how can I stop being afraid every time my manager wants to talk to me?

This post is a reprint of one that was originally published in 2014, because I went on vacation this weekend.

A reader writes:

How do you get over “the fear” when a manager wants to talk to you?

In jobs I’ve had before my current position, managers only contacted you when they wanted to moan about something – which was a lot of the time. As a result, I dreaded every time my manager called or emailed, knowing that I’d be in the wrong about something. Even procedural changes we would have had no other way of knowing about were expressed as “you’re doing procedure X the wrong way, it needs to be done this way now” rather than “there’s been an update to procedure X – you should now be doing Y then Z, rather than A and B as before.”

When I left there I was incredibly relieved, but 4 months into my new job and I still can’t shake the feeling that every time a manager wants to talk to me, it’s to give me a dressing down about something. As a result, I enter into these conversations with an automatic “what I have I done wrong?” fear. Thing is – there’s no reason for me to be so defensive. I’m 4 months into my current job and not once have I been taken to task about anything. I’ve made some mistakes, but these have been gently pointed out to me for me to fix with no malice or anger. But I just can’t seem to get out of the habit/attitude/fear that anytime a manager speaks to me it’s because I’m in trouble. Do you have any practical tips on how to stop feeling like this, or will it just come with time?

Well, first, it’s really common to carry dysfunction from a previous job forward with you into the next one. It’s similar to what people sometimes do in relationships too — carrying toxic patterns from their family or past relationships forward into relationships with new people.

In fact, this is one more reason why it’s important not to let yourself stay too long in dysfunctional workplaces. If you spend too long there, they can reset all your ideas of “normal” in some pretty messed-up ways. And that can hurt you professionally, just like the relationship version can hurt you personally. For instance, if you work somewhere that always shoots the messenger and punishes dissent, you might get used to keeping your head down, never speaking up, and even covering up mistakes when they happen. And that behavior might serve you very well in that job. But if you move to a healthier workplace, that same behavior that worked previously could be hugely damaging. So it’s key to recognize this stuff for what it is, and not let it permanently recalibrate your sense of normal.

(I actually see versions of this in the comments here sometimes, when someone will comment that you should never confide in a manager, or that managers will always seek to pay you less than what you’re worth, or so forth. That kind of thing is true of some managers, not all, and when people think it’s universal, it’s often because they’ve had a string of really horrible work experiences.)

Anyway, back to you and the fear you’re carrying around from your old workplace. I’d do three things:

1. Recognize that fear response for what it is — a specific reaction that developed from a specific situation that you’re no longer in. It sounds like you get this intellectually, but not on an emotional level. So spend some time really thinking about where it came from, and the fact that it’s no longer the case.

2. Think about what evidence you have about your new manager. How have you seen her act? How does she handle mistakes? What kind of feedback does she give you? How does she give it? What kinds of things does she call you into her office to talk about? Spend some time really dwelling on this, because you need the answers to these questions to lodge themselves firmly enough in your mind that the reality of what you’re seeing and experiencing won’t get so easily displaced by the fear response that got wired into you at your old job.

3. Make a conscious effort to refer back to this evidence when you’re having a fear reaction. The next time your manager wants to talk to you and you feel your stomach seize up, remind yourself that the last time she called you into her office it was to give you a new assignment, and the time before that it was to show you a funny email, and when she has had to correct your work, she’s done it with kindness and respect, and last week she told you she was thrilled with your work so far.

Doing the three things above — and continuing to do them, thoughtfully and deliberately — should speed up the time that it will take to recalibrate yourself. It won’t happen overnight, but it should happen in time, and it should prevent you from getting stuck in habits that no longer serve you well.

And hey, congratulations on getting yourself out of a cesspool of ick and into somewhere that sounds a lot better.

{ 110 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily in NYC*

    I needed this today, thanks Alison. I manage my boss’ calendar and she’s been marking a bunch of meetings as “private” lately, which makes me panic and decide that she’s getting ready to fire me. I get good reviews from her and have no reason to worry; I know I’m just projecting from a previous situation. And there’s lots of high-level re-structuring going on, which is probably the reason she’s marking things as private. I am usually able to “talk myself down” by using logic, but there’s always that little gut feeling of pointless fear.

    1. MWKate*

      I always worry about those ‘Private’ labels too. We’re also going through a restructuring/new exec management process so I’m guessing that’s a lot of it.

      Also – I tend to put certain personal things as private on my calendar such as Dr. Appts, yet I never think to assume that’s what she’s doing.

        1. PatPat*

          My big boss, someone who never has a need to speak to me in the course of our business, came and got me and said, “Mrs. PatPat, I need to speak to you.” She pulled me into the HR lady’s office and shut the door. I was scared to death, particularly because she called me “Mrs.” when out office is very informal. Big boss is terrifying in the best of circumstances but here I was shut in a room with her and the HR lady so I thought maybe I was getting fired. But instead she told me they were converting me from a contract employee to a permanent employee with benefits. Such relief!

      1. DC*

        Oh, good, I thought it was just me. I also really needed this, thank you to everyone who is helping me realize it’s not just me!

      2. I used to be Murphy*

        This is why I always, always shut the door when I’m meeting with my staff. Then it’s just normal (I blame it on my loud voice) and no on gossips when they seem me in a closed office with a staff member.

        1. LQ*

          I think this is such a good idea, to regularly (though I don’t know that it always has to happen, but I’d say all of the formal meetings it helps) shut the door. My boss does it all the time and it really helps, close the door isn’t a bad thing. Though the person who used to say close the door and I’d get all excited because we had a shiny new exciting project to work on that wasn’t public yet has left. But for a while when someone said close the door I’d be like oooo! Yay! That’s a good place to be.

        2. Koko*

          It’s definitely part of the culture here that people with private offices close their door whenever they’re meeting with someone (or on a phone call) as a courtesy to people without private offices whose cubicles are nearby and would otherwise have to ignore the noise. Leaving a door open while yakking away is seen as very rude.

