind — immediately. Let the information sit for a while. Start asking yourself why she sees it that way. Is there any truth to it? If there’s not any truth to it, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive it that way?

The goal here is for one of the following to happen:
1. You’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you can/should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know.
2. You’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you don’t particularly want to change, and you can decide to look for other work.
3. You’ll realize that after giving her feedback a fair hearing, you just can’t see any merit in what she’s saying, and so the two of you are at an impasse. This likely means it’s a bad fit and you’ll know to look elsewhere.

The point here is that it doesn’t really matter if she’s crazy or a bitch or not. What you need to know is where you stand with her and why, so that you can make good decisions for yourself, based on candid discussion, not speculation. Good luck!

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This is good advice.

    I would add that if this is a company where you have built a career path, find yourself at an impasse, and don't feel like leaving is right for you that there is one more thing you should do — and that's what we usually tell managers to do — document, document, document.

    Turn the tables. As you are meeting identified performance measures or getting positive feedback from your customers and peers, keep record of them (email) and share it with your boss.

    Find ways to problem solve and share your ideas with your boss when you are around others and it is harder for her to shoot you down.

    Stay positive, try your best not to participate in gossip or let your coworkers know how you feel about your boss.

    At some point you may need to seek out HR. You will be better prepared to address this issue if you have documentation of your positive performance.

    The above is based on the assumption that you can be characterized as #2 above. Good luck.

  2. GentleLavender*

    I think you've got sound advice to a very common workplace problem. I wish you luck.

  3. Kerry*

    When you say that she told another manager that you are belligerent…how did you find out about that conversation? Did this other manager tell you what your boss said?

  4. Kathy*

    I had a similar situation when a new director came on board, and I produced copious documentation attesting to my excellent work performance (awards, letters, past performance evaluations, etc.) and the respect of all stakeholders in our work.

    It only made her angrier and more abusive in her daily treatment of me. She gave me the worst PE I ever got in my life, full of unfounded accusations (which were easily refuted, but it didn't matter; she refused to change a word of it) and criticisms – not one word of anything I that I did right, or recognition of any strength or skill I brought to the job. It was far worse than being called a mediocre performer. I contested it, but the die was cast and it was in my file. I had to exit even before I secured another position, to save my health and sanity.

    Having said that, IF it is really not #1 (and AAM is absolutely correct here that you have to be very introspective and self-critical – I made my share of mistakes), get out quickly and quietly, if you can, before you screw up big time from the stress, and burn bridges that you will need to make the transition. And make sure to cultivate others who have praised and know your work, preferably superior to you in the organization, to ensure good references so you don't have to rely on this person, and can act as a counterbalance if a future employer insists on contacting this person.

  5. Charles*

    Kerry – I'm with you on that – I think the details of such an accusation would be very telling in this story.

  6. Anonymous*

    I had the same situation as the previous writer Kathy.
    I worked with the new funded program at the large non-profit organization, raising that program literally from the scratch when we didn't even have paper clips! Every day was like a battle field and it was my job to solve each and every glitch and problem, big or small. The manager was supervising other programs and was for the most doing it from a distance. She was very soft spoken and I liked that human touch of it at first but with time, I started growing quite concerned that I couldn't understand what she wanted as her directions were rather vague. When she did give me a feedback, it was all about what was not done or done not as she expected (yet it wasn't uncommon for her not to reply to my e-mails or phone messages with the question or request for clarification)…Then one day things have changed when the assistant manager came aboard, that is 6 months into the program. She MICROMANAGED. She would look into each drawer and computer files system and rearrange/redesign everything including all existing templates. All what was done by us as a small team was scrapped and each and every document we used had to be recreated from scratch as a template. I couldn't order a box of pencils without having an OK with her for a brand she thought was "appropriate". Then one day it was over and I was told that I wasn't a "fit" for the position and that I should have had a sense that this was coming….I was very confused in terms how I felt feeling mistreated, misunderstood, even insulted and not been given a chance to explain and to learn to work together but deep down in my heart I must admit I was somewhat glad that it was over. I guess I lost the battle but I also had to recognize that things and how they were run wouldn't change in that organization and in a long term, it was better that I wasn't going to be a part of that mess….

    I hope though that unlike me you would have another position secured before you would have to make an exit! Good luck!

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