how to work for an easily frustrated boss

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?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 59 comments… read them below }

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I agree! Being direct but not aggressive in these situations tends to work really well.

      I didn’t realize that I sigh all the time – it has nothing to do with anyone else and is kind of like a verbal tic/stress reliever. A coworker asked if I was annoyed with her once because I sighed and sounded exasperated. I was mortified – I had no idea I was doing it at all. I’m glad she mentioned it because I’m more aware of it now and try not to do it (not easy).

      1. fposte*

        Oh, I’ve had a colleague sigh like that and I’d never encountered it before! For her it just seems to be a focus thing, like her version of taking a big breath.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          I sound like I’m irritated when I do it. I hate that I do it so often and am really trying to be more aware of it.

        2. Dr. Doll*

          Oh goodness, I do that too. I know it makes people think I am furious, but it’s really me concentrating so hard that I’ve stopped breathing for a little while and need to catch up.

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            I do that kind of sigh when I’m under a lot of stress; I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve been unconsciously holding my breath, and I have to take a big hefty breath to catch up. It can sometimes come across as exasperated sighing, but that’s not how I mean it.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        I’m a sigher too, I think it’s how I ward off anxiety, but I’ve also been caught and had to explain that.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yes–for me a big inhale, big exhale is just a basic centering thing and doesn’t imply frustration/anger/whatever. I’m likely to do it before tackling a big project (even a big project that thrills me!) just to get me ready to go. It took me a long time to realize that other people hear it as a depressed or frustrated or angry sigh, so now if I do it around colleagues (say, in a meeting) I tend to disclaim, ‘Not mad, just breathing!’ afterwards. (And on the rare occasions that I deal with clients I avoid doing it, because I can’t really explain it in that context.)

      3. Purple Dragon*

        I also sigh a lot – I have a serious medical condition and this is a side effect. I don’t even realise I’m doing it the majority of the time.

        People will sometimes say something like “that’s a big sigh” or “geez – you sigh a lot”. Mostly I don’t explain it as it’s not really their business, I just smile and say sorry.
        I wonder now if I should be changing my answer, I just can’t think of what else to say that would let them know it’s not frustration or irritation, it’s just my body wanting oxygen in a hurry. Now I’m going to be paranoid !

        1. Wanna-Alp*

          My suggestion is to make a light joke of it, in a way that doesn’t really give them any information but still plants a “not a negative sign” label on it.

          For example, “Yeah, I do sigh a lot – my lungs are really into sighing, for some weird reason. Maybe they are trying to clear out cobwebs!”

      4. boop*

        Ha! omg I do this too, and I think I just breathe really shallow and occasionally realize i’ve been holding my breath for a long time.

  1. Bostonian*

    A few years ago I worked at a small nonprofit when the executive director left and was replaced by someone very different (and generally very calm). Until I had the direct before-and-after comparison I didn’t understand how much it was taking out of me to constantly strategize about how to approach the ED about a topic and try to predict what would make her upset and worry about what mood she would be in when she came in to the office that day. Constantly walking on eggshells is exhausting.

    If I ever end up in a situation like that again, I’ll start looking for other jobs.

    1. These are the droids*

      ^^ this. I was working for a CEO who was easily irritated and needed to be approached only when in the right mood and with things laid out just so. It was only one of the many issues causing a toxic workplace but it certainly didn’t help matters there, and is something I’m looking to avoid at future jobs.

    2. S in PA*

      “try to predict what would make her upset and worry about what mood she would be in when she came in to the office that day. Constantly walking on eggshells is exhausting.”

      Totally agree. My boss is just like this. I would much rather just have a boss who’s always in a bad mood so I’m not constantly guessing if my weekly meeting with him is going to be fine or awful.

  2. AyBeeCee*

    I have a coworker like this. On the upside she gets her work done – eventually – but it seems like a lot of the time it’s preceded by sighing, rolling her eyes, or other external venting of frustration. I understand getting frustrated sometimes but it’s multiple times a day and can be for really basic stuff. I don’t get it. *shrug*

    1. T3k*

      Sometimes I find myself acting like your coworker, not in those actions, but more like a flat “what do you want?” annoyed look. The main reason I find myself automatically making that face with one coworker is because she’ll come into my office, talk slowly about what she wants done (I’m the “hurry up and get to the point” type) and expect me to drop the current project I’m working on to take care of her small problem, when she could have said it all in an email (and unless it’s near closing time, I’ll have it taken care of by the end of my shift). What makes it worse is she’ll sometimes send me an email, then come to my office to tell me she sent me an email… because obviously I don’t check it every 10 mins >_< I already miss the coworker that left for a new job this week. She was very friendly and knew to get straight to the point with me.

