new manager keeps telling us we’re frustrated and defensive

A reader writes:

A few months ago, we gained a new departmental manager (Kelly). Some background: Kelly is about 10 years younger than the two most senior people in our department, of which I am one, and comes from another industry so there’s a steep learning curve.

My colleague (Alex) and I are finding conversations and meetings with Kelly increasingly difficult, as Kelly calls us out for acting/feeling/looking frustrated, hostile, or defensive. It’s not an exaggeration to say this occurs every other meeting.

A typical scenario: Kelly asks a question, I start answering, Kelly interrupts me to ask another question, and when I try to finish answering, she asks why I’m “frustrated.” If I try to explain, truthfully, that I’m not frustrated, I’m just trying to explain the answer or the context, Kelly responds with “There’s no need to be defensive.”

Last week this happened in a meeting with Alex, where Kelly asked me “Why are you so defensive?” when I was having to explain something for the third time that meeting. Alex came to talk to me afterward and volunteered that I had done nothing wrong, and any frustration was from Kelly asking the same questions and not listening.

Kelly is constantly taking notes but never seems to remember what we say, so we end up answering the same questions over and over: We don’t need to do anything with the TPS reports because they were submitted two weeks ago; we can’t exactly replicate the number of chocolate teapots reported finished last year because some departments are late reporting their numbers to us and we have to manually update the official PDF to incorporate those; this dataset lives in the Teaset Database not the Chocolate Database; I’ve already requested access but you need to give your approval.

It’s now at the point where I will choose to walk the long way round to get to the bathrooms or the break room rather than walk past Kelly’s office, in case I get called in for an impromptu meeting/Q&A. I know Kelly means well and is trying to build rapport, but being repeatedly asked if I’m frustrated or if it’s something personal with Kelly (previous conversations included variants of “let’s work it out”) is causing me frustration and annoyance.

I even recorded my last meeting with Kelly to let someone else listen later and give me impartial feedback as to whether my words or tone were implying something I did not intend, whether the feedback was reasonable, and if any other nuggets could be gleaned. (For the record, I live in a one-party consent state, and do not intend to share the existence of the recording with anyone else.)

I’m taking on board the advice I received from the third party, which included feedback that I did sound a little frustrated but that it didn’t seem unreasonable, and confirmed that we seem to have very different communication styles. In short, Kelly is constantly using a lot of management speak like “Let’s get on the same page,” “Believe me, I’m on your side,” and “We can work this out.” I plan to listen again, and try to pull out some specific examples that I hear again and again, and try to figure out why they annoy me and how I can ignore them. However, we still have an ongoing problem which needs to be addressed before it causes real issues.

Alex and I both have a great working relationship with the CEO, and there have never been communication problems like this in our department before. The CEO is very empathic and approachable, values Alex and me as long-time employees, and knows that bringing in someone from another industry was a bit risky, but Kelly does have some technical skills we will find useful in the longer term.

Although I would prefer to talk directly to Kelly, I don’t feel that either of us can talk to Kelly about these problems without it causing more difficulties. I think we should broach it with the CEO, who has asked me about tension in the department. I said that we were just a little stressed with our busy period and were working through some things, hoping that Kelly would be able to read our body language better as we all got to know each other more, but instead the situation is worsening. How should we approach this?

Good lord. What Kelly’s doing doesn’t sound like “management speak.” It sounds like someone who’s inappropriately focused on imaginary personal dynamics while everyone else is trying to have a business conversation.

Would you be comfortable sitting down with her and saying something like this: “When we’re talking about work matters, you frequently put the focus on personal emotions that you’re concerned we might be having. For example, when I’m trying to explain a work situation or give context for an answer, you’ll frequently tell me I seem frustrated or defensive. To be honest, the only thing I find frustrating in our conversations is being told that I seem frustrated! I’m trying to keep the focus on the work topic we’re there to discuss, and it’s strange to be told I’m feeling an emotion that I’m not feeling. I’m hoping we can agree to keep those assessments out of our conversations, and just focus on the work we’re discussing.” You could add, “It’s the same thing with being told a lot that you’re on our side or that we can work something out — I take both of those things as a given, and saying them so often makes our conversations feel more personally-focused than they’d normally need to be. I think things would go more smoothly if we didn’t focus so much on emotions and instead kept our focus to the work topic.”

But whether or not you have this conversation with Kelly, I agree that you should be talking with the CEO, who has already asked you about the tension in the department. That’s opening enough; don’t wait for an engraved invitation. Go back to her and now and say, “You asked about this earlier, and I mistakenly downplayed what was going on, hoping that it was just transition pains. But the situation is getting worse, and it hasn’t been something we’ve been able to solve on our own.” Then tell her what’s happening, including the part about Kelly not retaining anything you say. Don’t pull your punches here; tell the truth about what’s going on. Kelly may be the wrong hire, and if that’s the case, the sooner your CEO figures that out, the better for everyone.

Meanwhile though: Try to catch yourself before that frustration shows up in your voice. Your frustration makes a ton of sense here, but you don’t want a situation where your CEO can legitimately think that you’re part of the problem — and that could happen if she starts hearing that you regularly sound annoyed when you talk to Kelly.

So if you feel yourself starting to get frustrated with Kelly for asking the same questions over and over again, you’re better off saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve asked that a few different times in this meeting. Is there something about the way I’m explaining it that isn’t making sense?” And with the interrupting — well, to some extent it’s her prerogative as the boss to interrupt, especially if someone is (for example) going on a long tangent or otherwise getting off course (which is what it may genuinely seem like to her), but if it’s happening constantly, it’s reasonable for you to politely say, “Actually, could I go back to what I was saying when you jumped in? I think it’ll answer your question.”

But talk to your CEO. She asked what’s happening, and you should tell her.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

{ 307 comments… read them below }

  1. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    Constantly telling people they are frustrated and defensive will, of course, in no way lead to people becoming frustrated and defensive…

          1. Troutwaxer*

            Maybe next time this happens, the OP should look at the manager and say, “Don’t tell me to relax!” (As a lead in for the rest of the conversation!)

              1. Tuxedo Cat*

                That’s part of the drama many people like that bring, in my experience. It’s not that they just overreact to mundane situations, they actually seem to go out of their way to manufacture situations for maximum stress.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Ha – In my birthing class recently the instructor told all menfolk that they should absolutely never tell us to relax when we are in labor because in the history of the world telling a woman to relax has never ever actually gotten them to relax.

      1. Sara without an H*

        “Calm down” are two words that send everybody into a rage. I believe that hostage negotiators are trained to never, never say that.

        1. boo bot*

          If someone tells me to calm down, I generally assume they are attempting to deliberately provoke me into becoming visibly upset.

          1. Jennifer Juniper*

            I would see that as someone telling me I’m being an overbearing bitch and need to get back into line immediately.

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I quit a meetup group after I told what I thought was a funny story at a group dinner, one of the organizers sat across from me, and his reaction to my story was “I think you need to let it go”. I first stopped going to the events where I knew he would be, and then just lost interest in the group. Granted, the group was cliquish and unwelcoming to anyone outside of the “cool kids gang”, but that was the last straw. I just didn’t feel I could see that guy’s face again.

          1. MeMeMe*

            That would be a red-button moment for me, too. My mother would say, “You’re just going to have to get over that,” to just about any kind of problem, difficulty, or report of sickness I came to her with, no matter how serious. Any kind of dismissive statement like that now instantly pisses me off — I’m getting all het up just imagining the scenario you described! What a jerkish way to take the wind out of someone’s sails, for no reason. Gahhh.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        My dad used to do this to me when I was having what I know now were panic attacks. It NEVER worked–it just made them worse.

        Methinks maybe that Kelly is the one who’s feeling frustrated and defensive and is projecting.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Whoah, hey, don’t be so upset. Relax. You’re overreacting. I think you’re a little too worked up to think about this clearly right now. Why don’t you go get yourself a treat and we can talk later when you’re calm.

          1. Slutty Toes*

            Okay, no need to be irrational. Just take a big step back and we can work this out if you’ll listen to reason.

          1. Camellia*

            My nemesis would preface everything he said to me with, “I know you’re upset but…”. Especially in meetings and sometimes before I had actually said anything! It was infuriating. I never figured out a way to make him stop so I am reading these with great attention in case I ever have to work on another project with him.

            1. Anonapixie*

              My go to for that would probably have been (especially before you had even said anything!) “How do you know I’m upset?” And just keep pushing for that answer while he digs himself a hole.

                1. So long and thanks for all the fish*

                  Oo, I like “Should I be?”. Said with the right air of calm it definitely turns the tables.

                2. Quoth the Raven*

                  Especially after being asked more than once if I’m upset, I sometimes respond with “Do you *want* me to be?”

            2. TL -*

              Interrupt him with “I’m sorry?” (Or, “I’m sorry, I’m what?”) in a very bland tone.
              Then when he repeats it, answer, “I am?” in a surprised (but otherwise neutral) tone. Raise your eyebrows if you want.

              If it’s a more relaxed environment, and you can crack a joke decently, I’d finish with a very dry, “Well, thank you for letting me know.” If it’s more formal, I might go for “Okay, then. What was it you were going to say?”

            3. Slutty Toes*

              I had a manager who would respond to messages with “You’re not upset about this, are you?” Augh!

      1. AKchic*

        I am currently in Hormone City and I swear I wanted to punch my computer screen reading this. Good job. All this needed was a “is it that time of the month” and I’d swear this could have been written by my current boss thinking he was being completely sympathetic, nurturing and appropriate.

          1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

            maybe it means the rent is due. you know how you get when you have to spend your shoe and manicure money on housing.

            but seriously. sounds too much like my boss and I now realize I can sound defensive with her. she makes very personal remarks, you can’t talk to her about anything because her mind is already made up, etc etc. what a gem.

          2. RUKidding*

            Also: “Oh are you having hot flashes?” **

            Apparently women’s behavior is always because they have hormones no matter their age.

            Even before (years before) I ever got my first period people would comment that my feelings were “just” because I would be starting my period at some point in my life.

            Not necause I have actual legit human thoughts and feelings or anything.

            ** FTR menopause was/has been entirely uneventful. If I’m upset it is because something upset me.

            1. Jennifer Juniper*

              EEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!! So people were speculating on your eventual period-having when you were, say, seven????

              1. RUKiddingMe*

                Yup. Seven sounds about right actually. It was just…gross. The thing is I was too young to really understand what they were saying/doing, but somehow, maybe innately (?) it just felt *wrong* and really invasive.

                To her credit my mom had already begun “the talk” with me and I knew that periods/blood would be an eventual thing that happened (and did at age 10) so maybe knowing that it was going to be some kind of *thing* added to the grossness of others’ conversations about *my body*!!!

        1. Amber Rose*

          I debated adding the time of the month thing but figured I’d be going too far. It was making me angry to think about.

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          My ex-husband used to do it back when our marriage was at its lowest point.

          I’d come to him with legitimate complaints and requests and his response would be, “are you hungry?” “are you tired?” “did you not get enough sleep?” It was infuriating. It also made me feel like I was getting nowhere with my requests (which was true) and that I could never ask him for anything. If he hadn’t stopped doing that, safe to say our marriage would’ve ended a lot earlier than it did. Even he never veered into the time of the month territory though!

