boss doesn’t speak to me unless there’s a problem

A reader writes:

I work in a large hospital and I am an administrative assistant. I support 3 physicians. My boss, the operations manager, has almost no interaction with the support staff until there is a problem and at our monthly meetings. I sit outside of his door and the only thing he says is “good morning” every day. That’s it. So that’s about 15 words a week. He only speaks or sends us a message when we do something wrong. No matter how minimal. He is extremely severe and follows the company rules to a fault, even when there is an opportunity to use his discretion.

Do you think I am being unrealistic to expect a bit more communication or positive interaction from him? I am positive he is unaware of the negative perception we all have of him. Every time he comes to my desk or I see an e-mail from him, I want to throw my monitor at him.

He’s certainly not the greatest boss in the world, but the intensity of your reaction isn’t warranted either.

The biggest problem I see here is the lack of feedback, which I’ll get to in  a minute. But the other stuff really isn’t a big deal, unless you make it one in your head.

Ideally, yes, he’d be a bit warmer in general — but perhaps he’s shy or introverted, or perhaps he simply prefers to focus intensely on work while he’s at work, to the exclusion of everything else, including social niceties. There’s no point in being irritated that he only says “good morning.” It’s just who he is, apparently, and it’s something that will only impact you if you let it.

As for strictly enforcing the rules — well, that’s not uncommon. Yes, the best managers tend to use flexibility and judgment, but enforcing clearly stated rules really isn’t that tyrannical, especially when you know he’s that way and can plan accordingly.

But let’s tackle the real problem: the lack of feedback unless something went wrong. This is a very, very spartan approach to management and it’s not one that tends to be effective with most people, particularly in the long-term. When a manager doesn’t acknowledge what’s going well, hearing about what’s going wrong will sting far more. And over time, employees treated this way will generally lose their enthusiasm for their work — they’ll feel unappreciated, disengaged, and unconnected with any broader purpose.

So yes, he should be giving you positive feedback along the way, not just pointing out problems. But since this clearly isn’t his natural orientation, why not just ask him for more feedback?  Ask to meet with him to talk about how things are going, and explicitly ask him what he thinks is going well, as well as what could be going better. In the course of that conversation, you can also mention that you feel you don’t get a lot of feedback unless there’s been a mistake, and that you’d welcome hearing from him more regularly.

This might actually be new information to him, believe it or not. A lot of people who end up in management positions just aren’t that thoughtful about what it means to be a good manager, and sometimes you need to specifically lay out what you’d like. I’m not promising you that it’ll work, but it might — and it shouldn’t hurt, as long as you’re calm and cheerful and don’t come across as high-maintenance.

One last note: Your current mindset on all this isn’t helping you or the situation. At a minimum, it’s hurting your quality of life, and I’d be surprised if it isn’t also impacting your interactions with him. Try reframing all of this in your mind — he’s shy, or he’s busy, and he doesn’t intend to come across harshly — and try to drop your anger at him. If you find that you can’t do that, it’s worth considering going somewhere else — but I think you can reframe this if you try.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Thanks for your advice. I will try to have a better attitude towards him. It is very difficult. Our group is a great group. We work well together for the most part and require minimal supervision. I am not sure that he appreciates how well we work together as a group and how we manage problems ourselves ( because its easier and because he is not good at handling them). I have worked with him for 4 years and we all have given feedback regarding our feelings and the lack of communication. I am an advocate of following the rules. I think my problem with this is because he enforces them differently for a couple people. It things were the same for everyone I would not be bothered. Getting written up for having to miss work because you are sick, ( on a day when you don’t have anything important pending) is really harsh.

    When I have met with him, he often becomes nervous and fails to answer the questions. I agree with you it is definitely time for me to move on. I am looking.

    Great advice. I will try to change my attitude until I find something knew. I need to stop expecting a great manager with socially appropriate behavior and accept what I have.

    Thank you.

    1. Joey*

      Getting written up for missing work is harsh? So you’re saying it’s unreasonable to expect people to be at work when they’re supposed to be there?

