my boss has mini mean flashes

A reader writes:

My boss is really reactive. The slightest thing will make her roll her eyes and display obvious signs of anger/irritation. For example, this can happen if you come to her office at the wrong moment or don’t know an answer offhand. She gives these knee-jerk reactions, and although the next minute she is acting normally, being met with these reactions is really hurtful and demoralizing. It also bring forth a lot of anxiety as to what kind of reaction she will have. She does this with everyone who works for her, not just me.

What is the best way to respond when she does this? What can I do so I don’t walk away with so much negativity about her/the job after encountering one of her reactions? I work really hard and she knows it, but I am not a mind-reader. I can’t always tell if she is in a bad mood, is busy or whatever. What do I do?

I’m a big fan of just being direct in situations like this. For instance:

“I’m getting the sense you’re frustrated. How would you like me to handle this differently?”

“You look annoyed by that.”  (Pause, wait for response.)

“You sound upset by this. My thinking was X, but would you like me to do this differently?”

As someone who’s worked with a lot of difficult personalities, I can tell you that simply naming what you’re seeing that’s unsettling you and asking about it — in a completely calm and neutral way — can actually defuse a lot of this. Difficult people don’t always realize how they’re coming across, or you may create an opening for them to tell you something more constructive than what the eye-roll conveyed, or you may hear that it’s not about you at all but is about something entirely different, or whatever. Worst case scenario, the person lashes out at you, and then you know they’re not someone salvageable — which is good information to have as you decide how you want to proceed.

Regardless, I’ve always found it to be the most effective way of handling this type of behavior.

I’m also a big fan of the big-picture conversation: “Jane, I’ve noticed that when I come by your office when you’re in the middle of something, you seem irritated by it. Is there a better way for me to approach you when I need something? Is it better for me to use email, or schedule a meeting, or something else?”

Or: “Jane, I’ve noticed that when you ask me a question and I’m not immediately sure of the answer, you seem frustrated. Are there things that you think I should be more prepared to talk about, or something else I could be doing differently?”

Again, you want to have this conversation in a calm and neutral tone — no emotional investment, just the tone you’d use if you were trying to solve a business problem. I like to sound a little genuinely curious too. (Wouldn’t it be great if I could post a sound file here? I could just act this out for you rather than trying to describe the tone.)

But if this doesn’t work, then you probably need to accept that this is the way she is. It’s not about you; it’s about her — and you know that for two reasons: (1) You see her doing it to other people too, and (2) No reasonable manager acts like this, so even if you were the most annoying, frustrating person in the world (which you’re almost certainly not), this wouldn’t be an appropriate way for her to handle it. So she’s in the wrong here, and remembering that this is all about her own shortcomings rather than yours might help you stay sane.

{ 93 comments… read them below }

  1. Student*

    As usual, AAM hits the nail on the head.

    The only thing I’ll add is, don’t look to other people to make you feel good about your job, even the manager. It’s wonderful when a manager does make you feel good about your work. Realistically, that’s not often going to happen. You have to find the motivation to do a good job within yourself, not from the approval of others.

    You’re completely legit to complain about the manager’s behavior and try AAM’s advice to get her to change. It’s not good that her obviously impersonal (but inappropriate) response is getting to you so much. Don’t give anyone that control over your happiness – no one cares about your happiness as much as you do. If you feel you’re doing a good job, hold your head high even when office politics / thoughtless bosses / bad co-workers are making your life difficult and tell yourself, “I did my work well, this is not my fault or my problem.”

      1. Dan*

        I agree with everything you’re saying, but I will add that while we’re thinking to ourselves, “I did my work well, this is not my fault or my problem”, we need to be open to the idea that sometimes it could be our problem and we need to make sure we aren’t just sticking our head in the sand and saying “la la la la…”

  2. anonymous*

    This is one of those cases where it might be beneficial to go over her head. However, ONLY after you’ve 1. addressed the issue with her first, and she reacts negatively or retaliates, and 2. if your office allows an “open door” policy. If you believe that her boss will not listen, or think you should be dealing with it, then going over her head will just make things worse.

    I had a boss that favored his local people, while treating his remote employees with disdain and outright hostility. After months of trying to work with him and deal with it, we finally (as a group) went to his boss, and told him that we were tired of being treated as though our manager wanted us gone. His boss told our manager to take some classes and straighten up, or his performance review would suffer for it. Things got much better for us, since he knew he would be on the hook for bad behavior.

    1. anon*

      I’m impressed that worked for you. My co-workers also confronted our boss about his management style and things we hoped to see change, but it only generated more hostility. He did not do anything to accommodate our requests and became more suspicious of us in general. When he saw us all talking together in the same room, he would get visibly upset because he thought we were talking about him. I’m sure he felt ganged up on, and I wouldn’t do it that way again in the future because the results were less than desireable. We were all at the end of our rope and honestly hoped to improve communication, but it’s such a tricky balancing act to do it in a way that doesn’t make the manager feel undermined. It’s interesting to hear that you were able to create a positive change though.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s 100% dependent on what kind of manager is above your boss.
        At some point I need to write a post on when you should/shouldn’t go over your boss’s head, and how to know.

        1. The Other Dawn*

          I second that. I’m helping my friend, also my former employee, with a situation at her new job and would love to know if I should advise her to go over her boss’s head.

