my boss heard I’m afraid of him, but I’m not … I just make comments about his grumpiness

A reader writes:

I’m a teacher at a middle school with around 1,300 students. We have three administrators who all supervise different departments. My direct supervisor, who I’ll call Nate, is the assistant principal.

Nate recently approached me in the hallway – in passing, so not like a formal chat or anything – and said, “A little bird told me you’re afraid of me. I just want you to know, you don’t have any reason to be.” I was so surprised I kind of babbled and said, “Wait – who – ” and Nate just shook his head and said, “I’m just saying, SOMEONE, and you don’t have to be afraid of me, I’m really a big teddy bear!” He was kind of walking off at this point and I was so flustered I just said, “I’m NOT afraid of you, don’t worry!” (suddenly feeling like I needed to convince him or something – I’m still annoyed at my ham-handed response to this).

Anyway, now I’m stressing out about my boss thinking I’m scared of him. Really, I’m not. I’ve thought about it and realized that I’ve commented to colleagues in the past that I “want to avoid Nate’s angry face” and better not “do anything to piss Nate off” — not really out of line commentary, especially considering Nate is well known for being grumpy and easy to annoy. The thing is that I really do like him as a boss – he supports me when it counts, he’s had my back on numerous occasions, and shows me through word and deed that my hard work is truly appreciated. More than anything, I feel indebted to him for his continual support and while I don’t always agree with decisions he makes, I don’t want to disappoint him. I realize how lucky I am to love both my job and my direct supervisor – it seems like a rarity.

Should I tell him this? Should I address it again? Or should I just drop it?

You should drop it. Making a bigger deal out of it will just make it weird.

(Of course, Nate did his own part to make it weird in the way he addressed it, but so be it.)

But. I want to talk about the comments you’ve been making to coworkers. Those comments aren’t positioning you well. When you say “better not do anything to piss Nate off” or “I want to avoid Nate’s angry face,” you’re saying, “My concern here is less about quality of the work than appeasing Nate’s whims.” That is not a good thing to be saying. It’s bad for you because it makes you look weak, and/or like you value the wrong things, and/or like you don’t think particularly well of Nate. And it’s bad for Nate and your workplace as a whole because it sows the seeds of an us vs. him dynamic, which can be fairly toxic over time.

If you’re having trouble seeing why this is the case, imagine that you had a staff member routinely invoking your name in that context. Would you feel like your staff member was fully on your side? Representing you well to others? That they fully got why you cared about the stuff you care about?

If I were Nate and I heard about those comments, I’d be pretty annoyed, and I’d wonder what was up. And the comments have already struck your coworkers as notable enough that someone mentioned at least something about it to him. So I’d take the weird hallway conversation as an opportunity to rethink this habit and change it.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Today’s theme: don’t say things about your boss you don’t want getting back to your boss.

    We have feelings, you know!

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Really, I think that could be generalized from “your boss” to “people you routinely interact with.” Or at least keep those comments to entirely different realms! I might vent to my fiancé about a coworker, but I would never vent to another coworker. Either it’s important enough to address with the coworker herself, or I need to just move on.

    2. Mike C.*


      I thought bosses slept in coffins over the summer. No wait, that’s what a teacher does. ;)

      1. Artemesia*

        LOL. 50 years ago I taught high school for a few years while I was getting my masters. Students were always so shocked to run into me at the grocery store or gas station; I think they thought we were rolled into closets and plugged in to re-charge there at the school.

      2. JustKatie*

        My mom was a teacher, and on our family trip to Disney World, we ran into one of her students, who was a third grader. She said “they let TEACHERS in to Disney World?!”. My six year old self replied, “she’s not a teacher, she’s my MOM!”.

          1. thenoiseinspace*

            I honestly think there would be a market for minions and a minion job board. I have several engineering/computer programmer friends that would love to pick up a side gig here and there building destructo-bots for people with some grand plan.

          2. Lisa*

            My niece made a minion out of rainbow looms, but it only had one eye. Apparently it was Kevin …

  2. BCW*

    Yeah, just drop it. Its been brought up (maybe not in the best way, but at least Nate tried to address it), now its done.

    However, I agree with Alison, your statements do make it sound like you are afraid of him, or at least afraid of his reaction if you aren’t on his good side. While it may not been your intention, it was probably someone who overheard you in the break room who went to Nate and mentioned it.

    1. Artemesia*

      And being afraid of offending the boss is a very childish position to be in. You won’t come across as a confident competent person if you are scurrying about trying to avoid antagonizing the boss. (even if you do it, it is best to not call attention to it.) You want as a young woman starting out in the professional sphere to not do things that make you seem immature to those middle aged managers.

