is it bad for managers to sound frustrated or impatient?

A reader writes:

I am relatively new to management and I have a question about a specific incident, which raises the issue of whether a good boss should ever show impatience.

One of my direct reports, Jane, does a good job. I’ve given her a lot of (genuinely well-deserved) praise in public and private, and she’s said she’s happy in her work.

However, she made quite a serious error the other day and when I brought it up with her, she shrugged and said it couldn’t be helped. I confess that my tone got impatient and I said something like, “No, we need to fix this because otherwise X.” I promise I wasn’t shouting or using bad language or otherwise being a jerk, but I definitely sounded impatient.

I could see she was surprised, probably because I am usually cheerful and mellow. We worked together in the moment and found a solution, all good now.

Later that same day, I noticed she was teary at her desk and I asked what was wrong. She could only shake her head and so I patted her arm and said, “Okay, I’ll leave you alone but let me know if you want to take a break or something.”

Today I was meeting with our branch’s other manager and she said, “I want to tell you something.” Evidently she too noticed that Jane was not okay and asked her what was wrong. Jane answered that I’d been disrespectful to her, and that she needed to be respected at work or else she’d quit.

The other manager was really good about bringing it up with me, phrasing it in terms of, “I know you weren’t horrible to her and she was being oversensitive, I am just letting you know. Maybe just say it more gently next time.”

I was taken aback because it never even occurred to me that I had upset her!

I found myself thinking that as I was going through my career progression, I have had a lot of harsh bosses who would shout and say demeaning comments. I honestly didn’t think that saying something impatiently would even register with someone. Am I so inured now that I’m inadvertently perpetuating some of these negative patterns?

In terms of going forward, I tend to think “least said, soonest mended.” The original problem is resolved, Jane seems to have cheered up, and so I am going to move on. It occurred to me briefly that I might apologize, but it wouldn’t be a genuine apology at this point. I’m also mindful of not undermining my own authority. The fact is, I’m responsible for the department’s work so if I point out a serious mistake, that needs to be taken seriously, not shrugged off.

However, this has made me really question myself. Am I often upsetting people without even realizing it? Should I be more careful about sounding impatient or brusque while I am in this role?

It’s impossible to say without knowing more about your tone, and about Jane.

Maybe your tone was too harsh! If you’re used to being around managers who yell and demean people, it’s possible that you’ve calibrated your norms wrong, and you’re too harsh with people who work for you without realizing it.

It’s also possible that most reasonable people wouldn’t have had a problem with your tone, and Jane’s reaction is about something else. That “something else” could be Jane herself (for example, maybe she’s unusually sensitive when criticized or maybe an outside stressor is making her more reactive to things at work right now), or it could be a piece of context that you don’t know about/aren’t considering (for example, maybe you’ve been excessively critical with her recently, or maybe she’s been working 70-hour weeks and figures you should cut her some slack).

To figure this out, ask yourself what you know about Jane. Have you seen her take criticism in stride before? Was this reaction out of character for her? Or have you seen other signs that she takes criticism very personally?

Also, think about what you know about yourself. Have people in your life (including outside of work) told you that you come across aggressively or harshly sometimes? Do people tend to appreciate your feedback or shut down when you give it? Is this the first time someone has reacted badly to feedback from you?

You could also talk more with the other manager who mentioned this, if she knows your style pretty well. You could say, “I’ve been thinking about Jane’s reaction the other day, and I want to make sure I’m not oblivious to something in my style that could have caused it. I realize it could have been a one-off, but I don’t want to assume that without any reflection. If you’ve seen signs I can be too harsh with people I work with, I’d be grateful to know — or for any other insight you have.”

Now, to your actual question: Should managers ever show impatience?

In an ideal world, managers should talk to people who work for them calmly and matter-of-factly. If you’re impatient or frustrated, it’s usually more effective to state your concerns and what you need the person to do differently, rather than to rely on your tone to convey that. In fact, using your words is much clearer! If you’re relying on tone, there’s a lot more room for the person to misinterpret your message.

For example, when Jane shrugged and said her error couldn’t be helped, you could have said, “I really disagree! This is a serious issue because of X, and we do need to fix it.” Your tone there would be concerned but matter-of-fact — not angry (here’s a recording of what I mean). Of course, I don’t know exactly what you mean when you said you sounded impatient. Maybe it was exactly this. If so, that type of thing is fine.

You don’t need a harsher tone than that because you’re in charge of the situation. You’re the manager, your decisions are final, and ultimately the person needs to answer to you. That’s exactly why managers who yell are so bizarre: aside from yelling being a crappy thing to do to people (I’d argue it’s abusive), they have the power to get people to do what they want without resorting to yelling. And that’s true of tone in general.

So in general as a manager, you should rely on clear, direct words when you’re concerned about something. It’s a rare situation where your tone should be anything other than simply concerned, serious, or matter-of-fact when you’re addressing a problem.

Managers are human, of course, so you might mess this up. If you do, acknowledge that and apologize for it (“I spoke too sharply earlier, and I apologize for that”). But whether or not that’s needed here still feels like a question.

