our CEO forgets she approved things and then freaks out on us about it

A reader writes:

I need help managing a forgetful and volatile CEO. I am in a management position in a small company (fewer than 15 people). The CEO insists on approving every aspect of an ongoing, monthly project before anyone begins work on it. While this level of engagement isn’t necessary (and can be detrimental to our final product), I understand that as CEO, it is her prerogative.

While this song and dance can be frustrating, it is manageable. What is not manageable is that once she approves something, she will often forget that she has done so and, a few weeks later, go ballistic about people doing things behind her back and without her permission. What’s worse is that even if we have her approval in writing (think signed paperwork or an email trail), she will insist it never happened, despite having the proof right in front of her. In fact, showing her a signature of approval will often lead to worse outbursts.

Do you or your readers have any experience with this type of situation? I’d love to hear suggestions on how to manage acquiring approvals in a way that is clear, concrete, and doesn’t leave room for screaming outbursts.

Step #1: Work for someone reasonable.

Look, managers forget things. Sometimes a lot. It’s a natural result when you’re juggling a zillion different things and aren’t the person charged with remembering the details of all of them. But that means that you need to lean on your staff to remind you of context and decisions.

Insisting that those conversations never happened once you’ve been reminded of them — in the face of written proof, no less! — goes well beyond “slightly annoying manager” or even “moderately annoying manager.” It’s pathological.

So your issue isn’t really that your CEO is forgetful. It’s that she’s volatile and out of her gourd.

None of the normal things that work with someone who’s merely forgetful will work here. In fact, when you attempt to remind her of context or show her signatures — the usual thing you’d want to do in this situation — she gets more volatile.

You can’t fix that. You can’t really work around it either, other than just knowing that it’s going to happen and assuming that you’re going to be the target of her rages.

If you’re really committed to giving it one more shot, you could try saying this to her (at a time when she’s calm and in a good mood): “I’ve noticed that we’ve been miscommunicating about approvals. Several times recently, I’ve thought that we had your approval on something, including signatures on paperwork, and moved forward with it, but then it turned out later that you didn’t want us to. I definitely don’t want to move projects forward if you’re not fully on board, so is there a better system I could be using?” The keys in this conversation will be (a) avoiding blaming her and instead making it sound like you think there’s something wrong with your system, and (b) finding ways to give her the benefit of the doubt (for example, with the signatures, approaching it as if she just has to sign so many things that of course this confusion is an understandable result). To be clear, this is BS and you shouldn’t have to do it, but if there’s a chance of success here, it lies this way.

But really, she’s fundamentally not able to fill the role she needs to fill, and her temperament is crap. You’ll likely need to accept that this is part of the package of working there if you want to stay.

{ 121 comments… read them below }

  1. NonAnon*

    I’m dealing with something related right now. I moved internally a year ago and when I did so, an approved bonus structure was laid out. Now, a year into it, I’m still fighting for a payout because New Boss doesn’t believe Old Boss approved the bonus despite seeing verified proof. Alison’s comment of “Step #1: Work for someone reasonable.” really resonated with me because I’ve come to realize there’s no way I’m going to change New Boss’s thinking and help them understand 20% of my income is nothing to play around with. If we can’t be reasonable here, we’ll be reasonable elsewhere.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      Not that it helps you now, but the “bonus” part always seems to end up as “optional” and should be considered an extra perk, but not relied on as part of income.

      My husband’s hiring Manager was adamant when he was hired that even though they were only matching his current salary, the annual bonus was 8% and had been 8% even through the Recession so he was *guaranteed* this amount and it was really an increase. He was working for a company with structured bonuses that kept getting “deferred to next quarter” or canceled outright, so he disputed the point, but in the end accepted the job because they would relocate us to where we wanted to be, and matching his Silicon Valley salary in the Midwest was, in reality, a huge raise. He got the bonus the first two years. This year’s bonus has been canceled.

      I hope you can get the money you were promised, and if not, that you can deal with reasonable people elsewhere- ones where your pay doesn’t rely on bonuses!