    2. V*

      I use the private function for all of my personal appointments – doctor/dentist/vet appointments, lunch with friends, reminder to call my tax person, etc. My life got a lot easier to manage when I decided that the loss of privacy I give up by using my work calendar for personal appointments was far outweighed by the ease of using one central calendar rather than trying to coordinate separate work and personal calendars. Perhaps your boss recently came to the same conclusion.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        She really only uses them for things she doesn’t want anyone to see – her calendar is viewable by our entire team, which is not the norm here, so she marks sensitive work meetings as private. She doesn’t mark personal appointments as private; she doesn’t care if we see them.

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I really needed this too! My boss has been nothing but supportive and complimentary to me, but the lingering effects of OldJob are so hard to shake.

      1. Life is Good*

        Oh my, did I ever need this, too! I have been with a dream company the last nearly eight months after having worked for what became a horrible workplace after the old company was sold. I worked there for a total of 16 years (3 of which were for the new company) and people I thought I knew very well, managers included, turned very ugly towards co-workers/reports because of fear of job loss. It’s sometimes really hard to trust that the new boss has my best interest at heart, even though I know this place is normal and he is a good leader. AAM’s advice is spot on.

        1. Clewgarnet*

          I’ve managed to get over the worst of the Toxic Boss Syndrome, but when my lovely manager announced he was leaving last year, I hit an absolute panic spiral. Thankfully, his replacement is even better – so much so that I half-suspect he reads AAM!

    4. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

      When I got pregnant and wasn’t ready to tell everyone yet all my Dictor’s appointments were marked private. I also have when household bills are due and my husband’s work schedule/Drs appointments as private. Sometimes it is just easier to merge the household and work calendars!

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Ha, I have actually wondered if she’s pregnant lately. But I am positive these are internal work meetings because she doesn’t leave the office for them. I should follow her next time to see where she goes! (just kidding)

    5. Jesmlet*

      I so needed this too. Whenever the owner of the company wants to talk to someone about things privately, he takes them out for lunch. This has been happening quite a bit in our office lately and it’s with everyone but me so I’m feeling super paranoid. I know logically it’s more to do with them since I get good feedback and there’s only been one thing I half dropped the ball on since I started here a year ago but my insecurities from my last job are just getting to me lately. Former passive aggressive boss at first post-college job will probably always stick with me in some way.

  2. Snarkus Aurelius*

    A former friend of mine had a boss who never gave her any feedback until her annual review. My ex-friend told me that her boss literally went down a list of concerns written down, and 90% of the time my ex-friend had no idea what her boss was talking about. Complaints were usually about stuff in-the-moment, not necessarily overall patterns. Plus reviews were done in October, and my ex-friend was an event planner so the bulk of her substantive work was done 6-9 months before that, hence not having a clue.

    Oh and my ex-friend never got a bonus either. Ever. It was a department of seven people. No one got bonuses except for one long-time employee/BFF of the boss. I figured that was the rationale for never having to give a bonus.

    1. Midge*

      My manager wasn’t as bad as that, but she definitely had a habit of giving me feedback long after she should have. For example, over a period of about 4 months I had been regularly pulling a few hours of overtime each week to manage my high workload. I was hourly, so my boss signed my timesheet each week. Finally, one day out of the blue she told me that my overtime hours were “killing” our department’s budget. It was so frustrating because I ended up feeling guilty for doing something wrong for several months without knowing it, as well as for doing something that might have negatively impacted the department. I’m so glad to be out of that environment!

      1. JessaB*

        I would not be a happy person, and I’d probably get in huge trouble for snarking back at the boss “you signed my timesheets, you made ZERO comment about the hours on them, how in heck am I supposed to know you didn’t like me doing overtime? Do your darned job okay and do not blame me for your error of not stopping it on the first timesheet a la “I see you have four hours of OT going forward we can’t have that. This is why and let’s talk about prioritising work so you don’t need to work over.” You do NOT get to blame me for this.”

        Sorry but this is 100% boss failure here. I used to SIGN timesheets, and the main thing you do is check how many hours. If you do NOTHING else you have to verify hours.

        Heck I got in trouble once for almost signing off on leave the employee was not to have. IE marking unexcused leave as excused. I was very new. The boss was at least checking my stuff and she brought me over and showed me, the employee gets paid, but its unexcused leave and they get dinged for that because they’ve been TOLD do not do that. Which is why when I was a baby sup, the boss checked my stuff.

    2. Ann Furthermore*

      I had a manger that did this once too. I worked for him for about 6 months, and we did not hit it off. At all. There was a definite personality clash, there were some things I handled badly, and some things he handled badly. Plus I was pregnant at the time, and it was a high-risk pregnancy to boot, so I was much more high-stung and emotional than I am normally. So I’m sure managing me at that particular time wasn’t always easy or pleasant, which contributed to the tension as well. But he really was a tool in a lot of ways.

      When it came time for my review, it was the same thing — a long laundry list of all the things I’d done wrong, and some of them were things that had happened months before, and many of them were things he should have addressed at the time they happened, instead of stockpiling them to use in an ambush during my review. I’ve never had a performance appraisal like that, before or since. If someone is screwing something up, how are they supposed to know about it, and have an opportunity to fix it, if you don’t say anything? He had no good answer. I refused to sign that review, and went to HR, but of course they sided with him (even though many other people in my group had similar experiences). Even though I pointed out that my reviews up to that point had always been very positive, and asked if all of a sudden one saying, basically, “Ann is the worst employee in the history of the world, plus she’s always late, and she hates puppies too,” wasn’t something that at least warranted a raised eyebrow, they wouldn’t budge.

      My last boss was great about letting you know when you needed to fix something. She mentioned to me once that my internet usage was a bit excessive, and she was right. I had a lot of very stressful and emotional stuff going on in my personal life at that time, the most stressful being that we’d gotten an offer on our old house, and were having no luck finding a new one and kept being outbid. I was having visions of my children being homeless, my obsessive nature overtook me, and I was logging onto the internet multiple times a day to look for houses. She brought it to my attention, I addressed it, and that was it. It didn’t even come up during my review that year. But even with her, I’d get the low-level “uh oh” feeling when she’d ask me to come to her desk or wanted to talk to me.