          1. Anonybus*

            My go-to response when the “time of the month” derail is deployed:

            “If it were that time of the month every time you pi**ed me off, I would have bled to death by now”

              1. RUKiddingMe*

                I just turned 56 and haven’t had a period in about 10 years.
                ::happy happy thirty six years was enough of that crap dance::

                Still people ask me that. It’s like “dude (always a dude) maybe I’m sad/upset/angry/etc. for a reason not because ‘hormones!!!'” Actually it’s more like being dismissed than actually asked: “Must be that time of the month huh?” “Probably on your period (so I’ll just ignore your legitimacy) right?”

                This topic just pisses me off so hard. I think I am going out to get some post-menopause chocolate.

            1. DyneinWalking*

              “You seem weirdly fixated with blaming conflict on other people’s irrationality – anyone’s but your’s. Have you considered talking to a counselor about your aversion to consider other explanations such as your own behavior? Having to change some aspects of your behavior for the social peace is perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of – it might help you to discuss this insecurity with a professional.”

        3. Michaela Westen*

          I used to go to a print shop every month and the owner would joke when he saw me: Hey, it’s that time of the month again! :D

        4. Database Developer Dude*

          I’m a guy, and I want to kick in the head those who go for the “is it that time of the month” if a woman gets upset.

          1. AKchic*

            Oh, I want to kick this guy in the head, but that seems to be my default setting for him now. I just remind myself that I barely talk to him, and the money makes it all worthwhile.

      2. Drew*

        “You’re so cute when you get this way.” Bonus points for refusing to define what “this way” means.

      3. Koala dreams*

        I just want to check: This was meant as an imaginary response to the boss asking “why are you so frustrated”, right?

        1. Amber Rose*

          It was actually the most infuriating set of sentences I could imagine at the time. Something you could say that would guaranteed piss off whoever you are talking to.

          Of course, the lovely AAM commenters pitched in their ideas and with this whole thread, we may have accidentally created a speech that could be considered a form of warfare.

          1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

            Comic Carrie Snow once did a routine about women in military combat positions and since at any given time it would be “that time of the month” for 50% of them, that would be one big mean fighting machine.

            So pick your battles!

    2. Ceiswyn*

      A previous manager used to accuse me of being frustrated. To be fair, he was right, I was frustrated.

      To be even more fair, I was frustrated because I was telling him the same thing for at least the third time and he still wasn’t taking it in. The fact that he was blaming the tension in our meetings on my frustration rather than his own incompetence, oddly, did not improve our working relationship.

    3. designbot*

      New Partner at my office has twice told me not to be so adversarial… when I am in fact being defensive, **because he’s just accused me of not doing my job**. It makes me want to shout in his face, “No I’M being defensive because YOU’RE being adversarial! So YOU stop it!” which of course would make me a five year old so I don’t. But it’s good to know that other people have similar reactions.

    4. Batty ArtMonster*

      My emotionally-toxic ex used to call me “defensive” anytime I gave an explanation for my actions/behavior. It didn’t matter how mundane the topic or how lighthearted my tone.
      Him: “Hey, you left the lights on in the house when you went outside.”
      Me: “Oh sorry! I thought I’d only be outside for a minute but I ended up being longer than I thought.”
      Him: “Why are you being so defensive?”
      I ultimately realized this was his go-to way of gaslighting me in order to deflect from the fact that he had his own issues in terms of being manipulative, extremely insecure, and defensive. Perhaps the OP’s boss is also attempting to deflect from her own issues or insecurities.

    5. AnonAnon*

      My wife did this to me for a while. She would keep saying, “You seem upset,” or “Are you angry about something,” or “Are you *sure* nothing’s bothering you?”

      Eventually I had to start telling her, “I wasn’t angry when we started this conversation but the fact that you keep asking is making me get there.”

      1. StellaBella*

        Look, Jenny, we know you’re getting a lot of calls from strange people. Try to calm down, tho, ok? :) (promise I will not derail further, Alison).

  2. 867-5309*

    I don’t necessarily agree with Alison in this case.

    Depending on the age difference (e.g., is Kelly in her late-20’s/early-30s), it could be a sign that she’s trying to be a good manager by using this language. I could see someone reading “helpful” articles on managing a team and walking away with these kind of literal actions. I’d start with her and also assume positive intent – she’s not trying to drive you batty and what she’s doing makes sense to her. She also might be very sensitive – again, not yours to manage but people like that are the same ones who ask in personal relationships, “Are you mad at me?” all.the.time. Especially since you received feedback from someone else that you did sound a little frustrated, start with her and your different communications styles.

    I like the scripts in Alison’s last paragraph are spot-on.

    1. Lance*

      In theory, I agree with you… but in practice, how far do you expect to get before ‘don’t get frustrated/defensive’ immediately impedes any progress forward with Kelly, regardless of anything else? That would be my main concern there, whether or not she has the capacity to put such things aside and focus on the actual issues here.

      1. 867-5309*

        I think OP first has a candid conversation with Kelly and tries to manage up – sending recap notes, scheduling a 1:1 to go over outstanding requests/questions – and THEN escalate to the CEO.

        1. Rainy*

          The CEO opened the door, and I’d take that opportunity. I think that OP has ample evidence that conversations with Kelly are not going to be productive because they’re going to focus on her projection of emotions onto the people she’s talking to rather than being substantive. I would probably try one more time to have a constructive conversation with Kelly, but I’d also be getting on the CEO’s schedule ASAP, before OP has time to reach the point where one more repetition of “why are you so defensive” makes her snap.

          1. boo bot*

            Additionally, I think the OP is better served by getting her side of the story on the table before the CEO asks Kelly how things are going, and Kelly tells her that the OP is defensive, frustrated, and apparently believes Kelly is not “on her side.”

          2. mugsy83*

            And the CEO may have opened that door because they have concerns or heard other employees rumbling about having to deal with Kelly and was doing a pulse check.

            1. Nita*

              I’m worried that the CEO asked because she’s getting complaints of “tension” in the department from Kelly. In which case, clearing the air is a must, and better sooner than later.

    2. Observer*

      I don’t think it’s an age thing per se. And in any case, it’s still making things personal and focusing on feelings when it’s not really necessary or appropriate.

      1. 867-5309*

        I mentioned age thinking she could be a new/young manager, which might explain some of her behaviors. I should have clarified that in my original comment.

      1. JokeyJules*

        is her previous industry that drastically different in communication style though? I.e. going from a typically soft-skills driven industry to one that can be very brusque (I can’t think of accurate examples off the top of my head but would appreciate some!).

        1. ISuckAtUserNames*

          It could also be that Kelly’s former team needed a lot more management on the emotional side of things than the current team, for whatever reason. We talk about people being traumatized by bad bosses and needing to break some habits they picked up dealing with horrible bosses, but it’s also possible for a manager to have a similar experience with a dysfunctional team that they aren’t given authority to manage properly.

      2. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

        I really believe it’s her lack of industry knowledge that is the big factor here. Some of it may be her management style, and perhaps in the other industry her management style has been appreciated. However, I tend to think she’s over compensating for not only her lack of industry knowledge, but what seems (based on your letter) like her struggle to grasp/learn key concepts.

        1. Snark*

          And, frankly, I think she’s projecting her own defensiveness and frustration, and insecurity, onto her reports.

          1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

            Yes – this. I think she is feeling flustered and is trying to latch on to something she can actually manage because she doesn’t understand about the things she is suppose to manage. I was super flustered recently in a not work context, but man I swear my IQ dropped rapidly the longer it went on for. If I could have focused on a different thing I would have in a heartbeat.

          2. pope suburban*

            I think it is insecurity, absolutely. Kelly seems like someone who really, really wants to avoid giving the appearance of disrespect to established members of her new field. I get that, there are letters enough here and on the rest of the internet about some new, younger person coming in and, however unintentionally, upsetting perfectly good workflow or talking down to senior staff or something like that. The thing is, intentions aren’t magic, and what Kelly likely intends as an open, respectful communication style is coming across as…well, a bit of a hot mess. She’s not managing and she’s not becoming part of this team. I think that getting along at work is a good goal, but Kelly is doing it all wrong. It may be a kindness for someone to let her know that, so she can at least have a chance to correct her course.

            1. Snark*

              Honestly? Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get more of a vibe that she’s insecure and attempting to force her reports back on their heels, so they feel as off kilter as she does.

              1. designbot*

                maybe I’m giving her too much credit, but I read it more as she is clueless to how frustrating her interruptions and repetitive questions are being, and is focusing on the wrong end of the equation here—their frustration rather than her frustratingness.

                1. pope suburban*

                  Yes, I see her as more clueless and well-meaning than manipulative. Which doesn’t really change the fact that she needs to stop doing this, and start actively listening, but which might be a helpful framing to avoid actually- even if justifiably- cracking and getting angry during that conversation.

          3. JSPA*

            The emotional stuff can be super passive aggressive. Basically, projecting not just the emotions but the source / failure onto the other people.

            If verbal instruction isn’t working, maybe say, “hold on, I’d like to email that to you, so you have it for reference.” And do so, then and there. (If the same questions come up, you can have that info ready to send. The fact that it only takes 30 seconds should tell her all she needs to know, about asking the same question repeatedly, without any statement on your part.) If she won’t let you send it then and there, pull out a pad and write the question down on your “list of information to email to Kelly.” And do so right after the meeting. In bullet points, Q and A. We don’t know she’s unteachable; we only know she’s not up to processing the verbal responses she’s getting.

          4. zora*


            I think I used to work for Kelly (not really) at my last Toxic Job. She came in as manager and clearly had no idea how to do any of the things our team did, because every meeting with her was incredibly painful. She would question every single thing we did, and when we would try to answer her question to explain why we had done it that way, she would immediately get furious and accuse us of arguing with her, and being defensive, and “undermining her authority.”

            I switched tactics to try to solve the problem, by trying to just do it the way she wanted instead, but if I asked “Oh, sure I can do it that way. So, what order do you want the columns in instead?” Just asking that question was ALSO “Undermining her authority” .. I think because she assumed I was being sarcastic and pushing back because she was projecting. Or, because she never knew the answer, because she didn’t understand what we were doing, and was trying to cover it up.

            In the end it was a losing proposition, she was so sure from the beginning that I was fighting her, that I just had to let her push me out. But she was doing this to everyone, and I hear has gone through multiple people per year in my old position ever since. She is also really good at throwing her reports under the bus when things go wrong, to make herself look good to the C-suite.

        2. Yorick*

          Yes. Also, in my experience, bad managers focus on your emotional reaction in order to avoid focusing on their own mistake.

          1. Tuxedo Cat*

            This has been my experience with coworkers and managers. Minimizing emotional reactions or projecting ones that aren’t present shifts the focus and means they don’t have to change

          2. Totally Minnie*

            Oh, ALL of this. I worked for a manager like that. She wanted so badly to be seen as a problem solver, but her staff was competent, so she would manufacture problems to solve by insisting we were upset when we weren’t.

          3. Michaela Westen*

            Me too. I was too inexperienced to understand it at the time, but I worked for a manager like that.

      3. Minocho*

        I cannot imagine that constant focus on “You seem frustrated” or “Don’t be defensive” would go over well in any environment.

        Maybe one option in addition to everything else is to address the “Don’t be defensive” comment with a direct plea for explanation of the different between defensiveness and explanation, and how you can better sync with her desired communication style there.

        The “You seem frustrated” comment doesn’t suggest any fix other than a “Let’s focus on business rather than possible emotional states” conversation like Alison suggested.