  2. My 2 Cents*

    I had a boss just like this. He couldn’t remember our conversations so he asked me to put them in writing. I put them in writing so I could show them to him when he forgot and then he got pissed at me for trying to use these to undermine him. He was the worst human being I’ve ever worked for, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

    1. Insert name here*

      My boss would write things himself, give me orders and then got ticked when I followed them! He would be all, “Oh, you saved it to my file!” I had to bite my tongue, instead of screaming “That’s what you told me to do! You wrote it right here! See?” It was nuts. That place was nuts. So glad I’m out of there.

    2. A Jane*

      +1 to this
      I would start to minute any meetings and approvals or decisions from your boss and email them, so you have a record that you can politely point back to when they do this. It could backfire though as she may get cross that you are keeping track of her like this.

      1. Mookie*

        In an early retail job, during training, a supervisor was furious that I was taking notes for basic procedures, passcodes, and so forth, either like I was going to sell their cash register “secrets” and patented floor vacuuming “methods” to a rival green grocer’s or I was taking down “evidence” to document whether or not the supervisor was succeeding at training me. They were offended that I might not remember all the great, impressive things they were saying in a mad rush, great and impressive things that should have been immediately emblazoned on my brain until the end of time (or, y’know, written down somewhere ages before like in an operations manual or some such*). Such an exhausting couple of shifts.

        *I eventually just typed up my notes, and re-organized, printed, and laminated them for everyone

    3. Engineer Girl*

      Reminding someone of previous agreements is never ever undermining them. It is supporting them. It is helping them to keep their promises. It helps them keep a good reputation.

      Anyone that uses the term “undermine’ in this context is not to be trusted.

    4. Tequila Mockingbird*

      “I put them in writing so I could show them to him when he forgot and then he got pissed at me for trying to use these to undermine him.”

      Yes, I had a boss like this once, as well. These types of bosses are NOT merely forgetful; they are manipulative and vindictive.

    5. jaxon*

      Whenever I think about truly awful bosses I’ve had in the past, I thank God that at least they were essentially rational people who never did this kind of thing.

  3. KR*

    My boss doesn’t get mad like yours does, but sometimes my boss will get annoyed or want to know why a member of my crew (I am the intermediate supervisor) does something a certain way when they did it because they were never told to do anything differently or they were told to do specifically that because I didn’t know he didn’t want it done that way. I do get frustrated, but I make my main point “This happened because X was under the impression you wanted that because you said Y. Going forward we can do something different but I can’t say they were wrong to do that because they were doing literally what they were told to do.”

    1. hbc*

      Oh, yes, this drives me up the wall. The boss I have who does this even does it about his office art. He makes you commit to an action or opinion first and then makes you justify it, with the expression that of course *everyone* knows we should close on Good Friday or that these seascapes are about adventure and certainly are not calming.

  4. Bekx*

    I see you work for my former company.

    Get out. She will never change. If she’s anything like my old CEO, she will just progressively get worse and paranoid. Mine believed people were hacking her email and “approving” things without her. When faced with signatures she would just wave her hand and say “Well you must have told me the wrong thing. I didn’t want to sign this. You misled me.”

    Leave. Leave, leave leave leave leave.

    1. LizB*

      The OP doesn’t say what age bracket the CEO is in… but it’s possible that when she became CEO, she was perfectly capable of remembering things, and is now aging and struggling with health problems that have changed the way she functions.

      The OP should definitely get far, far away from this person, though, even if the CEO’s behavior is caused by health issues or other factors that are out of the CEO’s control. This situation sounds intolerable, and it isn’t going to change.

      1. Mabel*

        Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t explain the crazy! (says someone with memory issues who has to write down every damn thing – but I don’t blame others, for Pete’s sake!)

        1. Not A Morning Person*

          Sure it does. There are health issues associated with changes in patience and anger and an inability to control outbursts when frustrated. It’s just that most of us try to come up with what would cause a reasonable person to behave in this way, even when faced with evidence that the person is not a reasonable person. This is actually more common when people who are experiencing declines because of age have it pointed out that they’ve done or not done something they don’t recall. Went through it with my father and my father-in-law, going through it now with my MIL. Not fun. Not going to change.

