my boss is giving us the silent treatment

A reader writes:

My department is in shambles. We are all miserable, we are all job searching, and we cannot leave fast enough. Unfortunately though, for the time being, we are stuck in our positions.

To paint a picture of our situation: On a company-wide survey, our team came in with the lowest morale and happiness in the company, and it has become a well-known fact due to our HR team’s loose lips and unprofessionalism. Our general unhappiness stems from the top. Our senior VP is a severely unhappy woman who makes inappropriate comments to and her about her employees and lies to our CEO about things — and then throws team members under the bus to shrug off the blame.

While that is a leading cause of our unhappiness, here’s where I need help: Most of the time, our direct manager acts just like one of us. We go shopping, talk TV shows, pop culture, and more – dare I say we’re even friends? But she has gone radio-silent on us for the past week. She’ll walk into the office and not say anything to anyone, and leave the office without saying anything to anyone. She sends passive-aggressive emails and acts like we are not here. We have always assumed when she does this that something in her personal life is off, and eventually she’ll come around. This time is different. She’s deliberately ignoring emails, not attending meetings, and looking right through us.

We were asked to give feedback about her to the CEO in a meeting where we were encouraged to be open and honest because, as he noted, the feedback was just for him to look over. However, we think that our feedback (which wasn’t necessarily negative but wasn’t overwhelmingly positive) was shared with her, and that’s the reason she’s giving us the silent treatment. The fact that she’s behaving like this screams out that she’s not ready for a promotion, but it’s also causing so much tension within our team that even the summer interns have noticed, as well as other people in the company.

As a friend I want to go ask her what’s going on, but she’s also my boss, and I don’t have enough in savings to lose my job. My team is upset, stressed, and at a loss. Her behavior is affecting our performance and our motivation. We don’t know who to turn to because we fear our VP will make a childish comment about our feedback, and unfortunately we can’t trust our HR department. Do we just suck it up and hope she thaws out soon?

Well, this is a mess.

I’m glad to hear that you’re all actively job-searching because that’s the only long-term solution here. Your department, and possibly your broader organization, sounds like a cesspool of dysfunction.

While your manager’s freeze-out is your most immediate problem, it’s not really your biggest problem. And I’m not sure it requires any response from you other than to shrug and wait it out.

Your boss is behaving like a child, but that’s not your problem to solve. If she wants to ignore emails, skip meetings, and give everyone the silent treatment … can you just let her? This is entirely about her, not the rest of you, and the more you just let her do it (as opposed to trying to appease her), the more ridiculous she’ll look to anyone who’s happening to watch.

And really, you don’t need to try to appease her. She’s your manager; she has all the power here. If she has a problem or concern with your team or an individual person on your team, her job makes it very easy for her to address it professionally. In fact, she’s obligated to do that rather than sulk.

The other thing that’s important to remember here: Your boss is not your friend. One of the many signs of dysfunction on your team is how she’s blurred professional boundaries that should be in place. Given the rest of her behavior, that’s not terribly surprising — immaturity seems to be her M.O. — but remembering she’s not actually your friend will help you navigate the situation more effectively. Your situation isn’t “my friend is upset and I should find out what’s wrong and make her feel better.” It’s “my boss is throwing a temper tantrum because we responded to our CEO’s request for candid feedback about her, and she’s using her position to try to punish us.”

And that is almost definitely what’s going here. She’s sulking and she’s trying to make you feel consequences for giving feedback about her to the CEO.

This is worth raising to the attention of someone senior to her in your organization’s hierarchy, ideally her boss.

Now, to be clear, normally you need to be pretty judicious about when and how you go over your boss’s head, but your manager’s behavior is egregious enough that it warrants it. This would be true even if her freeze-out hadn’t been precipitated by your conversation with the CEO, but the fact that it was makes this even more serious. Your CEO can’t expect people to give him the honest input he’s asking for if they fear being punished by their boss. Seen in that light, your manager’s behavior is actually insubordinate! She’s signaling very clearly that you shouldn’t be honest if asked about her again, and that’s tremendously undermining to your organization’s management and to your CEO’s ability to do his job.

So talk to someone above her and say something like: “We’re in an awkward situation with Jane. Right after Bob asked for our feedback about her, she started freezing us out. For the last week, she’s refused to speak to anyone on our team. She’s ignoring emails, not attending meetings, and not even acknowledging we’re in the room. The timing makes it seem like it’s a reaction to what we discussed with Bob. It’s making it difficult to get work done.” You could add, “We could ignore it, but it’s causing problems like not being able to get work approved or invoices sent out.” (You wouldn’t have this conversation immediately, like after a day or two of her silent treatment. But after a week of a clear and deliberate freeze-out? At that point escalating is warranted because she’s essentially making herself AWOL.)

Of course, if her boss is your terrible, gossipy, problem-minimizing VP, then skip that person and go one level higher if your company politics allow it. And I’m not sure how large your company is, but if it’s relatively small and informal, you might even be able to just go back to your CEO and say, “Here’s what happened after we talked to you.”

But ultimately, this is just a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem. Even if your boss starts talking to you tomorrow and everything is smoothed over, you’re still working for someone who’s incredibly juvenile and punitive, and who seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what being a manager is all about. Given that, I’d limit how much you invest emotionally in trying to fix this, and instead put your energy into escaping altogether.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Update: This letter writer asked that some details in their letter be removed/changed, out of fear it would be identifying. I’ve made the (relatively minor) changes they requested, but I wanted to note it here because some of the comments below reference some of them, and I don’t want people confused later about what that’s about.

  2. AFineSpringDay*

    This sounds like a situation we faced at my company once! The survey did stay anonymous, but we were all particularly honest and they were freaking out about the “low marks” and how do we improve it, with many meetings and dramatic conversations which were pretty much designed to beat us down and prevent us from being honest again.

