signs that you’re the problem

Sometimes when you’re unhappy at work, or with your career in general, the problem is your manager. There are some really crappy managers out there, and some really crappy workplaces. But sometimes, in some cases, the problem is … you. Here are some ways to tell.

If you’ve hated every boss you’ve ever had, or even most of them, you’re probably the problem.

If you’ve had multiple bosses who hated you, you’re probably the problem.

If you’ve had at least three jobs in the last decade but can’t find anyone to give you a reference, you’re probably the problem.

If you think that any peers who get along with your boss are suck-ups, and you’ve thought that at previous jobs too, you’re probably the problem.

If you think that all managers are out to screw over their employees and you don’t believe there are plenty of good ones, you’re the problem.

If you believe that everyone else hates their job, their boss, and/or working too, you’re the problem.

There are a few rare cases where the field you’re in is the problem (call centers come to mind), but in general, the principles above are true.

{ 160 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Oooh, one more: If you find yourself always on the side of the employee when you read a letter here, no matter what the employee’s behavior or viewpoint, you’re the problem.

    1. Another Jamie*

      Sometimes reading your blog can make me think that good management is really quite rare, but then I have to remember that it’s usually only the bad managers that are interesting enough to read about.

      1. jill*

        I would love to do a great managers open thread! Maybe not as titillating as the various bathroom situations, of course…

          1. Michelle*

            –thought I was replying to comment above the link.
            (I’m still getting the hang of blog comments.)

        1. kdizzle*

          At my very first job out of school, I had a manager who baked us all cupcakes, and decorated them to coincide with our individual job responsibilities. I’m an analyst, so I had a little chocolate computer, mouse, and laminated spreadsheet on my cupcake.

          Then he came to each of us one by one and served them on a silver platter. It kicked off our weekly touchbase.

          It was my first job, so I figured all managers were like that. Naive. So naive.

          1. the gold digger*

            I’ve been lucky to have several very good managers. I am still friends with them.

            But I have not been so lucky with organizations overall. Some companies are well run; some are not. I was very spoiled by working for a very-well-run company my first job out of college. It’s gone downhill since then and I am sadly aware of what I am missing.

    2. The Editor*

      When I see these seemingly unprovoked posts (read as “no letter to AAM quoted”), I always wonder just what did provoke the post. :-)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ha, in this case it’s that I have a headache but wanted to do one final post for the day, and this one has been sitting basically finished in my drafts folder for a while!

  2. Coelura*

    If you think all critical feedback is simply an attack, you’re the problem.
    If you always justify why you can’t follow the rules, you’re the problem.
    If you believe that you shouldn’t be required to follow rules you think are stupid, you’re probably the problem!

    I love this one (obviously)! Then again, it’s evaluation time and I’m about up to here with self-evals where the employee rated themselves perfect on every goal!

    1. The Editor*

      To be fair, in my experience those consistently perfect responses can also come from employees who are disenfranchised with performance reviews that outright suck. I’ve been involved with plenty of those, most of them measuring meaningless or irrelevant metrics.

      I just finished my own, and I treated it like my company treats it: a necessary chore on the road to a raise with little to no basis in reality. My manager even told me that roughly verbatim. So why wouldn’t I rate myself as highly as I could even remotely justify seeing how my employer doesn’t really care?

      (NOTE: Not saying _you_ don’t care; just giving a perspective from the other side of that particular coin and wishing it would honestly change.)

      1. Chloe*

        I agree with this. Performance appraisals are so hard to get right and so easy to get wrong. I once had a manager who said that she never, ever gave an employee 5/5, and rarely gave 4/5. So a really good year of work could be met with a 3/5. Which is actually very demotivating. It incentivised me to give myself a great score and hope that she would meet me half way, so that I might end up with a score that was actually merited. Too many managers think that giving low scores is an incentive to do better, when in reality it turns an appraisal into a big stick to beat their employees with.

        1. The Editor*

          My current employer demands that anything higher than a 3 out of 5 be supported by extensive documentation and at least two witnesses(?!?!). It’s absurd, it’s stupid, and it’s completely demotivating like you said.

          So I typically just rate myself 5 or 4 across the board and send it off for my manager who feels about the same way I do.

        2. Katie*

          The highest rating in our company comes with descriptions that include “always” repeatedly. I know managers who refuse to give these ratings because “no one ALWAYS does anything.” If something is completely unachievable, it shouldn’t be a standard.

          You achieve nothing by setting expectations so high people can’t meet them other than frustrating people and continually undervaluing excellent performance, which causes your best people to go somewhere where they will be valued appropriately. No one ever wants to be told they’ll never be good enough.

          1. birdgirl*

            At my first review where I work, I was told that the highest level is the equivalent of “walking on water” and only once or twice has anyone achieved it.

            For about 5 minutes I thought I wanted to achieve that level of quality, but I remembered it wouldn’t do any good because there are no merit raises or bonuses, only annual raises where I work.

            1. the gold digger*

              Exactly! My former employer gave out 5s only rarely. I once did the math and realized that the financial reward, because of the increased raise, would come to maybe a dollar a day take home. Why work ten extra hours a week for that?

              Actually, I don’t know if would have been extra time to reach the 5 or what, as I usually got my objectives for the year as I was writing my review. And even with those objectives, I didn’t know what I would have to do to get a 5. I guess it was all a big secret and if you couldn’t figure it out on your own, you didn’t deserve the rating.

  3. MMOGamer*

    I’m glad you mentioned that the field can be the issue! I had a string of horrible call center and data entry jobs – I couldn’t stay at any one company for more than 6-9 months before I went insane. I hated being micro-managed and treated like a child every second of every day. I work in software development now (freelance, but I’ve had some long term clients that I’ve worked with for 4-5 years), and it’s like I’ve started a new life. Changing fields was the best thing I ever did.