        2. anonymous*

          Yep, exactly, which is why I made sure to include point #2. If the boss above yours doesn’t have an open-door policy (or worse, said she does but really doesn’t), then going over the manager’s head will only make things worse. We were lucky in that our group manager was the type to value efficiency over popularity, and when he realized that all six of us were ready to jump ship (and lose the company valuable information on various applications in IT), he was inclined to listen and help.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            One more thing that’s key: In addition to the person needing to be open to listening (and having a track record showing that they’re fair, have good judgment, don’t just blindly back managers, etc.), they also need to be skilled/emotionally intelligent enough to ensure that you will not face repercussions from your managers for talking to them. This usually means they’ll need to lay down the law with that manager is a serious way that they will not make you uncomfortable, treat you differently, etc.

      2. anon*

        I see now that you are saying you went over her head. In my case, we didn’t do that. We just spoke directy to our boss as a group, with poor results.

  3. AJ*

    I think we need to remember that some people have trouble with not showing emotions as a part of their expressions. Yes, this person is a manager but she’s also a human being full of emotions and thoughts. Maybe the interruptions need to reevaluated: are you just dropping by or did you let her know you were coming in advance? Dropping in on someone in the middle of the workday is not always the best way to get to them – some people need a little warning before you come by so they can prepare. (This rule also applies at my house – call before you come by). :)

    1. Anonymous*

      my default conversation opener whenever I drop by someone’s office (& especially if they’re typing) is: “are you in the middle of a thought?” some people are really good at switching gears quickly, but even those folks might occasionally get irritated if they’re in the middle of something really complicated right when you happen to stop by. & it’s hard to regain your train of thought when you’ve already been interrupted by another person’s question/observation/etc.

      1. Natalie*

        It can be helpful for people to communicate how they would like to be approached, too. One of my former bosses (good boss, not the bad boss below) sat facing her door. She lost her train of thought with verbal interruptions, so eventually she asked us to stand at her door or knock if she wasn’t facing the door and wait. She would finish whatever immediate thing she was doing and then we could talk.

        1. Anonymous_J*

          My boyfriend operates that way, too. It can be hard to get used to, if you’re like me and used to just going and getting things done!

          I agree that discussing styles of approaching people or how one prefers to be approached is a really good idea.

    2. Charles*

      Who is asking the manager to NOT show emotions?

      I thought the issue was how to deal with someone who shows inappropriate emotions; bascially an adult who should know better but sometimes (or often) has the behaviour of an inmature child.

      Eye-rolling hasn’t been accepted in my book since the third grade – and even then it was considered rude. I consider it to be even more rude when coming from someone in the position of authority.

      If the OP is in fact the one in the wrong (which I don’t for a minute believe) then the manager should start to act like a manager (she should buy and READ Allison & Jerry’s book already damn it!) and use the direct approach and say “please don’t interrupt me in the middle of the day.” That’s really not that hard to do. (I say as I roll my eyes!)

    3. ruby*

      Some of these things are very difficult to parse without being there. In this case, it could be the manager is making huge, overly dramatic eye-rolls and slamming things around on her desk and generally huffing and puffing up a storm to show her irritation and the OP is reasonably reacting that these are disconcerting things to expeience on a regular basis.

      Or it could be that the manager is just wound a little tight and her reactions are minor and within reason and the OP is over-reacting and personalizing the reaction to be about her. Even if we had a hidden camera in the office, I bet there’d still be disagreement on what we saw…it’s so subjective.

      That said, I agree that starting off the conversation with “Are you free for a few minutes, I have a question about X”. That gives the manager control back of the situation and doing that may be enough to difuse things. Based on the description of the manager, I would try this a few times before initiating the “big” conversation about “You seem irritated/frustrated when I…”. I think that conversation has the potential to go wrong – if the boss is a control freak who hates being surprised/interrupted by others, she may also react poorly to being “confronted” (I understand the conversation suggested by AAM is not really confrontational but I’m saying it could be perceived that way).

  4. Natalie*

    OP, I had a very similar boss who just recently took another position and isn’t here anymore. Hurray!

    This woman’s problems were complicated by the fact that she got extremely defensive in the face of anything that sounded like criticism or, on especially bad days, questioning. As you can imagine, that made approaching her about her moods a non-starter.

    Mild confrontations in the moment, as Alison suggested, were sometimes effective. “I’m sorry, is this a good time?” “Everything okay?” And so forth.

    As someone else has already said, you absolutely can’t take things like this personally. That doesn’t mean her behavior is okay, just that you should do as much as possible to prevent her behavior from affecting your self image. In another comments thread a few weeks ago, someone suggested keeping an “I’m awesome” file – complimentary emails, good performance reviews, etc – that they would pull out when their boss was being especially demoralizing.

    It can also be helpful to observe her and see if there are any patterns to her behavior. You obviously can’t predict her 100% of the time, nor should you have to, but it can be a way to minimize your exposure to her toxicity. For my old boss, if she had an argument with her daughter over the phone (the woman had problems) I knew enough to steer clear of her as much as possible.