    3. Geneva*

      I don’t think this kind of annoying behavior is tied to age or gender. I’ve had a manager like this and he was a male in his late 50s at the time.

    4. Cheryl Blossom*

      Even if that’s the case… how does that effect the way the OP acts? Kelly might have lots of different reasons for doing what she’s doing, but I don’t think they’re going to change the way OP should respond.

  3. Friday afternoon fever*

    How would someone try to fix this part? Which sounds like it would frustrate pretty much anyone

    any frustration was from Kelly asking the same questions and not listening.

    Kelly is constantly taking notes but never seems to remember what we say, so we end up answering the same questions over and over: We don’t need to do anything with the TPS reports because they were submitted two weeks ago; we can’t exactly replicate the number of chocolate teapots reported finished last year because some departments are late reporting their numbers to us and we have to manually update the official PDF to incorporate those; this dataset lives in the Teaset Database not the Chocolate Database; I’ve already requested access but you need to give your approval.

    1. Friday afternoon fever*

      Haha just kidding, my reading comprehension is clearly not up to full speed ….. (sorry for pulling a Kelly)

    2. Four lights*

      As annoying as it would be, it could be helpful to shoot Kelly an email after certain meetings just to put in writing some of the important things discussed. Then she could reference it later.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Which is why you take a printed copy of the email to the next meeting. And then you can say “Oh – that is actually in the email I sent you, here is a copy.” and if she asks again in the meeting you can refer he back to the email, and not have to explain again. I am a huge fan of having solid proof you have sent people things before.

        2. biobotb*

          But they might also not actually contain the info she needs. At least if the OP sent her summaries she would know that Kelly had the relevant info. And maybe it would only take a couple, and then the OP could start referring her to the emails when she starts asking the same questions again?

      1. Blue*

        I would start doing this or just straight up ask, “I’ve noticed that you have quite a few questions about this process. Would it be helpful if I wrote up a cheat sheet for you to reference so you don’t have to wait for Alex or me to address them? I think that might be simpler for us all.”

      2. Fireworks*

        If this is a scheduled meeting rather than an on-the-fly convo, OP may want to try submitting a status report in advance of the meeting, which can then be referenced during the meeting.

      3. Busy*

        I work for a company with managers abound who are exactly like this. I have tried this, and to be honest I still do, with little to no effect. I can send the same document, meeting notes, directions, forms, etc. 5 times and still a month later I am asked for it. And still!? My manager blames me for not “motivating” HIS staff enough to do what he explicitly told them to do. Yes, you read that right. I am blamed for his reports not doing their work correctly … so OP can try this with their manager, but if their manager is already not very self-sufficient (i.e. not referring to her own notes/relying on others to re-explain things instead of learning it the first time herself), then they will get nowhere. The issue is not anything more than the OP has to continuously explain the same things over and over again. None of that “why so frustrated” crap even matters (except only to mention that OP should mentioned it in part of a larger conversation with the CEO on how their manager is reacting to forcing her employees to explain the same things six times – it is one example of a much larger issue). Managing up only works when you have seen that your manager has enough self-awareness to self correct. This manager does not. OP needs to speak to the CEO.

    3. revueller*

      This would be way more work on OP’s part, but putting together a written overview after each meeting and emailing it out to the team (including Kelly) may help. That way, going forward, Kelly has no excuse for not taking 0.2 seconds to search her inbox for the answer. Framing it as, “I know you’re super busy in your new role so this may help you keep track when other people look for these answers,” may also smooth it.

      This approach may also come across as super passive-aggressive to a super sensitive person. But if OP’s CEO won’t help and Kelly can’t remember the answers, then OP would have done their best to work around her weaknesses. They’ll also have documentation that they’ve answered her questions before in case Kelly tries to frame OP as ‘not a team player.’

      1. Anonybus*

        It could be that Kelly’s so focused on the interpersonal elements of the interaction that she thinks of note-taking as more of a signifier of interest on her part, and therefore doesn’t think to consult them?

        It’s still a problem, but the failure to retain information might be linked to the fixation on interpersonal dynamics, so addressing that issue might help with this one.

        1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

          Or it could be that she’s taking notes on the relationship aspects versus the technical information.

          1. MassMatt*

            You might have hit the nail on the head. Maybe her notes consist of “OP is talking about the TPS report. Sounds really frustrated. Need to find out why.”

            Ordinarily I would say the OP hoping body language would clue Kelly in to how she and coworker were feeling is clearly not working, and use your words, but this is the boss so that is tough to do and probably wouldn’t work.

            I doubt this boss will work out, based on how she isn’t learning and the behavior is getting worse. Good news is the CEO values the OP and coworker so may actually take action.

        2. Minocho*

          I take notes for two reasons:
          1. To refer to them later (10%)
          2. To help with listening and focus in the moment (90%)

          The summary provided by the employee, if she’s like me, might be a bigger help that it initially appears; but the 90% isn’t helping as much as it should if that’s the case.

        3. biobotb*

          Also, if she really doesn’t understand what’s being presented to her, she may struggle to take notes that actually contain useful and relevant information.

      2. nonymous*

        What I’ve found when sending around notes after a meeting is that sometimes people will pipe up to indicate that they got a different take-away or need further clarification. Ideally this would happen during the meeting or staff would feel comfortable engaging on an ad-hoc level, but there’s just something about seeing one’s name assigned to an action item with high visibility that brings focus for some.

        I also have a habit of preparing for meetings and making space for planning/researching activities. This is far from a universal skill, and a lot of managers feel that it’s their subordinate’s duty to do the prep/reminders. In the OP’s shoes, I would start by summarizing the current state of projects and find a regularly scheduled time that works best for OP to present to Kelly. Maybe daily updates at beginning or end of day is needed. Maybe weekly? Twice weekly? The point is to train her to expect that summary at specific intervals so that when she tries to grab OP for impromptu meetings, she can be redirected to the scheduled update. With my own supervisor, he emails me stuff when it occurs to him and then I make sure to include everything from the last week during our one-on-ones. That way he gets it off his plate before he’s distracted (which is what he really wants). But I had to be the one to insist on one-on-ones; grouping the results makes it worthwhile for him to allocate time to mentally digest the findings, but as individual tasks my actions weren’t registering.

        And keep in mind that Kelly may be one of those truly maddening people who need those around them to give heads up by convo followed by email documentation to function.

      3. Michaela Westen*

        We don’t know the CEO won’t help. OP hasn’t asked yet.
        I think it’s essential to have something in writing showing Kelly’s questions have been answered and OP and her colleagues are trying to cooperate with her.

    4. Adlib*

      I work with people my boss constantly tells me to “overcommunicate” with. Problem is they ignore or forget every single piece of communication (email, IM, meetings, notes, a freaking SharePointe site…) so sometimes there isn’t much to be done, but I wish the OP luck!

      1. biobotb*

        Sometimes it’s not so much about getting them to pay attention as it is to show that you made every possible effort, and their lack of understanding is entirely due to their own actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

        1. StaceyIzMe*

          I think it’s reasonable to direct a coworker, manager or client to information that has already been shared. “As I shared in our meeting on 1/27, and in our follow up on 2/04…”- make the chain of communication explicit and make the number of repetitions a part of the ongoing conversation. You don’t have to mention every instance of having cited a fact/ process/ resource. But you should wean others off of the habit of asking things that they should know. It’s harder to do if you’re managing up, but in OP’s case, where there is longevity in the position and a direct line to the Big Boss, it’s more feasible.

  4. revueller*

    I’m chuckling because “Why are you so defensive?” sounds super defensive on Kelly’s part. What an exhausting human. Good on you for making the effort to try to understand where you might be going wrong in your interactions with her. You’re a more patient person than I would be in your shoes.

    1. Zona the Great*

      Hmmm it makes me think the OP should just look at her blankly and then say, “oh I’m sorry I thought you were talking to yourself”.

    2. Jenny*

      Exhausting is exactly the right word. I don’t think I would have the bandwidth to deal with someone like this. The truth is of course that this is deeply defensive and insecure behavior from her. But as an adult in the workplace, catering to someone’s insecurity during every single interaction would be beyond frustrating.

    3. RabbitRabbit*

      I’d be super-tempted to swap into therapist mode and ask as warmly and softly as possible, “That’s interesting that you feel that way. Can you tell me more about why you’re seeing the situation as defensive?” But that would probably do the opposite of help…

    4. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      If it weren’t for the ages being all wrong, I’d swear that Kelly was my old manager from ToxicJob. Anything you said or did that she didn’t like was you being “defensive.” I don’t even know what that word means any more.

  5. Lance*

    To be honest, Kelly sounds… well, not very good at her job here, if OP and Alex are having to repeat themselves that much, and running exceedingly frequently into the brick wall that seems to be her fixation on the emotional aspect of everything. Given that you already have a rapport with the CEO, then, as Alison says, that would be the first place to go; lay out the issues you’ve had (the fixation on ‘being frustrated’, having to constantly repeat yourself), and, if you can, maybe try and determine what that value she will (theoretically) bring is… and if there’s any way anyone can change approach in order to get that value, while removing as much of the blockades as possible.

    1. IL JimP*

      It’s also possible the OP isn’t that great of a communicator or given the lack of industry knowledge the conversation is too jargony. There are lots of possibilities I wouldn’t jump to she’s bad at her job right out of the gate

      1. Blue*

        And it may be less that she’s a bad communicator and more that she has a *different* communication style, as OP notes. The lack of industry knowledge may also be key.

        I had a similar problem with a former boss, so I am very familiar with the exhaustion of trying to figure out why it feels like you’re speaking a different language than the person with authority over you. I spent a fair amount of time trying to identify the specific points where our conversations would go off the rails. In our case, I realized that a lot of our disconnect came down to: 1) he processed everything externally, while I did it all internally, and 2) he didn’t have as much experience in that field, so we weren’t working from the same givens. So while everything made complete sense in my head, he’d have no clue how I’d come to certain conclusions. I had to get in the practice of spelling everything out pretty explicitly, without assuming any prior knowledge on his part. As he learned more, I could skip some of the background but still walked him through my thought process. It could be frustrating, because it sometimes felt like the things we were discussing should be really obvious, but taking those extra steps to make sure we were on the same page made a world of difference. Once I adjusted my approach, we actually ended up working very well together.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          I can’t think of a communication style wherein “don’t be defensive” would be an effective phrase to get clarification.

      2. Lance*

        Even if that were to be the case, though, Kelly’s still not being effective at communicating and managing such an issue. And the jumps to ‘don’t be frustrated/defensive’ continue to not help that.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        If Kelly has so little industry knowledge that she can’t absorb basic information, maybe she’s not a great fit for the job. And I know managers don’t necessarily have to be experts in the field they’re managing, but they should be able to do some evaluation and retain what they’re told for crying out loud.

        I was a good supervisor at my previous job but it in no possible way prepared me for my current job, and I very definitely am not qualified to *manage* anyone at my current job.

      4. biobotb*

        But then wouldn’t Kelly ask clarifying questions? Telling someone they sound defensive is not the way to get jargon explained.

  6. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

    I don’t know if this is appropriate or possible, but would it be possible to provide some more indepth training to Kelly? Coming into an organization with employees with long-term institutional knowledge is challenging, especially if the organization or department’s focus is outside of your area of expertise. So I suspect Kelly needs more training in general (be that from the CEO or her reports on the functions of the department).