    1. Nyxalinth*

      I’ve only ever worked in ONE call center that I genuinely liked. We did seasonal support for the now-defunct, and it was 90 percent customer emails, 10 percent calls. Not only that, they treated us like we were adults, brought in food for thanksgiving and Christmas, and actually gave a damn. The only flaw was it was seasonal, and a few years later, they went under.

      I was just hired today to do do seasonal call center work for a local flower shop chain. they *might* need someone permanently, and if the job and the people I work with turn out to be cool, I’ll take it if offered (I let them know I was interested in the possible permanence at the interview).

      But I will NEVER do call center work for cable/satellite tv, banks, or phones ever again.

      1. Nyxalinth*

        Oh, and if Blizzard/Activision started hiring tele-customer care/Game Masters, I’d do that, too :)

        1. Jen in RO*

          My friend was a WoW GM for a few years and, even though I love the game, I don’t think I could take the abuse and stupidity. it’s like the forums, only live (she sometimes pasted me bits of conversation and it made my brain hurt). She said Blizzard is a great company to work for… but in my opinion customers are as bad as ever.

          Then again, she loved it… Maybe one day you end up in a Blizzard city and you get to be a GM too!

          1. Nyxalinth*

            Maybe, but since it’s in Irvine CA I’d have to live with 4-5 other people just to make rent lol. Still if they were all pretty cool, i could be okay with that.

            I know Austin, TX is where they have some of their main customer care. I could deal with crappy callers for free WoW :D

            1. Jen in RO*

              My friend was in Europe, so I can’t really tell you about pay vs. cost of living. She and her boyfriend both worked for Blizzard and they could afford to rent a nice house, send their kid to a good school etc. The free stuff was awesome and I took advantage of it too. I got 1 year subscription cards for Christmas/my birthday, free server/faction transfers if we wanted to play together… and free pets! The best thing is that she got me and my boyfriend collector’s editions of Cataclysm signed by some top shot devs, yay!

              Bragging aside, I do think it could be a great job for someone who loves WoW and doesn’t hate customer support. I know they had GMs who weren’t active WoW players, but it was much easier for my friend since she actually *knew* the quests, the classes, had run into the bugs during her game play and so on.

    2. Sabrina*

      Yup. I do data entry right now. It’s not the worst job. I have my own desk, decent hours, and my boss isn’t crazy. So things could be worse (and have been). But I count the days until I finish school and can move on.

      1. twentymilehike*

        Or maybe Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck if …”

        I can see it now: AAM’s, “You might be the problem if …” Book format. Calendar format. And a stand-up tour.

  4. badger_doc*

    If you start at a job and your coworkers still refuse to socialize with you outside of work, even after 6 months, your the problem.

    :-) I like this post!

    1. Ivy*

      I disagree with this one. There are teams where people just generally don’t socialize outside of work. I mean unless your whole team regularly has fun social gatherings and you seem pointedly uninvited, I think you’re fine. Besides, there are plenty of people I work with fine, but I wouldn’t want to get close with outside of work. This is just personal preference and has nothing to do with the other person’s capabilities or success at their job.

      1. Sascha*

        It’s interesting to me that I hear about so many work places where the employees socialize after work on a regular basis. That has never been the case at any of my jobs, or most of the jobs of people I know. And it’s not antisocial or hard to penetrate – it’s just like an accepted norm that once you’re off the clock, everyone goes their separate ways. I have become very good friends with some coworkers over the years, and we got close at work, but even then, we still didn’t want to hang out after work, we just wanted to go home.

        1. HR Gorilla*

          Agree! Try working in HR: trust me, no one outside your department ever wants to see you outside the office…and for many people,that goes for *inside* the office as well.

          ;) and :(

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I might modify that to say that it’s about patterns rather than just one job — if you consistently find it at multiple workplaces, where you seem to be deliberately excluded, it might be worth seeing if it’s something you’re doing.

      1. badger_doc*

        Yes, agreed. For this particular employee, he would always complain that at every job he had been at, he was never invited out (when coworkers already had regularly scheduled happy hours, not that the culture was hard to penetrate). But it was because of his bad attitude and antisocial behavioral problems that prevented us from wanting anything to do with him outside of work. So in a way, we were being deliberately exclusive, but only because he had the bad attitude, not because we were being petty and clique-ish.

    3. Anonymous*

      Once I found out my coworkers were going to happy hour and not inviting me, not because they didn’t like me, but because they HATED my boss and wasn’t sure who’s side I was on! Once they found out I also found her difficult, I got invited. It turned out they were spending a lot of time complaining about her, ha ha.

    4. Anonymous*

      Why? If I’m at a job and I’m doing my job and doing it well why on earth do you care what I do in my own time when the job is done?

      Some people have not work friends, some people have not work responsibilities, and some people after dealing with people at work all day want to go home and watch Netflix. That doesn’t mean that any of those people are a problem, but apparently you think that not wanting to be best friends with everyone at work makes you a problem. I think you’re a problem for being so judgey.

      1. Jamie*

        I’m in the Netfix camp personally.

        People at my work go out fairly often, I’ve been invited but frankly at the end of the week all I want to do is go home – I’m not a “go out” kind of person typically.

        It really hasn’t hurt me – if anything it’s helped as I’ve never had a problem with lines blurring in work place relationships even with work friends.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I read as more about “if your coworkers seem to exclude you at multiple jobs,” but you’re certainly right that there’s zero wrong with not wanting to socialize outside of work. Put me in the Netflix camp too.

        1. Anonymous*

          Yeah if coworkers exclude you over and over and you want to be involved, yup, you may be the problem. But not everyone wants to be. And the not interested are ok too.