    1. AnotherAdmin*

      @Natalie – I agree! My former supervisor was emotionally high strung and her temperament could vary wildly from day to day. She was extremely good at what she did, but had a great deal of difficulty handling her emotions especially when she was under a great deal of stress (personal or work related) and tended to take it out on her co-workers. It can be very demoralizing to work with a boss like that and its easy to get stuck inside your own head. If the OP’s boss is just highly emotional (and not actually mean-spirited) the best thing to do is to 1) try to resolve the problem with AaM’s suggestions, 2) if it can’t be resolved by talking to the manager, decide if you able to change your reactions to the manager’s behavior (it’s her, not me) and maintain a good attitude, and 3) if none of that works, realize that maybe this job isn’t the ideal work scenario for you and that it’s time to move on.

      1. anon*

        I like AaM’s advice, but I doubt I would be able to speak in a calm, neutral tone. That’s the hardest part, I think. It’s tough to distance yourself from the perceived rudeness and act like it’s not personal.

        1. Anon in the UK*

          I once worked with a peer in a different department who would roll her eyes, shout and stamp her feet.

          She did that to me once. Just once, since I said cheerfully, ‘I will continue this conversation when you have calmed down’ and walked off.

          Apparently she has been much better with her staff since. Perhaps the solution is getting someone else at her level to tell her.

          1. Tamara*

            This is why AAM’s advice is so great. Often people aren’t aware of their behavior, even if it seems extreme to others. It sounds like your cheerful statement opened up her eyes and let her realize what she was doing. I’ve had to speak with difficult employees about inappropriate behavior before, and often they are surprised to hear about it. It could certainly work both ways, and bringing it up (in a subtle, polite, professional way, such as AAM suggests) is the only way to be sure.

  5. Charles*

    I’ll second AAM’s advice here.

    However, what AAM’s suggests may or may not work. Be prepared to either accept that this is way this jerk of a boss acts or look for another job if it truly bothers you.

    I would not recommend going over her head if she doesn’t change; that will more likely than not make you look bad as you don’t know what relationship she has with her higher-ups. She might just use it against you and you’ll go from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

    Or, if nothing else look at this situation as a “character-building experience.” Afterall, if you learn to deal with her then you may find future challenges easier.

  6. Kim*

    Definitely take AAM’s advice. I have a similar situation with my boss and talked with my therapist about it since she understands human brhavior. She had nearly the same advice, and I’ve been using it, and it really helps. Especially the part about remembering that these reactions are about her, not you. If you can manage to not take it personal, it hurts alot less!

  7. Cruella Da Boss*

    Hmmm….only have one side of the story here so I can’t really speak intellegently. I’m only hearing that you are unhappy with the reaction you are getting, but very little about any other circumstance. Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute.

    Have you thought it might also be the way you are approaching her?

    You said you can’t tell when she’s busy or in a bad mood or whatever. Bosses are usually busy. That’s a given. If you boss is busy, you should be able to see that. It should be obvious.

    Are you constantly coming to her office to ask questons?
    Are you asking questions that she’s answered before, or several times before? (Personally, that annoys me, so I understand the eye rolling.) Get all your questions together and visit ( or email) them all at once.

    You said if you come in to her office at the “wrong moment.”
    Are you interupting a meeting or a call with someone?
    Is your boss in high demand, or on several projects, etc…?
    There are any number of reasons your boss may be annoyed. I could go on and on.

    Continue to work hard. Hard work is it’s own reward. I would ask, or better yet, send an email asking, when the best times to discuss questions or issues, how she’d prefer to address questions, etc… Then you know you will know what is expected and should never catch your boss “at the wrong moment” again.

    1. fposte*

      It’s true that the OP could be bugging the boss, but the boss is handling this poorly–eyerolling is an inappropriate and contemptuous response, and it’s no substitute at all for opening your mouth and asking your employee to limit questions to x time if that’s what you actually want. So while it’s possible that the OP is making mistakes, the boss is also messing up here.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree. It is my automatic response and I’ve trained myself not to do it, but I consciously need to fight the urge several times a day.

          It’s a natural response for some people, but it’s also vile and contemptuous (nice wording) and shouldn’t be done by people with manners.

          A couple of tips to my fellow closet eye rollers out there:
          1. When you really can’t repress it rub your eyes, and comment on how dry the air is.
          2. It’s only rude to do it to people. It’s perfectly acceptable to roll your eyes in the private at any screen (phone, iPad, laptop, monitor, etc.) without a webcam. If they can’t see you, it doesn’t count. In the privacy of my own office I’ve rolled my eyes so hard I’m truly surprised they haven’t frozen that way.

          1. fposte*

            I’m surprised that IT have any eyes left in their heads, really, given what you all face. But yeah, it has to wait until the offender leaves. (I’m lucky in it’s generally emails or print materials making me eyerolly, so I can go to town.)

      1. DeeDee*

        I agree wholeheartedly. It should also be noted that the OP stated that her manager responds like this with everyone. While she could honestly just have the worst possible timing, I find it hard to believe that everyone interrupts the manager at an inoppurtune moment. Even if that was the case, their manager could easily say, hey leave me alone unless it’s an emergency between two and four.

        1. Anonymous*

          This could also be an exageration on the part of the OP. Wouldn’t that make the reader feel more empathy for him/her?