        2. Risa*

          That’s not necessarily true. Signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia can actually develop into symptoms of paranoia and delusions. During my grandmother’s illness, she accused her life-long love of trying to kill her and tried to push him down the stairs. She accused him of letting people in the house who were stealing from them (when in reality she was mis-placing items). She saw visions of people living in the trees and canal around their house, and thought they were a threat to her. There’s a real side illness called Sundowner’s that can absolutely appear as crazy, but are related to the type of mental deterioration related to memory-loss illnesses (such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia).

          1. Suz*

            Exactly. My grandma had Lewy body dementia. One time she called the police because some children broke into her house and she couldn’t get them to leave. The “children” turned out to be her houseplants.

    2. Manders*

      At a company this small, it’s possible that the CEO was the founder, or that she was reasonably competent when she only had a few people under her supervision.

      I agree that OP should be eyeing the exits.

      1. Beancounter in Texas*

        A former employer of mine started her company from the ground up and grew to about 25 people working for her. The thing is, she was a severe micromanager, trying to micromanage 80+ individual projects that the 25 people juggled, plus land new business. I sincerely believe the stress of trying to do it all is what made her forgetful, and even when faced with irreproachable proof that it was her fault, she’d excuse it as having now changed her mind.

        OP – I don’t think your situation is going to change under this CEO. You can either accept it as it is or leave.

      1. TheAsker!*

        OP here. She did found the company, about 25 years ago. It grew rapidly then took a major hit during the recession and was folded into the small company it is now. She’s in her late 50s.

        1. Manders*

          Oof, yeah, it sounds like this company is her baby AND she’s got some major anxiety about letting any aspect of it out of her control. I don’t think anything you can do will fix it at this point.

  5. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

    Oh my goodness… I would swear this is my former boss, but he was not female and his title was not CEO. He would do the exact same thing, deny that he said/approved/directed me to do certain things then blow up and blame me (called me stupid, lazy and my favorite “easily-confused”). When I lined up several emails from him giving me conflicting due dates for a certain monthly report it was like his eyes were taking in what was right in front of them, but then his brain would just throw out the results. He somehow ended up blaming my “lack of intiative” despite acknowledging the emails right in front of his face. To this day, it was one of the most stunning, flabbergasting things I have witnessed.

    I have no advice except start looking for another position. I know it’s easier said than done, but this person is unreasonable and you can not argue with crazy. This person can (and most likely will) turn on you at any (some) point. There will be no reason or logic for why and no reason or logic can fight it (at least not in a small company with likely no HR or recourse above the CEO).

    1. Bethlam*

      “This person can (and most likely will) turn on you at any (some) point.”

      This. Because “turning on you” could mean firing you out of the blue and bam, you’re caught off guard, no paycheck, no immediate prospects. Start looking and leave on your own terms.

      1. Sas*

        Not sure about this, but think about the review she could give of your work. “Sure, recommendation!” Then, actual recommendation, so and so was awful. This is usually how it happens when describing a manger as you did.

    2. Jadelyn*

      I joke about my father (emotional manipulator extraordinaire) that he somehow has a filter that runs along the timeline about 10 seconds ahead of him so that anything that would disprove his BS never makes it into his brain. Sounds like your former boss has the same sort of thing. The literal ability to just…warp their own reality to contain only things that support whatever they’re currently set on believing.

    1. 2horseygirls*

      I think she actually works for mine.

      I once had a conversation that very literally went 180 degrees from “there is this, that, and the other” to “don’t count on this, that, or the other” in 15 minutes not 3 feet away from my dad. When I asked him if he heard the same thing I did, he said “Huh?” Bless his heart …..

  6. XXC*

    I deal with the same thing and I’m job searching. My supervisor has a brain injury along with a personality issue. She does OK for awhile, but it comes back. Suspect she gets better than goes off whatever type of medication she’s on. Right now I’m dealing with the paranoia & nasty temper cycle.

    If it was a large company I would recommend a mediation. You’re dealing with a serious bottle neck. When a CEO is unapproachable it will effect the final product and cause a high employee turnover.