      1. Hannah*

        Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to fear your boss. I worked for a brilliant man with a low frustration threshold and major anger management issues. He was a foot taller and seventy pounds heavier than me, and had fists that sometimes went through the walls. Not being afraid of him would have been foolish in the extreme.

        1. Windchime*

          I would be afraid of anyone who punched holes in the wall, regardless of their size. That’s scary and I am glad you don’t work for him any longer.

        2. Artemesia*

          There is being afraid (I had one boss that was really scary too — he eventually shot himself — and I just felt lucky it wasn’t one of us.) and there is SHOWING fear. With an abusive wall puncher — well I hope that today I would be aggressive about getting him fired. But with a gruff or picky boss — to act scared is to appear immature. It isn’t how you feel — it is how you manage impressions and that is really important in the workplace. A reputation or impression tends to stick.

          1. TheSnarkyB*

            Whoa whoa whoa- I don’t think your boss shooting himself should have anything to do with whether he’s scary or not. I mean, you’re entitled to your opinions, but you should at least know that they’re not the same thing. He didn’t wake up one day, decide to shoot someone, and pull a name out of a hat. He must have been in extreme pain to do what he did.

  3. Del*

    The weirdness is strong with this one, all the way around!

    That said, there are definitely ways to make the “oooh, don’t want the Big Man to get me” jokes that won’t trip weirdness, but it sounds like you’ve missed that mark by quite a ways, OP. Jokes like this can be a delicate thing, and it’s better to avoid them unless they’re being made by everyone.

  4. Andrew*

    I find it a little strange that the OP says these comments, but also makes it clear that she thinks that he’s a good boss. There seems to be some disconnect there. If her fear is of disappointing Nate, she’s phrasing it poorly. I can easily see how someone would get the idea that she’s afraid of Nate given the types of comments she states that she has made.

  5. Celeste*

    Totally agree, from here on out when you say Nate’s name, it’s only to praise or be neutral.

    I would also drop it just because if you tell him what you actually said and why, it will be digging a hole. Right now he’s taken the onus that he’s scary and tried to amend it with you. All your approach would do is tell him that he’s grumpy and rude/annoying/obnoxious etc.

    I think you got off easy this time, and since great teaching jobs are hard to get, bite your tongue if you think of something negative to say there. Not just because of Nate, but because the walls clearly have ears.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      As a teacher, I think that “bite your tongue if you think of something negative to say there” is a bit too strong. It doesn’t serve the school well to just sweep things under the rug. I try to ask myself these questions before saying something negative, though:

      “Can anything be changed about the thing I’m complaining about?” In the case of a sometimes-grumpy boss, probably not. In other cases, yes.

      “Am I about to say this to someone who can help change it?” Telling Claire that it annoys me when she’s late to meetings could alter her behavior. Telling Joe that it annoys me when Claire’s late… not so much.

      “Is changing this important enough to make it worth the conversation?” I don’t ask this to shy away from important difficult conversations, but some things just aren’t worth it. Maybe it drives me bonkers that Lee chatters incessantly about The Bachelorette in the staff room, but I can deal with that in other ways than confronting Lee. But if I decide not to confront Lee, I don’t get to go complain to Claire and Joe about it.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        To clarify, I think that it’s a good idea to stop making comments about Nate’s grumpiness/annoyability. Which may have been all Celeste meant by “something negative to say there,” and I may have misinterpreted.

        1. Celeste*

          Yes, that’s all I meant. Obviously if there is an issue she thinks needs to be discussed, it’s fair game to go to him with it. That’s part of any job.

  6. LBK*

    I wonder about the context in which these comments are being made. Sometimes when I hear them, the person making them is asking for something to be done and using “We don’t want to make Bob angry!” as their justification because they aren’t comfortable just asking because they need it. For example, “Can you get that report done in the next hour? We don’t want to see Bob’s angry face if it’s not finished!” Subtext: I want you to do this in an hour, but I’m scared to be authoritative, so I’m using Bob’s anger as my reason.

    One of my old managers used to call this “borrowing authority,” and it makes you look weak, like you can’t assert your own needs or ask people do to things for yourself. I’m curious if that’s at play here and OP really just needs to learn to ask for what they want without feeling the need to justify it (or by coming up with a better justification than “Because Bob will get mad if we don’t”).

    1. LBK*

      Oh, and this also comes up sometimes in justifying your own actions to people, not just in the context of asking your coworkers for things.