    Because to me this situation is probably largely caused by the fact that Kelly doesn’t understand the work, and so is over-emphasizing the relationship aspects of managing as a way to compensate.

    1. StellaBella*

      This is what I was going to suggest. I think talking about this plan to the CEO would help, framing it as Alison notes, and adding that to get around this Kelly may need to be brought up to speed more to show the firm values her and thus, that she can take time to get up to speed and work on her issues of feeling threatened by Alex and OP (which is what this feels like to me).

      OP, to be honest, when I read your letter, I started to feel annoyed because those phrases resonant with some history I have with a boss who was difficult to say the least. Perhaps, since Kelly may be a newer manager, one of the training options could be from HR/or CEO around empathy, communications skills, appropriate meeting management styles, not interrupting people, and such? Not sure this is available but seems like she could use this, or a mentor-boss person to guide her?

    2. Sara without an H*

      “…this situation is probably largely caused by the fact that Kelly doesn’t understand the work, and so is over-emphasizing the relationship aspects of managing as a way to compensate.”

      Bingo! Anon Today, I think you’ve got this. I also suspect that her apparent inability to listen to/retain what OP and colleagues tell her is caused by her not having enough background to understand it.

      So OP really needs to loop in the CEO, sooner, rather than later, so Kelly can be given more and better orientation and training.

      1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

        To be honest, I feel sorry for Kelly to a large degree. She’s been set-up to fail. She’s been hired to manage a department where she has no technical expertise. I mentioned down thread that I don’t believe all managers need to understand how to complete all aspects of day-to-day work, but I do think they should understand the broad strokes, and more critically understand why that function is important and what the typical barriers that employee faces to complete that work. And right now without some major work and training that will never happen.

        1. Minocho*

          My current place of employment has a lot of long time employees, and a lot of the knowledge here is tribal knowledge. It takes a lot just to understand where you need to go to get understanding on your issue. I came in as a new low level employee, and have been beating the drum of creating a knowledge base and training materials since I got here. I can’t even imagine the difficulty of trying to step in and manage effectively in place with that sort of set up.

          But even if this is the case, what she’s doing now isn’t working or improving the situation.

        2. OP*

          Some of this is true, but we all have a lot of empathy for someone trying to come in from outside. Kelly is not the first manager we’ve had who came from a different industry. She has technical expertise in an area where the CEO wants us to grow, but that’s going to be in 1-2 years. Right now, we’re scrambling to keep everything else going while we bring new staff in and try to replace those who left (for unrelated reasons). We’re both accustomed to training new people, including new managers, but usually they retain information we explain, at least within the context of a single meeting.

          I honestly think Kelly is over-stretched, and did not anticipate how demanding this would be. (In her personal time, she’s also just started a graduate degree.)

          1. Michaela Westen*

            Wow, it sounds like she’s really overloaded herself. Is she a workaholic? This sounds like something my boss would do.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            Yikes, what terrible timing! No wonder everyone seems frustrated to Kelly, she’s probably feeling that way herself!

      2. Troutwaxer*

        I think its worth noting that Kelly may have already had a conversation with the CEO, so definitely bring the CEO into the loop.

        1. Liane*

          Especially when the **CEO has asked OP &/or Alex about things.**
          Not only might Kelly have talked to her–but you need to answer your CEO’s questions completely.

    3. TootsNYC*

      would it be possible to provide some more indepth training to Kelly

      I think this could spark something like some documentation, or alternate approaches to info communication.

      Create a cheat sheet of all the processes.
      If there’s some process that she keeps coming back to for explanation, zero in on that with something more permanent/written. (Also, consider whether those repeat questions are an indicator that this process could use some cleaning up!)

    4. Jennifer*

      I agree. I had a manager like this. She took up our time with unnecessary meetings and training exercises. It was clear she’d gotten some bad advice from a book or something about HOW TO BE A GOOD MANAGER. She had no understanding and really made no attempt to understand the day to day aspect of our jobs, so was basically useless when we needed help with something. I was one of the only people that was nice to her, which is sad, so she would send me work that she didn’t know how to do so I could do it for her behind the scenes. I felt bad. It felt more like we were her managers.

    5. n*

      “Because to me this situation is probably largely caused by the fact that Kelly doesn’t understand the work, and so is over-emphasizing the relationship aspects of managing as a way to compensate.”

      Wow, that is an incredibly insightful way to sum things up. My boss is a bit of a Kelly, and this really resonates with me. Hit the nail on the head.

  7. Amber Rose*

    This feels like a combination of projecting and manipulation. Someone who interrupts a lot and asks questions repeatedly is someone I would expect to be easily frustrated and defensive. And of course, gaslighting you into believing you are the defensive one means you spend more time second guessing yourself than her.

    I may be too cynical here, but I’ve read a lot of stories of people who lied their way into good positions. I wonder if she really does have the skills you need, or if she plans on tying you up in drama until you’ve forgotten what it was she was supposed to be doing.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Agree with this! The whole time I was reading, I was thinking “projecting much, Kelly”.

    2. Hills to Die on*

      I wondered this as well, especially the part where someone lies their way into a job. The more incompetent someone is, the more of this stuff you see.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Constantly telling people they are feeling or acting in a way which they are not is the very definition of gaslighting.

        1. Yorick*

          I don’t know, it does sound like OP is actually frustrated at least some of the times that it comes up, and trying to explain why or deny it might actually come across as defensive.

          I still think it’s a sort of gaslighting to focus so much on someone’s emotional state instead of the stimuli that produced those completely reasonable emotions.

          1. Michaela Westen*

            I think the problem is when OP and Alex try to discuss their frustration, Kelly is refusing to hear them and blocking real discussion.
            My father used to do that – he would get abusive and I would try to call him out and have a real discussion of the problem, and he would refuse to hear or discuss it. There’s only so long a person can bang their head against that wall.
            Kelly might be blocking because she’s covering incompetence or lies, or it might be she learned this behavior from someone and it’s not covering anything specific.

        2. Serafina*

          THIS. I don’t believe for one second this is just “different communication style” or a “new manager from a different industry”. This woman is a bully. She wants her underlings on edge and off balance.

      2. Jennifer Thneed*

        Telling someone how they feel, rather than asking them how they feel? That’s right where gaslighting starts. Especially the kind of people who, when you disagree with their assessment of you, go on to say that you’re now being defensive about something, and why is that, hmm?

    3. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

      I know there are some people who lie to get into good positions. But often, I think people have convinced themselves that they can do the work, and that they can catch-up on any deficits while on the job. And sometimes they can!

      So I tend to think, especially as the OP’s organization was aware of technical skills in a particular area, that both she and they believed she could do the job, only to find out that those lack of technical skills are more critical than probably either of them imagined.

      Sometimes a job isn’t a good fit. Everyone goes into thinking it will be, but it just isn’t.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        This. I’m not necessarily ready to jump on the “she’s doing this intentionally” bandwagon, but she may very well have overestimated herself, and possibly oversold herself on her resume and in the interview, and is now floundering.

        1. HR Stoolie*

          “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence”
          I’ve had that saying over my desk the past 7 years, it’s a well appreciated reminder.

          1. Serafina*

            Here’s my twist – never ascribe to incompetence what is very plainly and openly deliberate. This woman is manipulating her staff.

          2. Serafina*

            Here’s my twist – never ascribe to incompetence what is very plainly and openly deliberate. She’s manipulating her staff.

    4. AKchic*

      This was actually something I had considered too.

      The CEO is already asking questions, which makes me wonder if Kelly didn’t go to the CEO to complain about LW and Alex, so the CEO is concerned and curious since the CEO has had a longstanding and previously good history with the two of them. This is the opportunity to be very honest about the situation. I would not hesitate to take this opportunity.

  8. Jenny*

    I have dealt with this style and it is toxic. It immediately shuts down or derails the conversation, makes the person uneasy, and puts focus on emotion rather than the issues. It is also deeply delegitimizing to any point or disagreement on the part of the employee. A legitimate complaint gets dismissed as “defensive”, which immediately undercuts the person trying to make a point. It borders on or goes fully into gaslighting “there is not an issue, you are being emotional”. This is not okay and will paralyze the team long term, even more than it has. I would talk to her, but ultimately I am not sure someone this ingrained will change and since you have a good rapport with the CEO, I would have that hard conversation.

    1. Never*

      Yes, this is a common manipulation technique. I’d be really concerned about having someone like this for a manager.

    2. HarvestKaleSlaw*

      “It is also deeply delegitimizing to any point or disagreement on the part of the employee.” This! It seems like this manager is making a huge effort to manufacture a beef out of thin air – and once they’ve established this narrative that the older employees are “defensive” and “don’t like her” everything will be framed in terms of that narrative.

      Hard to say for sure. Kelley could just be overly sensitive or insecure in the new role – but she is also behaving *exactly* like a toxic and incompetent person would if they wanted to preemptively destroy the credibility of anyone who could point out that they are bad at their job.

  9. Megan*

    After the “let’s keep emotions out of this” conversation, I’d offer Kelly a “I want you to know that I’m ever truly frustrated or feeling cornered, I promise to tell you, especially if there might be a way that you can help with it. Just let me bring that up first so you aren’t spending time worrying about what might be a misinterpreted vibe.”

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I like this! I think some softening language would help, as the advice given seems quite strong to me.

      1. Snark*

        I think strong is called for, even if she finds it distressing. It’s really inappropriate to be doing this kind of psychoanalytic jiu-jitsu on people.

    2. LNLN*

      I wonder if Kelly feels frustrated that, after 2-3 explanations, she still does not understand. Maybe she is projecting her own frustration. I like the idea of taking the focus off feelings and focusing on the business at hand.

      1. Kes*

        Well, it sounds like OP is actually a bit frustrated with Kelly’s repeated questions and interruptions, and Kelly is picking up on it.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          …while not picking up on her own repetitions? I know that when I haven’t understood something and need it repeated, I apologize for making the other person do that extra work. “I’m sorry, I didn’t follow that. Could you please just repeat the first part of what you said?” Even true when I didn’t catch it because something noisy just happened.

          Kelly seems pretty self-centered to me, and pretty un-self-aware.

    3. Nesprin*

      Especially paired with a confused “why are you asking that again? We’ve talked about that and I still need to tell you about the teapots before running off”

  10. Lalitah28*

    Kelly may have been promoted beyond her confidence, and quite possibly, her management skill (not technical skill) competency. This is frequently the case when people who are excellent technically are promoted to supervisory or management.

    I’m suspecting that her claim of people being frustrated with her is her projecting out her own feelings of insecurity in her competency and/or authority. The thing that stood out for me was the ‘not retaining what you’ve reported to her despite having written things down; asking the same questions over and over again.’

    That can be indicative of an under-developed autodidactic ability, or even an unknown auditory processing issue.

    I would give one more attempt at communication but in writing: use bullet points, tables, charts, whatever, to communicate what the internal process is and what the typical bottlenecks are; dumb it down, so to speak.

    If she doesn’t get it after that, then clearly Kelly is incompetent.

    That’s just my take with the info provided.

    1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

      See I tend to think that it’s the lack of technical skills or a lack of technical skills and management skill that are causing the issue rather than primarily a lack of confidence or management skill. It’s very challenging to manage the day-to-day operations of a department when you don’t understand the technical information related to that department.