  7. Althea*

    Also, “Oh, I’m so sorry that I moved it forward. I thought I had your approval but could have been mistaken. What would you like me to do now? Do you want to review this part and make changes?”

    Let the temper roll right over you, yield to it, and try to deflect into a productive direction.

    1. TheAsker!*

      This has been my approach so far. Being combative with someone like her is just asking for trouble.

    2. Mike C.*

      I don’t see how pretending what happened didn’t actually happen and then taking responsibility for it will be a useful, long term solution. It feels like instead of diffusing the situation you’re instead putting a target on your back and giving this CEO a reason to fire you instead.

      /There are four lights, not five.

      1. Construction Safety*

        “There are four lights, not five.”
        Did you ignite the midnight petroleum on that one?

        1. Mike C.*

          No, it’s a Star Trek reference – “Chain of Command, part 2”. What does it mean elsewhere?

            1. Cyberspace Dreamer*

              Since we are trekking here, and referencing memory issues as well, this brings to mind conversation between Sarek and Picard about Pardek. Unification Part I

              Sarek tells Picard that Spock went to see Pardek. By the time the conversation gets toward its end Picard says , “So Spock has gone to see Pardek” Sarek says, “How do you know about Pardek?”
              Picard dignifies him and says, “I”ve heard of him”

            2. Jennifer Needs to Pet a Thneed*

              I’ll just leave this here, shall I?

              Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
              An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
              Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
              Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

              I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
              A singular development of cat communications
              That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
              For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

              A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
              You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
              And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
              It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

              O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
              Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
              And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
              I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

              1. Hrovitnir*

                I love you. (Well, all of you, but I was legit clapping with glee when I saw this episode. What’s not to like?)

      2. Althea*

        Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s a long-term solution. Just a coping strategy. Typically in high-drama situations, I’ll think “what outcome do I want? How do I need to behave to get it?” OP has tried presenting evidence and being assertive, and it yields an outcome of worse outbursts but nothing productive. This strategy can potentially reduce the emotional outbursts and move past them.

        I doubt the CEO would fire people who do this, because it sounds like she does it to everyone. If she fired people who ran headfirst into the her own mistakes, she’d never have any workers. I’d be willing to be the CEO likes working with people who are yes-people in this way.

        It will be great if OP can leave, but not everyone has the freedom to do it, unfortunately.

        1. LBK*

          I get what you’re saying but god, doing that much emotional labor every day sounds exhausting. I’m a big proponent of the “play dumb to let people save face” strategy for one-off situations, but I can’t imagine doing it multiple times a day with the same person. Eventually it’s just insulting to your intelligence.

    3. Marisol*

      That could work with someone who just generally had a jerky attitude, but was still rooted in reality, but what the OP describes is an order of magnitude worse. Sort of like, if I had a boyfriend who was grouchy with me every day when he came home from work, but otherwise was a wonderful person, I might put up with that quirk and/or try to negotiate a change. If I had a boyfriend who beat me? I wouldn’t accommodate that or even engage further. A boss not agreeing with reality is not something you can work around or negotiate with.

      1. Althea*

        I see what you mean, but diffusing the situation by giving way is a strategy that can keep the abused person safe until s/he is able to get away. Assertiveness can be explosive if the other party is unhinged.

      2. Agatha_31*

        Better comparison, if you had a bf who gaslit you. Because which is exactly what this CEO is doing – *literally* rewriting reality in her own favor. Whether it’s deliberate or not doesn’t matter, it’s a bad situation to be in and I hope the OP gets the hell out sooner rather than later.

        1. Agatha_31*

          … in other news, I need to not get distracted mid-reading and forget I’m reading a year-old thread. :P

    4. Tequila Mockingbird*

      “I thought I had your approval but could have been mistaken.”

      Noooo, I don’t agree with this. Don’t admit (potential) fault when the mistake wasn’t yours. Now you’ve planted the seed in her head that you’re incompetent and don’t listen.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah, I only like that strategy with people who can read between the lines (ie you messed up but I’m playing dumb instead of calling you out to keep the conversation friendly and let you save face). I don’t think it’s going to do anything here but make the OP more frustrated and the manager more entrenched in her version of reality.