          1. Jamie*

            I can’t imagine that if the OP were to lie, it would be about this. I mean a boss that muttered medieval curses under her breath, spoke to co-workers in Klingon just so the OP would miss out on important business information, the tried and true flying stapler when someone dared to ask a question…that would be worth making up.

            Eye rolls and attitude when interrupted. That rings a little too true to most of us who’ve been working more than 10 minutes.

            Although I do think it would be awesome if Alison headed a secret task force. Where agents would be dispatched to the work places of various OPs to vet tone, nail clippings, and if someone really does freak out over who is buying the milk. I would have my application along with my resume and beautifully crafted cover letter in immediately!

            1. Charles - OP Vetting Agent Extraordinaire*

              ” . . . Alison headed a secret task force. Where agents would be dispatched to the work places of various OPs to vet tone . . .”

              Dear Ms. Alison Green;

              May I call you Ally?

              Ally, I am contacting you about the wonderful opportunity of OP Vetting Agent that was listed on your blog. As you can see from my resume, with a perfectly worded Career Objective, (eyes rolling) this is a perfect fit (eyes rolling again) with my skills and experience in the “fake it ’til I make it” department.

              You need to look no further in your search for the ideal candidate as you have found me! (eyes rolling even more)

              Excellently stated in the bullets points below are the prime reasons that my candidacy for OP Vetting Agent will be of great interest and benefit to you and your organization.

              * a connoisseur of the finest BS; able to distinguish a real cowpie from the cheap imported donkey-dung knock-offs.

              * Not squeamish about discarded hair or nail clippings, human or animal. Able to tolerate any gross or foul working conditions – I taught Mike Rowe everything he knows about Dirty Jobs.

              * No lactose intolerance here, Baby (FYI, I’m the one who taught Mike “Austin Powers” Myers how to talk cool); I am able to tell from whence dairy products originated and who purchased them.

              * Worldly experience – able to tell when, and how often, co-workers are “tricking” in the office john down the hall. (pun intended – did you see that? “john” snicker, snicker. I made a witty pun, gawd, I am so funny they should give me a medal or something – your office needs a funny guy like me to help lighten up your day)

              *I’m awesome and I know it! (clap your hands – clap, clap)

              Please contact me at 1-800 full-of-myself; better yet, as you will not find anyone more suited, when I get back from our boys-night-out-to-see-the-strippers-in-Vegas trip I will call your office to set up a start date that is convenient for me. (eyes rolling so far back she fell over)


              Chip – the OPvettingmeister

              1. Anonymous_J*

                Seriously? You guys (Charles and Jamie) are awesome! LOL!

                I’d put in my application, too! What a cool job that would be!

                “Alison, I am reporting for duty. I can confirm in all confidence that this boss is, indeed, a BMPPH (Big, Meanie Poo-Poo Head)!”


              2. Jamie*

                I will say this for Charles – I would totally work for that man.

                If chosen I will happily serve as OPvettingmeister Minion. How awesome would that look on a business card?

    2. AJ*

      “Cruella” – right on! We managers cannot be expected to be in a good mood and ready to answer any and all questions at the drop of a dime – 100% of the time. I think it’s really unfair to have that expectation put upon us, given the circumstances of trying run to a department and get your own work completed.

      1. fposte*

        Then you tell your staff you won’t be available to answer questions until x o’clock. If they’re asking you too many, then you tell them you’d like them to handle more of these matters independently. But you don’t eyeroll at them for what they’re doing without giving them new directions.

        1. The Other Dawn*

          Exactly. There’s no excuse for the boss to roll her eyes or make other indications that she’s annoyed or angry when asked a question.

          I don’t think OP is the problem. She mentions that the boss behaves this way towards everyone who works for her. That’s not to say that she’s entirely without blame. Maybe she does ask too many questions – things that have been covered with her before – or interrupts when the boss is on a phone call. But we don’t know that for sure. We only have one side of the story.

    3. Mica*

      Please read op as she says that her boss has the same reaction to everyone, not just her. Which is not surprising. I’ve worked with and for people like this, and some of them even became my friends. Outside work they are fine, never have this condescending attitude that they display during work hours.

  8. human*

    I totally agree with this advice, it’s so important to just be direct with people when you have a problem with them. I have been on the other side of this; I show what I am thinking and feeling very easily, and there have been times when I got annoyed with co-workers over very minor things. I never would have expressed this deliberately because it would be unfair to flip out on someone over minor things, but what I didn’t realize was that I was showing it nonverbally. Fortunately someone finally called my attention to it, and I started being careful not to do that. I was out of line, but I couldn’t fix it until I knew that.

    If the person is really an asshole and doesn’t care, you’ll find out; but if you don’t make the attempt to solve it by direct communication you’ll never know if they were just accidentally being an asshole without realizing it.

  9. BreakingAndMaking*

    My boss has a little mean flashes, that’s a great subtitle! Seriously, for I minute I wasn’t sure what’s going on, I though you’re gonna write about how much you hate you’re boss and call him names, but uhhh it’s something different.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I just got over have mongo big old mean flashes for the past couple of years, so that’s the first thing I thought of. But that would be another blogsite…

  10. Jen*

    “Mini mean flashes” sound like micro-expressions to me. If that’s the case, then I don’t think it’s reasonable to call someone a jerk for showing them as they’re mostly reflexive. Just because I get irritated at sThe fact that the manager pulls it together to act normally is about as much as I’d expect, though I agree with the advice to take a cue from the microexpressions to open a dialogue.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think microexpressions fit either, though. Eyerolling definitely isn’t a microexpression, for one thing, and most people don’t actually notice microexpressions, and this is apparently something most people notice with her.