    5. Sandy*

      When I started my current job, they made a point to tell me that socializing with the other employees was looked down on since I’m in Human Resources. There is only one other person in HR at my location, my boss, so there really isn’t anyone I’m ‘allowed’ to be friends with outside of work anyway.

  5. Michelle*

    Hey! I liked my last call center job!

    …and the one before that was so–colorful. Where else would I meet a guy who started by calling me for help with the motel he stayed at “by one of the exits on the Pennsylvania Turnpike” (he didn’t know which), and ended days later with me repeatedly reassuring him that because they ran his credit card *and* gave him a receipt of sale did not mean that they had double charged him? I still remember that gentleman’s full, legal name.

    But seriously, what about when you are under too much stress and just have to get by as best you can. It’s embarrassing and a big confidence killer to know you can’t perform your best. Is this another type of “being the problem”?

  6. Jay*

    I love my job and am also in a call center. That said, I’m not in a role that includes phone work or customer service and retention is a problem here for those positions. And I’m actually on a committee to improve retention which has thus far not proven very effective.

    1. Nyxalinth*

      what’s been tried so far? Does your company ask the employees what they might like to see in place?

    2. Anonymous*

      The 1st call center I worked in folded because it couldn’t retain staff, then couldn’t get an outside company to cover it’s call center work. It turned out that the company heads disagreed over the goals of the department so much that even the would-be contractor couldn’t build a workable contract with them.

      Both centers I worked in were for big regional/national companies. Both of them gave a few days of training at entry, then nothing ever after that. A higher level of training as my skills/awareness progressed could have given me more consciousness of “the bigger picture” as well as details of how to improve on the job.

      I always felt it was wrong to base our performance measurement mainly on how short our calls were; since then I’ve heard that some companies evaluate by quality of work. Sorry, I don’t know the names of the evaluative systems.

      Good Luck!

    3. Kathryn T.*

      I worked a call center job fifteen years ago for 8 months. It was a much, MUCH nicer job when I started than it was when I left. If you like, I can tell you some things about what changed to make it suck more; I don’t know how much the industry has changed in that time.

      1. Kathryn*

        I’m going to have to sign up at Gravatar so that I can get a picture next to my name. First I was Katie, and there were two Katies, and now I am Kathryn and there are two Kathryns. lol

        I wish I was more creative, and I would come up with a better name, but alas, I am just a finance person.

        1. Jamie*

          Ha – that’s why I broke down and did it, once I realized that unlike posting a url no one can see my email.

          1. FINANCE!*

            In all caps? I almost feel like a superhero now. Or maybe it’s just the euphoria from it being Friday and the auditors finishing up…

  7. human*

    I get where you going with this and I think that there are whole categories of jobs for which it is true.

    But I think there are also a lot more classes of jobs that are the problem (like what you’re saying about call-center jobs). I think there are whole classes of jobs where the system is set up to be really abusive to employees at the bottom of the hierarchy, and most managers and people at the levels above them on the hierarchy just go along with it, so that it’s actually pretty rare to find a boss who treats their employees like people.

    I’m thinking about fast food and other service type jobs, and I’m also thinking about my experiences working for temp agencies, where you are treated like a product, a thing, that’s being sold to the clients, not an actual person who needs to, you know, put food on the table.

    I think there’s also a regional difference. I am a woman and I was treated like shit at office jobs in the south, and less so in some other parts of the country. At those same jobs, I observed other women being treated in crappy ways that men did not have to put up with so I know it wasn’t just me.

    The first time I had a GOOD job — a somewhat decent paying white collar office job with a boss who cared about things not directly pertaining to the bottom line, such as creating a good work environment and facilitating professional development for staff who reported to her — things were weird between us at first because I was so unused to having a boss whose first priority was NOT to keep me in my place. After I had worked there for a while and we had a good solid relationship, one day I mentioned some of my past experiences with the way managers treated me and how different it was from how she acted, and she was really shocked.

    My point, I guess, is that there are a LOT of environments out there where employees can continually run into problems and misery at work without being the problem. I changed a lot from being in that good job with a good boss, and it certainly helped me a ton in becoming a better employee, but I don’t think /I/ was the problem before then.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ll readily acknowledge that most of what I write on this site might not be accurate for non-professional / blue-collar jobs, as well as often retail and food service. Those are worlds I don’t have expertise in, or even any familiarity whatsoever in some cases,.

      But for people who do have white-collar / professional / office-type jobs, I’d say what I wrote is true most of the time (again, with a small number of fields excepted).

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I would agree with this, Alison. I’ve worked both, and although you still can’t be insubordinate at ANY job without incurring consequences, there are workplaces/industries where you really are just a cog. That said, I’ve had food jobs where I got along great with my managers and kind of enjoyed it. And I’ve seen employees at these same jobs who epitomized the whole “You’re the problem” thing. They did not last long; in some cases they were fired, and in some, they quit fairly quickly. I’ve also been the problem, so I think I can see it from both sides. Not that there is any excuse for it, just that it’s sometimes very hard to see it in yourself.

      2. Kou*

        I actually typed out an entire post just like Human’s, then figured “you know, that’s not her target audience though, she’s not meaning to speak to those kinds of jobs anyway.”

        So I deleted that and typed a post talking about how realizing your boss is supposed to be on your side and you can trust them/ask them for things/expect them to help you was actually the biggest psychological hurdle I had when moving from blue to white collar work, especially after growing up in a family of manual laborers and housekeepers who never had a supportive boss in their lives. Then I deleted that, too, because it made me kind of sad, actually.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I can relate. It took me a few years to get used to the idea that a boss wasn’t necessarily just trying to catch me doing some minor thing wrong and bring down the hammer.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I still feel that way sometimes. Because in minor office jobs, you can so very much have a boss like that. Every time I make a mistake, I feel like “That’s it, I’m fired.” I’m only just starting to feel some self-efficacy in my competence and abilities. I still am struggling to get my head around the fact that yes, I got NewJob because of them, not in spite of them.