  8. Mint Julips*

    Just to play devil’s advocate but have you considered that your CEO might be feeling rushed to approve things and then freaking out ’cause she can’t remember.
    I’m not suggesting that you’re rushing her but that she simply has too much on her plate and feels rushed.
    It just seems odd that she’s approving and blanking when she’s faced with it.

    1. TheAsker!*

      Hello! OP here. She’s definitely overwhelmed, but I’m not all that sure it has anything to do with her actual workload. To be perfectly honest, she’s just plain difficult. The work we do isn’t difficult or high-stakes, but it is deadline driven. She just never wants to be in a position where we tell her “no” if she wants to change something on a whim, so she puts off approving anything so she can have that last minute “CHANGE IT ALL” moment if she so desires.

    2. Aurion*

      If she has too much on her plate, the solution is delegating some of it, particularly as OP says CEO doesn’t even need to be involved in this much minutiae.

      But since the CEO is unreasonable, she might not take this tack…

      1. TheAsker!*

        I love this idea, but she insists on being involved in the minutiae. We have a fantastic team and put out a great product, and when it goes out without her input she FREAKS. I don’t think she likes knowing we could do it without her.

        1. Aurion*

          It’s understandable from a small business owner’s perspective (I work for a small business too). If you delegate, even if it’s more efficient, you run the risk of that expertise and institutional knowledge going away should an employee leave. Small business owners usually like to stay really involved in all stages of the business, both because the business is their baby, and because it’s advantageous for them to deeply know all aspects of their business. Trading optimal efficiency for essentially a fallback plan makes sense for them.

          That said, your boss is being unreasonable, and you probably can’t fix this.

        2. Mockingjay*

          Can you cobble together some basic SOPs outlining process steps, schedule, required approvals at designated points? That way, everyone is on the same page and the product/process knowledge is shared.

        3. AFineSpringDay*

          I had a boss like this- the only thing that solved the issue was her passing away.

          Like you said, I don’t think she liked knowing we could work without her – she did not trust any of us to do our jobs without extreme micromanagement, and then would complain she had too much work to do. Yeah.

  9. Turkey Lurkey*

    Okay, not to get political, and delete this if you want. I feel like this is really skilled, high-level shade-throwing and veiled commentary on the first day post-election. “Oh, your Big Boss says one thing and then angrily denies saying that, even when presented with hard evidence? You’re dealing with a crazy person.” A round of applause to you, Ms Manager. :)

      1. Turkey Lurkey*

        Most definitely. I shouldn’t have said anything, and I regret posting that. Didn’t mean to add bitterness to the AMA community.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I love thinking I could be so crafty, but in reality the only reason there are posts at all today is because they were pre-written and pre-scheduled.

      1. Sam*

        I’m not going to lie, I had the same thought. It felt awfully coincidental… Hope you’re doing ok today, Alison.

    2. Megan Schafer*

      There’s still some good advice to be had though – let the negativity roll off and direct it into positive behavior and decisions.

    1. TheAsker!*

      I love the work that I do and I love my coworkers. It feels nice to know that we’re not being unreasonable in our expectations.

      1. 2 Cents*

        A) The work you do could *probably* be found at another place without the tyrannical boss. (Unless it’s something super-specific like space exploration, but heck, even NASA no longer has a monopoly on that!)
        B) Nice coworkers are a huge plus, but this atmosphere sounds really horrible. I left HellJob despite great coworkers who, after I left, became close friends. While we were there, all in the muck together, at no point did anyone begrudge someone else for taking a chance to leave for a new job when we got one.

      2. neverjaunty*

        It doesn’t matter whether you are reasonable or like your co-workers. You have an unreasonable, unstable and abusive boss.

  10. Dave*

    Are the outburst directed at the OP, or colleagues? Is there in punishment rolling down hill? It seems implied, but as written, I COULD read it as the CEO is going crazy about the approvals SHE made and can’t remember the context or why she did something the way she did it. In other words, could it just be that she’s just very public vocal about her own “OMG” moment? Kinda just playing devil’s advocate.

