how to work for an angry boss

A reader writes:

My boss is really reactive. The slightest thing will make her roll her eyes and display obvious signs of anger or 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.

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

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. SJ*

    This is my boss! He’s the head honcho and has straight-up said he can act however he wants because he’s the head honcho and it’s our jobs to just deal with it and do what he wants. Sigh. He’s definitely “not salvageable,” as Alison says.

    1. SJ*

      Plus not knowing an answer immediately is, like, his least favorite thing ever. Even saying something like, “I don’t know, but Bob does, and I can find out from him” will just set him off. Everyone is expected to know every detail of everything ever. Uuuugh.

    2. Merry and Bright*

      You just described MyOldBoss from 4 years ago. He wasn’t salvageable either.

    3. OriginalYup*

      “he can act however he wants because he’s the head honcho and it’s our jobs to just deal with it and do what he wants.”

      He seems to have mistaken himself for medieval royalty.

        1. A Teacher*

          After some of the other “Bad bosses of the year” so far, this would sadly not be shocking.

  2. Sami*

    One of my favorite phrases when dealing with someone who’s angry and upset is, “That may be.” Just an acknowledgment they are possibly right (it usually doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t) can be enough to calm them down.

  3. I Love Spreadsheets*

    Oh goodness, this sounds EXACTLY like my former boss. I hope you are not my replacement, OP, because I would tell you that it is not salvageable and to run for the hills. I lasted in my previous position for 6 years, which is a really long time with a very difficult boss, but mostly due to liking my actual work, other people there, and getting paid and being taken care of well. My boss, however, was exactly as you describe above: eye rolling, irritated voice all the time, constant micro-managing, snapping, and constant negative feedback with very little positive feedback. She actually liked me quite a bit, and was a lot worse to some other people she did not respect or like. People from other departments were too scared to call/talk to her, so a lot of times they would call me with questions instead. The only reason I lasted as long as I did is because I am generally an easy-going person that does not take things like this personally, especially knowing that is it her issue, rather than mine. I even defended her to other people at first. But little by little, she kept chipping away at my sanity and finally I just couldn’t take another negative comment or snap and I made a decision to get out. It took me another 1+ years after that to land a job that I wanted, but just knowing that I was doing something about it made me feel better. Now I have been at my new job for the last 3 months and I am very happy with my job and my boss. Complete night and day. I have zero regrets about leaving. I feel really badly for my replacement, as I know for a fact that she will not change. That is gathered from general comments, such as “I know I’m a b****, but I get things done”. So, if you hear anything like this from your boss, then you know it’s permanent and they just don’t care about how they treat other people or how it comes across. In that case, I would say start looking. But in the meantime, what helped me the most is not to take it personally, although I know that’s a challenge. We lost another staff person that worked under her in less than 2 years, because she just couldn’t take it. Also, it is like staying in an abusive relationship, you don’t realize how bad it is until you leave and then work with people that actually respect you and talk to you like you are a grown professional. It should be the norm, really. Good luck, OP!!!

    1. esra*

      “I know I’m a b****, but I get things done”.

      Things like super high turnover, usually.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        Pretty much, lol.

        My last manager said something very similar to me when I started working for her – that should have been my first red flag.

  4. Lora*

    I wish I didn’t know all the cynical reasons such people end up in managerial positions. Everyone underneath them wonders how the heck such a person got this job at all, and how they hang on to it.

    -Angry Boss is sweet as pie to his/her bosses, and is great at putting on a show. This makes it so much more infuriating because you know they CAN control their behavior, they just choose not to and are consciously choosing to be a raging jerk to you.
    -Senior management really is trying to make everyone quit in a particularly horrible way, and they don’t want to pay severance. It’s nothing a reasonable, sane company would do, but there are some horrible dysfunctional companies in the world.
    -They have a buddy with a similar personality in senior management, and their buddy prefers to hire people like him.
    -Angry Boss is a firm believer in drill sergeant-style management. Don’t ask me why, some people just are, even if (heck, especially if) they’ve never been in the military.
    -Angry Boss is going through a rough patch in other aspects of his/her life and is given a lot of leeway in how s/he expresses this.
    -Angry Boss is frustrated with other aspects of the job and takes it out on other people, because s/he can.
    -Angry Boss is extraordinarily precious in general and you are not a yes-man.
    -Angry Boss is a bigot and doesn’t like your demographic.
    -You rejected their sexual advances. I’ve seen this even in Angry Bosses who merely *anticipate* (correctly) that their advances will be rejected.