      My current boss (and I’m about 4 1/2 months into working for her) is also great about this kind stuff. She puts it all out there and isn’t shy about letting you know what she’s thinking. But then she moves past it, or if she feels like she was too harsh, she’ll apologize. Like one morning she called me while I was driving into the office, freaking out because our remote team had not started working on a project I’m managing. “Why isn’t anyone working??? What’s going on???” I explained things, and we talked things through. She understood the situation when we hung up. And then when I got to the office she came over to my desk and apologized for yelling at me, and gave me a hug. LOL. I didn’t even really consider it yelling, but it was nice of her to do that anyway.

  3. larz*

    I worry a LOT about this. My current workplace (of three years) is pretty dysfunctional, and even though I’m aware of it, I know it’s impacting me in ways I have yet to realize. My therapist says it sounds like my boss is abusive, in the “if you work really hard, there’s this opportunity OOPS it never materializes” kind of way. Desperately seeking escape!

    1. Pup Seal*

      It’s good that you have a therapist helping you out! Hopefully when you get a new (and better) job, your therapist can help you get rid of any bad habits you picked up from your current dysfunctional workplace.

    2. Cassandra*

      uuuuuuuuugh “jam tomorrow but never jam today” situations are kind of the worst.

      Hope you get out soon!

    3. Parenthetically*

      “if you work really hard, there’s this opportunity OOPS it never materializes”

      This has been my brother’s life for about the last 8 years. It sucks so much. Sympathies to you!

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    I know this letter is a bit old, but I wanted to recommend Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback (which I think was released after the original letter was first published). It’s really helpful for identifying what might trigger you in a conversation, how to distinguish good from bad feedback, what to do with unreasonable feedback, and concrete strategies for interrupting the panic-cycle.

    When I worked at ToxicJob, something I noticed early on was that everyone seemed to react really poorly to any kind of feedback—I remember telling a friend that the “vibe” was as though everyone had experienced emotional abuse but received no counseling or other support to get out of that loop. What I later learned was that, like OP, managers had a practice of hiding the ball and then reaming people for problems or issues that that person had no way of knowing ahead of time. And oftentimes that feedback was really nasty (questioning a person’s competence, integrity, values relating to diversity/identity, etc.). By the time I left, I was in the same boat as my coworkers had been, and it took me about nine months to “reset” my expectations re: being called into my manager’s office.

    Which is a long way to say that although this isn’t ok, it’s also common enough that it’s ok to identify what’s happening and cut yourself slack. Try to work on resetting your framework, but be kind to yourself and give yourself time to do that. And if your manager notices that you seem terrified and mentions it, it’s also ok to explain that you’re coming from a workplace where feedback was always severe/critical, and that you’re actively working to recalibrate.

    1. Sarah in Boston*

      I love that book! I’ve been lucky enough to do some workshops with Sheila and meet her in a small group. That book has literally been life changing for me.

  5. Rincat*

    I really needed this today and all of the linked articles! I’m about 6 weeks into a new job after spending 7 years in my last job. It wasn’t always terrible, but eventually it just got worse and worse and it was time for me to get out. I’m so much happier at my new job but having to get over a lot of these fears. Something that helps me when I get that gut reaction is to tell myself, “It’s just a feeling, it’s not reality.” That helps me give a name to my reaction and process it in a more constructive way, instead of it just looming large in my mind.

  6. Emi.*

    I totally sympathize! Touching on Alison’s first point, here’s what helps me: I try to consciously notice when I’m starting to feel anxious, and then separate the feeling from my beliefs about reality–in this case, my expectations for the meeting. I can recognize “Oh, there’s that feeling in my stomach again,” and then remind myself that the anxious stomach feeling doesn’t give me any better information about the meeting than the hungry stomach feeling does. It gives me some information about my own emotional state, but it doesn’t tell me whether I’m about to get yelled at, and I can choose to ignore it. With practice, you can translate, “Oh no everything’s terrible” into “Ah-hah, I am feeling anxious, but I am going to do the thing anyway.”

    On a related note, cognitive behavioural therapy workbooks are great.

    1. Parenthetically*

      This is great! And ooohhh CBT workbooks?? Any in particular you’d recommend? I would love to do CBT but just plain do not have the cashflow right now — it’d be great to have a lower-cost option!

      1. Emi.*

        I bought The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne, because I figured they wouldn’t have put out so many editions if it were rubbish, but I kinda wish I’d gotten something that focused more on general anxiety instead of phobias. You can look inside a lot of different ones on Amazon, so I’d recommend checking out the tables of contents to see what they all cover.

        Good luck! You definitely have to practice, not just read and understand, but it’s been helping me. :)

    2. Greg*

      Yes! Was going to comment that Alison’s recommendation was essentially a form of CBT (recognizing negative thoughts and evaluating them against reality as a way of defusing anxiety).

    3. Marillenbaum*

      That’s a brilliant point. I occasionally deal with heart-racing anxiety, and one thing I’ve found helpful is going for a brisk walk to another part of the office and back–grab some Post-its or whatever. Instead of trying to calm down (which has never in my life actually calmed me down), I give my heart a reason to be beating so fast, which actually helps a lot.

  7. Pup Seal*

    I’m going to need this post the day I finally get a new job. I know I have a lot of toxic habits and thinking patterns from my current dysfunctional job. It’s a struggle to remind yourself that these patterns aren’t normal when they reoccur every single day. From the past two years my job has taught me:

    -It’s okay to smudge the financials. No one’s looking at the 990’s anyway.
    -Being underpaid is fine. Paycuts are normal too. And raises? What are those?
    -There’s no need for transparency between employer and employees.
    -Don’t work too hard. Your employer will ditch this project tomorrow and switch focuses for the hundredth time, and all that hard work you did for the past month will just go to waste.
    -Loyalty to your employer is more important than your happiness at your job. If you consider leaving your employer for a better opportunity then you’re not a good person.
    -You should never bring up concerns to your employer. If you do then you’re an emotional person. You should always do your job with a smile.
    -You may have 10 sick days a year, but you better not use them.
    -It’s perfectly normal to have no work budget, many frozen accounts, and basically no money at all. Sure, we all been thinking, “Are we going to lose our jobs?” every week, but it hasn’t happened yet.
    -You should never reward your employees with donuts or cupcakes because that’s just inappropriate.