  11. Lee Zaruba*

    I hope the OP has weighed options and feels confident they get some extra compensation that is appropriate for working under such a manager. (Pay, future opportunity, flexibility of hours or the like).

    “Managing up” has its limits. Everyone is human and has their bad days. But there are other people in your industry (and likely your company) not having to put up with the stress of a volatile or emotionally immature manager, whom you potentially fear and whose stability you may question.

    As usual, AAM’s advice is reasonable and rational. Unfortunately not all managers are. Before addressing this even politely, you may want to take stock of where you sit and what exit options are available. Sometimes even a polite discussion will result in backlash or you being placed on the ‘distrusted’ list precisely because this manager has the characteristics you have mentioned. Worse, if they are a long-seated manager they will likely not be challenged to change by other managers or executives.

    Taking stock of how comfortable you are overall and what else may lay out there is a good thing to do from time to time. Before facing a manager like the one described, that’s as good an excuse as any to do a little thinking on the matter before potentially upsetting the apple cart. Is this manager’s behavior REALLY a big deal in that context? If not… sometimes realizing nobody and no job is perfect is an acceptable answer. Consider it a tax for the other benefits you gain and leave that particular dog lie.

  12. Yup*

    Is there any discernible pattern to the boss’s behavior? Like, is she really irritable in the morning, or on Fridays, or just after that conference call about project ABC? It might be worth it to try and figure out if there’s a larger picture of her behavior, so you could work around trigger points. Alternately, if she used to be normal and is just recently acting like this, it might be worth asking her, “Is everything OK? You’ve seemed a bit stressed out lately?”

    But if she is just a reactive person with self-control issues, I do have a tip. When she does her eye-rolling or whatever, just silently pretend she’s a famously difficult or unlikeable person at that moment. I have two very moody coworkers, and when they get bratty at work, I picture them as Martha Stewart and Simon Cowell. As in, “Ah. Susie’s having a Martha moment. We must not’ve landscaped the rose gardens to her taste today.” It sounds goofy, but it helps me detach from the emotional reaction of what the other person is saying or doing and keep my wits about me.

  13. Anonymous*

    This situation could have been written about me. I’m a relatively new manager at a fast-paced nonprofit and struggle with this everyday. I’m an eye roller, a sigher, a displayer of irritation, and it often boils down to near constant interruption. I get mid-thought and then BAM! Now, granted, part of good management is fielding the unexpected, but how do you compose yourself to be fully present with the staff member or volunteer that needs you rightnow? My staff have called me out and I’m trying to change. This is great advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d take a look at how you can structure things to minimize the interruptions. For instance, schedule weekly check-in’s with each staff member and ask them to save things that can wait for those meetings. Ask them to put things in email that don’t require in-person discussion. Consider setting “office hours” when you can be interrupted or the reverse of office hours, times when people know that you can’t be interrupted (other than for emergencies). You also might consider if you’ve delegated fully enough — if the interruptions are constant, it might need to that you need to more fully delegate ownership of projects and/or spend more time on the front-end getting fully aligned so that people are more able to run with stuff.

      Not to be all salesy, but there’s loads on this in my book if you want to check it out:

    2. fposte*

      I’ve struggled with this one too, and Alison’s given some great suggestions for managing the actual interruptions. I’m also thinking you can tell your staff at a time when cooler heads prevail that it’s not personal, that it takes you a few moments to transition, and that they are coming to you appropriately (if they are). You might also try creating a brief go-to routine for interruptions and put it on a dorky eye-level sign so you’re reminded to do it: maybe you take three deep breaths, maybe you count to ten, maybe you stand up and stretch which you probably need to do anyway, but you have a quick transition practice that requires some focus and resets your brain a little. Since this is an issue out in the open with your employees, you don’t have to pretend whatever you’re doing is coincidence.

      It also helps me to remember that they’re not taking me away from my work, they are also my work.

      1. Bee*

        I’m not a manager, but as an employee, I have to say that I’m guilty of this. I roll my eyes, I sigh, I make sarcastic comments. It’s not personal and a lot of times, I don’t even notice when I’m doing it. I’m very direct in my communication; however, my co-workers are NOT. So there’s been at least one occasion when I offended them with my behavior, and rather than talk to me about it, they went to my boss to complain.

        I don’t know if the OP’s boss is like me, but if she is, she might appreciate being told when something she does is perceived as hurtful – as soon as it happens. I certainly don’t intend to hurt my co-workers, and I’m very responsive if someone says to me, “What you just said was really rude.”

        1. Anonymous*

          “I’m very direct in my communication; however, my co-workers are NOT. So there’s been at least one occasion when I offended them with my behavior, and rather than talk to me about it, they went to my boss to complain”

          man I hate that. It’s so childish.