            1. Tiff*

              I’ve experienced that too. A bad boss and/or jacked up corporate policy and atmosphere can really affect us for a long time. I love my job now, and my boss is really great. But for the first few years working here when I would do my annual review I was almost in tears just from anticipation and fear. And the review hadn’t even started yet! And all that anxiety was based on the horrible reviews I had at a previous job. They used review time to play “gotcha!” or to bring up and document “problems” that were never spoken of before. It was terrifying, it didn’t make sense and my general feeling about that job was that I was working in the twilight zone.

              That kind of crap lingers in your very soul.

              1. Kelly L.*

                Yes! I remember one review where they first dragged it out and didn’t actually give me the review until six months after they were supposed to, and then sat me down and told me I was about to be fired (as of six months ago) for having talked too loudly and in an unfriendly tone.

                I’m pretty sure they meant when the drive-thru speaker was jacked up and they were too cheap to fix it and I was trying (unsuccessfully) to be heard, but at any rate, at no time in that six months could they even say “Hey, your voice is shattering my eardrums here.”

                But no, I get to find out in my review that they’ve been plotting my firing for months but couldn’t just tell me at any previous point that there was a problem. Or even just get off the pot and actually fire me in those six months, if they hated me that much.

        2. Anonymous*

          Every one of my family members is blue collar, except for one aunt; I was raised with this perception that the Boss was above you not only in position but usually in social status and education as well, often separated by a huge salary differential and a college degree or two. Now that I’m beginning to work myself (currently in student affairs, moving into academia) I’m having a somewhat difficult time shedding that old perception and coming to terms with the very different set-up of the jobs I’ve been in, where I’m just as educated as the people supervising me and we’re treated as social equals. I was initially suspicious, like someone was going to jump out and pull a fast one or something.

    2. Peaches*

      +1. I put myself through college with crappy retail jobs. Most of my managers were horrible. Some would even crack jokes about me getting a degree, like I thought I was better (I didn’t), and it was just a swamp of low egos to wade through every day. SO glad to be graduated and working my first “big girl” job now with an AWESOME boss.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        Yes, I experienced the same. The people I had the most problems with were “managers” in low skills jobs. They seemed really threatened that I was going for a degree, and were always making comments about how I thought I was better than every one. Ironically, I was good friends with the line workers (my co-workers) they all said “you go girl”. I think the fact that I was going into engineering somehow took away from the status of the managers.

  8. jesicka309*

    My boyfriend thinks that I am the problem because I’ve complained about every job I’ve had.
    He doesn’t realise that I hated them for different reasons:
    1. McDonalds shift work as a highschooler with crappy teenagers who wouldn’t do as they were told by me, their trainer, and customers who were a**holes.
    2. Job1 after internship – whilst still studying, working part time, ridiculous hours which lead to stress, sleeplessness, weight gain and a car accident, with many near misses.
    3. Job2 after graduating – Position is bad fit for me. Boredom and lack of progression.

    I’d say it’s my fault for jumping into jobs I dislike…but that doesn’t mean, as he believes, that I’ll ‘never be happy in any job ever because I’m too sensitive and complain too much.’
    Way to motivate me, bf. :(

      1. jesicka309*

        Haha to be fair, he’s been with me since high school, and also says things like “you are so smart. Why aren’t you doing something awesome?”
        And I tend to bottle up my complaints and unleash them on him when I get home, so he gets a super concentrated version of my frustration in a ten minute load.
        So I can see how he would ‘think’ I’m the problem, but he just sees me unhappy. I think it’s too early after three jobs (two of them whilst I was still in school) to conclude I’m the problem…yet.

      2. Kou*

        Seriously. There is a certain kind of man who always believes anything in his girlfriend’s life that she is unhappy with is part of her irrational psychosis and/or that she creates it intentionally.

        And by “a certain kind” I mean “the overwhelming majority of every one I’ve ever met but I dislike generalizing too much because good men deserve credit, too.”

        1. jesicka309*

          ^This. He also doesn’t understand that sometimes I’m unhappy and I’ll vent to him…but I can’t simply quit because I hate it. Sometimes you have to put on your big girl britches and tough it out. Now shhhhh bf and let me unload for ten minutes, then I’ll be happy as larry!

          1. Laura L*

            Maybe he doesn’t like being on the receiving end of your venting all the time? Or maybe it’s not the first thing he wants to hear when you come home?

            Maybe you could work out an agreement where you can vent to him, but he’ll be prepared for it and will take it with a grain of salt (assuming it’s nothing egregious).

            I’ve been on both sides of this situation (although not with a BF) and I can tell you from experience that’s it can be draining to be the receiver of the complaining all the time.

            I’ve also learned, although this took much longer, that being the complainer is extremely draining too. I generally rarely talk about my job. It’s a good job, but it’s not ideal for me. If I talk about it too much, I get depressed that I don’t have a more appropriate job. When I don’t talk about work at all, I kind of forget about it and can focus on other things (including possible job and career changes).

          2. Melissa*

            My husband is Ike that too. He’s convinced that I’m kind of lazy because I complain openly to him about work, despite the fact that its very clear that I love what I do.

        2. Henning Makholm*

          To me it sounds less like “a certain kind of man” than “a certain kind of miscommunication”. At the level of detail given here it sounds like it fits into a classical scheme:

          SHE comes home and vents. HE hears a problem being described and intuitively assumes that this is a problem-solving conversation. In a problem-solving conversation, his task as the responding party is to suggest actions that might solve the problem. If he hasn’t any good suggestions, he should at least give some bad ones rather than stand mute — it’s a brainstorm!