      1. businesslady*

        it also implies that the anger is entirely arbitrary, which in turn suggests that you don’t agree with your boss’s perspective.

        compare: “if I buy this purse my husband will be mad at me” vs. “I shouldn’t buy this purse because my husband & I promised each other to stick to a strict budget [& will be mad at me if I violate that agreement].” in the first instance, husband sounds like a controlling jerk; in the second, he’s a partner in a mutual agreement.

        if there’s a reason Nate gets mad about certain things, focus on that instead (“you know how frustrating it is when we have to do these reports last-minute” or whatever) vs. his actual emotional reaction.

        1. N.J.*

          I really like this suggestion. I struggle with this myself sometimes, with focusing on someone’s reaction and using that as a justification for pushing through a project or task. Well said, I’m going to try working on this myself, to focus on the logical reason someone would be mad rather than the emotion tied to it.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Borrowing authority- what a great way to frame that. I worked in one place where this happened all the time. I was left with a sense that no one felt that they could just say “Could you please have this information ready today?”
      There was a overall sense of powerlessness where the only motivator seem to be mentioning the boss’ anger.

      Not a good culture for a workplace.

    3. Vox De Causa*

      I really like the “borrowing authority” phrase, and I’m going to remind myself not to do this! My own authority should be sufficient.

  7. Kristen*

    This may not apply to the OP’s situation, but I think that *some* bosses really can be self-aware enough about their grumpiness that this wouldn’t bother them. My current and most recent bosses are sometimese grumpy and moody; on the whole, they are both GREAT to work for, so my coworkers and I can joke about this because they know that we are not coming from an accusing or mistrustful place, and he can kindly make little jabs about our quirks right back at us. Again, it’s coming from a place of positivity and “we all have those days” understanding. I”m not saying it’s the norm or anything, but it’s possible “Nate” wouldn’t really mind OP’s comments.

    1. Jess*

      Yeah, that was my take. I think the OP probably made the comments in a joking manner, but the person she made them to didn’t pick that up.

    1. Jamie*

      I love this – I would do this. This is just the kind of situation easily diffused with humor.

      And yay I have graham crackers in my desk. About time someone here mentioned a food I actually have access to.

  8. Lisa*

    I disagree, I think you should talk to Nate.

    If you are a woman, having your boss refer to himself as a big teddy bear isn’t good. Would he ever say that to a male colleague? Get out of being talked to with ‘kid / girl’ gloves by speaking up and have a direct conversation with him.

    Only OP can quash this ‘being scared’ thing. I would go to Nate and say that you are concerned that he has this perception of you based on another person’s account of you. State you are not afraid of him and all the good stuff you said. It’ll make him realize that you value him, but more importantly it will remove this sudden view he has of you now.

    Sorry, but my old boss couldn’t get past acting like women were all his proteges. It was fine when I was 22, but I am 33 now and I am not new to working anymore – its demoralizing and started because I didn’t speak up when being treated differently than my male counterparts.

    1. businesslady*

      huh, I hadn’t thought about that angle, but I think you could be right. but I also agree with Alison that it’ll be a bit awkward to bring this up again.

      maybe the conversation could happen in the context of “I realize I’ve been using ‘Nate might get mad’ as a way to motivate my colleagues, & even though I meant it in jest it’s not sending the right message.”

      otherwise I think it runs the risk of “doth protest too much”–denying something over & over again is rarely convincing so without added context I think it’s better to let lie.

  9. Kcliff*

    I think next opportunity where it seems natural, like his birthday or Boss’s Day, maybe the final day of the school year, write him a card expressing how you appreciate him and why (some of the things you mentioned here, for example). Include specific examples like “I really appreciated your support when I was being challenged by that student’s parents.” or something. Things he will know about.

    That’s a nice way of letting him know you appreciate him without it seeming like a reaction to the comments he heard about.

    1. ZSD*

      I really like this idea. (But I wouldn’t do it too soon after this encounter. Wait long enough that he can tell the card is genuine, rather than just a way of kissing up after you think you got on his bad side.)

  10. TotesMaGoats*

    While I agree with AAM’s advice, I have to say it seems like we are moving into (or already are) in a world where you can’t commiserate/complain with your fellow coworkers. We all do it from time to time, I doubt anyone is innocent there. And complaining to a spouse or friend doesn’t always have the same impact. They don’t know your boss like you and your coworkers do. If my coworkers and I couldn’t have a bitch session every now and again, knowing the comments wouldn’t go further than the room, we’d lose our minds.

    And yes that is my name name for here. I love that commercial with a deep and abiding love.

    1. Celeste*

      It’s a fine line. You just never know who will think your words can be used to advance themselves either on the job or socially in the workplace.