          1. Bee*

            I agree……on the other hand, though, I guess you could argue that *my* behavior was childish, too. It’s definitely something I’m working on. It’d be a lot easier if I worked with people who were direct/comfortable enough to say, “Hey Bee, that was kinda harsh.” But they’re not, apparently, so I guess the onus is on me to change.

  14. KM*

    I completely agree with the advice that the OP should ask if they’re doing something annoying and if there’s anything they could do differently to be less annoying, but I would advise against saying “You look annoyed by that” and then pausing for a reaction.

    Maybe it’s just a personal peeve of mine, but I can’t stand it when people tell me “You look X” and then say nothing else. It’s better to say, “You look annoyed and it makes me feel nervous about asking you questions” or something else that communicates what the actual problem is.

  15. Anon*

    Thank you, AAM! I have a similar problem with my boss. He’s good most of the time but once in awhile he’s very angry about what I did and considering rather drastic ways to solve the problem of my behavior. But he never says what I did that was so awful. The potential consequences rivet my attention and I spend weeks trying not to do it again, without quite knowing what “it” is. When we meet again, he might still be angry or he might have forgotten the incident so completely that if I ask for clarification, he thinks I’m making it all up. Either way I come out looking like a drama queen. I’ll have to try the approach you offered the OP who seems to be in the same boat and see if I can find out where this is coming from.

    1. Anonymous_J*

      Oh, I think you are probably dealing with a different set of issues here, but trying these approaches might help.

      I speak as someone in a similar position. It sucks! :(

  16. Kat*

    I’m so glad somebody else asked this question!

    In my situation, oddly, it’s my employee who’s irritable (and an eye-roller). It doesn’t show much foresight on her behalf, as we are now managing her out the door.

    Basically, if something in your behaviour reminds me of my 10 year old cousin, it’s not appropriate for work. That goes for eye-rolling, complaining about people telling you what to do (i.e. giving you work), whispering about me on the phone to your sister, and giggling when good looking men come into the office.

    Thank you Alison for answering this! And I appreciate everyone else’s thoughts too, great to have lots of viewpoints :-)

  17. majigail*

    Since this is happening and then the next minute, she’s fine, I wonder if the boss is already aware that she’s doing this and is already trying to change.

  18. Bonnie*

    I used to be this person. I have no poker face at all. So what I feel tends to show up on my face including frustration (although I have never been an eye-roller). The frustration was often not about the interruption or the question itself but often because I knew the staff member was able to do the work or find the answer but was chosing to ask me instead. In other words I was frustrated with the staff memeber not working up to the potential I saw in them. That of course could not be communicated through the facial expressions. But I didn’t know how people felt about this because they weren’t willing to tell me. It took me years to find out that my being upset because I knew they were great people was actually hurting thier feelings. However, I will also say to the OP that even if you have this conversation and your manager realizes what she is doing is wrong, she will not be able to change overnight. The eye-rolling and facial expressions are not deliberate but are her natural response. It will take time for her to change behaviors that she may not even be aware she is expressing. So if she wants to change, have a conversation about alerting her and reminding her when she is engaging in that behavior as a way to help her. I asked my staff to do that for me so I could change my behavior.

    1. Jamie*

      “I used to be this person. I have no poker face at all. So what I feel tends to show up on my face including frustration”

      This is something I had to deliberately acquire. I apparently have a very expressive face; apparently because more then once I’ve been asked about my reaction to something in a meeting when I didn’t think I was outwardly reacting at all.

      Not just with eye rolling either…so I combat this by going completely stoic – I even say the word stoic in my head over and over until I know I have achieved the dead behind the eyes look of the shark in Jaws (or any of the Kardashians).

      It is something that can be improved, but definitely takes a lot of work. I’m pretty good about it now, but I do really hate surprises in meetings for this reason. I am way more comfortable if I have an idea of what’s coming – I have never been able to stoic away being blindsided with something…fortunately that’s very rare.

      1. Anon*

        I’ve had this problem too–been asked about my reaction to something when I thought I had no reaction at all.

        I also once got called out for eye-rolling and sighing…which I hadn’t actually been doing as a reaction at all! I have terrible allergies, so sometimes I sigh just to get oxygen in and out (and that was a notice that I needed to go to the allergy doctor). As for the eye-rolling… I have no knowledge of when I actually do it, and when I try to stop, it gets worse. It’s actually a bit of a joke in my family.

        1. Anonymous_J*

          Me, three, and–Geek Girl confession coming on–I have been able to change my behavior by picturing the “Vulcanest Vulcan (for me, that’s Tuvok)” I can in my mind while the person who is annoying me is nattering on and on.

          It’s dorky as hell, but it works! LOL!

          (I just have to be very careful not to respond with, “Fascinating.”)


          1. Jamie*

            For me it’s Spock – and I have actually replied that “it’s not the ONLY logical alternative” – fortunately no one picked up on the voice but me.

            You are awesome Anonymous_J – it’s comments like that that make this my favorite virtual hang-out ever.

          2. Diane*

            I just spent a board meeting trying to channel Picard. I thought of Shakespeare and Q, and tried not to think of Borg. Sigh.

  19. Long Time Admin*

    You know, all of this sounds a whole lot like “Managing Up”. People think it’s all about trying to manipulate people, but actually it’s all about getting to know your co-workers and managers, and working out the best ways to have effective communication with them. That means getting to know when you can and cannot interrupt or approach them, what you should or should not bring to them, and how you should state your concerns.