      1. fposte*

        I’d address it directly, though, rather than letting it drive you to looking annoyed with your colleague. That’s not going to make her think “I need to be more concise in communicating with T3k,” it’s just going to make her think “T3k is cranky.”

  3. Anon for this*

    Ahh I have been this boss. Rest assured that if you’re a decent person who is doing your job well, it’s not you, it’s that we hate our lives/jobs/something else. Not that that helps you. I apologize.

    1. LOLwut*

      Yeah, but how can you really tell? If your boss is constantly rolling his eyes and swearing under his breath when you’re in the room, it makes it tough to think of yourself as a decent, competent person. An apology and explanation that it’s not your fault goes a long way.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Eh, it goes a long way the first couple of times, but if the boss constantly engages in behavior that necessitates repeated apologies but never changes the behavior, the effect wears off.

  4. The Carrie*

    I used to have a boss like this! It was early in my career and I kind of avoided her a bit. She used to sit facing away from her main desk, and when you would come in/knock she would sloooowwwwly turn around and sigh. Every single person did not know where they stood with her, becausse sometimes she was so nice and cool. She said I needed to be more communicative with her, but at the time of my life/career, it was not encouraging at all!

  5. Jerzy*

    I had a boss who acted like we were best girlfriends one minute and would jump down my throat and be really mean over something I “should have known” even though it wasn’t something I had ever been expected to do before. While I was working for her, my migraine frequency increased dramatically and I felt sick/like crying most of the time, even outside of work. I got terrible insomnia.

    During that time, I heard about a study on stress, where rats were put in a cage with a button that would give them food. The rats that were always shocked when they hit the button suffered from less stress-related illnesses than those who were only sometimes shocked. Knowing that something was going to be bad is worse than the possibility that it might NOT. It explained a lot about how I was feeling at the time.

    1. F.*

      Ah yes, the “Jekyll & Hyde” type personality. I was raised by a man who did that and can vouch for the damage it does firsthand. The only thing I could do was to finally try to totally numb myself to his emotions, at least until I turned 18 and was thrown out.

    2. NickelandDime*

      I had this boss, complete with forcing me to “hang” with her on the weekends. And then rip me to shreds the next Monday. It’s really unhealthy. I was so happy when I left that job. I haven’t encountered anything like that since then.

    3. Alek*

      Oh my goodness, this is my boss right now EXACTLY. One minute she’s just fine, and then when something goes wrong (whether it actually did, or she perceives it this way) she becomes instantly hostile and impossible to please. And what gets me is, I’m the only one she acts this way with! I’ve never seen her act this way with anyone else. It’s maddening. I’m really not sure what to do, except to look for another job and get out ASAP.

  6. The Other Dawn*

    I swear this was written about my boss at OldSuckyJob. He had a very expressive face and it was always obvious what he was thinking–no need for him to say a word–which meant 99% of people hated having to approach him for anything. And that wasn’t a good thing–well, it’s never a good thing–because he was the compliance officer for the company, which meant people had to go to him a lot to figure out answers to certain things. That caused people to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure it out themselves and sometimes getting it wrong, which is not a good thing either.

    Aside from that, it was very demoralizing for people to have to deal with someone like that, and it’s a big part of why that particular department had 100% turnover in a year.

    He once told me that he was told he has a very expressive face and it was very obvious what he was thinking. What’s funny is he told me he always “works very hard” to not show an expression. Yeah, no. Not working.

    I always keep this in mind when dealing with anyone at work. People always comment that I’m very even-keel and laid back. On the outside maybe. In my mind I’m thinking of 10 different ways to say F U.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I have to say, though, that for some reason he never acted like that with me. It only happened twice and I immediately snapped back. But I felt terrible for the others in my department. He just treated them like robots.

  7. Argh!*

    Don’t surprise people who can’t handle surprises unless you absolutely can’t avoid it. Sending a heads-up e-mail then showing up 5 minutes later to ask about it may be all that’s needed. The boss’s workload may be unreasonably large or troublesome – either due to misallocation of resources or her own time management problems. I can easily see someone with a lot on their plate thinking “oh crap, what now?” If you don’t want to see that face, send an e-mail and let her face say “oh crap” to her computer screen instead of you.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I agree that sometimes that should be done, like if it’s something that isn’t time-sensitive, but it’s not realistic to do that every time someone needs to ask a question. Interruptions happen and I think managers should expect that; it comes with the territory. I’m a manager and, sure, I get annoyed when someone is in my office every 5 minutes, but sometimes it can’t be avoided due to the nature of the job and whatever might be going on that day. I don’t show them I’m annoyed, though; I don’t want people circumventing me because they think I’m unapproachable. But I do say sometimes, when warranted, “Would you mind emailing me? I have a huge workload at the moment and need to get X, Y, and Z done today.”