      Awesome user name, I love that commercial, too!!!

    2. JM*

      I think you just have to make sure you’re not within ear shot of someone who will take it back to them. One of my coworkers have random venting sessions on our way home when it’s only us. They’re few and far between but sometimes you need them. Now, ones about clients are not as few and far between.

    3. Whippers*

      Yeah, I agree with this. I feel like there’s something of an erosion of solidarity amongst colleagues and we’re moving into a culture where you constantly have to pretend everything is great all the time.
      Whilst obviously constant complaining and sniping isn’t good, I also think that fear of saying the wrong thing or disagreeing with management (even to coworkers) isn’t a great culture to breed either.

    4. Jen in RO*

      I haven’t encountered this (thankfully) but I do think that OP’s comments were innocent and/or joking.

      As for using the boss as an ‘excuse’ (mentioned in a comment above), I don’t see a problem with that. A boss one instructed me specifically to ‘blame’ him whenever if was necessary (e. g. ‘I really wouldn’t bother you with this when you’re busy, but Boss wants it asap, sorry!’ ). It helped a lot sometimes, especially since I was in a department that was considered priority #3852 by everyone.

    5. fposte*

      I think bitching occasionally is fine. The pitfalls are 1) “knowing the comments wouldn’t go further than the room” (as this example shows, it often will even if we think it won’t) and 2) the pattern we create with bitching. If all I do with these co-workers is bitch, or if my responses about a particular person are always just bitching, that’s a sign that things are becoming a habit rather than just blowing off momentary steam.

      And it’s similar to what’s being talked about in the “busy” article–we create our realities by how we talk about them. If I’m finding solidarity and reward with my co-workers via complaining, I’m going to see a lot more to complain about.

      1. Whippers*

        I definitely don’t agree with complaining all the time to co-workers. However, in my current work I have found that it’s taboo to say anything bad about the manager. If I did say anything remotely critical, I imagine I would be faced with blank stares and it would probably get back to him. That’s what I mean more by solidarity; that you know you can complain sometimes,whether that be about a manager or client, and you’ll get a certain degree of sympathy and that it won’t go anywhere. Not that you would be treated as a subversive force who isn’t towing the party line.

    6. some1*

      I think another issue that happens is the Telephone Effect. Like the game Telephone we played as kids and sit in a circle and one person whispers something to the person next to her and it goes around the circle and the end the last person hears something different. A benign complaint can back to the person it’s about but they hear something much worse than you actually said.

    7. tcookson*

      Oh, man! I wish I’d thought of that user name! We laugh at home about that commercial all the time! My daughter has changed it to, “Totes, my goats!” and uses it when trying to cajole me into buying extra sweets at the store: “Come on, mom; be my goat!”

    1. ryn*

      i kinda wonder if he’s so used to dealing with middle school kids that he’s forgotten how to talk to adults about issues…

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, Nate made one weird comment in a hallway, and other than that the OP seems to really like him, so I think it’s probably over-reaching (based on what we know from the letter) to characterize his entire management style as immature. His way of dealing with this particular incident is a little silly though.

    3. Whippers*

      I don’t really think his way of dealing it was that bizarre at all. He probably wanted to address the issue in some way and felt that a jokey, non confrontational manner would be best.
      I think it’s actually the way quite a lot of people deal with things: where I’m from anyway.

  11. Crow T. Robot*

    It sounds like OP is not aware of the impact of those passing comments. The intent may be to blow off some steam or just commiserate with coworkers, but it seems like at least one person is not receiving them that way.

    As AAM said, those kind of comments can start off innocently enough but with time can breed real resentment and lead to a toxic environment.

  12. JaneJ*

    I know exactly how you feel! There have been several times at my job where I want to set the record straight with my boss. Sometimes it’s things that I’ve said, things others have said about me, or assumptions he’s made without all the info. I’ve had more than one person start rumors about me, and I sooo badly want to march in there and be all “just so you know…” But, in the interest of not contributing to drama, more often than not I’ve had to just let it go. And hope he knows me and my work well enough to sort the truth from the rest of it. It’s hard.

  13. Stargazer*

    Not knowing your boss, maybe I’m wrong, but I actually don’t see anything overly awkward about this. I get that his comment came out of the blue, but it sounds like he wants you to feel comfortable around him and made it a point to chat with you in a relaxed way to make you feel better. I don’t think you need to worry about this, although I agree with AAM’s point about spinning your future comments in a more positive light.

  14. Jamie*

    I’m really a big teddy bear!”

    Whenever a man says this to me I have to physically stop myself from blurting out, “You still can’t sleep with me!”