    1. Bonky*

      Ouch, ouch, ouch. Congratulations on escaping the Skullcrusher Mountain workforce. I hope your new place treats you a lot better.

      1. Pup Seal*

        Ha, I’m still at Skullcrucher Mountain (Love the name!). Still trying to get out. Sorry about not making it clear.

      2. knitcrazybooknut*

        To quote the song, “What’s with all the screaming?”

        Please know that there are better workplaces out there, and you deserve to be working somewhere amazing.

        1. Pup Seal*

          I believe the rationale was something on the lines that it wasn’t professional. How is it unprofessional? That I don’t know.

    2. Anon for This Comment*

      Last job taught me to just forge people’s signatures on legal documents for convenience. Like, if I needed something re-signed due to changes, it was easier to just let them know about the change and not about needing a new signature and sign their names for them, or use an old signature. It avoided all the yelling and complaining from everyone, including my boss.

      I’m not excusing or justifying my actions, I know how reprehensible forgery is. But it was tough to unlearn “if you mess up don’t tell anyone, and fudge it until it looks right.”

  8. Bonky*

    On the “Will it just come with time?” question, there’s not really any firm answer: it’s going to depend a lot on the manager and on the person being managed. One of the people I manage was recruited last year from a pretty dysfunctional workplace. She spent the first several months of her new job…twitchy. I give a lot of feedback, both in weekly meetings and as an ongoing practice, and I check in a lot with my team. This meant we were able to talk about it and work on the issue, I gave her some coaching and she’s now perfectly comfortable – which is great. All in all, I’d say it took about six months for her to feel safe and settled.

    Then again, there are some people who’ve been badly bruised in previous jobs, or by upbringing, or something else, and who find it very hard to get to a good place even with help and support. Another of my direct reports is wonderful, and we’ve worked together for five years now; we have a great rapport, and again, there’s consistent feedback and a good, trusting relationship. Nevertheless, she’s still scared to death by meetings which I or someone else above her in the hierarchy call if she doesn’t know exactly what they’re about. She’s a former OCD sufferer, which she thinks may have something to do with it.

    It’s my job as her manager to ameliorate this stuff as best I can, so she will never be invited to a meeting with me without my telling her what it’s about, and I can usually get colleagues who invite her to meetings to explain what they want without letting on the reason she might need to know. (She likes to make sure she’s thoroughly briefed and prepared before meetings! She wants to be able to bring examples from similar projects she’s worked on!) Again, we talk about it, I’ve done my best at coaching, and we continue to work on the problem (and a few associated things that come from a similar place); but it doesn’t affect the excellent job she does. It *does* affect her happiness in the workplace, which is why I keep working on this stuff with her; we’re gradually getting there with some other issues she’s had, so I’ll keep persevering.

    1. Important Moi*

      How did you find out the employee was from a dysfunctional workplace? Did she address it by bringing it up to you, her new manager, in a meeting? Was it mentioned during the interview process? Did she bad mouth her previous employer? Did you think 6 month was too long for employee to feel safe and settled? Did this affect her interactions other employees?

      I’m always looking for language I could use in various situations. You sound like a great manager.

      1. Bonky*

        I noticed she was really uncomfortable, and brought it up about six weeks in, in a nice safe environment (we’ve got office membership of a nearby botanical garden, and I took her there one sunny lunch hour to show her how the weirdy corporate admission thing works and have a picnic lunch). When I brought up that I was worried I was making her uncomfortable, having noticed her getting quite anxious before meetings, she was really forthcoming about how much she was enjoying the role and what a contrast it was to her old toxicjob – which made my job much easier. She’d already had lots and lots of supportive (and mostly excellent) feedback in the role, so this wasn’t a weird conversation.

        She didn’t exactly badmouth her former employer, but she did give some concrete examples of things they’d done to wrongfoot her and her former colleagues (the “being hit with bad feedback about something you had no clue about that happened months ago and it being REALLY SERIOUS” thing that a lot of people are mentioning upthread was something she brought up, alongside some pretty outrageous blamestorming and what sounded like a bullying superior who picked fault in others to cover up his own messes). Concrete examples are helpful for me, because I’m able to describe how a situation like that would pan out in our workplace – I think that’s the most important piece of advice I can give you.

        It didn’t come out at interview; it would not have been a black mark if it had, but it’s important to think about how you’re presenting information like this if you do want to bring it up at interview (genuine unhappiness can sound like high maintenance if you’re not nuanced). Again, describe real experiences rather than a general vibe; this is so much more helpful for the person managing you. If you’re asked a behavioural question in an interview about the sort of things you find difficult in a workplace/manager, answer honestly, and with examples.

        Her interactions with other employees have been fabulous all along – no problems there. And I thought six months was pretty quick, given the head-spinning contrast between the two workplaces. Like I say, I work with really high performers who have been working on this stuff for years, and still haven’t reconciled it.

        My approach to this (and, honestly, to most line management) is that it’s about making people happy in their roles, and as comfortable as they can be working with me and in our organisation. Everybody’s more productive and more satisfied that way.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This is awesome, Bonky—both as guidance for how managers can notice and raise these issues in a non-blaming, constructive manner, and as an example of how to help someone reset quickly and effectively. Thank you for sharing it.

        2. fposte*

          This is an incredibly useful story, Bonky. What I also like is that you are considering her whole contribution here and noting that this is a valuable employee.

    2. Somniloquist*

      As someone who’s in the home stretch of getting away from twitchiness, thank you so much for doing this! What you are doing is fantastic!

  9. Channel Z*

    Reinforcement is so powerful! I was fortunate that I had a great work experience in my first job. That didn’t stop me from being nervous at first every time there was a meeting, especially speaking in front of the group. They actually sent me on a training course (Dale Carnegie) to help me out, and it did help along with general positivity along the way. It has helped me to know when my next job didn’t go quite so well.