      I don’t believe all managers need to understand how to complete all aspects of day-to-day work, but they should understand the broad strokes, and more critically understand why that function is important and what the typical barriers that employee faces to complete that work. To me, that seems to be where the disconnect is based on the description by the LW. Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the technical details of the department.

      I could definitely see where lack of confidence and poor management skills might be amplifying this issue, but I do think until the lack of technical skill is addressed it’s not clear if the confidence/management skill is also a significant contributor.

      1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

        I did want to add, that the lack of technical skills is probably contributing to a lack of confidence.

        1. Lalitah28*

          I can see your point.
          My take: since LW put forth that Kelly keeps asking the same questions over and over pertaining to issues like:

          “We don’t need to do anything with the TPS reports because they were submitted two weeks ago”: how technically competent do you have to be to understand this?
          “we can’t exactly replicate the number of chocolate teapots reported finished last year because some departments are late reporting their numbers to us and we have to manually update the official PDF to incorporate those”: again, how hard is it to grasp this?
          “this dataset lives in the Teaset Database not the Chocolate Database; I’ve already requested access but you need to give your approval” – this is not hard to grasp.
          Maybe it’s information overload for Kelly, but if she’s been taking notes, this should’ve been clear on the second time going…

      2. Dust Bunny*


        Also, if it’s auditory processing or something, it’s on her to address it. I’m notoriously bad at retaining anything told to be verbally so I always ask people to send me an email.

        1. Lalitah28*

          Me too on days I’ve not slept well, etc. Everything is harder to retain, especially auditory directions.

        2. Michaela Westen*

          Me too, so I always took good notes, left myself notes, used sticky notes.
          It got quite a bit better when I took Spanish lessons with a teacher who had me audio-record our lessons… I think I still do best with visual though.

  11. MuseumChick*

    “Yes, I am feeling slightly frustrated. Every time I try to answer a question you have talked over me and not allowed me to fully answer it.”

      1. valentine*

        Every time I try to answer a question you have talked over me and not allowed me to fully answer it.
        I would start here, the next time it happens, and include the result when consulting the CEO.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      In the moment, this is a great response. It’s best to have a completely neutral tone of voice and expression, if possible. The manager is trying to make this personal/emotional and it is not, it’s just work. If she’s not letting you accomplish your work goal (of explaining or answering her questions), then she is the one causing the situation to be difficult.

      Definitely let the CEO know how it’s going though. The CEO may be better positioned to have a chat with Kelly about improving her ability to listen to her experts and take in the information before interrupting and pushing emotional accusations on them.

    2. Kes*

      I don’t know whether Kelly would actually respond well to this, but in a way I think this actually is potentially a better response than OP denying they’re frustrated when Kelly can tell they really are.

  12. Jennifer*

    Wow, I felt defensive and frustrated just reading that. I hope you take Alison’s advice and that it works. In addition, not to get too new age-y on you, but could you do some deep breathing or other relaxation exercises before you go into her office for meetings? I find that helps when I have to deal with someone that’s a bit difficult. Keeps me from losing my cool. Best wishes!

  13. TootsNYC*

    when people say, “why are you defensive,” I am ALWAYS tempted to say, “Why are you attacking me? I shouldn’t NEED to be defensive.”

    Because if someone feels defensive, that means they feel attacked, which means you are doing something to help create that, which means you can do something to lower the intensity of that reaction.

  14. Proud University of Porridge Graduate*

    I was working with a consultant once who told me “You’re so defensive when we’re talking and I don’t know why. I’ll keep it between us though and won’t tell COO that you’re being difficult to work with.”. As soon as our conversation was over, I went to the COO and told him what was going on, including that it was entirely possible that I was defensive, but I didn’t know how she’d know since she hadn’t actually let me get a full sentence out the entire time I’d talked to her. He shared that she was actually trying to get him to outsource my department’s work to her side business, but that there was no chance of that happening. I’m not sure what their next conversation was, but I know that was the end of us doing business with her.

    Also, I’d never had someone tell me “COO told me all about you. You should Google me so you know as much about me.”

    1. Reba*


      or as my younger, more online friends might say, “weird flex but ok”

      I’m glad you were in a position to be candid with someone higher up, and it sounds like today’s OP could be, too.

    2. Jadelyn*

      …now that’s some blatantly obvious shady shit. Like…not even trying to hide the manipulation and undermining.

    3. Minocho*

      I’ve had a consultant do something similar. He wanted a timeline on when our summer teapot line would be finished.
      “I don’t know. We haven’t defined anything about the summer teapot line yet, so I cannot give you a reasonable estimate.”
      “Oh, just make a guess.”
      “I cannot. I do not even know how many teapots will be in the summer teapot line. I have no information that will allow me to give you even a gross estimate of what this will require.”
      Consultant leans in, and says quietly, “I don’t know why you’re being so difficult. I’m here to help you. I’m just helping you. Now why don’t you cooperate and give me an estimate of how long it will take to finish the summer teapot line.”
      “I am cooperating by being honest and up front with you. I don’t know. I can’t guess. There is not enough information.”


      (The entire office was closed and we were frog marched out by security a couple weeks later. Yup. Just helping!)

      1. Someone Else*

        I had a similar experience except when they continued to press for the estimate anyway, I gave the honest answer of “between 4 and 200 hours, depending on the unknowns I just mentioned to you.”

  15. Snark*

    I’ve actually worked with someone exactly like this – not the exact dynamic, but “Are you stressed? You seem stressed. Your tone of voice is very stressed” or “You seem angry with me, are you angry? What’s making you angry?”

    My reply was something like, “Well, I certainly wasn’t angry before, but being continually interrupted to discuss my emotional state is sure nudging me in that direction!”

    1. Snark*

      To clarify, I don’t think that was a great reaction! But, “Kelly, you’ll be the first to know if I’m feeling frustrated or defensive; I’m just trying to finish what I was saying,” in a neutral and diplomatic tone is QUITE fine.

      Additional possible scripts breezily derailing the BS:

      “Not at all, just completing my thought – so [segue back to topic]”
      “Not sure how you’re getting that impression. Anyway, [back to topic]”
      “Mm? No, just focused on the task at hand.”

    2. Liz T*

      Honestly, I DATED someone like this once. He loved to cause drama and then quiz me about what my “face” “meant.” He turned out not to be a great guy; we did not date long.

      I mention this because honestly I think Kelly’s behavior is a control tactic, and it’s not cool. Tell the CEO.

    3. Zev*

      Yes! I had a boss once pull me into a 121 meeting to tell me that I was “obviously unhappy here” and demand I give her a “list of grievances” so she could address them, because she didn’t ever want me to be unhappy.

      I went straight to HR, who said, “Dont give her a list and if she asks again, let us know.”

      If she had bothered to ask what was going on, rather than immediately assume I had major grievances with her, I would have been able to tell her I was perfectly happy at work, just dealing with a huge, upsetting health issue. As such, she did not give me the opportunity to explain, and I no longer trusted her with an honest explanation.

      In conclusion: someone who truly cares about how you’re feeling will NOT start off the conversation with, “You obviously feel X.”

    4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I posted on here a month or so ago about a coworker who walked up to my desk when I was in the middle of something to ask a question, then took an issue with the fact that it took me a moment to switch from whatever I was doing to what he was asking. “Are you stressed? You look stressed. I am worried for you” he actually closed the door to ask this.

      He did also murmur something about me having a bad week (??? does that mean what I think it means?), but it was said really quietly and he had the common sense not to double down on it and I let it slide.

      He would not leave my area until I told him why I was stressed, so I informed him that I wasn’t, but that he was creeping me out. We don’t talk anymore except on work-related issues and very briefly.

  16. Roses Angel*

    Ive had the same issue with my boss only instead of frustrated I was called a troublemaker, combative and defensive. All because I asked why we were doing something a particular way. Was genuinely asking why to know the purpose of our doing it this way. I was so surprised I didnt know how to respond.

    1. Reba*

      I’ve never been treated punitively over this, except maybe by certain middle school teachers, but I also like to know the reasons why something is the way it is. Good reason, bad reason, it’s not an opening to an argument, I’m just interested in that! It’s a personality thing. But some people–especially people with a particular jump-how-high attitude about authority–take any form of questioning as an affront.

      1. Snark*

        Some potnential explanations for bosses getting pissy about questions:

        a) Your boss has a jump how high attitude. In my experience, this is generally not super common, but it’s not UNcommon either. We’ve all had that boss.

        b) You have a tendency to pursue your own need for immediate clarity and explanation at the expense of the speaker’s train of thought, the flow of the presentation, or everyone else’s interest level, and need to learn which lines of questioning are best to take to email or an offline discussion after the meeting or presentation is concluded.

        c) You have a tendency to, conciously or not, adopt a challenging tone that has the effect of implying that the speaker won’t have a good answer, which can come off impertinent or presumptuous, or which implies that they haven’t thought the matter through enough. A friend of mine in grad school asked every question in a tone of voice that, while he thought it was avid and interested, came off really presumptuous and interrogative. And hoooooly crap did it annoy people.

        Or some combination thereof!

        1. Reba*

          These are great points. I don’t *think* I do B or C, but that’s why honest feedback, and being able to take it, are so important.

          And grad school is a great environment to observe the many, many species of annoying questions out there.

            1. Snark*

              And thanks for taking that in the sprit it was offered – I don’t mean to suggest you’re B or C at all, just to kind of map out the universe of possibilities beyond just “the boss can’t handle questions.”

        2. Oh So Anon*

          Wow, Snark, you put condition (b) into words I’ve searched for for years. It’s the kind of language that would be fantastic to use in a coaching session with an employee who does this. The other part of this is an asker who needs to not only take some of their questions offline, but make an effort to digest the entire presentation/meeting before they ask questions.

          There’s also (d), which is having a boss who is, in fact, the sort of former middle school teacher with not-fantastic soft skills. Obviously not all teachers are like this, but I’ve definitely worked with a few former instructors of children or other novices who struggle to deal with the power dynamics of a new industry. They communicate best when giving lectures or directives, but can easily get combative with typical manager-employee give and take.

          1. Snark*

            I was trying to keep it constructive and not make it seem like I was saying “have you considered that you’re just an annoying pain in the ass?” to Reba, and I happily apparently stuck that dismount, but thanks – I’m delighted it managed to be helpful rather than merely not inadvertantly insulting.

            And yes, there’s some askers who just immediately ask any question that comes to mind, but who could resolve many of them if they’d digest for a while rather than just responding in the moment with questions.

            1. Oh So Anon*

              Yup, I’ve got a colleague who doesn’t do that digesting bit. While I understand that her questions are probably meant in good faith, I do wish she’d take responsibility for not derailing things. Communicating in a way that works for you as well as the people around you is a basic (and learnable!) professional skill for I wish we could hold people accountable, but…

      2. Michaela Westen*

        I’ve known for a long time if I know *why* something is being done, it informs my work so I know what to do if there’s a glitch or a question, or how to take the next step…
        I had trouble several times with managers who thought I was trying to argue.
        Question for those managers: why are you trying to hide the reasons? It just makes me wonder what else you’re hiding.

    2. CupcakeCounter*

      Isn’t that fun? In my first couple of performance reviews (mid-year and year end) I was “dinged” for basically going through the motions without asking many questions since at that point I was trying to learn current processes. After I felt more comfortable in my technical skills in the role I started asking more why questions and working on process improvements. Got bonus points on the next couple reviews for that and a shout-out in a department meeting.
      Huge standard change coming down the line late last year and get my head taken off for asking pertinent, detailed questions that directly apply to my job. Shit royally hit the fan February 1 when all of those questions I tried to months ago are now of utmost importance. Excellent timing for said manager to have a 360 review and me to have documentation.