  20. Anonymous*

    I hope my story can help our OP.

    I work for an extremely moody boss. They’re the top dog in our division so it’s not really appropriate for me to go above them.

    I spent the first year of my employment wondering if I was the problem. If I’d somehow entered adulthood lacking self-awareness because at times, mentioning “I love this show!” would be met with a fiery response about how actually, this show is a knock off of this other show and clearly I’m an idiot (the “clearly I’m an idiot” was deduced by tone). Then our team member quit. And on his way out, mentioned that he couldn’t/wouldn’t work for someone who was so damn moody that he tiptoed on eggshells.

    Then another person quit. And another. And in the last 6 years, I’m the last person standing. There’s been a lot of turnover on our team and I think it’s directly related to the moodiness. I made the conscious decision 5 years ago to work with my manager. They have great experience, give me some positive feedback here and there and think the world of me. I survived because I’ve managed up.

    I’m not a pushover…I do push back but I choose when and how I push back. If they’re just being an asshole, I ignore it. If they’re flat out wrong and being an asshole, I call them on it. I show the facts. I don’t get defensive or oppositional – I just stand up to them.

    And if I want a raise/promotion/chunk of time off I pick and choose carefully when I approach them.

    Some people are just moody. Most people prefer not to work with those kinds of people but if you can take yourself out of it and realize it’s a character flaw (their character flaw), sometimes you can make it work. Is my boss an asshole? Sometimes. I accept that because the opportunities I get are worth it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is sooo true. I worked successfully for a really difficult boss for a long time (and was actually really happy doing it) because I figured out how to manage up effectively. It can be a very useful skill to develop; what I got out of the experience was well worth the price of dealing with the difficult guy above me. (And again, I figured out how to be really happy 99% of the time within that set-up, which is an important piece of it.)

  21. Anonymous*

    This situation could describe me as a manager, though I have been working very hard to change it. I’ll never forget the day last Fall when one of my employees whom I respect greatly got very angry at me for my constant emotional roller coaster and said he was going to start working from home if I kept acting that way. He told me he hadn’t lost respect for me but was tired of the way I was behaving. The possibility of losing him around the office scared me silly and since then I have worked hard to keep my emotions in check as I deal with my people. I appreciate that he was comfortable enough with me to be open with me, but I realize not all bosses are like that.

  22. Anonymous*

    AAM, I have a request. Could you add a tag/category …’assertive behaviour’ or ‘difficult conversations’ or ‘managing up’ or something like that.?

    One of the best things I’ve seen is the way you detail out how one can stand up/confront/behave assertively…complete with wordings (like this one…& lots more actually).

    Invaluable really. So if you tag it or categorise it separately it would be easy to hunt ’em out when you’re preparing for a tough conversation with your boss/peer …or whoever!
    So pls do if possible! Thanks!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Interesting idea! Realistically, it might not happen because I’d have to go back through five years of posts to tag them. But I think most of these are in the “advice about your boss” category, so that might be a good place to look!

      1. Anonymous*

        Thanks for considering! Many peer issues get categorised differently …so maybe I’ll just bookmark them.

  23. Ann McElroy*

    This is a very well thought out article because it covers a lot of ground efficiently. For example, it is very true that many people do not realize how they are coming across to others, so formulating the question “You seem upset when…..” is great. It is not aggressive, just observational (if said gently) so the other person should not feel threatened. Several years ago, when someone verbally mirrored back my reaction to them, I was stunned. I never meant to come across that way. I did not feel threatened by their comment and told them I was glad they said something. I also used that as a spring board to get more information from them about other behaviors I may not be aware of that were causing problems for the staff. Since I solicited more information from her, she saw that I was not angry, and felt safe enough to tell me everything. It was fantastic – scary and embarrassing – but fantastic and informative. I thanked her and immediately made the necessary changes. A few weeks later, I asked her how I was doing and she laughed and said the whole office noticed how I was doing and that the level of stress at work had dropped tremendously. As a result, teamwork popped into the equation since the fear factor was gone, and I am having much more fun at work getting to know people on a more personal level. This has led to uncovering a lot of hidden talents the staff has to offer and we are charging ahead together. So, encourage feedback and ask the tough questions in a staff meeting such as: “Is there anything I am doing that is making your job more difficult; or, is there anything I can do to help make your job more challenging or enjoyable for you?” Don’t be surprised if an answer comes back like this one: “Could we get more ergonomic chairs? The ones we have are killing my back.” When the staff sees you respond to their needs by telling them: “Of course, choose the chairs you want. Thanks for letting me know. I had no idea it was a problem. What else do you have for me?” Said with a large smile.

      1. Charles*

        Yes, That is a great story!

        Several years ago I was told that while the new hire training that I did was great (it really was – 2 weeks of nothing but training for new admin assistants – compared to most companies in which the training consists of “here’s your desk – let me if you have any questions.”); but was there anything that I could do to make it better?

        The suggestion I gave was “could we have a third week for training?” While we coverd everything necessary a third week of nothing but software practice (especially PowerPoint) would help the new folks to hit the ground running.

        The answer was YES!