    1. prettymuch*

      This is my problem with those surveys. People freak out about the results, but are unwilling to do anything except have some meetings to discuss the issues. The reasons people are unhappy tend to be things like “management sucks” or “we don’t have the resources to do our jobs” or “our product sucks and our customers know this” which are all things that the PTB don’t have the willingness to fix. Because it’s haaaard or would *gasp* cost money.

      1. Zuzu*

        Yes. That happened at an old job. There were endless meetings to fix our communication problems (easily the #1 complaint), but no actual steps were taken beyond some reports that made communication *worse*.

        1. PB*

          Oh, goodness. An old job actually put together a “communications committee” to solicit ideas for improving communication. They actually came up with some good ideas, which they put in their final report. The report, of course, was printed out, put in a file cabinet, and never looked at again. Nothing improved.

          1. Prior HR*

            Communication at my current place of employment is horrible. Someone I used to support (fortunately, he now has his own assistant) keeps coming up all these different free office communication sites we are supposed to use; the only problem is that those of us who communicate set up our accounts and use them, then he stops using them, and then 2 weeks later comes up with a “different” idea instead. Not once has he acknowledged that the problem is him and my other coworkers who do not communicate.

      2. The Original K.*

        At a former employer, the responses to the survey were so bad that they … stopped giving surveys. So it was fine that everyone hated everything and was miserable, they just didn’t want to hear about it. Swell.

        1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

          We had something similar. After new management came in to old company, the engagement metrics declined. The new management decided the problem was the survey and stopped using it.

          Spoiler alert: the survey was not the problem.

        2. mark132*

          I would prefer no survey vs. not doing anything about it. At least then I don’t have a slight illusion that thing will get better to just watch it never change.

          1. AnnaBananna*

            I do survey work in my current role and even I agree with this statement. I think the best way to solicit feedback is by doing it face to face, regularly, and making sure both sides are held accountable to any goals/action items. It’s called a 1×1 meeting with your supervisor (gasp!). WAY more productive than ignoring the unwashed plebeians working on the ground floor all year, and then forwarding a pithy survey, and *then* pulling your hair out in angst when you realize we hate your management style…and your survey.

      3. Antilles*

        Really, what management is hoping for with these kind of surveys is either to hear everything is perfectly fine OR to hear that the only problems which exist are small and discrete items that can be solved cheaply and easily.
        The kind of problems they’re hoping to hear about in the survey are stuff like “the recycling bin is in the break room but it would make more sense in the copy room” or “the light bulb in the bathroom is flickering and about to burn out”.
        Anything bigger than that is probably a waste to mention in those kind of surveys because it’s not going to get addressed beyond some meetings and maybe a branded mug or other token gesture.

        1. AnnaBananna*

          THIS. So much this.

          “Really, what management is hoping for with these kind of surveys is either to hear everything is perfectly fine OR to hear that the only problems which exist are small and discrete items that can be solved cheaply and easily.”

      4. Phoenix Programmer*

        Yes! We just had our all staff meetings to discuss the low scores around work-life balance. The result?

        We were told it’s our responsibility to build a work life balance and every idea we threw out was shot down! LOL OK.

        1. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

          Look, we make all effort to hear our employees… we just don’t like what they’re saying!

        2. ragazza*

          I actually read a scholarly article about this pointing out that the paradigm has become the idea that work is the most important thing in your life and everything else has to be squeezed onto the other side of the see-saw to balance it out. Ah, late-stage capitalism.

          1. Anonymeece*

            Mmm, I read a book called Overwhelmed (highly recommend!) that also talked about that. I think part of the problem is that work is the most important thing for a lot of people; even missing one paycheck would send most people panicking (including me). Housing and healthcare is so expensive that you have to make work a priority just to afford living.

            And for those who were seeking work during the recession, there’s this left-over fear of not being able to find a job again.

        3. Katelyn*

          After one of those surveys we had a boss tell us that she thought that her work life balance was fine because she could leave at 5:30 “on occasion to pick up the kids” (work day was supposed to finish at 5) and only had to do “a little work” from her phone on the weekends, so we shouldn’t be complaining… Also, it was our fault that we were “too good” and “perfectionists” for staying at least as late as she did to get our work done… and of course that figuring out a work-life balance was our own responsibility…

          1. Miss Fisher*

            Luckily my employers really emphasize a good work life balance. we actually have an on site concierge that will take care of all the chores you throw at them to be done so you can use your time away from work to spend with family. They have researched vacations, done my grocery shopping, taken my car for oil changes, waited for the cable guy etc.

      5. DKMA*

        I want to add some personal experience because the comments on these are so universally negative. I agree that these surveys are often not useful and that negative comments often bring about a lot of noise rather than solutions. That said, I’ve had positive experiences in the past. I’ve had my comments be used in support of getting a benefit change (I chose to include non-anonymous input so I could be more specific). I find it’s helpful to think of these not as a way to make anonymous complaints, but instead as a way to give feedback that you would be happy to give live if you could just get in front of the right person.

        1. MsMaryMary*

          OldJob was having a retention problem, and the message leadership sent employees who were people managers is that “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Obviously, a bad manager can drive employees away but when overall turnover is around 25% it’s not the managers.

          In the next employee survey, they were specific questions about your satifaction with your direct manager, your division leader, and overall leadership. The responses were overwhelming positive for direct manaagers, mixed to positive for division leaders, and overwhelming negative for leadership.

          The “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers” messages stopped.

      6. Leela*

        I worked with an HR department who made an employee satisfaction survey and was HEAVILY steered toward re-writing questions I’d written into ones that people couldn’t answer in the ways they otherwise could, ones that wouldn’t turn into action items easily unlike the original question, just anything at all that would turn the results of this questionnaire into lukewarm answers and conceal how the employees felt so that no changes would be implemented. It was very, very frustrating. So many of the questions I brought up for us to ask were met with “No I don’t want to ask this because they’re going to say blah blah blah and then we’ll have to blah blah blah”. So…why are we even asking them? What a farce.