      1. Anon y. Mouse*

        Yes, a policy of writing people up for taking a sick day is harsh. I’ve never worked in an environment where sick leave was unavailable – not even minimum wage retail jobs.

        If the OP didn’t call in to let the boss know, that might be different.

      2. SME*

        Getting written up is typically reserved for times when you do something wrong. Being ill isn’t something you do wrong. It just happens sometimes. Being written up for that is harsh, yes. That’s why companies have days off allotted for sick leave.

        1. Joey*

          But missing work when youre supposed to be there is wrong. I don’t care what the reason is if you have an attendance problem you still have an attendance problem. Yes I might be sympathetic to your situation, but the bottom line is employers need people at work. A good excuse for an attendance problem isn’t a free pass.

          1. Ask a Manager*

            Hmm. Assuming that the employer offers sick leave, and that the employee isn’t abusing it, that doesn’t sound right to me. People do get sick, and unless the person is missing work an unreasonable amount, any sensible manager will recognize that you need to deal with that reality. Now, if the person is missing work a lot, that’s a different issue.

            1. Joey*

              My point is we don’t know the context of the situation to say if it’s unreasonable. I think there’s more to the story than 1 innocent sick day. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen sick code for hungover or the one legit sick day the tipping point to an attendance problem. In the end the reason for missing work really doesnt matter, the impact on operations is what really matters. And no I’m not talking about protected leave.

              1. Jess*

                You were just told that it was ‘a’ sick ‘day’ (read: one). How is that unreasonable? Why are you going about making assumptions past the information that has been given? It’s not very helpful to the questioner (you know, the whole reason for this website…) to fill in the gaps to suit your obvious bias. I hope you are not a manager, because you sound very harsh and unreasonable (and legally speaking, advocating discrimination on the grounds of disability). I agree with the poster from 9:43am – what a bizarre reply!

  2. fposte*

    Can I add something, OP, as a manager who’s been a bit inclined toward this behavior myself? It’s quite possible he *does* appreciate how good your group is and how much he’s able to concentrate on his non-supervisory duties, and he’s been thrilled you’re all so good that he doesn’t need to say much to you beyond “Good morning.” Yeah, it’d be helpful if he said that, but maybe it’d help you if you framed his reticence with that notion in mind. That’s quite possibly a happy introvert who knows he can trust you all to take care of stuff.

    1. SME*

      I really want to second this. And third it. At my last position, I worked extremely closely with a very fast-paced, demanding manager. Everyone else in my office – and I do mean everyone – thought my boss was scary and mean, precisely because of the kinds of thing you describe – she didn’t waste a lot of time on social niceties, and she always said something when something went wrong. But what I realized was that the rest of the time when she wasn’t saying anything was when I was performing not just well, but really well. All I had to do was understand her perspective, and suddenly my position was almost entirely stress-free. Not only that, it opened the door for a much warmer relationship, and it ended up being the best job of my career thus far.

      (I still agree that being written up for being sick is absurd. Just hoping that there’s some element of this type of management style in there with the unreasonableness!)

  3. J.B.*

    I’ve heard from others before who would indicate that physician managers are much like engineer managers. In other words, they like to solve problems, tend to be ferociously intelligent, and came though the school or hard bosses. They expect perfection at all times. Especially when frazzled they can provide extremely harsh critiques of anything not up to expectations.

    Which is really hard to deal with if you’re the person in front of the firing squad or trying to obtain specific direction with which to guide work. I agree that there are ways you could tactfully request more feedback but to some extent that is probably the personality. Good luck.

    1. Jamie*

      This was my first thought when I read this – a lot of managers whose skill set is technical/logical can tend to address things only when they are wrong.

      Kind of like when a computer program throws an exception a programmer will deal with that…and not give much thought to the 900 things that are processing correctly in said program.

      I’m not saying it’s right – as people do need positive feedback also – but it’s common and likely not personal.