          However SHE doesn’t think she’s in a problem-solving conversation — since she’s just venting, what she’s seeking is not solutions but emotional validation that she’s justified in finding this-or-that annoying. (Which, incidentally, is more rational than I make it sound here; it is arguably necessary to figure out this before you can know how much you want the problem solved). So when HE jumps to solutions immediately what SHE hears is “your annoyance is not valid, because you could avoid this-or-that simply by doing so-and-so” (with a possible side of “and I don’t think you’d have thought of so-and-so by yourself”, because it’s a valid move in the brainstorm game to get even simple and obvious suggestions on the table just so we can agree explicitly on why they won’t work).

          From that point things can devolve into a row, and since we’re generally good at unconsciously adopting the stance that the opponent assumes we’re going to defend, it may conceivably end with him explicitly saying, “yes, this is your fault, because you’re too sensitive and complain too much”.

          Pop psychology books tend to describe the “problem-solving” mode of communication as quintessentially male and the “venting” mode as female. That’s a ridiculous overgeneralization, of course.

          1. Twentymilehike*

            This is EXACTLY what goes on in my house! Only reverse roles. I didn’t realize I was more common ..

          2. Kristen*

            This x 1000. I am about to save this in a word document to pull up the next time this happens between my boyfriend and I! He doesn’t always try to problem-solve, but sometimes when he does I just want to scream “just agree that so-and-so is being an ass and tell me it will be ok! that’s all you need to do!”

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              This is a classic male/female difference! There are some pretty interesting books that describe it — one good thing is that once you realize it’s a gender difference instead of the other person just being annoying, it’s less frustrating because you know where the other person is coming from and can just state clearly what you want. (Whereas otherwise, it might not even occur to you to state, “I do not need a fix to this problem; I just want to vent” because it seems obvious to those who work that way.)

              1. Laura L*

                Yes! I had to learn to do this with my Dad. With help from my Mom, who also had to learn to clearly tell my dad that she just needed to vent.

              2. Ellie H.*

                It drives me crazy when others (usually my dad) do this but I also noticed myself doing it all the time with a previous boyfriend. I could tell I was doing it but couldn’t stop, and it definitely got on his nerves sometimes. I honestly just wanted to fix his problems! I was pretty good at being sympathetic too though, better than my dad is.

                There really is something inexplicably irritating about immediately hearing suggestions while you are venting. Even if you really would like suggestions after you finish talking about it. I think because offering advice doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge that you are feeling a certain way and that the issue is important to you. Suggestions can imply that the problem is easily fixable and therefore you’re foolish for being so upset about it.

              3. yen*

                Does anyone read the Peter Wimsey stories? There’s one where Harriet says the thing about Peter is, he’s good at offering “intelligent sympathy”. That’s what I always tell my husband I’m looking for, when I’m venting, and he’s going into problem-solving mode.

          3. Jen in RO*

            I want to print this and show it to my boyfriend. We’ve been together for 6 years and we still can’t communicate properly: he tries to find solutions when I’m just trying to vent, and I think he’s venting when he’s asking me to find a solution, so we keep arguing!

            1. TychaBrahe*

              Since you know that, have you tried discussing it?

              “Hon, sometimes I need help figuring out something, and I come to you because you’re so insightful. Sometimes I just want to vent to someone supportive. Can we agree that if I say something is a vent that what I want from you is not solutions but to put your arm around me and tell me, ‘There, there,’ and make sympathetic noises. Meanwhile I’ll try to help you when you need a solution instead of just telling you it will be OK.”

          4. Lily*

            The longer I am a manager, the more I respond to complaints with problem-solving. However, problem-solving creates distance rather than closeness IMO.

          5. Kou*

            No no no, I’m not talking about the classic “venting vs fixing” conflict, I’m talking about people who just flat out don’t seem to believe that bad things happen in someone’s life without them inviting it. So if they know you’re having a problem, they don’t care because somehow you did it to yourself and/or you won’t just solve it so you deserve it. In my experience these people are like this with everyone at all times, like in their mind bad things never happen to good people so if bad things happen to you then you must not be a good person.

            1. Laura L*

              Ick. Sounds like someone is really new agey. Or read The Secret too many times.

              I don’t understand that mindset at all.

        3. Nyxalinth*

          Twenty years ago I had a restaurant job that I really disliked, but kept at it. One day my now ex-husband was walking me to work, and I tripped and fell. It was pretty painful and I tore my pants. He accused me of bringing that circumstance into my life (he was into that sort of New Age stuff) on purpose because I hated my job and didn’t want to go to work that night. We ended up separating three months later for a number of reasons, his “Blame the victim for drawing bad circumstances into their life” outlook being one reason.

          1. Kou*

            Yes THIS is what I’m talking about, this kind of weird attitude. I swear they do it because the idea of bad things happening to you when you don’t deserve it is to sad or too scary for them, and they protect themselves by believing that bad things only happen for a reason.

    1. Nichole*

      Sounds like-and hear me out-the problem IS you. But I’m absolutely not saying you fall in the same category as the people Alison is reality checking here, though. It sounds more like it’s you in the sense that you’re still finding what’s important to you in a job, deciding what your ideal career will look like in relation tot he rest of your life, and identifying what your dealbreakers are, which I consider an important process. It comes with some growing pains, though. Complaining can be productive if it leads you to identify what you don’t like specifically (as you did above) and take steps to eliminate that next time as you work toward identifying jobs and companies that are a good fit. You’re smart to analyze what wasn’t working, not complainy. Your bf is not a good career sounding board.