        1. The New Wanderer*

          Heh – one of our annual survey results meetings turned into the scientists in the room dissecting the questions and pointing out how poorly they were written and why the results probably don’t mean anything, much less what leadership was claiming they meant (which was kind of along the lines of pinning blame on 1st and 2nd line management and not on executive levels).

          Also there was some nonsense about how if a group’s ratings weren’t in the highest quartile, they had to do … something … to account for it because of how bad that was interpreted to be. Basic statistics wasn’t a strong suit.

          1. Quackeen*

            I’ve been the management coach in the room with similar leaders. “I’m going to dissect the wording of this question and rage against the data so that I can obfuscate the need to make any changes in how I lead.”

      7. Anonymeece*

        Ours are hilariously skewed. Basically they ask, “How happy are you here?” and we get, “Crazy happy!”, “Ridiculously happy”, or “Overwhelmingly happy.” There is no other way to give feedback short of actually complaining in person, which of course, would get you fired. And – oddly enough – we’re somehow always rated one of the best places to work!

        It’d be funny if it weren’t so depressing.

        1. TardyTardis*

          We always had high ratings. Maybe it was because we had to log into the survey from our work computer which made it ridiculously easy to figure out who answered what?

    2. Anon for this*

      This is what happened at my workplace too. Our team actually scored 100% on the satisfaction with the team and coworkers, but the numbers were very low across all teams on things like engagement, satisfaction with how things are being run, and trust in the leadership. There were a lot of meetings to discuss our low numbers, with obviously nothing productive coming out of them (what can you do to improve an entire department’s distrust in the leadership, other than replace the leadership, which is not going to happen.) It was decided in the end that we need more fun team activities and an engagement committee to come up with even more fun activities, and, cherry on top, we were told that the department had committed to improving our survey result numbers by X% next year. So basically we were told to lie on the survey next time. I like my team (see 100%), really enjoy the pay and the benefits, am a sole income provider for my family, so I’m going to do it. I’ve sold out before, I can sell out again, no big deal. I am saddened to see that this (very weird in my opinion) solution is the one that’s being taken by multiple workplaces nationwide, or even worldwide? I was hoping it was just us. On the bright(?) side, if everybody does this, then there’s no point in looking for another job.

      1. StrikingFalcon*

        “Several companies have a similar type of dysfunction” and “all companies are equally dysfunctional” aren’t the same thing. The reader base for this site is large and there are often multiple people who chime in with similar experiences, but that’s not a representative sample of all businesses. If you’re unhappy, go ahead and look for another job!

        1. Gumby*

          Yes, this!

          I worked for a company that didn’t do surveys but did use 360 reviews. Everyone knew that what you wrote would be shared w/ names stripped out. Which probably kept complaints on the more constructive side.

          The key was that they didn’t ask “rank how happy you are with blah” they asked “what benefits should we offer that we don’t?” or “if you could make one change to how the company works, what would it be?” Then in our weekly all hands meeting, the CEO read off comments from the reviews and then said what the response would be. For a couple of years people wanted a 401k match. And he read that out and said “we can’t afford that right now but we will work towards being able to do that.” And then one year he read that out and said “and now we can afford that. Here’s how it will work. HR will send the details after this meeting.” You knew what you wrote would be read and considered even if yours wasn’t one of the ones addressed directly in the meeting. Of course, that was also a smallish start up so that exact mechanism wouldn’t work everywhere – but good workplaces exist!

      2. ragazza*

        Yes, my company hired someone to be a communication consultant, which just meant she did a lot of cheerleading for the company. Hardly an effective internal strategy to address the tough issues.

      3. BlueCross*

        One of the goals that my department HAD to put on our performance plan was to increase the engagement survey by 4%.

        What?! My boss could not even tell me what that meant!

    3. Snark*

      “Be honest! We want constructive feedback. Of course, if it’s not all glowing, we will conversationally waterboard you.”

      1. OhNo*

        Y’know, “conversational waterboarding” is a pretty darn accurate description of this tactic, at least as it’s been employed where I worked. I wish they would include this kind of strategy in the anti-retaliation guidelines, because it can be just as punitive as taking away assignments or demoting people in the wrong circumstances.

        1. Anon from two posts above*

          “Conversational waterboarding” is a term that I will definitely find a way to communicate to my teammates, because that’s exactly what happened to us. They’re going to love it. Thank you, Snark!

    4. Miss Fisher*

      My issue with the survey we take is that our results role up to our manager, hers to her manager, etc. This would be great, if all the questions focused on just our team, but they are company wide. We love our manager and our team, but there are things that our small group doesn’t control that we don’t like so much. If we mark these things negative, it reflects on our manager. It isn’t her fault though as she has no control over these areas. They need to work on changing the types of questions. I mean “I have a best friend at work” doesn’t apply to my management. So if I mark that as a lower score, because I am a loner, it reflects poorly on management.

      1. NW Mossy*

        Ambiguity about who you’re answering questions about is a huge problem in engagement surveys. Our company-wide one this year came out at the same time as our division was significantly restructuring its management, resulting in many people having a new boss. There wasn’t any instruction given on whether you should answer the questions about your old boss or your brand-new boss, so the data we gathered wasn’t nearly as helpful as it could have been.

        1. Miss Fisher*

          That happened to use a few years ago. They were restructuring management as well as the teams, and people were so unhappy with changes that it affected our results so incredibly.

        2. Feline*

          We something similar recently, too. It was unclear whether “team” meant yourself and the other red widget painting team member or whether “team” meant the entire red widget team from R&D to development to manufacturing. Some people answered one way, some the other, and it meant they weren’t getting useful feedback across the board at all.

        3. PSB*

          I’m convinced those things are carefully written to avoid gathering any real insight. At my job, management coincidentally announced an unnecessary and very unpopular reorganization the day after the survey was due.