      When I do internal auditing I have to consciously remind myself to mention the things that are compliant and don’t need to be addressed. My natural inclination is to only focus on the problems, because that’s what needs to be corrected. However, I found that no matter how neutrally you address problems, if you don’t soften it with “and here is where you’re doing great” people tend to take it more harshly than it’s intended.

      I deliberately changed my communication style in these instances because A) I don’t want to offend people, even if I don’t think there’s a reason to be offended and B) because it makes the process more cooperative and efficient. If B weren’t a factor I’m not sure A would have occurred to be, I’m ashamed to admit.

      I agree with Alison – I’d address the lack of feedback if you feel it’s holding you back professionally…but personally I wouldn’t let lack of warmth bother you. I’d much rather someone give me a terse “good morning” each day and leave it at that than to fake friendliness or chit chat because they think I need that.

      Then again, I’m anti-small talk in almost all instances, so maybe I’m wrong.

  4. Anonymous*

    I find myself doing this all the time to my co-workers. I’m not a manager but I do tend to only say “good morning” to my co-workers who sit near me and I do not talk much to them throughout the day unless I need to communicate about work to them. I am introverted and like to get my job done; none of that chit-chat or anything. And I don’t mean to do this because I’m giving people a cold-shoulder or anything, but as an introvert, that is how I am comfortable with things.

  5. Cassie*

    One of my bosses barely says good morning or hi to me every day, even though he walks by as he gets his coffee. The other boss always says good morning. It’s not a big deal. I don’t even say good morning to any of my coworkers (the guy sitting in the cubicle next to me always says good morning or hi, and does this actually several times a day just to tease me).

    Maybe he figures that if you aren’t doing something wrong, he doesn’t need to give feedback. (Maybe he’s not into giving positive feedback). I guess I’d just figure I was doing everything right and if not, he’d tell me (I hate it when supervisors don’t say anything to the worker, but instead complains to other people about said worker’s performance). If there’s something that needs to be fixed, tell the person so they can fix it. If you can’t man up and do that, then quit your complaining and change your attitude.

    There’s a couple of supervisors in our dept who complain about some of their staffers – but rather than give constructive criticism or concrete advice to those staffers, they just complain to their friends (within the dept). It’s very unprofessional and totally pointless.

    1. Jamie*

      The good morning people seem to need to make a point of that to those of us who aren’t.

      I was told once that I needed to work on my “salutations to colleagues.” Exact wording. So I do – I say hello each morning…to the person who brought up the complaint (not by boss – but outranks me.)

      I wanted to sarcastically suggest that I sent out an all user email each morning saying hello and being solicitous of everyone to check in on their emotional well-being, but I thought better of it.

      One thing that’s served me well is trying to reserve being offended for times when it’s deliberate and aimed at me. If someone’s actions bother me, but I don’t think the purpose is malicious or targeted I let it go.

      There is enough bad will in the world to go around without looking for it.

      1. Anonymous*

        “I was told once that I needed to work on my “salutations to colleagues.” ”

        I’m the exact same way. I’m not a chit-chatty person, especially in the mornings, and the people who are just annoy me. It’s one thing to say “good morning” but it’s another to interrupt me for little chats when I’m trying to get my work day started. I’d honestly prefer to be left alone unless there was an issue, simply because my co-workers will turn any opportunity into talk time. It’s gotten to the point where I just keep working and very obviously ignore them, and they’re slowly starting to get the point (this is after a few months of doing this).

        I get what the OP is saying about her boss though; it is nice to hear something other than the negative. Although if she had my boss, she would prefer he leave her alone! He is constantly interrupting us all with his stupid jokes, silly made-up songs and random noises he makes. You can’t ask him a question because it turns into at least 15 minutes of back story or explanation that doesn’t really add to the answer. The days he isn’t here are the best days.

        1. fposte*

          To some extent I’m the same way, as I noted above, but I have truly found it advantageous to factor in stop-and-chat times with others in the organization. Not just those I manage–just everybody. It makes me figure in their mental landscape of the place in a way I don’t if I just cruise past people with my head down, and it really does help my relationship with my colleagues.