    There’s no doubt lots more…

    1. Artemesia*

      People like this are what the German’s call ‘bicycle personalities’ — ‘Below they kick and above they bow.’ They have the art of buttering up their bosses down pat and have never been penalized for being abuse to staff. Time to go when you get one of these.

      1. Old Admin*

        I’ve worked for exactly this kind of boss – in Germany!!
        After three years, I got out and changed departments. His group was the unhappiest one in the entire company, but everybody said exactly: “He gets things done!”
        Yeah, but not with me, and with the highest turnover of every group, too.
        I didn’t care, and made very clear I would never work with this guy again.

  5. Callie30*

    My Boss is like this too. I’ve tried being direct with her and I get the ‘how dare you contest me’ response. Sometimes there is no solution when people are irrational.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yeah, I previously worked for someone who would vehemently insist that she wasn’t angry/upset/frustrated/simply wishing things could be a little different, and the more sensitively you tried to probe for what she needed, the more insistent she would become that EVERYTHING IS FINE. It’s exhausting to constantly try to anticipate the emotions of someone who won’t own them, but still needs them managed. All you can do is let go of the expectation of normalcy.

      1. TootsNYC*

        And here, Alison’s approach offers a potential as well. It’s saying, “This is how you come across,” not “this is how you feel,” which focuses more on externals, and it is immediately followed up by a request for direction: “Is there a way you’d like me to…”

        And it’s not anticipating. It’s simply responding in the moment.

        Good luck!

    2. TootsNYC*

      Alison’s approach is more indirect–asking “Is there a way you’d like me to approach this that wouldn’t frustrate you?” is hard to answer with “how dare you contest me?”

  6. Aurion*

    I used to work for a guy like this. Honestly, he actually is a nice guy, he just gets frustrated really quickly. So he will curse up a storm when the internet goes down, yes, but he’s mad at the situation and not at you. If you screw up, he will ream you out, but with far less profanity (none that I can recall to me, though I’m not sure for others) than if he was mad at his computer or whatever. (He once threw his iPad across his living room at home and dented the hell out of it because something or other wasn’t working properly. But, he has never sworn at me. And his iPad still worked, surprisingly.) He does know about his temper and the other bosses ribbed him regularly for it and tell him to tone it down when he really starts swearing a blue streak.

    Being the answer to his problems was a solution, albeit a difficult one. He once came to my desk basically saying “Argh I think I did this wrong report is screwed @!*&%!* tirade” and when I said “do you want me to look at the file?” he said “No, I’ll look at it over the weekend #*%&@(#%# grumble” and went back to his desk. I looked in the file anyway, he did do it right, but he needed one specific setting tweak which was why his report wasn’t showing up right. I fixed that and mentioned it to him on the way to the copier, and he was all smiles again.

    That said, while this is a happier version of the Angry Boss, I’m still probably less tense now that I’ve moved onto a different job. I do appreciate the even-keeled temperaments of my current colleagues.

  7. Dulcinea*

    I think things like sighs and eyerolling should be ignored and thought of in the same vein as “resting birch face.” Respond to what your boss actually says and don’t try to perceive or investigate her emotions. So I disagree with Allison’s advice to say thing s like “you seem upset by that, do you want me to handle it differently.” Personally I get annoyed very easily ( emotions aren’t rational) but I strive to always speak politely/rationally.

      1. OriginalYup*

        Eye rolling was coded as a sign of contempt and an early indicator of unhappy marriages in a pretty fascinating research study (google eye rolling + Gottman).

      2. Aurion*

        Resting bitch face is, for the most part, the way one’s face looks like at rest. It’s just that their “neutral” skews mean so they’d have to put in extra effort to look neutral or happy.

        Eye rolling is an action. They’re not the same. You actually have to put in effort to eye roll.

        1. Augusta Sugarbean*

          You actually have to put in effort to eye roll.