      2. Jersey's mom*

        Oh yeah, we had that Gallup survey a few years back and the “do you have a best friend at work” made nearly every employee at my Fortune 300 company go bonkers. People wanted clarification on “best friend” to the point where no one would complete and return the survey without more information….that question lives on in infamy today. Coprorate got rid of that poll, and we now have a more traditional one instead. But still, nothing happens.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Ha! We had that survey too, and that question made people SO angry. “No, my best friend doesn’t work here! I don’t have to work with my best friend! Who expects that???”

          1. Annoyed*

            I don’t even have a best friend away from work! Ok I guess I do but she lives in Europe and is 25 years my junior (we’re really in sync though…her maturity or my immaturity? Who knows? LOL), so we don’t hang out much.

            I’ve had work friends, some closer than others, but a BFF? Nah.

            1. Annoyed*

              Oh to add on I don’t have any work friends now because I’m “the boss” and that would cross the streams. Even Husband who is co-owner/does the grunt work isn’t my friend *at* work. I’m incredibly managerial, so even at home where he *is* my friend, I manage stuff and just give him his assignments. It’s worked fir 14 years, so far so good and everyone is happy/comfortable with the process. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      3. Merula*

        Wait, do you work for my same 30k employee company? Because that was literally one of the questions from last year’s survey, and I had EXACTLY the same response to the results.

        You asked if you thought my opinion was valued in the organization. I said not really because I work in teapot ceramics and no one in the larger organization cares about the internal composition of our teapots, only about glazing. So don’t blame my boss, the head of spout ceramics for my answer, she’s up against the same problem.

        Or maybe your company just used the same polling company.

    5. BurnOutCandidate*

      In my decade-ish tenure with my company, we’ve never had an employee survey. Considering the turnover in some departments and the smoldering wreckage of what was once morale in another, an anonymous survey might be useful. But, knowing of the pushback some former colleagues got in their exit interviews on some (benign) criticisms and concerns, my hunch is that an employee survey would be an exercise in futility that would fall upon deaf ears.

      1. Not myself today*

        It’s only useful if they’re prepared to make some changes AND senior management isn’t the biggest problem. Otherwise the survey results basically tell senior management they’re the problem. If they were the kind of management that’d respond well to that message, they already wouldn’t be the problem.

    6. RJ the Newbie*

      I faced the same situation at my last company. There was a Town Hall to announce the survey and the feedback was so bad that we needed another TH for our managing partner to basically tell the passive aggressive band of brothers to cut the crap because the reason he ordered the survey done was to get all feedback both positive and negative. Another survey was done this summer and my former coworker told me they needed to have another Town Hall because the response level was under 15%. This is one of many reasons I am no longer there.

    7. EPLawyer*

      I’m cracking up thinking one of the complaints was “too many meetings not enough actual working on projects”

      1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

        Could be worse…”Fire all the unhappy people.” There, problem solved. Which, sadly, sometimes is the solution if it’s a toxic work environment.

    8. MsMaryMary*

      My company decided we should fill out one of those Best Companies to Work For in City surveys. One of our competitors consistently ranks at or near the top of the list, so TPTB decided we should take the survey so we could also be on the list.

      Reader, we did not make the list of Best Companies to Work For. By a long shot. There was a brief announcement of the areas in which we did score well, but nothing on the rest. Then the matter was buried, except for when the next year’s list came out a senior leaders muttered about how those lists are a scam to sell newspapers.

    9. I See Real People*

      This happened at a previous job to me as well. We called the many meetings after “re-education meetings”. Ha ha!

    10. MCMonkeyBean*

      My company’s annual survey is coming up and I’ve never had much negative feedback before, but we just started a big horrible outsourcing project that is both a pain in the ass and demoralizing, so I imagine the responses this year will have quite a lot to say on that. I know I certainly will.

    11. Susan Ryan*

      My old emp solved the survey problem after everyone was honest. They stopped the surveys because…they said no-one was honest.

  3. Falling Diphthong*

    She’s been up for a promotion.

    I did not see this twist coming.

    OP, I think you may have a molehill on a mountain situation–if problem A was that she’s a bad manager so morale and retention are at sewer level, and problem B is that feedback about that has her in a rage, and the C suite thinks “Hmm, this is someone we want to reward with more money and power” then your company has deeper issues which the in-your-face bad manager may be papering over by her seething proximity. Removing her might just give those slightly more distant problems a chance to truly show themselves.

    1. Bilateralrope*

      My interpretation was that she was up for a promotion. Until the feedback happened. Then she didn’t get the promotion.

      The feedback might not have been shared. She just saw her chance of promotion vanish after feedback was given and guessed at what the feedback was. Probably guessing the feedback was worse than it actually was.

    2. NicoleK*

      Same here. Initially, I thought she was being let go which is why she was giving her team the silent treatment.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        That’s what I thought, too. Now I wonder if the promotion is gone and her job is on the line.

    3. designbot*

      My interpretation was that the person who is the terrible manager (Senior VP) is not the same person who is currently sulking (senior manager) because she was up for a promotion that she’s now presumably not getting. Do other people think these are the same person? I often can’t tell whether OPs are talking about two people with similar but not the same titles, vs. one person and they’re using variations on the title for some reason.

      1. CristinaMariaCalabrese (do the mambo like-a crazy)*

        I am also confused by that wording. My initial impression was that it was two different people.

  4. SoCalHR*

    “And I’m not sure how large your company is, but if it’s relatively small and informal, you might even be able to just go back to your CEO and say, “Here’s what happened after we talked to you.””

    Actually, with very few exceptions, since the CEO has recently asked for your feedback, I feel this would be the best channel to go back through. To me it makes sense to follow back up on the prior conversation (especially given the other landmines in the hierarchy) because this issue seems related to that prior meeting.

    1. Amber T*

      If the company is small and informal, is there a chance the CEO notices already? I can’t imagine just *not* showing up to scheduled meetings and everyone being okay with that.

      I’m on the fence, but leaning towards “no good can come from this, you’re already actively looking, just don’t say anything and get out ASAP.”