          I just include it on my list of things to do, and then it’s no longer taking away from the things I’m supposed to do. Which sounds dumb, but if you’re a list person I bet you understand.

          1. Anonymous*

            I understand what you’re saying, but I’m on phones pretty much all the time, and I have to work while on the phone, so there’s no building chat time into my day. Unless of course I want to sacrifice my break time to talk about thing like what so-and-so’s baby did or this person’s boat. No thanks.

            1. fposte*

              Yeah, that’s not a job where it makes sense. On the other hand, if it’s a place you want to stay, it might be worthwhile sacrificing a break time or two each week to suck up the baby-boat stuff. It makes it more “I need breaks to clear my head” than “I hate you all.”

        2. Jamie*

          “You can’t ask him a question because it turns into at least 15 minutes of back story or explanation that doesn’t really add to the answer. The days he isn’t here are the best days.”

          The best description I ever heard for the above was “If you ask him what time it is he’ll tell you how to build a clock.”

          That runs through my mind when I’m dealing with someone like that…humor can help diffuse eye-rolling.

          1. Anonymous*

            He wouldn’t just tell you how to build it. He’d tell you the best companies to buy the parts from, where to hang it in your home and tell stories about all the clocks he’s built over the years.

          2. Dan Ruiz*

            LOL! I’m sure people say that about me sometimes. If you ask me about something I really care about, I can just go off.

            I’m trying to be more aware of it and definitely reel it in when I catch myself, but it’s an ongoing battle :-)


  6. Anonymous*

    OP I agree, the issue is that he’s implementing it differently for couple of people & that can be annoying. But it cant be helped unless you make a big issue of it, report it up etc.

    Seems like a comfortably environment otherwise…All you can do is what you said, accept him as he is and be glad he isn’t in your hair more!

  7. Anonymous*

    For some reason it wouldn’t bother me that he is not talking to me as much. Being an introvert my self, i can understand his minimum or lack of communication. But I do agree that he should still give some encouragement to his employees. Some managers are like that (although not the right thing to do); they focus on the official side of managing, but forget that he is managing human beings and need to learn about social organization at work.

  8. Aniau Jade*

    I know it’s not ideal, but this is the point in time where you have to stop and say “I can not control the actions of anyone but myself.” True it’s not ideal, but its not a situation where your boss is being a total jerk. I think your best bet is to re-evaluate the situation from different perspectives, and do your best to be the most absolute, wonderful person you can towards him. Even if HIS actions don’t change, you may find your attitude will :)

  9. Elissa Jane Mastel*

    I just had the opposite experience. I was working with a client who never said anything wrong. When we canceled our contract early, I was in shock. He had a laundry list of issues, none of which he discussed with me in person before ending our agreement. I was floored, he never brought any of these things up, said I was doing a good job and that he loved my work and my ideas. I think constructive feedback is key. I do agree that getting only negative feedback sucks but some indicators on how I’m doing can help me improve or adjust.

  10. anonymous*

    A little off the OP’s point, but those of you who don’t say ‘good morning’ or ‘good-bye’ to your co-workers really surprise me. I would call that the very minimum of courtesy. You don’t have to be chatty, but I feel those whom you work with every day should be acknowledged at the beginning and end of the work day, at the very least!

    1. Jamie*

      I’ll say hello (or nod) to people I see on my way to my desk if we happen to make eye contact, but I don’t seek people out to say hi in the morning.

      I have people do that to me and I find it odd. Like when you’re a kid and your mom tells you to go say hello to gramma before you play with your cousins.

      I will always return a greeting though – I’m not a complete savage.

    2. Anonymous*

      “but I feel those whom you work with every day should be acknowledged at the beginning and end of the work day, at the very least!”

      Why? They’re just co-workers. I hate to sound so grumpy but really, they’re just people that you have to spend a certain amount of time with every week. There’s no need to be rude, but I shouldn’t have to force myself to be social if I don’t want to be either. I’m here to work, not to listen to my cube neighbor’s stories about her infant or my supervisor’s complaints about her mooching son.