  10. PK*

    This is very much my response when authority figures approach me that is due to an overly strict father. There’s just this constant sense of nervousness/fear surrounding authority and it leaks over into all aspects of my life. Unfortunately, I think it has affected my career because I really struggle in basic interactions with people above me. I can’t shake the nerves even though I consistently get recognized for top notch work. I don’t have any real reason to fear management but irrational fears don’t need a reason of course. Thanks for the suggestions!

  11. CrazyCatLady*

    My last toxic job also gave me some issues that have been hard to shake. I’ve been afraid to put in vacation time requests because my previous boss would deny everyone’s requests all the time for no good reason. I ended up leaving that job because I was burning out due to crazy amounts of OT required and vacation time refused. I now have a super supportive boss who won’t deny anything, but I just can’t shake the anxiety.

  12. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

    I have an employee who came from a very dysfunctional work environment. She has this same fear – she mentioned it in passing during her first few months with me. I’m so glad she did, because this is something I can nip right in the bud by re-framing how I approach meetings with her. Sometimes it’s a quick “nothing wrong/bad!” Attached to a message to stop by my desk, sometimes it’s just an agenda included that makes the purpose of the meeting nice and clear. She has been with me for two years now and is one of my top employees.

    Part of being a manager is knowing you can’t always manage everyone the same. If your manager now seems to be someone you could approach with this, letting them know you are aware this is not a normal reaction and you are working on it might prompt them to ask how they can help/be a little more aware that their requests to meet cause unindented effects.

    1. Important Moi*

      How did she mention coming from a very dysfunctional work environment without that negatively affecting your opinion of her?

      How does a manager/interviewer differentiate between badmouthing a former employer vs. describing your previous employer as a dysfunctional workplace?

      1. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

        I think it came up when we were discussing a time to have a meeting. She mentioned everyone was free at 5:30 PM and I said i prefer not to schedule meetings at close of business unless it’s really unavoidable – she said at her previous job they were expected to stay until at least 7 every day. I reacted with “wow, that’s kind of nuts!” and she said she appreciated the culture at our company a lot more.

        How she spoke about it made a big difference, it was either very matter of fact or I could tell she was trying not to be negative. I am pretty sure I’m the first one who labeled her previous employer as dysfunctional. Her comments were always relevant to the topic at hand and never seemed mean spirited. Her work and general attitude made a difference – she is always up for pitching in, very pleasant to work with, and a really hard worker. All of those factors combined just made her a very credible person in my book.

        1. Someone Else*

          Thanks, this was helpful as I want to be careful to not rag on my old employer to my new coworkers.

    2. Bonky*

      >Part of being a manager is knowing you can’t always manage everyone the same.

      This is SO important. I’ve got some people on my team who need huge amounts of positive reinforcement, and some who find it irritating. I’ve got some who actually want to be micromanaged (which I hate doing, but I’ll do it if it means it gets the best out of someone), and others who would sooner drown in molasses than be managed that way.

      A good manager will be responsive to the style of management someone needs. One of the reasons I’m a bit anxious about being on maternity leave at the moment is that I know the colleague who is looking after the people I usually manage is not someone who is going to be very sensitive or responsive.

      1. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

        It really is! I am pretty sure some people would say I am too casual with my directs, but getting to know them as people is what has lead to knowing how to manage them. I am also pretty sure they would also all say I have no problem giving feedback so I don’t stress to much about the rapport.

        Going on maternity leave was really stressful. I actually wound up making a deal with my employer that I would get two additional weeks of vacation for the year to take off completely when my kids were born and would be available for phone calls/emails/communication from 2 weeks on in lieu of a more traditional maternity leave. I get judged a lot for it, but I was able to take 5 months with each kid to phase back into full time because of it. Those months of being available by phone/email meant no one blinked an eye or questioned when I started showing up slowly – 2 days a week for a few weeks, then 3, then finally 4 (we all work remote once a week). It’s not for everyone, but I do not regret being able to both keep my career and spend more time with my kids when they were babies.

  13. whichsister*

    Please get out of my head. Its crowded enough. I feel this way not only at work but with my partner as well. It’s a running joke almost. Personally, its the result of my childhood and my exhusband. I was never enough…. for my parents or my ex. I was always in trouble… usually for not mind reading. Now I am in a toxic work environment where I am always in trouble…. for not mind reading. It is wearing this feeling of “what am I in trouble for now.” Looking back however, when I had good bosses, I did not have this feeling. I felt empowered to do my job, and if mistakes happened they were learning opportunities not failures.

    1. Pup Seal*

      I’m kinda in the same boat, so I feel you!

      I’m guessing you’re job searching, yes? I know it’s not ideal, but have you consider quitting your job without anything lined up? Yes, people here say get something lined up before you quit, but if your job is having a very negative impact on your health, then quitting might be the best option. From what you’ve written, it seems your job is having a very bad impact on your mental health.

      Since you also mentioned your relationship, have you talked about your partner about this? I grew up in a similar situation as you mentioned. Lucky I have a great boyfriend now, and just last night he told me how important it is that I’m open with him. I’m sure your partner cares about you and would want to help you.

    2. Not so Nervous Accountant*

      Oh god, I am SO sorry that you’re going through this esp with your partner!!!! E-hugs!

    3. larz*

      I’m sure you’re working on this, so please just take this as an “atta girl” when I say, you ARE enough. To paraphrase Marshall Rosenberg, everyone has needs, and they can get them met, but it does not follow that YOU are the one who must meet those needs. Ah, he says it better, check him out on YouTube. Good luck–I wish you greener pastures ahead!

  14. BRR*

    Something I’ve seen Katie the Fed suggest in the past is if your manager can let you know what the meeting will be about. You might be able to just say that you get a little freaked out or a more casual way would be to ask if you can get a heads up so that you’re prepared.

