help! my new boss is giving me negative feedback

A reader writes:

I am in a senior management role and recently got a new boss.  In the 6 months since he’s been on board, I have heard from him at least 5 times that I am “resistant” or “defensive” during discussions.  As somebody in a more senior role, I’m used to being able to debate assignments, meaning expressing my ideas as to what the proper approach is, whether or not we are looking at the right issue, etc.  Somehow he always translates this into my unwillingness to do the work or my defensiveness over prior work I’ve done, which is absolutely not true.  It feels to me like he is just looking for a yes man.  In addition, he tends to be the kind of person who gives negative feedback freely but never gives compliments.  While I’m not the kind of person who constantly needs kudos, it it is extremely defeating to only get negative feedback.

He’s not been around long enough to do a formal performance review so I’m unsure how he would rate me officially, but I’m concerned about staying only to find out that the review is negative.  I am so frustrated that I finally started posting for other positions after another such discussion last week, but decided that it was stupid to leave this role without at least attempting to have a frank discussion with him over my perception of the situation.  I reached out to set up a meeting later this week but am now struggling with how to approach this correctly so it doesn’t come out as emotional or childish.  Thoughts?

There are two possibilities here:

1. Your boss is the problem:  He just wants a yes man / sees his employees as robots there to execute his orders rather than as part of his team / doesn’t know how to give feedback appropriately / etc.


2. You’re the problem:  You’re legitimately coming across as inappropriately argumentative, overly aggressive about pushing your viewpoint, or too resistant.

I don’t know which of these it is. It’s entirely possible that it’s #1. But it’s also worth noting that people who fall into #2 very often have no idea that they do. (You might think, “But my previous bosses never had a problem with my style,” and that might be true — or it might mean that your bosses in the past were too wimpy/unassertive to raise the issue.)

Either way, I’d recommend having a candid conversation with your boss.

Say something like this: “I really want to have a strong working relationship with you, and I hoped you could give me some feedback. I’m used to being able to suggest other ways of approaching an assignment, debate ideas, and generally just kick around thoughts. When I do this, it’s not because I’m unwilling to do the work or resistant to what you’re talking about — not at all. I generally see that as as part of my role, and part of my value here, since sometimes that kind of conversation can make a project stronger. However, I have the sense that you don’t like the way I’ve been approaching this, and I wonder if we can talk about where I’m going wrong and how I can still provide useful input without creating the impression that I’m putting up roadblocks.”

(By the way, you must be calm and unemotional during this conversation. You want your tone to be positive and collaborative; you’re going to get the best results if he doesn’t feel you’re being negative or challenging his authority. Read this post and this post to get yourself in the right frame of mind.)

Now, he might tell you that he welcomes input from his team, but that the way you’ve been doing it is the problem. If this is the case, listen closely to what he’s telling you. Don’t argue, don’t defend yourself — listen with an open mind. Maybe he has a reasonable point, which you’ll never pick up on if you’re focused on how to defend yourself.

On the other hand, if his response indicates that there’s no way that you can have input or push back without pissing him off, then I’d ask about that straight out, just to make sure you’re understanding correctly. Say something like, “It sounds like you’re saying that you’d prefer that I not consider that type of thing as part of my role. If that’s the case, I recognize that that’s your prerogative. I just want to that we’re on the same page about what you want.”

In other words, you’re not being argumentative, you’re not pushing him to reconsider what he wants from your role, you’re just seeking clarity. And once you have that clarity, you can then decide what you want to do with it — do you want the job under those terms? Or would you rather look elsewhere? (Of course, you could push him to reconsider how he sees your role. But given that he already seems prickly that you’ve pushed him to reconsider other things, I don’t think that’s going to go over well here.)

At the end of the conversation, thank him and tell him that you appreciate the opportunity to get his feedback so that you can adjust your approach in the future. Say this even if you disagree and think he’s a lunatic, because your goal here is to learn what it would take to make him happy with your performance, and being someone who’s receptive to feedback ups the chances of him continuing to be candid with you … and even if he’s crazy, you’re still better off knowing where he’s coming from.

Now, at this point you should have a lot more information about where he’s coming from. Has he given you food for thought about your own approach? Could a reasonable person could perceive you the way he seems to? Or has he reinforced the idea that the problem is him? From there, you can figure out how you want to proceed:  Are you willing to work for this guy, or would you rather look at other options?

But go into the conversation genuinely open to the possibility that your own approach might be part of the problem. Even if it’s not, being open and receptive will almost certainly alter the dynamic a bit and make the conversation go better. Good luck!

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Interviewer*

    In the past 6 months, while you have debated assignments, and discussed the proper approach, have you used the phrase “Well, what we normally do is …” more than once?