      1. Ask a Manager*

        I agree. If you pass someone in the hall, of course you acknowledge them. But I don’t think people need to go out of their way to hunt people down to say hello/goodbye (and in fact that can be annoying to the person sitting in their office trying to focus on work).

      2. Dawn*

        I don’t think anyone is saying people have to intentionally seek out their co-workers and say hello. I wouldn’t do that either. Also, no one is saying you have to hold a conversation with anyone. But what’s wrong with acknowleding people you walk by in the morning and the evening? It’s just simple courtesy and helps avoid being seen as the person who thinks s/he’s too good to talk to the little people.

      3. anonymous*

        I’m the one who posted that we should acknowledge people we work with every day. I didn’t mean hunt down every single person in your building or unit, unless, as others said, your paths cross and you just say ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ or ‘good morning’ or ‘have a good evening.’

        But the people you work in close proximity to each day? Yes, I think they should be acknowledged. Not in a way that’s intrusive if they’re concentrating, of course, but it’s important to ‘see’ the people you work with every day. (For example, there are five people in my office: 3 at desks in the open area and two in offices. It would be weird if we didn’t greet each other. Sometimes it’s just a general, ‘good morning, all!’ as we hit the door and ‘bye everbody’ as we leave.)

        Most people regard those who never say ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ as very rude or condescending. I do understand the need to avoid the overly chatty. I just say ‘good morning’ to those folks, and don’t follow up with ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was your weekend?’

        And to the above poster, you must have some yucky coworkers if you need to avoid them that much! I must have been lucky all these years, because I’ve mainly worked with great people. We’ve worked hard and supported each other, and many of them I consider friends.

      4. Anonymous*

        How can anyone think that walking into the same office every day and not saying morning is normal? Work is hard enough but it’s made so much harder when you work with miserable, ignorant people. I am no way a morning person but I have social skills. Also not sure why people have brought up seeking people out to say morning to – nobody was implying that anyone should do that. Oh I miss the days of working in an office!!

  11. Nethwen*

    As a person who has to force myself to say good morning and ask about a co-worker’s life, I want to add that what some people see as rude the person doing it could very likely think is respectful.

    For example, many of the commenters here want their co-workers to say “hi” and “bye.” To me, it is more respectful to let the person get on with their work. If we make eye contact, then of course, a greeting makes sense. But, if I’m just passing your desk and you’re looking at your computer, then I think it is disrespectful of your time to force you to alter your concentration even for a few seconds just because I need your recognition in order to feel polite.

    There are lots of other ways this personality trait plays out that can lead to people thinking I’m rude or stuck-up, but truly, what I do is most often motivated by deep respect for the other person’s time, privacy, etc.

    But, because I know so many people don’t understand, I try to watch and copy what seems to be expected so that I don’t offend people when my intention is to be nice.

  12. Cassie*

    If I’m walking in the hallway, or rounding the corner and bump into someone, I’ll say hi or smile and nod. For whatever reason, saying “good morning” is just not my normal thing (unless the person says good morning first – and then I’ll respond in kind).

    But I am not going to walk down the row of main offices and say good morning to every single worker in that row. It’s just absurd. (And yes, there are some of my coworkers who will do that). Do I also have to wander around the cubicle maze to say greet each cubicle denizen too?

    I think it depends on a few factors, like how big is the office and what kind of furniture/office arrangement you are in. If it’s one big office with desks, yeah, you do kind of have to greet each other. But if there are cubicles and offices, it just doesn’t make sense.

    No one is advocating totally ignoring coworkers as you pass each other. But no one wants to be forced to go out of their way figuratively or literally) to extend salutations :) to others, especially if those others are busy at work.