    2. The Carrie*

      My boss WANTED you to come in and ask, but then acted weird and interrupted when you did. It was also really awkward at the end of the conversation – you never knew when it was over. Juuusssst as you were standing up, she’d start talking again. She was just kind of awkward, but not all the time, which was worse.

  8. AnonEMoose*

    I once dealt with a boss like that, too. In her defense, she was going through some pretty difficult personal stuff at the time, so some of her moodiness was actually understandable. Honestly, I think she was a nice person, but not a good supervisor. The worst part for me was, when the personal stuff started up, suddenly I couldn’t say anything right, according to her. I wasn’t “nice” or “diplomatic” enough, according to her. Sometimes I could approach her with an issue or question and it would be fine, and other times…not so much.

    I survived it by just smiling and nodding a lot, resolving as much as humanly possible myself, and a few other strategies. Such as expressing opinions as questions, never being the first to speak up in meetings, and then usually just expanding on someone else’s point. I gritted my teeth some days, but I survived it. And I’m still with the company, and she is not. My current supervisor is, fortunately, a lot more reasonable and consistent.

  9. MaryMary*

    I work with an account executive who acts like this when he’s in a bad mood. The problem is that you never know when the bad mood will strike. When he’s in a good mood, he’s great to work with. I find it tremendously stressful to not know if you’re going to have to work with Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde each day.

    Sometimes being direct will get him to snap out of it. Other times, you just have to deal with the irritation and ranting. We have people who refuse to work with him.

  10. K-MM*

    My first job out of college was working for a law firm, and this use to be everyone! If it wasn’t one attorney it would be the next, and if it wasn’t that attorney it was another. Sometimes it would be multiple attorneys in one day; and attorneys/upper management would be quick to blame staff for mistakes they didn’t make. I have pretty thick skin, but it was just too stressful at the end of the day, and I felt unappreciated. It really wasn’t worth it at all. It made me question myself and feel less of a person, but I left and eventually got a peace of mind, and learned it wasn’t me, it was them.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on.

      1. Cath in Canada*

        I’m still kinda puzzled by this. I read a lot of US and UK sites, and they all manage to display Canada-specific (or even British Columbia- or Vancouver-specific) ads while I’m reading the site. (Right now on this very AAM page, there’s a BC Hydro ad in the sidebar). Forced registration will often make me stop reading a site, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, so it’s surprising that they’re choosing that route when there are other options.

        Oh well, their call! ;)

        1. Claire (Scotland)*

          Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense to me, but that’s their problem. I’ve just stopped bothering to read there. There are plenty of other sites out there that don’t pull that crap, I’d rather give them my support.

    2. Kyrielle*

      If you are outside the US or have an ad blocker, they’ll ask you to log in after the first article you read on that site (on that computer) because of the ad revenue. Or you can open it in an incognito window (Chrome’s term) and then it doesn’t recognize you and you see it.

  11. LQ*

    I am sometimes this person. I try hard to catch myself when I do it, especially the eye roll. Often I’m not rolling my eyes about you, but about this is the 5th thing like this in 10 minutes, when I do catch myself I try to go back apologize or make a joke out of it. “Well yours is the 10th request today, but I like you so ok!” I’m working on pulling back on those things but when I’m really under a lot of stress is when it is hardest to reign it in, and of course that is when it is most likely to make me sigh or eye roll.

    Addressing it directly is awesome. It lets me say “No, this is important but I’m not feeling well and was hoping to leave early. I really do appreciate you bringing it to my attention now though so I can deal with it right away.”

    Most of the time if I’m rolling my eyes at you it’s not because of you at all. It might be closer to a plea for sympathy. It is not ok. But it’s also not likely to be about you. (If it is, run away!)

    1. Blurgle*

      If you roll your eyes at a subordinate of course it’s personal. There isn’t an expression that radiates sheer contempt better than the eyeroll.

      1. The Carrie*

        Seriously. I think this is VERY bad behavior. There are lots of things I’d rather be doing, or I might be having a bad day, but it’s not the person (who is only doing their job)’s fault.

      2. LQ*

        I don’t have subordinates.
        Yes, there are.
        I’m not saying it’s good behavior. I was trying to point out that it might not be the person doing it as a personal attack. You can think it is a personal attack on you, but that doesn’t mean it was intended that way.
        Not everyone is able to constantly contain all their emotions.
        I have a fever, I have to go in to be given follow up testing to see if this is actually cancer I’m dealing with, and I can’t go home because I have 20 hours of work to do in 10 hours that I also don’t have. Yup, sometimes emotion leaks out. It’s sort of a human thing for some people.