    1. Delta Delta*

      This is a great idea. I once had a boss who would say, “lets catch up” and then it would sometimes be about something I totally wasn’t prepared for. Sometimes it was something that needed brainstorming, which I can do on the fly, but would prefer to think over. Sometimes it was just to shoot the breeze over coffee for 10 minutes, which takes no prep, obviously, but it also could be nerve-wracking if I didn’t know it was just to catch up about the baseball game from last night or whatever..

  15. Mimmy*

    Oh this is timely!! I’m about to start a new job, and I’ve always struggled with what I call a “getting sent to the principal’s office” feeling, although this goes beyond my working years. My new manager is very nice, so I’m hopeful she won’t scare me too much, lol.

  16. Seal*

    The idea of carrying dysfunction from one job to another really struck a nerve. I developed a number of very bad work habits from my first job that I now realize were coping mechanisms related to being subjected to near-constant bullying for many years. Several far better jobs and promotions later I’ve managed to overcome most of them. But I still find that I get very disproportionately upset over the strangest things, like someone putting something on my chair (the bullies at my first job made a point of doing so constantly after I asked them to put things in my in box). On the flip side, I’m hypersensitive to bullying behaviors directed towards my staff and make a point of shutting such things down immediately, mostly because my former managers never stepped up and did so for me.

  17. Amber Rose*

    At my last job, I would sometimes sneak into the office at midnight because I was too anxious to sleep, worried about any mistakes I had made. If I did make mistakes, I was in for an entire day of being yelled at, my boss whispering complaints about me to everyone else, and some passive aggressive “never mind, I’ll have someone else do it” type comments. I’d often wake up in cold sweats at 2 am, heart pounding.

    So now, whenever my boss is in a bad mood, I immediately take it personally. As in, it must have been something I did. And I’m terrified of making mistakes. Even though I know this place is different. I literally have like a little mantra about that though. “Your boss will not yell at you. It’s OK to make mistakes sometimes. Nobody is whispering negative things about you. People like you.”

    Sometimes you just need to remind yourself to take a breath and be where you are, instead of where you were.

  18. Spunky Brewster*

    This is so timely! I’m getting a performance review today. And even though I’ve gotten lots of feedback throughout the year, I’ve been burned by reviews in the past. Full of nervous knots.

    1. Bonky*

      We actually started separating the announcement of pay rises and bonuses from performance reviews last year, so staff would learn about raises/bonuses before review time. It’s helped a lot to calm people’s nerves about review: if they’ve seen (as the vast majority did; only one person in my large team was not rewarded for their performance last year, and given the feedback she’d had all year, that won’t have come as a surprise) that they’ve done well enough for a raise and bonus, it takes away a lot of the fear. (I hate being reviewed too; I think most people do, no matter how they have performed.) It also means that the misapprehension that a lot of people have where they think that their performance *in the review itself* will affect compensation is nullified.

      I’ve found that at review time in particular, no amount of “This is going to be a GOOD meeting; please don’t be worried” seems to be sufficient. It’s especially weird given that we have weekly meetings for feedback, deal with everything upfront and check in constantly. Human condition, I guess!

      1. Greg*

        This is a great idea, and also solves the problem where people don’t really pay attention to what’s being said in a review because, rather than actually listening to the feedback, they’re just parsing it for clues as to what their raise will be.

        In fact, I would generalize this principle: If you know your audience is waiting on a specific piece of information, state that upfront. So, for example, if you’re sending a candidate a rejection notice, tell them first that they didn’t get the job, rather than all the throat clearing about “Thank you for your interest in …” and “We received many fine applicants for this position …” I once had a boss who took like 10 minutes to tell me that I wasn’t getting an internal promotion, even though it was pretty obvious from the moment I walked in the room.

  19. whatwhat*

    I remember when this was first published, and how much is resonated with me and others who have workplace PTSD/anxiety. It really can take a long time to get used to the fact that your boss is not about to attack you at any moment.

  20. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

    This fear seems so common, it’s depressing. At my last job if you got called into a closed door meeting, it was always bad news. It was a unionized workplace so the managers would collect the union rep first and everyone knew that someone was in trouble. Then management would bring in the worker and it was always a negative experience. I changed jobs last year and one month in the director asked me to come to her office. I thought I was in trouble, she just wanted to have a quick how are things going meeting.

  21. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    My toxic boss was my boss before last, luckily followed by awesome boss. Every time toxic boss spoke to any of us, it was do this or ELSE! This would be on all directives. Whether we were hearing it for the first time or the 100th and regardless of whether we had done it perfectly for years, it always came with the warning of what would happen (either a write-up or fired) if we didn’t do it perfectly this time. Even though she was telling us we were doing things all wrong all year long, there would still be surprises in our annual reviews about even more things that we were apparently doing wrong. I’m using “we” because I was a department of three and we compared notes. It was the same for all of us.

    When I moved teams to awesome boss, it took a couple of years to stop panicking at the site of my new boss’s name on the caller ID or in my email. I never got completely over the anxiety of annual reviews, but I did get to the point where I just felt nervous in the meeting and not so bad that it kept me from sleeping or caused dread for a few days before. So in my experience, time will help. I also had to remind myself. I would literally repeat to myself, “this is awesome boss, not toxic boss” to calm myself when I was going to have to discuss something that would have caused a huge uproar with toxic boss.

    Oh – and when I switched departments toxic boss actually had the nerve to ask why I was leaving *her*. Not the department, not the job, but HER. I was never so happy to run away. And I told her that I was looking for something less stressful since I knew she felt our department was one of the highest-stress ones in the building (it was, but only because she made it that way).

  22. Anon for this*

    It took me about 9-12 months to get over the paranoia and fear I felt at work once I left my toxic work environment it was deeply, deeply scarring and I think my new boss thought I was nuts for a period of time because so frequently I’d ask him a question of the type I’d ask my old boss to ward off a problem, and he’d say “… why on earth would that be something I’d worry about?” It was very, very confusing for a time. I joke to colleagues that I have a broken dysfunction meter, so when they come to me for advice and ask if X situation was odd, frequently I honestly can’t tell.

  23. Greg*

    “I actually see versions of this in the comments here sometimes, when someone will comment that you should never confide in a manager, or that managers will always seek to pay you less than what you’re worth, or so forth. That kind of thing is true of some managers, not all, and when people think it’s universal, it’s often because they’ve had a string of really horrible work experiences.”