  17. Frayed Knot*

    My response to repeated interruptions is always silence. Once I am interrupted, I give the other person a chance to complete the thought, then pause. When they (inevitably) ask why I’m not answering, I tell them that I was just making sure they were done speaking. That is usually enough to let them know they aren’t listening.

    When they ask a question, many people don’t listen to the response. They mentally move on to formulating the next question or their rebuttal. The short pause interrupts their thought(s) and brings them back to the current conversation.

    Never underestimate the power of silence, even for 3-4 seconds.

    1. StellaBella*

      This is a good point. In a negotiation class once, the teacher brought this up. A lot of folks need this as a prompt, too, to regain the conversational focus, and I think for the OP to do this with Kelly would help a lot.

    2. Snark*

      Tactical awkwardness needs to be deployed with a light touch, but I love doing this with chronic interruptors. “So, with the new brushes, the llamas are 67% fuzzier, and-”

      “Yes, and they’re softer too! But I think the old brushes were blah blah blah wakka wakka wakka bork bork bork.”

      *sits silently, staring at the interruptor levelly*

      “What? Uh…” *awkward turtle crawls by*

      “Done yet?”

      1. Jadelyn*

        I like the mental image of an awkward turtle. Both people just sitting in awkward silence, watching this turtle slowly crawl past them.

    3. Budgie Lover*

      I have tried this on a parent who is a chronic interrupter/talker over with mixed results. Some people will keep talking for a surprising amount of time simply by starting to answer their own questions after a pause of .5 seconds and then tell you just to “chime in!”

  18. Raincloud*

    I had a very similar situation a few years ago, except sort of opposite. If “Kelly” misspoke and I gently corrected her, or if I had more information from being in higher ranking role and shared that with the team, or if I basically said anything she didn’t like her body language became very telling. She’d start rolling her eyes every time I opened my mouth, crossing her arms, and changing her tone to sound very irritated. If you tried calling her out on it she’d get even more defensive and then we didn’t get anywhere. I finally ended up calling an impartial, third party person to sit in on our meetings and then asked them what I could do better – like what Alison’s suggested here on trying to catch frustration early – and tried to change accordingly, but I also had that same third person sit in on most of our meetings going forward. It turned out “Kelly” didn’t act up as much if this other person was in the room acting as a buffer. Not sure how much of that is that she had a problem directly with me vs. not wanting to seem obnoxious in front of someone else, but in either case it worked. For OP – is it possible to loop someone else into the meetings who can call out behavior or buffer it? Or is it possible to ask Kelly directly why she thinks you’re acting frustrated and then change your body language accordingly? I know our first instinct is to ask the other person to change, but sometimes tweaking your own behavior, although not easy, can help.

    1. OP*

      Alex has been in some of these meetings, and came to my desk later to say she didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, and shared that Kelly does the same thing to her.

  19. LQ*

    I don’t know that there is a way to say “I’m not frustrated” that doesn’t sound frustrated. It’s a phrase that always always sounds it. Even from the most cheerful, unfrustratable people I know. Even if you were saying it simply because it was a series of sounds that you think are pleasant individually. Once they leave your mouth you sound frustrated.

    That said trying something that responds to the “frustrated” in a different way, “I’m really happy to answer all of your questions.” “I appreciate that you want this much detail.” Or even what I’ve done, “I’m aware there is no way humanly possible to say this sentence without it coming out wrong so I’m going to write it on a piece of paper and slide it across the table like we are doing some kind of super secret negotiation, but I need you to trust that what I write down is totally the truth of this moment.” (Oddly that worked, likely because it created laughter and there was already a little bit of a relationship there. I don’t know that you can do that if there isn’t any.)

    1. Future Homesteader*

      It’s like trying to convince people you’re not drunk. “No, I’m not drunk, I swear, watch, I’ll prove it!” You might be completely sober, but there’s just no way to win that argument.

      1. LQ*

        I think it’s part of proving a negative. You can’t really do that.
        Not frustrated, not drunk, not upset, not mad.
        It’s shoving the burden of proof into a land of impossible and then claiming victory.

      2. LondonBridges*

        Heh, with one of my college roommates we could always tell when she was getting drunk because she’d start insisting that she wasn’t drunk at all. Then proceed to “prove” it by repeatedly touching her nose with her finger, or as we saw, smacking herself in the face. Sorry if it’s too off topic!

    2. Zev*

      Possibly a very light, almost offhand, “Oh? I hadn’t noticed. What makes you say that?”

      And then respond to whatever she says with, “Huh. [pause] Well, as I was saying, the quarterly teapot reports are done and…”

      1. Zev*

        Alternative: any time she tells you what you’re feeling, say, “Oh, I’m not emotionally involved in this.” And then move on.

        1. LQ*

          I like this, but I feel like a lot of times it might come off snarky. If you don’t tend toward snark though it’s a good statement. I really like a dismissive “Huh” pause though. It acknowledges it, you could smile pleasantly and then go forward so you aren’t fully just ignoring what your boss just asked.

    3. CM*

      I think you can ignore the “frustrated” and say, “Let’s focus on the TPS Report. So, in Section 5…” Similarly, “Why are you being defensive” can be ignored, and you can say, “I want to make sure we fix this issue in Section 6. I think we could do X…” Or if you don’t want to ignore it completely, you can say, “Hmm?” like you heard it and are confused, and then go immediately back to the work topic. But I agree, responding directly to a statement like that gets you in trouble.

      1. LQ*

        Yeah you can respond. But you can’t say “I’m not frustrated” (or even a lot of variations on that). A “huh” or “hm” or Zev’s “I’m not emotionally involved in this” (ok I can’t say that without being snarky but if you could that could be effective). It is kind of odd to ignore a direct question like that from your boss, but it’s an impossible situation to be shoved into so I’d agree about ignoring it being absolutely an option.

  20. CupcakeCounter*

    Ummm…you are frustrated so why not just tell her that? What she is doing is incredibly frustrating and demoralizing (and I would also say disrespectful of your time and knowledge).
    Next time she says something just say “yes, I am frustrated because you asked this same question last week and then interrupted me before I could answer which spiraled into yet another conversation of my levels of frustration and defensiveness. So please, let me answer the question fully so that you can have the full context you need to make this decision”. Or whatever situation let to the “why do you seem so frustrated” comment. I just used your example above.

  21. Lobsterman*

    I really wish I could get access to one of these manager jobs where you can be grossly, flagrantly incompetent and it’s everyone else’s problem.

    Am I just on the wrong job boards?

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Yeah, I see these people in positions of power all the time, and I have no idea how they got there. Took me ten years of trying and being repeatedly told no by several different bosses at several companies just to get the word “senior” added to my title. I guess I am lacking some kind of a skill that I am not sure I want to possess in the first place.

  22. Llellayena*

    I wonder what would happen if you said in response to “why are you frustrated”: “I am a little frustrated because I wasn’t able to finish answering the question you asked. Can we go back to your question on X?” Maybe she just needs some slight acknowledgement on her assessment before being able to move on. Then later the bigger picture conversation “When we’re talking about work, you frequently interrupt my explanations. This derails the conversation and we get into talking about feelings and reactions instead of the work issue. Is there a way we can refocus the conversations on the work issue? Is there a way I can present the information to you that would work better for you?” Not sure if this would help, but sometimes people can’t follow a particular way someone is presenting info and will interrupt to try to get to something they understand.

  23. Honeygrim*

    Oh my goodness, I have a “Kelly.” She doesn’t say the exact same things as the OP’s manager does, but she does seem to want to manager our emotions over our work sometimes.

    When I do get express any slight level of frustration or unease about a situation (which happens when there’s a lot of turnover and change going on in an organization that isn’t known for its clarity in communication!), she’ll say something like “I’m sorry that you’re upset.” I’m not upset: I’m not screaming or crying or anything. I’m frustrated, and maybe a little confused, because maybe she told me one thing last week and a different thing this week, and I’m not sure what to believe.

    When I bring up legitimate concerns in a meeting, she says “I understand your feelings; let’s talk about this in a one-on-one.” My concern is never addressed; she focuses on managing my emotions. I feel as though she’s treating me as a child.

    Even though we’re both women, I feel like it’s kind of sexist. I’ve never heard her make the same statements to male colleagues, but other women in the department are similarly perturbed by her comments about our emotions.

    Ugh. I feel for you, OP. I think your “frustration” is entirely warranted!

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Yeah, when my relatively new (3mo in company) team lead said ‘you are getting so emotional’ when I asked her why no one had checked with me before making a major change in my area, I was stunned. I asked because we’d discussed the exact change 6 months earlier, I’d given the presentation on cost / benefit, and the same execs had made the opposite decision, so I wondered what had changed. I figured out what changed with help from my extended network, at least.

      1. Honeygrim*

        Yeah. My manager once left me off a team that was put together to handle something that is ONLY done in my area. I would have been the only experienced person on the team. I emailed her to ask why I wasn’t asked to be on the team, and I wrote something like “I’m disappointed that I wasn’t asked to be on this group. I feel that my knowledge and experience would’ve been welcome for this project” (or something similar). She responded by saying that she was “concerned by my tone.” No comment on the issue at hand. By that time I WAS emotional (really really angry).

  24. That_guy*

    I would be very tempted to simply answer honestly.
    “Why are you frustrated?” – Because it seems like I’ve had to explain this to you multiple times already and when I try to give more detail that might help you remember, you talk over my response to your question.
    “You seem defensive” – I might be defensive because I feel like you are trying to put our communication difficulties on my shoulders.
    If she wants to interact in an (inappropriate) interpersonal way as opposed a business, “get it done” way, you can always play that game as well. Just make sure you play to win.

  25. M_Lynn_K*

    Wait, are we not going to address how the OP (secretly?) recorded their conversations and shared that with people? That is really inappropriate! I also get lots of warning bells going off when an older person is overly fixated on a younger woman’s communication style and word choice. Kelly may be annoying, but the OP doesn’t sound like an easy person to work with.

    1. Peridot*

      OP was very clear about why she recorded a conversation and that she wouldn’t be sharing it with anyone else. I don’t know where you’re getting the idea that OP isn’t an easy person to work with, at least not from the information we have. Kelly interrupts her and doesn’t retain important information.

    2. LQ*

      I’ve never done this but I could completely envision me (especially me at a point where I was really struggling with a boss) doing this. “Is it me?” “Have I lost my mind?” “Am I the problem?” I did at one point ask my boss to have an additional person be in the room because I felt like I was being completely ignored and dismissed and then the people who were ignoring and dismissing me would pull this same “You’re being defensive” and “Why are you upset” shit with me. I was able to just tell my boss I needed someone else there so that I had a little support in the room because even if they didn’t say anything it would change the tone of the room. (Especially since he could assign another woman which would also change it from all dudebros and me to slightly more diverse.) But if I hadn’t had that option I could have seen myself recording and then asking a close friend if I was loosing my g-d- mind or not. OP said one person, they aren’t shopping this around on YouTube demanding Kelly be fired. They are trying to make sure they aren’t actually entirely in the wrong. Trying to get better.