          I dunno. It seems to happen automatically to me. (Maybe it’s just my completely dysfunctional workplace?)

        2. Almond Milk Latte*

          ” You actually have to put in effort to eye roll.” Nope. Lots of people have involuntary reactions.

          Anecdote time: First date with my SO, he covers his fries in ketchup – and I find ketchup absolutely disgusting. Completely unbeknownst to me, I looked at him/his fries with utter repulsion. It wasn’t until months later when I made that same face at him ketchupping his fries that he told me my stinkeye was so harsh he thought I’d never call him back.

      3. LQ*

        Why is it that pranks get a pass as a kind of humor but eye rolling as a kind of humor is high treason?

      4. Not So NewReader*

        I have seen eye rolling listed as a bullying tactic.

        I can remember my parents saying to me when I was very young, “Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady.” woof. not good.

        So it connects in my brain when I see someone who does a lot of eye rolls, “DON’T roll your eyes at me!”

        I worked with a person who habitually rolled her eyes at most things. She could not stop. She was even written up for it and the habit just would not die. When I left, she was still rolling her eyes. I should have just said, “grow up”.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I strongly disagree that these are in any way the same category as “resting bitch face.”

      the “resting” is an important part of this. The expression your face settles into on its own when you are concentrating or daydreaming is not an active choice. it doesn’t reflect any inner emotion. (Though onlookers think it does, and that’s why they object)

      Eyerolling is a learned behavior–it’s not natural. Neither is sighing.

      I might agree with you that it’s valid to not respondg to the emotion, and just ignore it. but if it’s hard for you to take, then Alison’s is the approach.

  8. Argh!*

    I have been dealing with a smirking boss. I want to ask “why the smirk?” but I’m afraid of the answer.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes it gets to the point that dealing with it is easier than working around it.

      I have started to deal with this type of thing by waiting for a subject that is relatively benign. Then I’d say, “There’s that half smile again. What’s on your mind?” Again, you want to pick the time when he is talking about the price of gas or some other “safe” subject. If he is talking about how Bob messed up the XYZ report, that is not a good time to start this process.

      I’d point out that “half smile”- because that is a neutral way to say it. Sometimes smirk or similar words can sound like a negative. And I use the word “again” to indicate that I have noticed it before. If the person thinks I have mentioned it before and they forgot, then bonus points for me.

      Then I continue in this vein by mentioning it maybe once a week or every other week. Just kind of wade into the topic. Done carefully and kind of artfully, you can break this one down by drawing it out into the light of day. The problem with the smirk is that you don’t know what is behind it. Not knowing what is behind it, makes the smirk into a weapon. Defuse the weapon by casually mentioning it, but chose your timing carefully. You do not want to ask when the subject is obviously causing upset.

  9. Argh!*

    re: the OP, perhaps the boss is just very intently focused on something and then gets interrupted. It sounds like interruptions are the problem, since the emotions pass quickly. Perhaps a phone call before dropping in would head that off.

  10. Stranger than fiction*

    Coincidentally, I was just checking my Linked in for the first time in a couple months, and I saw that my old angry B boss got a promotion and is a director now. Ugh.

  11. Life after burnout*

    I had one of these bosses. The yelling, the ‘I’m in a very cranky mood today, be warned’, the ‘people say I’m harsh, but I’m just honest’, the need to have a working cystal ball, needing to be a mind reader, dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. Any proactiveness that the boss didn’t tell you to do is met with negativity and getting in trouble for it, not being proactive gets the same treatment. People who resign properly and courteously, happy to work out their notice time get told that they are no longer needed and are told to leave immediately. Staff who legitimately apply for a day off get told that if they apply for a day off ever again they won’t have a job there. The bullying, the harassment, the illegal treatment of staff. What started out as one job quickly turned into trying to do 2 fulltime jobs.

    No wonder I started hiding work on the desk and the computer screen, no wonder my blood pressure shot through the roof and stayed there, no wonder I happily burned that bridge by resigning with half an hour’s notice leaving for medical health reasons, totally pre-empting being thrown off the property.