      Sorry OP :/ Good luck and hope you leave soon!

      1. Beatrice*

        Some companies have more flexibility than others in that regard. I’m a manager, and I can get away with individually skipping some of the meetings I’m invited to. A pattern of skipping would eventually attract some notice, but individual meetings would not. I skip them occasionally when something higher priority comes up and I’m not a key attendee. Sometimes my calendar is double or triple booked and I decide what I’m going to based on where I can do the most good. Nobody thinks anything of it, they just think something came up and I couldn’t make it.

    2. designbot*

      Agreed, following up on a previous conversation is such an easy entry point. I’d approach it like hey, how exactly was that feedback we have you used because it seems to be potentially creating a problem.

  5. Foxy Hedgehog*

    “As a friend I want to go ask her what’s going on…”
    I’m glad Alison addressed this, but it’s so important that it needs to be repeated: she is not your friend, she is your boss.

    1. Amber T*

      That line jumped out at me as well. I have plenty of coworkers I chat with, talk about TV shows/current events/fun stuff with, even occasionally grab drinks with after work. Even if they were peers to me, I would think approaching them with the “what’s going on?” talk is kind of weird (that should be their managers approach), but since she’s your boss, it’s definitely not your responsibility.

    2. Snark*

      Yes, this. OP: you are not her friend. Or, rather, you developed a problematically close friendly relationship with her, the consequences of which are now blooming like a corpse flower, and now you are not her friend. You cannot be her friend or function in that role.

      1. Important Moi*

        “blooming like a corpse flower” — I will be using this in the future. It is so accurate.

    3. Let's Talk About Splett*

      Even with a friend or family member, you need to go into that conversation realizing you are playing right into their hand by asking what’s wrong anyway.

      1. NW Mossy*

        This is so very true when you’re getting the silent treatment. The person giving it to you (regardless of the nature of your relationship) is doing it at least in part to make you, the silent-ee, responsible for breaking the ice and taking ownership of the reason(s) why the silent-er is upset.

        That’s not a very fair or kind thing to ask of another person, because it sets up unrealistic expectations about how emotions work. We can only ever have mastery over our own feelings, and we can’t give our feelings over to someone else to manage and expect that to work very well. It sets up a cycle of frustration and disappointment that becomes self-reinforcing, and it really hurts relationships. The only way to “win” at this is to refuse to play.

    4. MLB*

      Very true. It is possible to be real friends with your manager, if both parties are mature enough to be able to separate personal and professional, be able to provide constructive criticism to each other, and not take any of that criticism personally.

      But it’s clear by the way she’s acting that she is not mature enough to handle any of it. She may be “friendly” to you and your co-workers, but she is most certainly NOT your friend.

  6. Emily K*

    OP, one thing that caught my eye in your letter was, “Most of the time, our senior manager acts just like one of us (she’s only three years older than the oldest members of the team).”

    I’m going to surmise based on this that you’re all fairly young – in your 20s? It’s pretty common in your 20s to see people your own age as your peers regardless of position in the hierarchy, but that’s an association you should be beginning to break in your mind. Over the next few/several years, you’re increasingly going to be working for people who are your age, or maybe even younger, or supervising people older than yourself, and it’ll be important for you to be able to maintain the correct professional boundaries based on your role rather than your age.

    You can see a glimpse of why this is important by looking at your senior manager – her lack of professional boundaries indicates that she might be having trouble seeing herself as part of management because she socially identifies with your peer group. That kind of things manifests in a lot of ways – like it is in this scenario, but also in myriad other ways – and nearly all of them will be damaging to her career prospects.

    Wherever you move onto next, especially if it’s a bump up, try to keep that in mind. Your peers are the people who work at the same level as you, not the people who graduated school around the same time as you.

    Good luck with this whole situation!

    1. Persimmons*

      This is a hard lession to learn in general, much less at work. Associating “older than me” with competence just suddenly…stops, at a certain point in life. It was very weird the first time I saw a medical specialist who was younger than me.

    2. joanium*

      Ah! I have been wondering about this. I mentor and manage people who are older and professionally more senior me (matrix structure). I feel weird if I think about it. I guess I should just imagine that we’ve all reached a threshold when age becomes irrelevant.

  7. JB*

    I’m not sure how your company and department work, but in my field if a manager isn’t talking with their subordinates, then their managers will know swiftly when they:
    a) Aren’t processing any work
    b) Can’t answer questions about what their team is doing
    c) Aren’t prepared for status meetings

    If my manager did what this manager is doing, she’d look very bad pretty much immediately no matter what you reported to who or how much she tried to throw you under the bus.

  8. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    What should the team do in the meantime? I assume being unable to communicate with their boss means they can’t do their work (at least, in the ways they did it before). Is that a part of the conversation they have with a higher-up? (“How would you recommend we move forward on projects that involve Boss? We could send out the invoices without her approval — or is there something else we should go to?”)

    1. SoCalHR*

      nesting fail (seems to be a lot of those today):
      If it were me? I would ‘force’ her to interact with me to the level I needed her to for work-related purposes. And document like crazy if she didn’t respond even on that stuff. The personal element of her not talking to me would just be ignored in the moment (yes, not an ideal work environment, but that is the current status). I would, however, follow up with the CEO.

    2. Kes*

      I would absolutely bring up the fact that work is being blocked in the conversation with higher ups – in fact, I would make it a main point (“Lucinda has stopped talking to us since we provided feedback about her and we can’t get our work done as a result”)

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Right, but what do they actually DO about that? Letting the big boss know that it’s happening is important, but they also need to know how to move forward until it gets resolved.

        1. Kes*

          Well, I would ask the big boss how to handle it. It really is the big boss’s job to resolve this, ideally by making the boss start doing their job again. OP and coworkers can start considering workarounds if big boss doesn’t seem willing or able to fix things, but to a certain extent relying on workarounds may hide the problem and may potentially get them in trouble if it’s not approved.