    3. Cherry Coke for lunch*

      She is not planning on using the recording against Kelly it was recorded so that she could get a third party’s opinion on whether she was defensive. As long as she deletes the recording there is nothing wrong with self reflection. The detail that the boss is younger is a warning sign, but that she repeats management buzz phrases is a sign that someone is covering for not listening.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      “(For the record, I live in a one-party consent state, and do not intend to share the existence of the recording with anyone else.)”

      1. M_Lynn_K*

        Can you imagine that if the OP had written in and asked Alison if it would be appropriate to record a conversation and ask for feedback on it? There is no way Alison would say that’s a good idea. Or what if Jane wrote in with “I’m having communications challenges with my employee, and they secretly recorded me and shared with it people I don’t know.” Legality isn’t the point-this is weird and invasive! It doesn’t give me a good view of how the OP handles conflict, which makes me suspect about their entire approach.

    5. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      “I also get lots of warning bells going off when an older person is overly fixated on a younger woman’s communication style and word choice.”

      I’m sorry, what is this even supposed to mean?

      First Kelly is gaslighting OP, now we’re going to call OP a creep too?

      1. M_Lynn_K*

        Kelly uses language like “Let’s get on the same page,” “Believe me, I’m on your side,” and “We can work this out.” Like Alison said- that isn’t management buzzwords. To me, it sounds like Kelly is acknowledging there is a communications issue and wants to address it. The OP got 3rd party confirmation that they express frustration to their boss, and they’re only writing in because they ARE frustrated. The OP says that they don’t like her management speak-the words she uses. There’s no gaslighting. Kelly is correctly pointing out that the OP doesn’t like her communication style. The OP shouldn’t claim there isn’t frustration when there is. The OP may well be justified in that feeling, but instead of responding honestly to Kelly’s requests to address is, the OP expects Kelly to learn how to better read their body language? What? That isn’t a reasonable expectation for how to communicate to your boss.

        If you’re oblivious to sexist standards in how older people (men and women-the OP’s gender isn’t specified) react to younger women’s communications styles, then I recommend a googke search.

    6. Observer*

      “Overly fixated on . . . communications style and word choice”? What a very odd way to describe being constantly told how you are feeling and being constantly being interrupted.

    7. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I’m surprised AAM didn’t address the secret recording. It was the only thing in this letter that set my giant red flag to waving. I don’t care if it’s legal in OP’s state. It’s so… very inappropriate and wrong… to secretly record a work conversation, and then, from what OP wrote, it seems she played the recording to a “third party” who maybe (?) isn’t an employee of that company. It’s bad for multiple reasons. If I found out that someone was doing this to me (secretly recording me), I would be furious, and I would go straight to HR, Legal, etc. and make a formal complaint. I doubt OP’s employer would view this in a favorable light, in terms of company policy.

  26. That Girl From Quinn's House*

    “In short, Kelly is constantly using a lot of management speak like “Let’s get on the same page,” “Believe me, I’m on your side,” and “We can work this out.””

    Kelly is dissembling to cover up the fact that she is incompetent, and is trying to create confusion to spread the blame.

  27. Nay*

    I realize I’m in the minority here but, OP insists they’re not defensive and yet starts their rather lengthy letter pointing out that Kelly is 10 years younger than them. Also, legal or not, when you record your conversation with her knowing that someone is also going to critique you, you are likely to change your words/behavior, and the person who listened STILL said you were defensive. Kelly seems to have a lot of things addressing, but I’m thinking there’s definitely two sides to this story.

    1. Bostonian*

      Yes. Regardless of whether OP was frustrated to begin with, he/she certainly is now, and I imagine it has to be showing in some way.

      1. M_Lynn_K*

        SAME! A few disagreed with me above, but expecting your boss to better read your body language, plus secreting recording them are not great signs that the OP is handling this well.

    2. Karlee*

      I agree. What I keep thinking is how hard it must be to know a member of your team is frustrated, to put it on the table, and then have them deny it. At root, there’s a communication problem here and it seems like Kelly is recognizing it but doesn’t know how to tackle it effectively. She seems like a more emotively oriented speaker while OP is more informationally oriented. I’m on the info side of that and it’s really hard sometimes to work with someone who is on the other side of the spectrum. The OP might find some resolution by addressing it that way – and being honest when asked if she’s frustrated. She is! Who wouldn’t be? And finally, the OP may be less frustrated if they assume good intent and figure out what they can learn from Kelly. That always helps me when someone is driving me crazy.

  28. Clear and Blunt Response*

    I think Alisons advice is great and very adult and professional, in the past I have not been as professional when I have had inexperienced management trying to say the correct buzz words covering up that they can’t do the job. So while I think you should definitely use Alisons advice first if that doesn’t work I have found a more direct approach sometimes gets the point across. However be aware sometimes can be the point of no return. The next time your boss asks if you are frustrated I would say yes. Explain that you are aware and empathetic that she is new to the industry and you are not intending to sound frustrated and defensive and tell her before she has the chance that while you are well aware from previous multiple conversations that she is on your side. However at this point you want to be blunt and clear that her constant questioning her perception that you are frustrated and defensive when you are attempting to answer questions that while are important to her and the job are becoming increasingly repetitive is in fact very frustrating all the way around. As well that when she adds in management buzz phrases they are coming off that she is not listening and internalizing the information you are giving her only responding with what she perceives as the PC response. When she inserts the comment that she wants to be on the same page, I would come back with lets discuss how you/we can do that because to date what we are doing isn’t working out.

  29. Former Expat*

    Loop someone else in, loop someone else in, loop someone else in. Sounds like your CEO could be the right person for this. IME, if there is a personality mismatch, you will want to bring at least another person in so you can hopefully avoid things getting real weird and awkward. Based on the comment about changing routes to the bathroom, it sounds like it may be getting there.

    Maybe other commenters disagree with me, but I think that sometimes we just really don’t click with other people… And that is okay. I’d rather live in a world where it is okay to admit that two people just don’t get along and be able to move on somehow (like changing roles/jobs if at all possible) rather than trying to force something that is just not working.

  30. Leela*

    OP I’m having major flashbacks to a previous manager of mine! Toxic positivity and talking emotions was this lady’s middle name.

    It was a call center that was a very tiny extension of a health care plan, then got bought out to become a several hundred employee call center for lots of health care plans, and they just made whoever had been there managers.

    She’d frequently and incorrectly decide that I was going to be negative in something I was bringing up to the group in a meeting and cut me off in a way that made me look far worse than if I’d just been allowed to speak (ex – our team called out, but we were trained by people who took calls in, who told us that we needed to verify someone’s social security number in order to take them off the list. This doesn’t go over well when you call out to people, they say “don’t call me”, and you demand their social. After lots of digging I found out that that’s the proper workflow for inbound calls but not outbound ones. Someone in the meeting was talking about what a problem it was and I was trying to say “Did you learn that workflow from an inbound person? I just found out that they have different workflows from us and we can actually just remove them from the list” But the manager cut me off at “Did you learn that workflow from an inbound person” and later told me that I was going to say that inbound people were wrong and don’t know what they’re talking about and to please not be that negative in a meeting. When I tried to tell her what I was going to say, she called me defensive and acted like I was just lying. This was very very frequent).

    It was horrible to deal with. She was also a mom of a toddler and talked to us like we were her toddlers when something was wrong, in the same parental tone one would use. Unfortunately our higher ups loved her because the toxic positivity just looked like positivity to them and they wouldn’t hear it. Three of us even got together and individually wrote letters detailing our experiences and were basically told that we were just misreading her and she was a great team leader (not true). And a bunch of people got laid off because she had told them that they were doing great and had nothing to worry about when they weren’t hitting their call numbers (call numbers that kept rising and rising every month, making them harder and harder to hit).

    PLEASE use the opening you have with your CEO, I would have paid a lot to have that opportunity! The things you’re describing here aren’t indicative of good management. Maybe your manager can be coached and become a great one, but the behaviors you’re describing now are not something you should have to try to ignore if you don’t have to, they really become problems in a workplace.

  31. LadeeDa*

    I would ask her on the spot “why do you think I am frustrated/defensive?”
    “Of course we are on the same side! We have a common goal…”
    “We are working it out– this discussion is about making a plan/decision…”

  32. Bostonian*

    I had a boss like this once. Our relationship never recovered. There was constant tension because he was always expecting the worse of me, and I was always overly concerned that anything I said or did would be misconstrued as evidence that I “didn’t like him”.

    It was also the case that he didn’t have the technical knowledge coming in; he was hired because he had management experience and our department needed a manager. I think this led to most of his insecurity and resulted in him seeing everything through a combative lens. I think the same thing might be going on with Kelly: I don’t think she’s actively trying to manipulate you, but rather is projecting her frustration/insecurity and maybe is worried too much about being “liked”. (You mentioned she often stops you when you walk by for chitchat/questions.)

    I hope that if you take Alison’s advice and talk to Kelly and/or the CEO, that it will help. But in my case, the only thing that would have worked was massive ass kissing and acting like this boss’s best friend. (That seemed to work for other people.)

  33. Argh!*

    As someone who gets accused of interrupting, I would suggest considering whether you are saying more than is asked for. Also, if she is using (or attempting to use) active listening skills by asking probing questions, and you’re not used to that, you may see that as interrupting.

    I work with people who speak in paragraphs, pages, and chapters, and I prefer to have an exchange sentence-for-sentence so that I’m not listening to a lecture. It’s how I keep my mind from wandering, and how I put the pieces of a situation together in my mind.

    If you have told her something more than once, try to think back on the previous times (or listen for that on your tape) and consider whether she really wanted or needed that piece of information at the moment.

    When I ask a question it is often because my mental picture is lacking that detail because I was busy building up the mental picture using other details at the time. If my mind is on teapot handles and you throw in a detail about color choice, I will miss the detail about color choice and come back to it later.

    There’s a (perhaps apocryphal) percentage rule that you remember a higher percent of what you say than of what you hear. If you assume Kelly is typical, she won’t remember as much of what you have said as you will remember.

    1. LQ*

      I work with a monologuer too (one time he actually spoke for 23 minutes without a pause, which is just impressive from a vocal perspective). I interrupt my monologuer, but I would never then say, “You seem frustrated.” Unless I wanted to kill the conversation entirely or be a jerk. Let’s say that the OP is a monologuer (though there is no evidence of that). It would be weird for Kelly to ask why they were frustrated, or to say they seemed defensive. If I’m trying to understand the problem and someone is monologuing the answer at me in a way that is not at all useful, I may get frustrated, but that’s on me to express not put on someone else.

      And if Kelly is the boss it’s on her to say, “Hey I need you to not monologue the answer at me. I’m new to this industry and need to sometimes ask for additional context, or sometimes I don’t need the level of detail you’re giving me.”

      Maybe OP could ask if Kelly would prefer to have the information presented differently (less detailed, more background, whatever) and that may be useful as a part of the why are you emotionally invested in me being emotionally invested conversation.

      1. Argh!*

        I think you have it reversed. Kelly is not the one who is frustrated. LW is visibly frustrated, then Kelly asks about it, and then LW’s response seems defensive.

        Adapting to a boss’s communication style when they aren’t seeming to adapt to you is indeed frustrating but it’s not necessarily wrong to have to do it.

        re: monologuers…. I have learned that if there’s a real point in there somewhere, I’ll *interrupt* to rephrase it to be sure I’ve got it, because asking for an email will result in a dissertation that takes them too long to write and takes me too long to read (and even then I zone out before I get to the point of the email).