  9. AnonA*

    Preach it, Alison! This should be slipped into every New Hire packet in the English-speaking world!


  10. Jamie*

    I like it when I’m the problem, in most situations, because I can fix me.

    It’s a lot harder to fix an issue when there is dysfunction beyond my control. Because then it leads to soul searching of when its untenable…do I keep fishing or cut bait?

    Those calls are a lot harder for me to make than adjusting myself.

  11. AdAgencyChick*

    This also applies to significant others IMO. If you start dating a guy and he tells you ALL of his ex-girlfriends were “crazy,” and that you’re the first sane girl he’s ever gone out with…RUN!

    Learned that one the hard way, of course. :P

    1. Kou*

      YES! I have this rule, too. Any guy whose immediate characterization of an ex (or, god help him, all exes) is that she was either “crazy” or “psycho” or “has issues” has just told me everything I need to know about him as far as I’m concerned.

      1. Kou*

        I mean, I know guys who have exes who really do legitimately crazy, scary things– but the interesting thing is that those guys never just say “She’s crazy!!”

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! And even if he’s right and they were all crazy, what does it say about him that he consistently selects crazy people for relationships? Either way, bad news.

      1. Joey*

        Ha! This is the exact conversation I have with my little brother after every relationship he’s ever had. Mature and responsible doesnt mean boring and old!

      2. Anonna Miss*

        I can tell you what it says about someone whose exes are all “psycho” – he either picks ’em that way, or he makes ’em that way.

    3. BW*

      Everyone should follow this rule!

      I dated a guy who did the flip of that and told me that HE was the only normal and sane guy I’d ever gone out with even though I never referred to any of my exes as “psychos” or “crazy” or really even spoke badly of them beyond facts (like saying one guy was an alcoholic and a cocaine addict – because he was), and was still friendly with one of them. That guy turned out to be the poster boy for Crazy and Creepy.

  12. PuppyKat*

    Love this post! I’d like to make it into a poster and hand out copies to all those people I know who subscribe to at least three of the six principles on Alison’s list.

  13. Tax Nerd*

    Ehh, I think working for large public accounting or law firms (or maybe even small ones) can sometimes be problematic.

    The long hours can be rough, and people start to get bristly. The newer staff tend to get piled on, and are told implicitly or explicitly that they could be replaced tomorrow. If there’s no respite from this environment, it’s not hard to start looking at your manager with dagger eyes.

    On the other hand, there is some compensation for it. Actual financial compensation, of course, but also the career boost that can last for years to come.

    1. K*

      From what I understand from friends at large law firms, that’s another environment where it really is the job/workplace, not you. (Well, if you work there long enough it may become you, but that’s a different issue.) But between the long hours and the horrible incentives created by (a) the billable hour model; (b) the competition to become partner; and (c) the partnership compensation structures those firms have in place, there’s just too many things stacked against people who would otherwise be inclined to behave decently.

      I think there’s more variation in smaller law firms and – like any other type of office – they can run the whole gamut. I work for a mid-size law firm and love it, but we have a bit of an unusual practice area and a more unusual public interest spin on that practice area, so I doubt my experience is particularly representative. But I bet people at tons of places could say the same for various reasons. (Maybe it’s Tolstoyian – large firms are all unhappy in the same way; each unhappy small firm is unhappy in its own way.)

      And (since apparently I’m willing to write a novel about this) I think a lot of the reason even lawyers in non-disfunctional workplaces are still generally more unhappy than other professionals is that a lot of people become lawyers who really have no interest in being lawyers and are then trapped into it by the student loans or even just by feeling pigeonholed. In other words, I think some of it is stuff unrelated to particular workplace cultures.

      1. Chloe*

        Oh yes, I would agree 100% with this. I worked in two large law firms, and am now an in-house lawyer. The nuttiness of law firms cannot be overstated. Its not the right environment for many, many people and I think that anyone who feels the law partners they worked for were consistently terrible bosses can definitely be justified in concluding it was the industry, rather than their own shortcomings, that caused their problems.

    2. Maria*

      Yeah, I think legal industry can be such a one. I hated all my legal jobs, bosses in particular, so I finally realized maybe the industry wasn’t for me.

  14. CW*

    This post is a bit passive/aggressive.

    First time I’ve read something on here and thought, wow… whats that all about?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh! No, not at all. I think it’s genuinely useful for people to think about this stuff. I see comments here periodically where the person doesn’t seem to realize that their attitude might be rooted in something internal, and doesn’t seem to recognize that if it’s a long-running pattern, it’s probably not the world; it’s them.

            1. Natalie*

              For whatever it’s worth, getting “boldly in people’s faces” is exactly the opposite of being passive-aggressive. The “passive” part of that behavior precludes direct, non-subtle communication.

  15. Anonymous*

    If nobody likes you… What’s the common denominator?? You. Some people never realize it though.

    1. badger_doc*

      Love this! See my comment above about the employee who we excluded from social hours. Apparently, we found out through the grapevine, that every place he had worked before ours that he was not well liked. He would last about 1-2 years and leave because he would get so unhappy about not making friends. What he needed to realize was that HE was the common denominator and that a small change in attitude to his coworkers would have made all the difference.

      1. Anonymous*

        my sister is like this. she has no female friends because they’re all jealous because she’s so beautiful. in reality, shes a huge b*tch. and she’s my sister, so i know first hand. HA

  16. Cindy*

    I like the saying, “if you meet three @ssholes in one day, the @sshole is you.”
    This post is very timely for me–a young person I mentor has recently lost a series of jobs and she’s convinced she has an airtight case for why it’s never her fault. I got her to agree to do a written “inventory” where we go through each job and try to find the common denominator (spoiler alert! It’s her terrible attitude).
    I’ve been thinking about putting together an AAM greatest hits compilation to help model for her what attitudes a successful person holds at their job, and what goes through a manager’s mind as they evaluate employees. I’ll start with this post!