    I was kind of reading between the lines of your question, and guessing that you have the purest motives, or may be genuinely trying to help, or come across as someone who sees the big picture, but you may not realize he sees your questions as arguing or attempts to undermine his role. As a “newish” boss I would understand a certain need for knowing how the process normally worked, but sometimes a totally fresh eye is necessary, to see where things can change. Maybe you should not debate him over minor issues. Maybe you should not remind him of how things are always done. And as his subordinate, I would be much more open to change, especially if he is bringing it to your attention repeatedly. Save the debates for the largest issues, only, where safety or deadline concerns come into play, and if you genuinely have an issue with his take on the matter, make sure you discuss it in a more private setting so he can’t interpret it as second-guessing his orders in front of the team.

    If I’ve misinterpreted your question, I am sorry. But having worked with those people who want to question everything (without realizing that’s what they’re doing), I was making some assumptions about what could be going on here.

    Good luck to you with your discussion.

    1. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

      This is the first place my mind went. When a new manager comes on board it’s common for people to become somewhat defensive of the way things have always been done. Don’t be the person that’s always shooting down new ideas.

  2. Due by Monday*

    It seems to me that a good senior executive manager should have started the relationship with a solid 1:1 meeting, providing expectations, common goals, a description of one’s management style, and distinct questions about the subordinate’s particular communication needs. That the original question submitter, a senior manager as well, would feel so lost about the intentions of the new manager is a breakdown of communication that never needed to occur.

    One can go in circles trying to interpret whose fault this is and whether the situation is being presented fairly, but ultimately, it’s the leader’s responsibility to correct this. A perceptive leader would have addressed the issue better, directly, and sooner, without having to consistently provide negative feedback. Now, he has a retention issue and may potentially lose the experienced manager.

    There are many things that the superior and subordinate managers might do to contribute to this problem, but the leading manager failed in some way to properly calibrate performance expectations and communication styles up front. It’s sad that so many employees suffer such anguish trying to interpret their leaders. Leadership intention, attitude, and action should always be crystal clear.

    Just my humble opinion. Thanks.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Maybe, and this certainly wouldn’t be the only case where that was true. But it’s also possible that the manager has handled things correctly and the problem here is in fact the employee. We don’t really know from what’s presented here. I think we’ve all got to watch out for bias from whatever our own personal experiences have been, and acknowledge that you can’t always extrapolate straight out of those.

  3. a.e.*

    1) I have been mired in the same exact situation myself. A new boss came on board, started shouting at me to get out of her office because she refused to argue every point with me, etc. The next day, I scheduled time to have a calm understanding of her POV and what her management style was, etc. She responded by saying some pretty ugly things to me. I’ve come to realize that she sees me to be more junior than my role and just wants me to shut up and do whatever she says with no input. So, that’s what I’ve been doing, and when doing things like transcribing her verbally dictated notes into a memo takes up so much time that I can’t get my actual work done, I just let it be known that was the situation. Long story short, I resigned a few weeks ago and will leave in June. Yay!

    I think there is something valid in her viewpoint that I do push back, but I only do so when something seems dumb or if there is a better approach. A lot of the ideas she has are actually kind of dumb and, when I’ve executed it without question, they were called out as dumb to our CEO, but of course I’m the one who’s name is on it. So now, I do what she says without question, and if I care enough, I will tweak it without asking her, and if I don’t and it seems really dumb, I send it to her to “review” and send out if she’s okay with it, so that she can is equally to blame for any problems with the idea/execution.

    However, I wanted to speak to “Due By Monday’s” comment. I have now worked at countless places where the onus in on the people being managed to “manage upwards” and there is zero expectations for managers to step up and actually lead/manage. The fact that I, her subordinate, had to be the one to think, “Yelling in the workplace isn’t cool — let’s address this before it snowballs,” says a lot about the leadership style du jour. And it’s not only her. I received a poor review from someone who I didn’t know was my boss till review period (Gah! I work for the worst company ever!) and I was flabbergasted because NOT ONCE had he hinted to any of the myriad of problems he brought up. He just smiled in my face and acted like everything was great. I actually am more “seasoned” than him, so again, I took the initiative to set up a meeting to discuss his feedback and how the two of us could work better in the future.

    Management these days is just a title of seniority. It has so little to do with actually managing people, effectively communicating expectations, or even communicating criticism in a way that is useful and actionable. Hence my resolve to become an entrepreneur.

    1. Due by Monday*

      You said it perfectly that subordinate employees are constantly expected to manage upwards while upper managers seem to have no expectation to manage at all. Leadership demands accountability regardless of fault or blame, and we should be promoting those that are not afraid of signing their name to their decisions or actions.