    I now have found a wonderful job, sure the pay is not much but I am also paid in other, very important ways, such as respect, trust, consideration, appreciation, constructive feedback, training, a career path, being told that there are no silly questions, everyone makes coffee for everyone, mistakes are treated realistically as opportunities for retraining and improvements, where you are expected to take breaks, not arrive too early or work late, where work stays at work. Oh how I love my Job and Manager, I love being paid to go play every day and I love feeling like a fully accepted team member the first week instead of still feeling new after 4 months.

    Bye bye bully boss!!

    1. esra*

      ‘people say I’m harsh, but I’m just honest’

      Strange how those types never value “honesty” in others.

  12. Julia*

    Alison, anyway you can give readers a head up at the start of a question that it is going to link to Inc? The website is blocked on work computer and obnoxious on my phone. I hate reading a question then scrolling down to realize that I can’t read the response. Thank you

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I totally get the sentiment, but I don’t want to discourage people from reading/clicking through to my Inc. articles, since that’s how I get paid for them.

    2. moss*

      If you put your mouse cursor over the link (without clicking), you should be able to see the link’s “target” (where the link will go) at the lower part of your screen.

  13. JC Denton*

    I think my definition of an “angry boss” has shifted over the years. The worst angry one also had a violent temper. Instead of an eye roll, he might tell you to to straight up “eff off.” The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he threw a physical temper tantrum. He struck the wall during a heated argument, denting the drywall. The folks on the other side of the wall came over in a panic, thinking there was something wrong with the building. Imagine their surprise, and later disdain, when they saw what had happened.

    Still. There are days I’d rather have that rage of a boss than have one that’s being passive aggressive. Maybe it was because I had a keen sense of when the angry boss was in a mood and knew how to steer far, far away. You can dodge fists, but it’s really tough to avoid backstabbing.

  14. Willow Sunstar*

    I had a boss who could be a nice guy when he wanted to, but had issues with keeping his temper in front of others. I left that job for an internal promotion. It was not the only reason I left, but it was a factor.

    However, the grass is not always greener. Temper-losing boss has been replaced with coworker with mental problems who screws up a lot and who management refuses to do anything about, even after receiving multiple complaints from internal customers about him.

  15. AyBeeCee*

    Not at work, but I’ve been around someone who does a lot of sighing and eye rolling and grumbling at the computer (or whatever). He would say to just ignore it, but I can’t. Why should the onus be on me to ignore it anyway? I started to think of it as mood pollution and every sigh and grumble is another nasty black cloud floating up into the atmosphere of the room.

  16. University staff*

    Not to provoke people’s funny (sad) stories, but “How to work for an Unreasonable Boss” is like basic job skills in academia, when they’re faculty and you’re not. My current boss is the Magnanimous Dictator type, but the boss before him was an Explosive Dictator. (Academia has a problem with faculty dictators. They aren’t all that bad, but a lot of them are.)

    My solution for working with an Explosive Dictator was never to be alone in a room with him. I went into his office with coworkers, as a group, or we did work in the open bullpen. Shared misery is much better than solo misery, and I always assumed I would need witnesses if, suddenly, I snapped and shouted back at him and got fired. Wow, I am still so bitter about that man.

  17. MissDisplaced*

    My boss is really reactive. The slightest thing will make her roll her eyes and display obvious signs of anger or irritation.

    I read this the other day, but I kept thinking about it. I guess the thing to really evaluate here OP is whether or not your “angry boss” is truly angry AT you, or just AT THINGS in general (things being the workload, noise, calls, angry customers, interruptions, other departments, etc., etc.).

    To me, there is a world of difference.
    If your boss is otherwise decent to you, speaks to you normally, and is a otherwise a fair manager with reasonable expectations, then perhaps you might be overreacting and you could put this down to just being one of her quirks, that while disquieting, is not directed at you personally (heck, might not be about you at all even).

    But again, you just have to take a take a fair assessment of it.
    I’ve had managers do lots of eye rolling, heavy sighs, Grrr-ing, huffing, and slamming down of phones while taking a lot of heat from upper management or customers, all while insulating their team from all that. And yeah, while it’s not always pleasant to hear someone cursing out their computer, it’s frustrating and it happens. I’ve also worked for “exploding” bosses that yell, scream, kick and throw things. Totally different animals.

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