        You’re right. If this had been someone who didn’t welcome input from employees I would not have said anything. But, as the manager who asked was always very supportive of training (most see training as money being “wasted,” he saw it as a very wise investment) and was always concerned that folks got everything they needed I felt very safe in my suggestion. More importantly, I also know that if he felt it wasn’t feasible he would let me know in a non-condescending way.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Charles, every time you mention that you do training, I have a zillion questions for you because it’s a topic that I have tons of theories on but no actual expertise in. Here’s one related to this: I always theorize that if I load people up with training at the start of the job, they won’t retain all of it and so it’s better to parcel it out more slowly — some training, some work, some more training, some more work. Do you find that, or I am totally off-base? I’ve always wondered this.

          (Sorry to hijack the thread.)

          1. Charles*

            ” . . . load people up with training at the start of the job, they won’t retain all of it and so it’s better to parcel it out more slowly . . “

            Short answer – Yes, parcel it out slowly can and often works better.

            Long answer – my goodness I could write a book! But, here are just a few of reasons why:

            Information overload. Everyone is different on this; but, the mind can only absorb so much at one time. I don’t care how interesting something is; if you have been in training class all week for 8-10 hours and it is now Friday at 3:00 pm you will most likely not remember it. Most people get this and I think that is what you are thinking; but, see next . . .

            Relevance. Adults need to see a reason for learning something. (children are like sponges; but, we adults are more selective in our learning) With everything all bunched up the relevance of some of the information gets lost; and so forgotten. By training, then working, then training again you are, hopefully, showing your learners the relevance of the training.

            However, you have to make sure that the training and the work are re-enforcing each other. I’ll bet that even if you do training parcelled out like this they will still forget something such as mailmerge if they don’t use it – see next . . .

            Immediate use. Everyone retains things better if they practice it right away. The mind now associates the “new material” with the actual hands-on; not just the lecture or notes. For example, have you ever written a grocery list; forgotten the list at home; but remembered everything on the list anyway? That’s because the act of writing the items down aided in your memory; it put your list into “action.”

            It is also the reason for doing exercises in class even when the material seems simple. When you combine the training and the working, you are in fact, if it is done right, using the work as exercise to re-enforce the training. (done wrong, the training is just an interruption in work and vice versa)

            That’s just three simple reasons. The real problems that I often see with training is that it is too often not thought about or it is considered a one-time event. (we have a saying about us trainers – first to be laid off and last to be rehired)

            But, yes, you’re right in that “parcelling out” the training often works better.

            1. Jen M.*

              OK. It’s official: Charles, I want to work for/with you! (You, too, Alison!)

              Really: I’m willing to bet that most companies don’t think their training out so well (hence your comment, Charles about “last hired, first fired.”) That’s a pity and a source of great frustration.

              I just had a conversation about this with a recent new hire (I’m the area admin and part of the onboarding team.) She pretty much said the same things Charles has said.

              Hey, AAM, have you considered maybe having Charles or someone like him write a guest post about this sort of issue? It really CAN make a difference. My own work situation would probably be much, much better if I had had good training from the start. (I’ve been bootstrapping and am only now hitting my stride, after about 3 years with this group. Sad but true!)

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Thank you for this! It all makes sense, and I love your grocery list example. You had better hope you never run into me in real life, because I will just pump you with questions on this topic. It’s fascinating.

              And re: Jen’s idea above — if you’re ever inspired to write something on this, email me and we’ll talk!

  24. JohnQPublic*

    I had a supervisor a couple years ago who would use the same tone when telling us not to do something that she would use with her children. I made the wise decision to address it, and the collosal mistake to do so in the middle of a meeting she was running. She’s never done it again, but I was lucky to escape without any formal action (though she did tell me never to do that publicly again). My coworkers still talk about it occasionally, and remark on how my tone never got confrontational. Thanks to your blog and MT’s podcast I hope to avoid as many blunders as I can :)

  25. Brian*

    ehhh. that advice about the “I sense your feeling…” or “you seem like your upset..”… personally… I think can add to the fire…

    it seems to me to be a way of hedging conversationally… that often times, borders on patronizing at least from my perspective… you need to avoid using that approach all the time and turn the conversation from them to you…

    It works the same way when you always address somebody by their first name… things are going on conversationally… (or at least should be)… outside of verbalizing every single thought and interaction… addressing each other formally all the time… it comes across as staged and studied with no natural human touch that sets off warning bells in some… who may see this person as someone who has rehearsed a reaction and approach… rather than trusting their instincts and letting a natural solution develop.

    Being an adult (and being a respectful one at that)… encompasses putting yourself in a certain amount of uncomfortable situations, that can indeed be stressful… but ultimately should provide some experience and in the process of quelling internal fears of the unknown.

    Dealing with a harsh boss is no different… Some workers can try to make things too pleasant all the time… and in the process… make things more uncomfortable and unpleasant in the process… because they find themselves inadvertently forcing their fear of unpleasantness on others who are more than comfortable dealing with the occasional serious conversation, in effect showing the person they are trying to get along with they may be unable to perform in the event of a crisis or the occasional problem.

    i don’t know just my opinion… too much advice-seeking will drive you mad… just remember you are only in control of the actions and words you use and believe that… people always respond better to neutral and positive actions than negative ones, no matter your profession.

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