    1. KellyK*

      I like that. Somewhere I read a recommendation on avoiding dehydration–“If someone is acting cranky and unreasonable, they may be dehydrated. If everyone is acting cranky and unreasonable, *you* are probably dehydrated.”

      Personally, I’d append “If you meet 3 @–holes in one day” with “and you *don’t* work in customer service.” Particularly food service and retail.

      But, that might not be due to a higher concentration of jerks as and more due to the fact that you interact with *so many* people (and in ways where the jerks are free to express their jerkiness, because they’re customers). In my office job, I probably interact with 3-8 people (beyond “Hi, how was your weekend”) on a typical day. If I order lunch or run an errand on the way home, I may interact with 2 or 3 more before going home to my husband. Even on a day where I have multiple meetings at work and friends over in the evening, I doubt I interact with 20 people for long enough to know whether they’re a–holes or not (unless one of them cuts me off in traffic). A food service worker or cashier probably interacts with more than that in an hour.

  17. Robert*

    How can one identify if he/she IS the problem. And what are recommended steps to correct self ideals to better associate oneself in the workplace without being “the problem”



  18. Dan*

    My mom had been working a part time job (1-2 days a week) for the last year or so. For the last three months, all she would do was talk about she couldn’t wait for full retirement last month. Finally, I got fed up and told her that my idea of retirement *is* working 1-2 days a week.

    Every job my mom has ever had she’s complained about. Finally, I asked her if she had ever had a job she actually liked. She told me, “yeah, teaching.” (That was 33 years ago, before I was born.) My mom doesn’t take hints well, so I had no idea how to tell her she was the problem.

  19. Sandrine*

    Thanks for the post, Alison!

    Especially those two bits that I think DO apply to retail and call center jobs:

    If you think that any peers who get along with your boss are suck-ups, and you’ve thought that at previous jobs too, you’re probably the problem.

    I used to think that at certain jobs. And I do think that there *are* suck-ups out there, who want to make the most out of terrible situations, and who only think about themselves.

    With that said, and the previous post where I commented about being friends/friendly with a boss (the one where the OP wrote about her friend and the employee making sexual comments) in mind, thankfully I’ve come to realize that normal adults can get along just fine, no matter the work relationship :) . Of course if the boss only gets along with certain people and you then realize all the good stuff only go to those people you start questioning the relationships, but other than that, I agree with AAM XD .

    If you think that all managers are out to screw over their employees and you don’t believe there are plenty of good ones, you’re the problem.

    Ooooh boy yes. Sure, there are jerks. All over the place, all over all layers of society/jobs/seniority levels and so on. But when you open your eyes and accept that yup, you are the problem, things can change rather drastically…

    At my current job, I think it was a mix up of me being the problem and them being the problem. Sometimes, when it’s *just* you, like Jamie said, it’s easy to fix. The combination made it harder here (call center, for phones) , but I’m at the point where I fixed the “it’s you” part. Now waiting for the “it’s them” part to be somewhat fixed so that my head doesn’t explode…

    But at least fixing the “it’s me” part means I may be able to stay longer than I planned, which will look better on my resume anyway :P !

  20. Jamie*

    I’ve never worked in a call center or law – but I think it’s a good point that some industries are not for everyone.

    Even jobs like IT – they can be great – but if you want a job with set hours, not a lot of stress, the ability to leave work at work at the end of the day, and you need consistency I would tell you to run, not walk, to another field.

    There are some fields where it will be “you” through no fault of you or the industry – but you need the right combination of temperament and traits for you to be happy there.

    When I have moments of longing for a calmer more serene career I don’t wonder what other IT positions are out there. I know that there may be different end-users, different systems – but the core is the same anywhere I go. I would have to change fields – not just companies.

    1. Anonymous*

      We really need a +1 button! I totally agree about IT changing with the wind. I’ve been in it for many years, and no matter what area I was in, the one thing I could count on was that everything changes all the time. And sometimes when I least expected it!

      However, I’m not sure end-users are any different no matter the industry or area of IT you’re in.

    2. BW*

      One of my close friends works in IT, and although I like that kind work, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself “I am so glad I don’t work in IT.” just because of the nutty schedule. One of the reasons she moved over to working in the NOC was because they did not have people on call or randomly working insane hours outside of their normal shift. The downside? The reason for those thing is because they are staffed 24/7, which means giving up some weekend and holidays and have no flexibility about the hours you work, because the schedule revolves around shifts, and she can’t work from home either.

  21. Nonny Mouse*

    There might also be the case that you’ve just had a few “wrong fits” in a row. There are a lot of great employers out there, but there are also a lot of lousy ones, and it’s hard to know what the atmosphere will be like until you’re in it.

  22. BCW*

    I think you should do a similar one like “Signs you are a bad manager”. No doubt there are many times when employees do stuff that is awful. But I think there are so many bad managers out there and a lot of these signs you posted kind of negate that fact.

    Example: If within a year of you becoming peoples manager more than 30% have left or are trying to leave, you are a bad manager.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      Not necessarily. I inherited a team of low performers. When they found out that I had standards that were going to be enforced they did everything to leave. And they did leave my team. Two were later fired and two were later put on PIPs.

    2. Lily*

      And I was thinking of warning my boss that I do expect that people will leave because I am going to insist on the stuff I only used to ask for and nag about!

    3. Omne*

      All depends on the situation. I had a team that was completely stable for three years, no turnover. I was then moved to a team that had some serious performance issues. I had an 80% turnover in a year but after that the team stabilized again.