    Because you know, teddy bears on the bed…we sleep with teddy bears.

    It’s always been the first thing that pops into my head – and since it’s always a stranger or someone related to my husband that says it my reply would be such a bad idea.

    I am in so much trouble the day my brain to mouth filter stops working.

  15. Jessa*

    I guess my issue with this is that I find drive by comments like this with no warning and no actual background “Somebody said?” Oy. To be really not on. If the boss has a problem with something about the OP, the walk and talk is not the way to resolve it. Take it into the office. Seriously.

    1. jmkenrick*

      I actually disagree with you here. My read is that the boss was trying to let OP know that her comments were being noted, but wanted to be light-hearted/no big deal about it and deliver that info to her in a nice way that didn’t embarrass her or make her feel accused (as a one-on-one meeting might, especially if she genuinely was scared of him).

      Granted, his approach was a bit off, but I understand why he delivered it in that manner.

  16. Ms Enthusiasm*

    Something else that would definitely annoy me about this situation is probably the OP now feels like she can’t trust any of her co-workers. Sure, her comments were probably blown out of proportion, but she didn’t intend for Nate to hear them anyway. And while I agree it is a good idea to stop the negative comments, now she might feel like she needs to be careful of EVERYTHING she says around her co-workers. I wonder what her co-workers would say if she told them what Nate said to her? Would one of them admit to being the “little bird”?

    1. Thinking of a Name*

      This! I really can’t imagine how awkward that will be for the rest of the day…unless I remember exactly who I always made the comments to!

    2. Jill of all trades*

      I’ve been in the OP’s position of there being a “little bird” (how I loathe that term) reporting what I said. Some was just false, some was taken out of context, and a very tiny bit was true. My experience has lead to me giving no credit to what “little birds” have to say, which is unfortunate because there will be a time when one will come to me with something I need to know and my instinct will be to dismiss it. Unless the OP actually tries to root out who it is, she will need to guard every word she speaks in the workplace, which is sad. Even if she figures out who it is, she’ll still need to be guarded.

      And I’m not advocating for saying anything that pops into your head or being careless with words, because they are powerful and the words we use define us. But it’s sad when you can’t talk with coworkers about situations to get a feel gor whether they have the same experiences/observations without it getting back to someone the wrong way.

      The “little bird” really should have said “Tigerlily, from some of the comments you make like X and Y I get the impression that you’re scared or intimidated by Nate. Is that the case? If it isn’t then you may need to consider the impression those comments give.” Done. And it doesn’t need to go any further.

  17. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    Anybody else get Elvis’s “Teddy Bear” stuck in your head after reading this thread?

    “I don’ wanna be your tiger
    ‘Cuz tigers play too rough
    I don’ wanna be your lion
    ‘Cuz lions ain’t the kin’ ya
    Love enough
    Jus’ wanna be
    Your teddy bear…”

  18. Snarcus Aurelius*

    I agree with all of this advice except…

    If I were the boss, I’d really want to know why an employee viewed me that way. Or at least if I cared enough, I’d want to know.

    The casual way this guy approached the LW seems off to me — almost cavalier. I also wonder if he was “joking” about it as a way to let her know that he knew but in such a manner that didn’t require serious consideration or feedback both ways.

    I worked for a boss who we feared. Her daily behavior was unpredictable, erratic, and bullying. She would have the same reaction to a missing pencil as the world ending. Her feedback to staff depended entirely on her mood that day. The only way to escape her wrath was to switch names on your work with whomever she liked that day. And sadly that worked.

    Internally she was awful; externally she was the best.

    And I said the very same things about her that this LW is saying now. Because it was true. My boss’s behavior made work not being about a job well done but rather preventing another tirade. It also made glaring HR issues fester because no one wanted to approach the boss about it.

    So yeah, I hope this guy follows up because I wonder what else might be festering in this work environment.

  19. Daisy*

    I find everyone’s responses to this to be really bizarrely po-faced, personally. The boss seems to be so obviously making a joke out of it, yet only about two responses in 60 seems to have characterised it that way. I don’t think that the OP needs to worry or that it reveals anything in particular about the boss’s management style. If you want him to stop joking about you being afraid of him…. well, stop joking about being afraid of him. Goes both ways, doesn’t it?

  20. Steve G*

    I don’t see this exchange as a big deal so wouldn’t worry about it, especially given the # of kids at the school, the boss definitely doesn’t have time to sit and dwell in anything negative about you.

  21. Kate*

    Excellent use of “ham-handed,” A+

    (This might sound sarcastic but it’s not, I really like that phrase!)

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