    1. TheAsker!*

      OP here. It’s directed AT us. She thinks we’re making decisions behind her back when we are very much not.

  11. Orangie*

    If you can’t leave immediately, you can try phrasing things differently to smooth the waters in the meantime. With a former boss like that, I would start all conversations with things like, “As you told us last week,” or “like you wanted us to do last time we spoke,” etc. That way, she wouldn’t ask halfway through the conversation why we were doing something. It didn’t remove the crazy, and she still accused me of not understanding what she really said/meant, but I got yelled at less. Which is a plus, I guess? Try not to internalize it and know that she’s the crazy one, not you. Think of it as teambuilding and enjoy the camaraderie of your fellow coworkers (we called our boss Nutso McGee, as in “Guess what Nutso McGee did this time?!”) because you’re never going to change her.

    1. Jess*

      I used to do this when I had a boss similar to OP’s. I had to preface every single thing with, “As we discussed before,” or, “As you requested on Thursday,” or, “Per your email from the third,” or whatever. And when she would freak at me I would stay calm, pull out her signed instructions or a print out of her email, and say, “Okay, you’ve changed your mind and want us to do X instead of Y? No problem. I’ll note the change next to your original instructions and cross out your first request.” I made sure to politely note at every stage that she’d requested X and was changing her mind to Y. It didn’t change anything in her behavior but did make me feel better about the situation.

      I do the same thing now with my preschooler, actually. When she asks for an apple, I hand her the apple, and then she says, “No! I want an orange!” I insist on her saying, “I’ve changed my mind. May I please have an orange instead?” Just for my own sanity.

  12. No, please*

    My last boss was very much like the boss you’ve described, OP. She was diagnosed with dementia. Just something to keep in mind. She could be just a terrible person. My former boss was both terrible and suffering.

  13. Whats In A Name*

    I don’t think this is the case in your scenario considering she is denying evidence in writing and actually signing off on things usually means “Yes, go through with it” but is there any chance she is approving things on a grander scale like “sure, we can get a TV in the waiting room” but isn’t expecting you to purchase it but investigate options and bring her more research to support your case?

  14. Barney Stinson*

    I got a PTSD flashback just reading this.

    I had a boss who was so bad my coworker and I wouldn’t go into her office without each other as backup.

    I had another boss who told me specifically not to do A Thing. I did not do A Thing, per his instructions. When another VP complained about A Thing not being done, I got a horrible, blistering email from Boss wondering why I didn’t do it???

    When I approached my immediate supervisor (who reported directly to Boss) about what to do, she confirmed that yes, I had been told by Boss not to do A Thing, but under no circumstances could we tell Boss he had done so.

    I need to go lie down now.

  15. CM*

    I had a boss like this, except that instead of being angry about things that they didn’t remember approving, they would just ignore any evidence of their prior approval and calmly insist that their current, different approach was the only possible one. It was very odd and frustrating. One thing that helped me was to open the conversation with, “Thanks for your comments on this project, they were really helpful. I implemented your three suggestions, which were A, B, and C. Here’s the final version, which is the same as the one that you approved on Tuesday.” This is tougher in your situation since it seems like your CEO comes at you out of nowhere, but if you can identify the types of things that tend to set her off, you could try to head her off the pass using this technique.

  16. 2 Cents*

    In the meantime, when she’s blowing up about “why were these changes made!?” maybe instead of saying “you approved them,” you can say “what would you like to see done differently?” (As in, what change I make different on these changes [that you approved] that are obviously not what you want now.) In other words, appease … while you’re job hunting.

    I know very few people could do this with a higher-up and still have a job, but if someone started screaming like that, I’d be tempted to just walk away, and if questioned, say, “I’ll be back when you’ve calmed down.”

  17. Imaginary Number*

    While I agree that step #1 is ideal, it’s not always feasible. I’ve completely been there before with this type of manager and I can say that Allison’s second advice works really really well. This kind of person generally isn’t looking to actually blame you for something that’s obviously not your fault: they just want to do anything and everything to avoid blaming themselves. The good news is that, if leaving isn’t an option, they can be surprisingly easy to work with so long as you allow them to live in that bubble where thinks aren’t ever actually their fault. Yes, that means being manipulative towards your CEO. But in this case, she probably wants to be manipulated.