      Seems like you’ve had some similarly awful experiences, and I wish you tremendous luck as an entrepreneur. Please put those lessons to good use as you become the leader you wish you were lucky enough to have.

  4. a.e.*

    BTW — I must learn to edit before hitting post. My apologies for the myriad of typo’s. Hopefully it still makes some sense…

  5. Penny*

    In the event that is is #2, and the letter writer is the problem, hats off to the boss for making some very tough criticism. It’s the kind of feedback that I wish more managers had the guts to give. Telling someone that they get easily defensive (or that their enthusiasm causes them to miss important details or that their questions in meetings make them look combative) is harder than telling someone that they have a typo in a report, because it feels like a personal criticism.

    I’m deeply grateful to the person who pointed out that I had a tendency to be needlessly combative in the workplace (I thought I was just playing devil’s advocate, but it turns out, I was an enormous pain.)

    1. Jamie*

      It is harder to hear negative feedback regarding personal issues like communication styles than it is about concrete issues with tasks.

      One reason is that it feels like an indictment of one’s personality – which can sting. Another is because the task of correcting the behavior can be so much more daunting.

      Asking me to change the formatting of a report I created doesn’t hurt my feelings – and is easily corrected. Telling me that when I’m particularly stressed it’s visible and makes people feel I’m less approachable is a lot tougher to hear…because I don’t necessarily know how to correct the behavior without fundamentally changing who I am. Both are equally valid criticisms – but the first can be scratched off my to do list in five minutes and the second can take years of self-monitoring and creating a better facade…and it may never happen.

      I would imagine giving this type of negative feedback is harder as well – which is why I much prefer managing systems to people. I can tell my software it sucks all day long and it never takes it personally.

    2. Anonymous*

      I really, really hate it when someone decides to play “devil’s advocate” just for the sake of doing it. Disagree? Have a different point of view or something else that should be considered? Go for it with my blessing (provided, of course, that disagreement is expressed politely and with reasons to back it up).

      But to me, playing devil’s advocate just for the sake of doing it is pretty darned annoying. Of course, that’s probably because my husband has a habit of doing it…and his timing is sometimes pretty poor ;-).

  6. Victoria*

    I appreciate this timely post, as I’ll be in this situation soon. My current boss is leaving, and I’ll be reporting to a person whose other direct reports have all been reassigned; I’ll be her only report. Current Boss (CB) is wonderful, supportive, and clear about expectations, concerns, and praise. New Boss (NB) is brash and mercurial, quick to criticize, and vague in expectations or criticism. When we met to discuss this new arrangement, she seemed too impatient to talk about expectations, roles, or her preferred methods of communication. I’m worried that every encounter might be negative, and I’m already tensing up because I fear I cannot please this person. So I’m defensive. So this very good advice about listening without being defensive is apt, but really difficult to do. CB says it’s not me, it’s her. I plan to spend most of our meetings closing my eyes, thinking of England.

  7. SME*

    “I plan to spend most of our meetings closing my eyes, thinking of England.” I just laughed so hard!

  8. Debbie*

    AAM, you give the best advice. I wish I could consult you mid-conversation sometimes, because you always have such an eloquent way of handling tough conversations. I’m a fan!

  9. Anonymous*

    This kind of thing is very frustrating to deal with, and it does not help when the people giving the criticism are poor communicators.

    I’ve been accused of being “resistant,” just because when I am given an assignment without all needed info, I ask for it: Is there a charge code? What is the deadline?

    I tried AAM’s approach of being open and listening to what my supervisors had to say, but they remained unclear and would contradict themselves. Now, my coworkers don’t give me much work at all, because they think asking for all needed info (we are a government contractor, so this is vital) is being “resistant.” It’s crazy!

    I hope the OP has better luck resolving his/her situation than I have had with mine!

  10. Bohdan Rohbock*

    It’s been my experience that asking for clarity is often interpreted as pushback, especially at first. I recommend being prepared to reiterate that you are trying to understand what the boss wants so you can comply multiple times.

  11. Anonymous*

    If any one can help me…..
    I have gud 12 yrs exp in my industry ….but in my last job ….I resigned bcoz the county manager was creating mess and odd conditions to continue work in same office …as manager was senior ….I opted to resign as no one willing to help me….but I explained everything about her beaviour in my resignation and sent it directly to manager’s seniors…I don’t know what happened after that….but now as our industry is same and so are people in network…..whenever I go for interview …manager send negative feedback as , manager is still working in same industry and I am not ??? what shall I do …pleas ehelp !!! its more then 1year I am jobless now …

  12. Anonymous*

    recently I got new job… but I am not having much work.. I will be sitting ideal in the office. how can I ask my boss to give more work as I don’t want to sit ideal. I feel bad company is paying me without doing much work… please suggest….

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