  34. Phoenix*

    I had a coworker like this, with the additional complication that he thought I “essentially” reported to him when I didn’t. I’d tell him something like, “this task you’re trying to repurpose me to is outside my experience and training” and he’d start going on and on about how “we” had to get my confidence up, and “don’t worry, I have faith in you” and similar.

    I was trying to avoid saying “that’s not my job”, and didn’t have a lot of experience at the time, so I wasn’t very effective in shutting this down. What he wanted me to work on really wasn’t my job, and really wasn’t appropriate for me to be doing – he just wanted to do other work, so he was trying to get me to do his for him. I eventually had to pull in my own manager to resolve the situation, but the coworker kept trying to manage my emotions the whole time.

    What I found helped me was getting really, really repetitive in how I responded to the emotional manipulation – my catchphrase was “emotions don’t enter into it” or “we aren’t discussing my emotions”, said in a really calm, mildly surprised voice and followed up by repeating or rephrasing whatever it was I had said. It’s a variation on Captain Awkward’s “make it boring for them” tactic for manipulation.

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this!

  35. WantonSeedStitch*

    There are bits of this that remind me of my great-grand-boss. That person has a tendency to guess at/assign people’s emotional reactions, especially in big meetings. GGB will give us some piece of news, or talk about a new priority for our office, or something, and then call out someone at the table and describe their reaction to it (based, I can only assume, on how GGB is interpreting the person’s facial expression or body language). “So we’re really going to have to focus on preparing for Event X right now. Oh, Jane can’t WAIT for it to be over, right?” “Looks like we’re going to go with Vendor #1 for providing this product. Fergus is super skeptical! Don’t worry, Fergus, it’ll be fine!” It’s super weird. It’s not like it’s a question (e.g., “Fergus, you look skeptical–are there concerns you want to bring up?”)–it’s an assumption. It feels weirdly condescending and frustrating, like someone putting words in your mouth.

  36. Nicole*

    OP, do you ever try prefacing answers with things like, “as I already mentioned,” “like we were just discussing,” etc? I like Alison’s idea of asking how you can clarify yourself more; sounds to me like she’s not listening at all and this will put her on the spot. You could even go so far as to start asking, “does that make sense?” “everybody following?” or the like as you answer her. If it doesn’t make sense to her you go back to asking how to clarify it.

    Good luck. I’d have put my head through the wall by now.

  37. Tysons in NE*

    Sounds like similar that I went through in a previous job. A variation of a theme.
    Except that the manager in question couldn’t seem to retain information. It didn’t help that she was on her cell most of the meeting where I was trying to explain what was going on.
    I mainly shrugged it off as I was moving onto another job. I did bite my tongue and not say “well you might understand if you weren’t on cell the whole I was trying to explain what you need to know.”

  38. Dr. Anonymous*

    It might be a little helpful in the short term to admit the emotion, saying, for example, “I am frustrated. I really want to finish explaining the teapots issue,” or “…I really do need you to approve access to this database so I can move forward with this report.” Let her have her emotional label and a thing she can do to “fix” the imaginary feeling, while you work in the background to get the bigger issue addressed.

  39. JessicaTate*

    You note that you and Alex, the two most senior people in the department, agree on the problematic behavior. Do you happen to know if the others in your department, presumably more junior, are having the same experience with her? The fact that you called out the seniority issue made me genuinely curious of the bigger picture and if it might help shed some light on things.

    I think it reeks of her being insecure in her leadership / abilities, and is being very quick to push that back out on you. Or to frame interactions as you being defensive, rather than being more related to her inexperience in your field. If she’s only doing this with you and Alex, it supports that interpretation. But if she does this with everyone, well, then it may just be what she perceives to be leadership.

    I think it’s good that you’re being self-reflective about what parts of it are problematic for work (a lot of it) and which other parts might be just irritation at her that has spread to anything she does, that you can try to rein in. I’ve been there. I had a boss who was similar to Kelly (although older, not younger) and a lot of what she did was problematic, BUT it was important for me to try to distinguish those concrete things from the part that was a knee-jerk irritation/avoidance reaction I had any time she wanted to speak with me. (It sounds like you’re there too.) It was helpful to acknowledge where I could improve, try to do that, and shine even more of a light on the concrete ways she was bad at her job and not trying to improve. Good luck!

    1. Whatsitsname*

      I was thinking along the same lines. If you are both of the same cloth, you may not be the best judge for one another. Another department member might prove useful here.

      Also, I was a little creeped out at recording an interaction with Kelly. Did Kelly know this was happening? Who was the third party? Someone similar to Alex, another department member? A mentor? Again – I would find that creepy.

    2. OP*

      It’s a small department, but yes, one other person has expressed concern that Kelly seems aggressive and pushy.

      Thank you for your encouragement!

  40. Former Young Lady*

    From the comments, it looks like this “deflect criticism by telling other people how they feel” strategy is very on-trend right now. Insult them and then ask them why they’re so defensive. Bore or exhaust them and then tell them they “look tired.”

    Is this what became of the schoolyard bully who swatted you with your own hand and yelled “stop hitting yourself”?

  41. LGC*

    So, I’m going to write some fanfic here, and even though it’s late: can someone tell me if it’s off base?

    Hi Alison,

    I just started managing a new department a few months ago. It’s a bit out of my comfort zone, but I look forward to new challenges. I’m learning new skills and I feel like I’ve developed a lot as a manager in this new position.

    One issue, though, is with the senior employees on my team. For lack of a better word, they seem…almost hostile to me, and I can’t quite pick up on why. Let’s call them “Brenda” and “Alex.” They’re both about a decade older than me, and have far more experience in this field.

    In a lot of meetings – I’ll say about half of them – I’ll notice that they snap at me when I ask follow-up questions. (I’m sorry, this is new to me, I have a lot of questions!) When I’ve asked Brenda and Alex if it’s something I’ve done, they just don’t really respond. Lately, I’ve even noticed them trying to avoid my office entirely. I really want to build a good rapport with my team – I believe that warm relationships are key to a successful team – but I’m at a complete loss as to what to do.

    Because I can imagine that Kelly would have totally written that if she’d been the one to write in to AAM. (And if she wrote like me with abuse of parentheses and hyphens because she can’t write a complete sentence without skipping to five different places.) In this case, although Kelly is extremely exasperating and just reading this letter made me so tired, there’s at least the possibility that she could just be super oblivious.

    (There is also the chance that what she’s actually saying is “u mad?” to LW. Which…like, if that’s the case, Kelly should be fired. Into the sun. But that’s an entirely different scenario.)

    For what it’s worth, though, I’m pretty sympathetic to the LW, and not just because this resonates with me. (I just got out of an hour and a half long meeting just like this with a senior manager, who was playing Kelly in this scenario.) I’m not so sure it has that much to do with seniority directly…as it does experience. Not only is Kelly younger than the LW, she’s also coming from an entirely different background. (And in my case, even though the manager and I are about the same age and he has more experience in our field, he does not have much expertise in what I was talking about.) So she might not even know what she doesn’t know yet.

    I’m just wondering – has anyone who isn’t annoyed with her yet sat her down and given her a crash course in the basics of whatever your team does? Even though it’s been a few months, the way I’m seeing it is that Kelly has no idea what you guys are doing and is throwing out management buzzwords to keep her head above water. (This is one point where I disagree with Alison – I think it’s “management speak” in that Kelly is trying to defuse a tense situation. The problem is, of course, that it’s so transparent you could use it for a window.)

    1. OP*

      We’re doing our best to train Kelly (and other new staff members) but we’re in a busy season and understaffed, so extensive or leisurely explanations are impossible. Mostly we have hands on training, as we explain how this report works, or how this data element is defined. In this industry, we generally assume it will take 6-12 months for someone to find their feet, and up to 2 years before they can run on their own and take lead on major projects.

      1. LGC*


        But it also sounds like she’s STILL in the learning process, if she started a few months ago and she’s still getting up to speed. And the fact that you’re training new employees ALONG with Kelly makes it more difficult.

        At any rate, good luck! I’m hoping it’s just a phase for her. (I’ll admit, I’ve had my own “annoying” phases when switching to a new project.)

  42. Jimming*

    Not sure if this has been commented on yet, but I would also advise against listening to the meeting again. If it annoyed you when it happened, it’ll probably annoy you if you listen to it again. Alison gave some great advice about how to bring this up to your manager and CEO. Don’t make it worse for yourself by listening to that recording over and over. At least for me, that would end up making me more frustrated than finding a solution.

  43. stump*

    Did my mom secretly get a job in management? Because she also likes to gaslight people into thinking they’re “irrational” and “frustrated” and “overemotional” or “in a crabby mood” when all they’re doing is just existing with a neutral expression and not displaying one particular emotion or another.

  44. Statler von Waldorf*

    BOSS: Are you OK?
    ME: Yeah, why?
    BOSS: You have a sign that says “2 days without being annoyed”
    While maintaining eye contact, I change it to a zero.

  45. boop the first*

    Recording conversations, reviewing them, analyzing them… that’s a lot of work to be doing on behalf of another person who probably doesn’t even remember having the conversations afterward. She doesn’t deserve you.
    Is she really interrupting? Personally I would start there, and insist on finishing the answer. The derailing emotional test derails because it seems to work on you. The easiest way to “win” an argument is to change the topic of the argument. Sometimes you have to say “I thought you wanted to know ____, (return to topic)” or “You just asked a question, do you still want the answer?”
    The real challenge is getting a “non-defensive” tone. I don’t know if I would manage it!

  46. Fine Point Pen*

    You mention differing communication styles and I think that is exactly what is going on.

    I’m a highly technical person and previously had trouble with my “Let’s get on the same page.” “Let’s talk about this.” colleague. “Explaining” came across as “defensive” or “excuses” with them.

    This is going to seem counter intuitive but you can try building a better informal relationship with her. Stop by for 5 minutes in the morning and after lunch to chat about the weather or pets. If she thinks she’s on good terms with you she is less likely to be worried in meetings. Walk to the coffee shop with her and your other technical colleague. This was so hard for me because it felt like a disingenuous waste of time. But it was valuable to build the relationship.

    If it’s appropriate in the situation you can also try to curb your explaining a bit. A little less “I looked at that already. We can’t do that until we have the tea pot reports from the green tea department,” and a bit more, “I’ll get it to you as soon as we have the green tea department’s report next week.”

    Good luck.

    1. OP*

      That’s a good idea. Kelly seems to want auto-relationships, and I’m more introverted and tend to pull back when people push, so maybe I could initiate something on my own terms.

  47. BAismt*

    My manager has shown me a very useful tool to deal with a situation like this. It’s the phrase “Help me understand….”

    Such as
    Repeating the same question: “that sounds similar to the one I just answered. I think I’m not getting what you’re actually asking, can you help me understand?”

    Saying you are feeling something you aren’t: “I’ve heard you say that to me before but I’m not actually feeling frustrated. Can you help me understand why you think I am?” or “My body language must be off because I’m not frustrated at all. Can you help me understand what I’m doing that gives off that impression?”

    To succeedusing this, thought, is to say it with a real honest intention of driving out what the disconnect is. Approach the question with real curiosity on where the person is coming from. You may totally disagree with what comes out, but at least you’ll get where they are coming from

    1. OP*

      I will remember that! “Help me understand why…” is a useful non-committal phrase that should help move the conversation forward. Thank you.

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