  23. Lisa*

    Ok, if you have hated all of your bosses, can we clarify that?

    Having only 2 jobs = 2 bosses, its possible that it is the bosses and not you. If you have had like 2 jobs with 5-6 bosses or 5 + jobs, and you hated that many of the them then its probably you.

    1. Janet*

      This is a good point. I confess that I have strongly disliked my direct boss at my past three jobs. However, at two of those jobs, I have really loved the boss of my boss. Really respected their vision and experience and was willing to take criticism or advice from them at any time. And at my last job, it was very multidisciplinary so I frequently worked on projects where I was managed by others who were not my direct boss (as in the person who gave me reviews) but these people were managers of my work and I really respected all of them. So at face value, if I say “I hated my past three bosses” it’s true but it’s not cut and dry – I don’t hate being managed. I just hate being managed badly.

      1. Editor*

        You make a good point. My last employer was awful and got worse as time went on (the company I worked for was purchased and things changed — I didn’t exactly choose to go to work with this employer).

        But the boss I had there was excellent and she taught me a lot about managing and being managed.

  24. Joey*

    Alright, so I have a few:

    If you always talk about how good your job used to be back in the day you’re probably the problem.
    If you only look for problems and never solutions guess what?
    If you consistently say “I was never trained to do that.”
    If you frequently say “that’s not my job” you’re the problem.
    If you think you deserve more pay just because you’re still at the same job you’re the problem.
    If its always someone else fault you’re the problem.
    If you think you all new hires should make less than you you’re the problem.
    If you think you’re always right you’re the problem.

  25. BW*

    I have the opposite issue. My first thought is “What am I doing wrong here?” – which leads me to stay in bad situations longer than I should because I’m so convinced it must be something I am doing and can have some control over vs. something external. I know a lot of people like this. It’s so hard to find the balance between figuring out how much is you and how much is not you and what you do have control over and what you don’t have control over.

    1. EM*

      Yeah, I tend to blame myself too. We recently had a project totally implode, and despite assurances to the contrary, I still wonder if I did something wrong. Ditto for the truck at work that needed a clutch replacement after I drove it one day. Still convinced that I ruined the clutch.

      1. Anon*

        This would be me as well, I definitely do this.

        I am trying to change this in myself, but I can also see how it makes me a super detail oriented and careful worker with high standards – which can be a good thing in the right situation. Good companies appreciate those qualities and that’s when I feel the best.

  26. Scott M*

    Thanks for this. Helps remind me that sometimes the problem is me, instead of my job.

    But I still think it’s 49% me, 51% the job :)

  27. Anonymous*


    If one person calls you a horse’s ass, consider the source.
    If ten people call you a horse’s ass, buy a saddle.

  28. anon*

    “If you’ve hated every boss you’ve ever had, or even most of them, you’re probably the problem.”

    Or, you know, you work at a law firm.

  29. Vicki*

    What often happens to me is that I ‘m happily working along doing Chocolate Teapot User Support. Then my manager (often the one that hired me though not always) resigns or there’s a re-org and I get a new manager who doesn’t like chocolate, prefers coffee, and thinks that all “support” should be outsourced to Elbonia. At which pint I am told (not asked) that I will now be designing Artisan Lasagne pans.

    I’m not a designer, I don’t like lasagne, and if I tried to apply elsewhere for a job as an Artisan Lasagne Pan Designer I would receive a polite “No thank you” note. But here’s a manager who thinks I will become the employee he wishes he had instead of the employee I am.

    If this makers me “the problem” I’d rather be the problem than knuckle under. But this is why roughly half of my managers (over 25+ years) have been people I would happily wish to Siberia given the opportunity.

    “Boss” stopped being a verb in elementary school. In a professional setting, it should be a noun.

  30. Chaucer*

    I love the analogies made to men and women in dating to this topic.

    I know this girl who is never, ever single, but at the same time is rarely in a relationship that lasts longer than half-a-year. Whenever we hang out, she always goes on some rant with the guy she’s dating, an ex she’s “dealing” with, or guys in general who, in her view, are all “messed up,” “filled with drama,” or “jerks.” Even she would admit that she is hot headed and aggressive, but still insists that most of the problems are from guys and not from her.

    We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But it’s important to separate the things that are outside our control from those that are directly our fault, and then come up with a plan to avoid those in the future.

  31. Anon*

    When I read the title of this piece I thought, ok good time to ask myself if I am the problem? when have I been the problem and what would I do differently?

    Honestly, there are plenty of things I can think of to change in myself and I am going to work on them with a counselor I started to see. We really can only change ourselves and good therapy is never a waste.

    Thanks for the piece, great things to think about. Great columns on this website! thank you –

  32. bean*

    i think A LOT depends on the industry and city. media, advertising, entertainment, law and some finance environments in new york can be extremely intense, aggressive and competitive. especially if you are a more junior employee. you could go through 3 or 4 bosses over a short period of time while you are in one position.

    sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit.

  33. glennis*

    I’m having a different kind of issue – I worked for a boss who I liked and respected, even though I did not always agree with her approach to certain issues. But she had a terrible relationship with her boss – they really did not get along.

    My boss really controlled my access to her boss. And I felt it would be unethical to go around her. Also, there were times when she gave me direct orders to communicate something to her boss in a way that I found out, in retrospect, antagonized her boss.

    As a result, I’ve learned that my boss’s boss really doesn’t like me – and I’ve hardly even had much interaction with her! She only knows me as someone who reported to the person who she didn’t like.

    I have always been polite and friendly to my boss’s boss, but apparently the relationship between the two of them has poisoned the well for me.

  34. My name is unimportant*

    Call centers are the problem! And i’m so grateful to finally be retiring from them.

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