    I agree with this. That said — and this is not based on any specific bad experience on my part — I think it should be a universal principle that you should never confide in HR.

    1. Kate*

      All my experiences with HR have been super helpful, so I totally disagree with this. Even in a job I had that was otherwise toxic, HR was able to help me with a number of things, including strategies for dealing with my boss. It made the whole situation better.

      1. Greg*

        Well, I was being slightly hyperbolic, and yes, people should evaluate each situation on its own merits. My broader point was that, in general, HR’s role is to help the company, not serve as an advocate for employees. (I mean, in theory, they should be doing more of the latter; as the recent Uber scandal made clear, HR’s failure to stand up for its female employees ended up leaving the company far worse off than if they had addressed it promptly).

        Anyway, I’m glad that, in your case, HR proved helpful. But I’ve heard too many stories — including on this blog — of people who mistakenly turned to HR in confidence, not realizing that their comments would be directly relayed to senior management. So perhaps I should soften my initial categorical statement to: If you’re thinking of confiding in HR, proceed with caution.

        1. Greg*

          I should also add that I have friends who work in HR — who were generally nice, friendly people — who have told me that one of the drawbacks of their job is that it’s much more difficult to develop friendships with the rest of the staff. They know things they can’t reveal to employees, and they don’t want employees to tell them things they might have to disclose to management.

  24. Audiophile*

    OT: I love that you put in bold and at the top that the letter was a reprint. It out a dead stop to my perpetual deja vu.

  25. Welcome to the club*

    This isn’t a workplace issue per se, this is about how your mind works. Talk to a therapist and look at meditation as a way to reduce this fear reaction.

  26. Murphy*

    About 5 years ago, my boss’s boss came to me and said she wanted to meet with me at 4:30 that afternoon. Completely joking I said “Ooh, am I in trouble?” She said. “Well, we’ll talk about that later.” I immediately texted my fiance and told him that I was going to get fired and, sure enough, I did.

    So this hasn’t happened yet, but if anyone higher up than my boss tries to schedule an ambiguous meeting with me, I will probably freak out.

    1. Bonky*

      Yup: I can totally see that leaving scars. I’ve been wincing solidly on your behalf for the last 45 seconds or so. That’s just awful.

  27. Greg*

    I actually had a boss once who would routinely joke to his employees that they were fired. I know, that sounds horrible (shades of “The Office”), but he was actually a very nice guy, and the fact that he did it so frequently, and never carried the joke on for too long, was actually very reassuring. As long as he was joking about firing me, I figured, he was unlikely to actually do it.

  28. Nichole*

    I had some nervousness and fear for a while every time my manager wanted to talk, and one thing that helped for me is if the manager is someone who just wants to periodically catch up/know what you’re up to, initiating some of those conversations myself. It let me feel more control over them starting and helped with the nervousness at other times because it got me in the habit of talking to my manager and not bracing for everything.

  29. RebeccaNoraBunch*

    I was unceremoniously and spontaneously fired from my first job out of college eight years ago almost to the day (St Patrick’s Day), 2009. I walked into the building, my manager met me at the door, took me up to a room and sat me at a conference table with a bunch of people I didn’t know, and Grandboss read me a list of my wrongs [for example, asking a question on how to do something when I’d only been shown how to do it once, four months previously, having a misunderstanding about a ‘directive’ she had made and asking a question about it, etc], and fired me. I was totally unprepared. I then had 15 minutes to clean out my desk and had to be escorted to the door by my manager. It was easily tied for the most humiliating thing I’ve ever experienced. I walked the long walk back to my car with the contents of my desk in 6 plastic grocery bags, sobbing. It took me 5 months after that to find entry-level, part-time call center work to even start to make pocket change.

    It’s been 2 years shy of a decade and I am still not over it. Even at my current company, where I’ve been working more than 3.5 years and have received 3 promotions, I live in fear. Both my past and current manager here have had to work hard with me to show me that my job is not and has never been in jeopardy. But it was the precedent that was set, and now if my manager (who plays things very close to the vest) isn’t completely open with me 100% of the time (not because he doesn’t want to be, but because sometimes there are just No Updates), I get scared.

    I know it’s not the same as other levels of PTSD but honestly I should probably get some therapy.

    All that to say, OP, you are not alone and I really empathize.

    1. Greg*

      First of all, I’m really sorry that happened to you. I’ve been let go a few times in my career, and it never stops sucking. And yes, I still sometimes flash back to those awful moments.

      Venturing slightly off topic, has AAM ever addressed the best way to let someone go? Because it is most definitely marching them out of the office like criminals. It boggles my mind that companies don’t realize that, at what is likely the lowest professional moment of their lives, employees don’t need to be treated like dog crap. Give them some dignity. Don’t operate under the assumption that they’re going to steal stuff and/or go postal. You trusted them to act professionally while they were working there; why is that trust suddenly gone now that you’re letting them go?

      1. Workaholic*

        A place i used to work had a great policy in place. Call a meeting elsewhere and invite everyone but the person leaving and they are informed one on one and given privacy to pack up and leave without close co-workers watching. At least it seemed great tome. However they decided to do away with that policy when they let me go. Technically they termed it as a layoff, but it was the first I’d ever been let go from a company and i was devastated. And humiliated, having to box all my stuff up in front of everybody and escorted out of the building by HR and security.

    2. Murphy*

      I’m sorry. I can really relate. Mine was somewhat similar. (Except my manager vacated the premises before I was fired, and I wasn’t given any reason for the firing.)

      The head of security was on standby in the lobby, and they wouldn’t even let me take my stuff. I had to leave and turn in my key immediately. They scheduled a time for me to go get my stuff a month later (knowing that the office was a 40 minute drive for me), which they had already been through and boxed up for me (to make sure I didn’t steal anything?) and the head of security stayed there watching me the entire time.