    1. Not A Morning Person*

      Yes, I’ve seen people like this be quite charming as long as they are right and can blame the failure on other circumstances, even when the circumstances they use to place the blame are along the lines of “it was little green men from Mars.”

  18. Uyulala*

    She is following the code of a great philosopher: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

  19. Tequila Mockingbird*

    I once had a boss like this. I only worked for him for 18 months.

    Small law firm – I was an associate and he was the (only) partner.

    He once asked me to draft a fee agreement for our client’s share of Special Master fees, which I did; he approved the filing and noted it in the monthly status letter to the client.

    A month later, he calls me into his office screaming “WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT?” and tossed the fee agreement at me. He claimed he had NO knowledge of it, did not agree to it, and demanded that I draft a motion to the court to rescind the agreement on the grounds of it having been filed without his consent. Considering that he HAD consented (and even co-signed) the agreement on file with the court, if I had asked the court to rescind it, I’d be committing perjury. I refused to draft the motion. I was gone from the firm soon after that.

    OP, you need to get out of there. Now.

  20. Jill*

    I had a boss like this too. Except she purposely didn’t use email or IM to avoid creating records of conversations. That, of course, had the added bonus of enabling her to gaslight the heck out of her staff. She’d actually brag about doing that to other people. I got to the point where I actually journaled EVERY interaction with her for no other reason than to keep myself from going insane wondering if I really did hear her wrong or misunderstand.

    I coped by accepting that she was insane….and by working on my MBA on the side in the hopes of being able to leave that position. But I agree with AAM – behavior like that of the OP’s boss is not just mere forgetfulness. She’s either pathalogically manipulative or she may have a developing mental illness. Either way typical “managing your boss” strategies won’t work, I’m afraid.

    1. DragoCucina*

      Did we work for the same person? Gah! I made sure I had a witness for every conversation. When she would rant “Why did Drago do this?!” They would say, “Because you told her to.” She never wanted an email, would lose notes, etc. I found my mail in her recycling bin. (I found it when she was out and I was taking the bin to empty. Oh, she received X professional magazine. I didn’t receive my copy. Wait! This is my copy. And this, and this, and this.)

      I took a lesser paying job just to get away from her. Fortunately it forced her to announce her retirement. When I came back as the ED I discovered I’d been doing 90% of her job already.

  21. AnonTrain*

    This brings back memories and not the good type. Working for someone or being with someone who cannot accept responsibility for their actions can be emotionally and mentally damaging.

    My former boss was a Nutball who would assign and approve things via e-mail. I have many e-mails from him telling me to do a, b and then c. I always responded to these emails by confirming what he had written, in my own words, and getting a second approval. Never, not once, in the 3 years that I worked for him did he ever admit to being wrong or responsible for anything. If something failed, he would claim that his instructions weren’t followed. When confronted with his written approval, he would rage and cuss and clown and then claim that we were trying to undermine him. There was nothing physically or mentally wrong with him. He was an asshole who believed that he was never wrong.

    I stayed too long because of the economy and that I liked my coworkers and the work that I did and I paid a hefty price emotionally, mentally and financially. It also almost destroyed my career and definitely killed my joy. If you won’t or can’t leave, document everything. It will not protect you but it will help your sanity. I brought a copy of one the worse emails he sent and I keep it (redacted) at my desk to remind me why I left my former employer.

    Once again, if possible, run just run.

  22. Alexandra*

    My boss occasionally does something similar. While I don’t need her approval on most things, I do often ask for her advice when I come upon situations I haven’t dealt with before, or if I’m encountering a problem that might have budget implications (she is in charge of the budget, and I don’t really have much to do with that). It has also come up in terms of training. She will ask us to do things one way, many months will pass, and then she will have a fit because really it should have been done another way. Even when everyone on the team affirms that they have been trained the same way, she will cast this as our failing rather than hers.