        1. this eyeroll is for you*

          It’s what that emotion IS that’s the problem. In the case of eye rolling, that emotion is contempt/disgust (or at least, if YOU are rolling your eyes to display some other emotion, you should know that’s how other people will interpret it), and that’s not OK to direct at people. Don’t get defensive of this crappy behavior just because you recognise it in yourself. It’s still crappy.

          “I don’t have subordinates” -Well, thank goodness for small mercies!

          1. Whoa*

            Well that escalated quickly!

            I think the key is that there are both sides to every situation. You should always try to assume that it isn’t about you. If it gets to the point where you are unsure, do as Alison suggests and find a way to bring it up.

            That being said, you can’t expect someone to be emotionless and leave life at the door when they come into work. Know that everyone has their struggle and just because its different from yours, don’t make it any less important.

            If the roles were reversed, you’d want someone to at least try to understand where you were coming from…

  12. Finance intern*

    My very first internship was with someone like this. I was a very inexperienced 18 year old in a bro-y finance workplace, and my boss would get easily annoyed, at things that weren’t really that catastrophic. Once I realized that this was just his temperament and not a reflection on me it was much easier to deal with.

  13. Stranger than fiction*

    We have a sales rep here who whenever he calls to ask me to do something literally barks out the order and then if I need to clarify anything or ask a question (because he never gives all the info necessary to complete the task) he’ll literally scream at me to “just do what I say”. Thankfully I don’t have to deal with him often,’usually only when I’m covering for my boss, but last time I decided to talk to my boss about it when she got back. And my boss said something interesting (after agreeing he’s an a-hole), she said whenever he starts to get that way with her, she yells right back and that he’s the type of person that respects someone who can do that! Of course that may not be the case with all people like this but it really made me think and I’m going to do it next time for sure.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Oh and I should add this probably wouldn’t be good to do with your boss, but who knows life is strange

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        My old boss (the wife) was like that; she was very volatile and reactive, and it seemed like she respected me more after I finally snapped back at her. I quit for a new job soon after that, though. Feeling like I was in a constant fight with my boss was making me feel like shit every day.

  14. A is for A*

    Pretty sure this was sent in by one of my co-workers… or at least it sounds like my boss. To the T. We have to start off conversations with, “please let me finish this story before you react”, because three words into a five minute situational tale, she’s calling people on the phone to tell them off, yelling at us, or cursing and muttering under her breath. Then she tells us to calm down, after she has been yelling at people (for things they didn’t do – because she didn’t listen to the entire story and made an assumption), and we’re just sitting there with blank looks on our faces because this happens every day. Now we just don’t tell her things when we can avoid it.

  15. marianne*

    I *was* that manager. I am easily frustrated, and I didn’t used to mask it very well. When I finally realized the impact my reactions were having on my team, I was pretty horrified at myself. I’ve been reading this blog for almost a year now (and have made it back several years in the archives). My management style has completely turned around as I’ve implemented suggestions from here.

    Unfortunately, it’s been very hard to change people’s perception of me as the bitchy manager I was a year ago, even though I have changed.

  16. Picky Commenter*

    I read this and cringed…I am like this, not to all and everyone, but people who seem to approach me more often than others (usually subordinates or people who look up to me, such as family members). This is not ok, and I do this subconsciously, both personally and professionally. I just feel horrible that somebody would feel like this because of my actions. I’m not working at the moment so I know this letter isn’t directed at me, but actually, it is. Reading this has renewed my consciousness of this issue and I’m determined to take a second before I react. Thanks for this, Alison, I needed to hear this. Your posts not only help to solve problems but are great introspection devices.

    1. boss like this*

      At least you are mature enough to know what you are doing and that there may be a better way. All of the answers Alison gave make sense to the sane person. I have a boss who is defensive and easily offended and with whom I can never have a mature, intelligent conversation like this.

  17. boop*

    Heh, oh geez, I’m an easily frustrated person who reads like an open book and who also has a devastating guilt complex to accompany it.

    Yeah, so what if this person IS the most frustrating person on earth? I can bounce back to zero pretty quickly so The Most Frustrating Person In The World probably just thinks I’m crazy at this point.

  18. Jen*

    Oh No – I have had days like this – especially with one employee who, legit, returns every assignment I give her with errors/ not spot-checked / incorrect. I thought it was due to lack of onboarding on my part, so I’ve started taking an hour a day to explain what’s going on behind each request, but even after having the same conversation 6 times, it doesn’t seem to penetrate. I have an 8 person team, and this doesn’t happen with anyone else, and I know I have shown my frustration more than once. (I would attribute part of this to a language barrier, but of my 8 employees, only 2 speak English as a first language, and it’s never been an issue.) Reading this makes me cringe though. If she isn’t performing, being openly frustrated is not the way to move forward productively. Argh. No one deserves to feel like that at work.

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