        2. Agent Diane*

          Belated on this one: the team could start laying out emails with the assumption a non-response is approval. For example, “I’m planning to send the revised teapot spec out to the manufacturing dept on Monday [date]. Let me know if you have any other amends by 5pm Thursday so I can incorporate them on Friday. Otherwise I’ll send as planned.”

          Then follow through on that and send the spec on Monday. If she doesn’t respond, but doesn’t like the teapot spec, then you have CYA to show her non-communication is the issue. You do need to give very reasonable timeframes for that though, so she can’t say she didn’t have time.

  9. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    My take on “anonymous” evaluations has always been that OF COURSE HR is going to share the general results (leaving out individual names and not going into too many identifying details) because that’s what a survey is for, right? So CMO and Senior Manager may or may not know who said exactly what, but they actually should be told the general results of the survey. A good manager would use that info to change. A bad manager, like in the OP, doubles down on the bad.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah and in my experience HR is sloppy about the details that might lead to identification, so – head’s up! But yes, even if the results were actually anonymous they would still likely be shared, at least in general, with the person involved.

  10. Rebecca*

    And this is why I cringe whenever I see a survey at work. Oh, it’s anonymous. Oh, you can be honest. In my limited experience over the past 30+ years of working, uh, no, it’s not and no you can’t. Been there, done that, got the T Shirt. Almost every time in the past, my work life got worse because a manager perceived the constructive criticism as a personal attack, and because he or she couldn’t pin it down to one person, we all suffered.

    1. Frea*

      One time an ‘anonymous’ survey response of mine was shown to the entire company as an example of a well-done evaluation (it named the problem, why it was a problem, suggested fixes). The issue? I wrote it in anger and it started with the phase “Colossal waste of my time.” I still remember all of my coworkers going “oooooooh.” And it was in my handwriting. They didn’t do a blessed thing to obscure it. Ever since, every survey I’ve filled out has been absolutely middle of the line and contains nothing that would give my identity away.

      1. Bea*

        Omg handwritten and they couldn’t type it up for the presentation? What idiots. I can tell you who wrote what my the handwriting in any place I’ve worked. Ew.

        1. Frea*

          I got lucky in that only my team could probably tell it was my handwriting. The fact that I was sliding down in my chair and trying to hide was more of a giveaway, probably.

      2. Phrunicus*

        Not work, but reminds me of a thing my high school English teacher did once – put on Beethoven’s 6th Symphony in class, and asked us to write on these notecards what imagery it brought to mind. I wasn’t feeling well or wasn’t having a good day or whatever, so I just wrote (being a teenaged smart*ss) “Well, since it’s his ‘Pastorale’ Symphony, pastoral images”.

        The teacher read it the next day as this great response, while I’m groaning inwardly going “I was just being an *sshole!”

    2. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      I knew i’d reached the breaking point at ToxicJob when I became brutally honest in all “anonymous” surveys, half hoping they’d lay me off and put me out of my misery.

    3. Kes*

      Well, and as you say, even if it might be anonymous on an individual level, they likely said that they got feedback from the team so she’s just punishing them all.

    4. chrome ate my username*

      I worked somewhere where HR conducted an anonymous survey of the workplace. They would then give de-identified results to the management team of your location. Fair enough.

      In the survey, they would ask for your worksite, department, and if you were full time or part time, hourly or salaried, leadership or rank-and-file. Which sounds good…except the place was so small, specifying if you were full/part time and hourly/salaried would give out your identity. So if someone said, “I am full-time salaried in the Farm City Llama Department,” they would know you were the Llama Director, and if someone said “I am full time hourly in the Farm City Llama Department,” they would know you’re one of two Llama Monitors.

      Everyone lied about what department they were in, which probably affected the results.

  11. Snark*

    “This woman is not ready for a promotion” is sort of like the statement, “My 92 year old grandmother is not ready for a Tough Mudder.”

    It’s true. It’s just so incomplete. If you’re a boss, you’d best be prepared to get negative, constructive feedback from the people you manage, and to deal with it constructively and without giving people the silent treatment. And I suspect she probably is doing so because she thought she was besties with y’all, and feels stabbed in the back. Which is fundamentally juvenile and over-personalizes a professional relationship and is generally sucky, and she shouldn’t be promoted if that’s how she handles things.

    That said, OP…..your senior manager is not your friend. You both confused “kinda close to the same age and place in life” for “yay besties” and went shopping and stuff, and that’s just…..not what a grandboss should do with her grandreports. You can be collegial and friendly and talk TV shows, but overly close besty relationships get in the way of a healthy and productive working superior-report relationship. Find friends who are peers.

  12. SoCalHR*

    If it were me? I would ‘force’ her to interact with me to the level I needed her to for work-related purposes. And document like crazy if she didn’t respond even on that stuff. The personal element of her not talking to me would just be ignored in the moment (yes, not an ideal work environment, but that is the current status). I would, however, follow up with the CEO.

  13. Clarice Fitzpatrick*

    As a friend I want to go ask her what’s going on

    Think of it this way, even if something in her life was going on, totally separate from the feedback stuff (which is VERY unlikely), that was negatively affecting her work behavior to this degree, even if a;; she needed was a comforting ear that would listen to her vent or whatever, you can’t be the one to provide that support. She’s your boss and in this capacity, you cannot become her confidante or therapist. She has to find ways to better cope with whatever she’s feeling rather than drag down her team like this with no recourse. Definitely listen to Alison’s advice.

  14. Birch*

    Ugh. I don’t have any useful advice other than to point out that people who use silent treatment as a weapon WANT to see you walking on eggshells and cowering. Don’t give in to that. Act normal, do not show weakness. It’s just fear of the unknown, weaponized. Remind yourself that she’s your manager, not your friend, and that it’s pretty sad that she’s behaving this way. She’s also clearly more interested in playing on the drama of the social dynamics in your office than actually doing her job in order to be successful, and she’s probably very insecure about that–hence the silent treatment as her last defense. Be a pillar of upstanding worker, refuse to get sucked into this nonsense, and get out of there ASAP. Good luck to you OP finding a more reasonable workplace that’s not full of toddlers!