    Another situation came up where I was sure we had dealt with X rare situation in the past one way, and so when I was talking to her about a similar situation and shared that we had done it in that way in the past, she ridiculed me and shouted over me in my attempts to get clarification from her. (NO WE DON’T DO THINGS THAT WAY. IT DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!!!!!) I knew why she thought what she thought, but she wouldn’t even have a conversation about it.

    I don’t think people like this are possible to change. I think these reactions come from deep insecurity–the fear that admitting a mistake, a fault, a lapse in understanding will make you appear weak. This characteristic is incompatible with good leadership.

  23. Zona the Great*

    Does anyone else absolutely refuse to allow such treatment? I understand that by reacting in the way I am about to describe can likely lead to loss of job and a bad reputation but I wonder if anyone else set themselves up the way I do:

    I have only had two instances of gross abuse of power and basic poor treatment. One was a boss who had serious emotional problems and often freaked out on us for opening the door to the business because she had allergies that day. I simply don’t allow such treatment. I put my hand up (yes basically in her face) as if to say, “nope. Immediately change the trajectory you are on”. In one particular instance of serious abuse, I had to puff myself up, stand up close to her, and say, “you are absolutely never, ever welcome to speak to me that way. Do you understand?” She immediately backed down but I would have done the same thing had she not backed down. I wouldn’t have regretted it even if she fired me. Now, I understand that that is not realistic–I don’t have kids and I have about a year’s salary in savings. But man, when do we draw the line and not worry about what is professional or not? I believe standing up to such abuse trumps professionalism.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m right there with you on that, when people feel they can afford to do it.

      I’d argue it’s not even particularly unprofessional. It’s assertive and appropriate.

  24. Grass is Blue*

    Been there. Done that. Years ago I worked for an attorney who was a textbook crazymaking person. (It’s a thing. Google it.) She would tell you “grass is green,” so OK, let’s do everything under the assumption grass is green. Then the next day (or the next hour), she would suddenly decide grass was NOT green, it was blue. So you change everything up, grass is blue, that’s cool. Only the next thing you know, grass is green again, in fact it’s always been green, and she wants to know why they hell you thought grass was blue. And “because you told me” never worked, of course. She never admitted it; you could have it in writing, or on video, or have a million witnesses, it didn’t matter. “You misunderstood. I never told you grass was blue. You are wrong.” It was always, always, always my fault. And I was young and stupid and didn’t know enough to walk away from her mess. Don’t waste another minute working for this kind of crazy. Run.

    1. Jess*

      You’ve just described my thesis adviser. Eventually the department chair actually had to intervene in how she was treating me.

  25. LeRainDrop*

    [i]”What’s worse is that even if we have her approval in writing (think signed paperwork or an email trail), she will insist it never happened, despite having the proof right in front of her. In fact, showing her a signature of approval will often lead to worse outbursts.”[/i]

    I worked for a partner at my old law firm who did this exact behavior, too. Her response to the written proof was that she didn’t remember it, and “perception is reality.” We were like, “no, reality is reality!” Anyway, she was also quite abusive and spiraling out of control, ultimately ending in her resignation. Had she stayed, I had active plans to quit. Of course, she was not the CEO level, so I think the OP’s situation and the chance that his CEO will just resign is probably worse.

  26. Kara*

    I had an ex boss who was similar. One week, things need to be done ABC, the next week it would be changed to ZYX, and if I did it one of the prior ways, I was an idiot who should never have been hired in the first place. Showing him an email trail just made him madder. I wasn’t the only one he’d do this to, just one of many, including the other business partners. The paranoia and behaviors got worse and worse over the 6 months I worked there. It escalated to the point where the police had to be called in to extract him from his office. He had barred himself in there one Friday night and did not leave all weekend. On Monday when we got to work, he started screaming obscenities and threatening to kill himself. The police were called, the building was evacuated and I started looking for a new job.

  27. Donna*

    I don’t agree with calling the CEO ‘crazy’ or a lunatic. Mental illness is one thing, and being irrational and behaving badly is another – to use the two interchangeably only serves to perpetuate the stigma that people with mental illnesses face every day.

    I love your site but the language used in this post make me feel unwelcome.

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