    3. Bonky*

      I had a similar thing happen in one of my first jobs out of college, in about 2000, when I was hauled up in front of a whole panel of bosses and unceremoniously fired – I had no idea it was coming. The main point my boss kept bringing up was that I was “too Hermione Granger” – this is not helpful feedback.

      (This anecdote also brings home to me what a VERY long time ago it was that those books came out.)

      I’m a manager now, and I still have a lingering fear of mystery meetings like this, even though I know it’s totally irrational. It’s amazing how this stuff stays with you. Fellow managers: if you’re going to fire someone, for god’s sake do it sensitively and let them know it’s coming. Not justifying your actions with something nebulous like comparing the firee to someone out of the book you’re reading your kids at the moment is probably also a good thing.

        1. Bonky*

          Ugh. Well, actually, I suspect I wasn’t: I in my early twenties, knew it all, and was so happy and proud to have this new CAREER thing that I think I was likely somewhat pushy and bumptious. I may have even displayed gumption. Combine this with a very introverted boss who was on the autism spectrum (I’m not remote-diagnosing; he was open about it and the fact that both of his kids had autism), and it was a recipe for disaster.

          All that said, I think that if early-twenties-me rocked up in our office, we’d do a bit more managing and a bit less firing. Or at least do the firing more sensitively.

    4. Someone Else*

      Not quite as painful as your story, but I was in a vaguely similar situation. I think the months of unemployment post-job were really rough, since I really dwelled on what happened and didn’t have a new workplace to adjust to.

  30. Chocolate Teapot*

    My boss was in a meeting with the head of HR today, and you can’t help but wonder.

  31. Maxwell Edison*

    Alison, I recall a while back you had an “Is this normal?” thread in which people could ask about work environments and dynamics that they weren’t sure were to be expected, having been in dysfunctional work places for so long. I would love it if that could happen again; I spent 13 years at a job, the last few of which were quite toxic, and my manager that entire time was not always toxic per se but not very good or trustworthy either. I’m curious as to how much of what went on was normal and what was dysfunctional.

  32. Jan Levinson*

    I can totally relate to this, as my previous job was So Incredibly Toxic.

    It was my first job out of college, and we had no managers on-site (I was in the Midwest with two coworkers, while the rest of the 50+ team was in New York). When I interviewed, HR told me my two coworkers in my office would be training me. Wrong! Once I started, I was informed that I would be managed by a woman 1,000 miles away whom I’d never met. I was hired for high-level hedge fund accounting, which is NOT something that can be taught over the phone.

    My supervisor was completely hands off; she dumped 27 accounts on me my first day of work with no direction as to how I should handle them, always claimed she was “too busy” to train me, and assumed I should know things she (nor anyone else) had shown me. We’d have weekly phone calls where she’d proceed to list off all the things I’d screwed up on (things I’d asked her to show me, which she never did). I’d either:

    1. Not complete things that I had never been trained on, and get yelled at for not finishing in time.
    2. Completed things that I had never been trained on, and get yelled at for making errors.

    I was discouraged from going to my coworkers in office for assistance, because they “didn’t have enough experience” (yet, being taught something, is being better than taught nothing by my own manager, right?) It was a lose-lose. My heart would race and my eyes would well up with tears every time she’d emailing me asking when I had time for a phone call. It still makes me sick to my stomach today when my supervisor asks to speak to me, despite getting terrific reviews at my current job.

  33. Lissa*

    Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas about how one *would* approach negative feedback with an employee who was terrified of being talked to by management? What would be the best way not to totally set off the panic/cause them to backslide and freak out?

    My only experience with this is that people who imagine every interaction will be bad/critical can make it very difficult to provide needed criticism or feedback.

    1. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

      With my employee I talked about above, as long as I let her know right up front that she’s not getting fired, we can have good conversations about improvements. I also tend to frame conversations with her as “What can WE do differently next time” which seems to help as it becomes a collaborative discussion instead of a defensive situation.

  34. Root*

    I have this problem too. I feel like I am walking to my own execution. The problem is, I am usually right and the powers that be want to ream me out for this and that. Been this way at every job I’ve ever had. Don’t suppose anyone has any tips for how to grow a thicker skin.

  35. Tamsin*

    I read this yesterday but felt a bit too overwhelmed to comment. Wanted to come back and say a huge thank you. Partly because it’s such great advice and also because I’ve felt pretty alone with this problem so it’s really helpful to actually hear from other people who’ve been there (much as I wish nobody had this problem). It’s not really something I feel able to ask friends about.

    For me it’s partly down to childhood experiences following me into adulthood and work life. I’ve had psychotherapy which has helped hugely but I’m still working on overcoming certain things. I grew up with a dad who was quite bad tempered and looking back we walked on eggshells a lot. When he came home from work his mood determined the mood in the house. It was always explained as him having depression and nobody ever told me about which parts were and weren’t acceptable.

    To this day I feel nervous and stressed when my (very kind and lovely) husband walks in the house after work and have had to really work on not having an automatic panic response which is evidently left from childhood. Similarly when my boss comes in I always feel stressed even though both my boss and grandboss are really lovely people.

    It doesn’t help that I had two jobs with male managers (which is relevant because they reminded me of my dad) who only gave feedback when it was negative, blindsided me with things they hadn’t mentioned earlier in appraisals (and that often weren’t even accurate) and generally triggered that old familiar feeling of walking on eggshells waiting to be told off. It triggered a lot of shame and something Pete Walker refers to as emotional flashbacks (highly recommend his website for coping with these).

    What has really helped in my current job is – without over sharing about the reasons why – to tell my manager I have anxiety and can she explain why she wants to talk to me if possible rather than just asking to Talk.

    Also, my therapist taught me to ask myself: whose voice is that?

  36. Argh!*

    I needed therapy as I transitioned out of my last job and I had PTSD for a few years afterward. Whenever something less than ideal happened in the new job I would have a nightmare about the old job that night! Looking back, I think I should have continued therapy with a new therapist even though I had taken a severe cut in income. It would have been money well spent.

    If you have that reaction in one situation, you are probably experiencing unhealthy emotions in other situations during the day too, just perhaps not as predictable or specific. It might be worth looking into therapy.

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