  15. Madame Secretary*

    Work friendships are very nice. I love my coworkers to bits. But I have found these friendships to be fragile and often have a shelf life. Boundaries get blurred when you have to overlook a coworker-friend or boss-friend’s bad behavior or questionable work skills, or when it comes down to a you-or-them situation.

    1. BurnOutCandidate*

      My company has a Vice President of Marketing and a Director of Marketing, and then there’s a half-dozen managers under the Director, and then each of the managers has reports of their own (Associates or Assistants, numbering from one to five). If OP has a similar departmental structure, then, yes, the two positions are different.

  16. Smithy*

    If the OP is actively looking for a way out, then I’d actually just try my best to work through/around the freeze out. In the moment dysfunctional workplaces are all consuming nightmares and something like three months does not feel like a short period of time. That being said, if the OP can keep their head down, look for a new job, and leave it may very well be that down the road the OP’s boss would serve as a good reference. However, trying to proactively address a management situation like this is just a lot of energy and a chance of creating a very antagonistic relationship with the boss.

  17. Lil Fidget*

    For the record, it doesn’t surprise me that somebody would be hurt by a poor review, especially one that likely got them a talking-to by their boss and might have cost them a promotion. I’m not surprised the boss would be quiet and perhaps withdraw socially (in fact, that seems like a necessary response to the feedback!) as she absorbed this feedback and the implications for her career. Where it crosses the line is refusing to do work-related tasks – refusing meetings, not responding to work-related emails that have associated deadlines. That’s the piece I’d emphasize with the senior level.

    1. Bea*

      Yep. I withdrew immediately after getting negative feedback but it was only socially. I was still on top of all work related duties just no casual conversations and I stopped smiling much.

  18. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    OP, while off the clock, focus your energy and full efforts on finding a new job. Of course you should still do your current job to the best of your abilities, but I would try to build a theoretical bubble to work in. These work problems are not yours to fix. Focus on your core job responsibilities while at work and don’t get involved in the office drama. Just do the best you can, and leave as soon as possible. (Stay out of the gossip mill, avoid joining any group misery discussions with your team.)

  19. PizzaDog*

    She wasn’t ready for the promotion in the first place, and with this attitude, she’ll never BE ready for one. I think deep down she knows this.

    Remember that she’s your boss first, friend second – and she doesn’t sound like she’s being a great friend right now either. Since the CEO asked for the feedback, you or a coworker should go to them to explain what has gone on since the feedback was shared with her. In the meantime, act as though this isn’t happening – show up, do your job at 110% and let her deal with the consequences of acting like a baby.

  20. Kristine*

    Not only is your boss not your friend, no one who acts like this is anyone’s friend. This behavior sounds habitual or at least episodic, and OP must make a decision whether or not to be blackmailed emotionally by toxic “friends.”

    1. Observer*

      I was thinking much the same thing.

      OP, this woman is neither management nor friend material. I’m not going to say she’s a terrible person, but anyone who goes into silent treatment of the entire group often enough that you can say “when she does this” as though it’s a routine occurrence needs to do some serious growing up and and learn better ways of dealing with whatever they have going on in their life.

      The thing is that your company doesn’t seem all the well run. Your SVP sounds like a nasty piece of work, and the fact that you don’t trust HR is not great either. So, yes, focus your energy on getting out.

  21. Uncoordinated Admin*

    I have actually been struggling about writing a very similar question here, because I don’t want to give too much identifying info away, but my boss does this to me, and me alone. He will act like I am not around and then talk to others. I’m not saying we need to be besties, but he won’t even say hi to me sometimes, if someone else happens to be near me he will go out of his way to greet them and just ignore me. I have been racking my brain trying to think what I have done to him/my work/behavior etc… but I am at my witts end… friends tell me I should leave my current workplace, but I don’t know if I am ready yet. I know i have made mistakes etc in the past, I own up to them, I don’t want to go somewhere else and mess up more. I know a lot of this boils down to my own self esteem issues, but I truly don’t know if I am in just a toxic environment or I have done something. When we get surveys I usually refuse to answer or just give very middle of the road responses because I know they’re not all confidential like they say. So I know that’s not the issue. I just want to know what I did, how to make it better, or if I can even make it better.

      1. Anonanon*

        Agreed. A good manager would give you constructive feedback, not shut you out until you go away. This is Mean Girl behavior and it doesn’t belong in a professional setting. I worked with similar managers at OldJob, but they were my peers. I saw them do this to another manager, but I didn’t realize he was actually being actively excluded from conversations until he mentioned it to me later. Then they did the same to me. Fortunately, by the time I was shut out I had accepted another offer for a better job. But it still hits me to my core and I believe they have actively turned others against me for unknown reasons. My advice to you, find another job and don’t let this behavior get under your skin or worse, kill your confidence as that is exactly what it is designed to do.

    1. dramalama*

      This comment makes me so sad, Admin I hope you find something better. Even if you’ve made mistakes (and I remember being in Admin, the way the job would make simple mistakes feel like huge personal failings) nothing justifies the incredibly childish way your boss is treating you.

      Unless he is an actual 6 year-old, it’s his responsibility as your boss to give you feedback calmly and professionally. If he can’t even *talk* to you with a basic amount of respect, he’s got no business working with people. Actually, that’s a bit of a discredit to 6-year olds; I know plenty of them who know how to be nice to others.

    2. Bea*

      He’s a petty spiteful jerkwad. You did not do anything.

      Hell even if you ate his last hot pocket and forgot his dogs birthday, you don’t ever deserve this kind of abuse.

      Abuse isn’t just physical. It’s emotional and isolating you and “erasing” you is pure emotional manipulation.

      I’m sorry this dick is hurting you.