  13. FED UP*

    I also work in a large hospital. I have a new boss who I have had some problem with. It started out that my boss seems very nice. He would approach me and ask me for my opinion. My boss would ask for my help on various jobs. A few months into my bosses job he would questions me about other physicians and their work. I was very careful not to fall into the trap of stating that someone wasn’t doing what they was suppose to do. I felt that his questioning of other physicians was seeing where or how far I would go in exposing people or what I was about as a person. But my issue is that for the past 4 months my boss has stop speaking to me and asking for my assistance with work and opinion. I share an office with a co-worker and he will come into our office to acknowledge my coworker. He even jokes around and make conversation. My boss doesn’t really acknowledge that I’m there in his presences. I have recalled several incidences where I spoke to him not even 4 feet away and he ignored me. My boss has taking my work that I used to do and passed it off to my coworker. I am very qualified as I’ve been in my position a lot longer than the coworker. I’ve had no work for 4 months. Basically just sitting all day doing nothing productive. I am very fed up and feel very disrespected. I no longer feel that my position has the status of importance. Anyone feel free to comment. What do you think?

  14. Rovin*

    Hi!! here is a situation!! My boss used to talk to me and allot me work until, I went on a leave for a week because my wife was not well. After rejoining, he hardly speaks to me. In addition, he asks someone who has just joined the organization recently to do all the work that I used to do before going on leave.
    Any Idea on how to get back my boss’s attention??? Please help…

  15. Curtis*

    I hate to say it, but as a manager… wait, no.

    As an effective LEADER, it’s your job to provide consistent positive or negative feedback to your direct reports on a regular basis, regardless of if you are an introvert. It’s the leader’s job to meld to the personalities of his or her’s direct reports, not vice versa! If they don’t have the personality to carry out this menial task which is their charge, then they aren’t cut out to do the job… PERIOD. Charisma is the key here…

    1. Rovin*

      I have tried to speak to him to fin out whats wrong. I just started my conversation like , ” Sir, Its been a while that, I have been working with you and I would like to get a feedback on my work. I just want to know how i am doing and what are the areas I need to work on” But he just replied, “lets talk later” and went away. I dont know whats happening…

      1. Curtis*

        Like I outlined above, he obviously isn’t cut out to do his job properly. You need to go above him to state your concerns if he won’t provide you with what you need. If his boss doesn’t give you satisfaction, go above him/her, and so on and so on. If you get to the CEO of the company and still don’t get what you want, it might be time to start looking for a new job.

  16. Rovin*

    Thanks a lot for replying Curtis.. I discussed the same with one of my local friends and he suggested that I should stay calm for some time, and try to do something that helps me prove myself. so that he understands my importance. If I take this to the notice to of higher officials, don’t you think the result would be adverse?? I dont know…

    1. Curtis*

      It’s your manager’s responsibility to address your concerns and ensure your well-being. If he keeps shrugging them off like they’re nothing, then you absolutely need to take it higher. I don’t think the result will be adverse… if it is then the company you work for has a serious problem on their hands.

      The simple fact that he did not ask you if everything was OK with your wife upon your return tells me there is a problem. The age old “man-up” mentality should be a thing of the past. The philosophy that personal life/issues should not get in the way of work is medieval thinking and completely irrational.

      Good luck!

  17. SomebodyElsesProblem*

    My boss rarely communicates with our team anymore. At first I thought it was just me, but I checked with other sub-teams and found out she only emails or says something when there is a problem or she wants you to do something. There is a complete lack of feedback or information flow EXCEPT that she discusses architecture, policy, and other changes with a consultant. This consultant is supposed to be our database architect and team lead. He gets information from her, but never tells us. And I don’t mean minor things, I mean things like the implemenation of new databases without even informing our DBA.

    On the flipside, when we tell him things he acts like we are wasting his time. Then when something breaks and we don’t know how to fix it, he complains we are stupid, slow, lazy.

    I tried to find out what we are doing wrong…and me in particular. I directly asked my boss for some feedback. She said ‘you’re doing ok.” That was all she had to say. I prodded her a bit and learned that the aforementioned consultant had been complaining about he me. Apparently, in his eyes I can do nothing right. And not just me, everyone on our team.

    I feel like this consultant is poisoning what was once a thriving team with is cynicism, negativity, territorialism, and backstabbing. Is my only choice to find another job?

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