    3. knitcrazybooknut*

      His behavior has nothing to do with you. My guess is you’ve been scapegoated. Please look that term up and dig around the internet a little to read about how and why it happens. I mean it: It has NOTHING to do with you. It’s about your boss, not you. Many times it’s because someone is doing a great job and the boss can’t handle that emotionally. So they’ll make up reasons to be angry or call you out on something you couldn’t control anyway. You mentioned self-esteem issues, and it’s really common that a toxic person can tell when someone has those issues, and know that they can bully them more easily than someone else. It’s like radar.

      Please know that this doesn’t reflect on your work performance or your personality. It’s not about you. You’re just the most recent target. This is a toxic environment and you don’t have to work in that kind of hell. Do your job searching and find a place where they’ll treat you well. While you’re there, build a nice wall around yourself and keep your boundaries strong. Their bad behavior reflects poorly on THEM, not YOU.

    4. Amanda Ramsey*

      Everyone makes mistakes. All your coworkers have made mistakes, and he doesn’t treat them in that way. If you go to a different company, yes, you will make some mistakes there, too. Chances are, your boss in that company won’t be a bully, and will give you constructive guidance because that benefits both of you. So you will improve faster. There’s a name for what your current boss is doing. It’s called workplace bullying. It’s damaging to you, like being in an abusive relationship. It gets harder and harder to leave because it makes you weaker. Please don’t wait, you will never be more ready to move on than you are now.

      1. Uncoordinated Admin*

        oh my goodness… I was so nervous to comment here. I didn’t know what to expect. This situation has been eating at me for so long! Thank you all so much for your words of encouragement, and your advice. I have been a huge fan of this site for a long while now, and this is my first foray into the comments. You all are so sweet. I’m so glad I reached out.

    5. ronda*

      there is a song in GiGi named “She is Not Thinking of Me”
      I often remind myself of this, cause it really is the most likely explanation most times. Their minds are most often on something else.

      I did have a really nice friendly co-worker who was going to keep greeting the grumpiest person on our floor until she did respond. It was quite a goal and I do think eventually it did happen. Sometimes you just act how you want them to and eventually they will catch on.

  22. Argh!*

    I was the inheritor of a staff who loved their ineffectual boss that got fired, and boy did they hate me! They thought I was a pet of the Uber bosses (not so – my friends thought being sent to manage that group of misfits was a form of punishment). They resented my efforts to re-professionalize the setting, and they complained to my boss (who was frankly just plain crazy). I quit after six months, my boss realized I wasn’t exaggerating about my staff problems, my boss tried to fix things, got fired, and so the chaos continued long after I left.

    So even if LW does hang on, and even if Uber-boss decides to cut her loose or demote her, that won’t necessarily solve the problems.

    Just my 2 cents, which were earned the hard way.

  23. nnn*

    Another thing to think about until you can find a new job is how can you continue to get your work done without your boss’s involvement. (The devil on my shoulder is also thinking of ways this could be leveraged to get things your way.)

    For example, send out emails requesting approvals as usual. When the deadline for approval approaches and you haven’t heard back, follow up, and add “If I don’t hear back from you by deadline, I intend to proceed with XYZ. If you’d like me to do differently, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”

    You could also use this in making the decision about whether to escalate the situation to her managers. “Good morning, Grandboss, We need approval for X by Y deadline and Boss hasn’t responded. How should we proceed?” (Of course, if you’re in the same physical office, you’d have to try knocking on her office door first – the letter isn’t clear about how in-person communication works.)

  24. CristinaMariaCalabrese (do the mambo like-a crazy)*

    I’m confused; are the “senior VP” and “senior manager” the same person, or two different people?

  25. Amanda Ramsey*

    I think there may be some deeper background to the manager’s reaction. I’m not sure if I’m right, but it’s a different perspective than I’ve read in other comments and think it’s worth considering. Here is my reading.

    You said, “On a company-wide survey, our team came in with the lowest morale and happiness in the company, ….Our general unhappiness stems from the top. Our senior VP is a severely unhappy woman who makes inappropriate comments to and her about her employees and lies to our CEO about things — and then throws team members under the bus to shrug off the blame.”

    From this, my assumption is that the senior VP went out of her way to persuade the CEO that the bad survey responses were all your boss’ fault. (After all, if he believes it this takes the heat off of her.). She probably said some things which had a grain of truth, in misleading ways to make your boss look terrible. Now that your CEO thinks you all hate your boss and that’s the reason for the bad survey scores, naturally he would go to you guys and see whether there is any support for the VP’s remarks. Which he did.

    You said your feedback “wasn’t necessarily negative but wasn’t overwhelmingly positive.” To a CEO who is looking for who is to blame for a problem, and has heard from the VP that you all hate your boss, he will hear what you say with a negative slant. He was looking more for confirmation of a problem rather than helpful advice to get her from A- work to A+ work. Then he probably talked with the VP, and the VP probably talked to your boss, making it even more negative. By the time this telephone game was over, if you told the CEO 10 things and 3 of them were areas for development, she only heard about those 3 things, and heard something with a much worse slant than what you actually said. In other words, she didn’t get the message that you all gave balanced feedback with some areas to work on. She got a message which is making her worry she’ll lose her job because you all bad-mouthed her to the CEO behind her back, without telling him any positives about her or putting any of your criticisms in context.

    None of this is your fault, and the advice may be the same – certainly leaving sounds like a really great idea as soon as you can do it. But if my take is accurate, it would explain why she found it so difficult to hear the so-called “feedback” and continue to act professionally. Most people would feel betrayed in her position. The fact that she is friendly with you all would only make it hurt worse.

    1. River City*

      Amanda— your analysis is extremely insightful. My current boss is a lot like the Senior VP and this is exactly something he would do.

  26. LadyPhoenix*

    Sounds like you’re working for a petulant teenager and a HR full of gossiping mean girls.

    Consider her silence a relief and resume job searching.

Comments are closed.