{ 292 comments… read them below }

  1. TotesMaGoats*

    I think the thing that is sticking out to me is the reported reaction from Jane. “Disrepected” not hurt or upset or anything else.
    I think the OP was probably fine but if you are used to praise and generally have a good relationship, it could have come as quite the shock and seemed “worse” than any other correction. If you are used to a distant manager or angry manager, you learn to role with it and any criticism flows through that. The even semi harsh response from a “nice” manager seems like an attack.
    OP, you sound like a pretty thoughtful person. I’d keep this reaction in mind for the future. Being told you’ve done something wrong, especially if it’s really wrong and you are flip about it, is not disrespect.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Yeah, that stood out to me too. She didn’t say she felt OP was harsh or rude or something, but disrespectful. Pointing out that mistakes need to be fixed and a flippant attitude is not the right one is not disrespect. It’s necessary.

      If anything, it’s disrespectful to shrug when you’re told you made a mistake.

      1. WellRed*

        I had a pharmacy tech shrug at me once when I asked her a question. That branch has since had a customer service retraining ; )

          1. Scarlet*

            Eh I’m not sure. Sounds like WellRed is just adding that he/she agrees that shrugging is a bit disrespectful in certain situations.

            I don’t know – if I asked a pharmacy tech “am I going to die if I take this” and they shrugged, I wouldn’t really be ok with that answer lol

          2. LawBee*

            Dude, I would totally ask for the manager if I asked a pharmacy tech a question and got a shrug. There’s a higher standard when they’re dealing with my medications and my insurance – a shrug is incredibly dismissive.

          3. Falling Diphthong*

            That’s not minor. If I have a question about a drug I’m taking, whether side effects or how much it will cost after insurance, it’s not a minor thing to shrug off.

            (I feel like this is mirroring the letter a bit: “What about X?” “Eh, let’s ignore it.” “NO LET’S NOT.” Is that disrespectful or called for?)

          4. WellRed*

            kayl, I actually sent an email to the regional manager for the store to express my concern over the rudeness in response to a politely asked and legit question. What if she pulled that shrug on someone who was ill or stressed or even more confused than I was? It was a pharmacy after all. Dealing with meds and insurance isn’t minor.

          5. Kathleen_A*

            Yes, depending on the question, this may not have been minor at all. “Where is the wrapping paper that’s on sale?” is minor. “Does my insurance cover this?” isn’t minor, and “Are there any potential interactions between these two prescriptions?” is really, really major.

          6. Liane*

            As a customer service associate who has dealt with many rude customers, it doesn’t sound like WellRed was being petty. In fact, if I’ve told managers/supervisors about more than a few coworkers I witnessed treating reasonable customers that way.
            It may be just me, kayl, but your comment reminds me of the excuses my rude co-irkers made when held accountable for their rudeness.

      2. AnnaBananna*

        I’m actually a little concerned about her use of disrespect as it conveys a bit of a power struggle where there really shouldn’t be one.

        OP: I would 100% close the loop with Jane. NOT to apologize, because frankly her response was inappropriate. I would walk her through your expectations for the role, after you both discuss in depth why it ‘couldn’t be helped’. Make sure she understands that her role isn’t allowed to simply give up when she comes across this type of obstacle in the future, because she kind of behaves as if she’s not being paid to think critically, which I’m sure is incorrect…

        1. President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club*

          I completely agree with this. If Jane is feeling disrespected because she received some corrective feedback, that’s potentially a big problem.

        2. Devil Fish*

          All of the worst people I’ve worked with claimed they were being disrespected at work because they had no valid complaints and “disrespect” is vague and subjective and wibbly-wobbly enough to stick even if it makes zero sense in context.

          Jane is probably not horrifically incompetent and/or on the wrong side of the Dunning-Kruger effect but it would be a good idea for LW to take this seriously enough to have a meeting with Jane to ask what about the interaction felt disrespectful (since Jane threatened to quit if the disrespect continued omgwtfsrsly)—if for no other reason than to have advance warning that she may throw a tanty and walk off the job the next time a legitimate correction is pointed out to her less than gently.

    2. Future Homesteader*

      This was my exact thought, as well. This is all highly subjective, and it could just be how Jane is expressing her feelings, but feeling “disrespected” is not the reaction I would think one would have to being spoken to in an inappropriately harsh manner (or even just an appropriately harsh manner, if you’re someone who is sensitive – which I am). Disrespected reads to me like Jane is upset about being contradicted/corrected, not that OP crossed a line with her tone.

      That said, I think Alison’s advice is, as usual, spot-on. OP, do some hard thinking about what else you know about yourself, Jane, and the situation, and act accordingly. And honestly, I would err on the side of apologizing, just in general. Yes, I know that especially if you’re a woman, you might not want to default to apologizing. But as a manger, you have power, and being in a position of power but still being willing to be kind and admit if you’ve done something wrong is rarely a bad thing! Especially if Jane is otherwise a good employee who generally takes correction well.

      1. Amber T*

        I wonder if Jane is being disrespected (or “disrespected”) by other coworkers, and OP’s impatient tone was kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I agree that “disrespected” isn’t the usual reaction for this one-off thing, but she’s being talked harshly to/talked down to by others, and if she’s used to OP not doing so, I could see feeling disrespected from that.

        1. Future Homesteader*

          Absolutely! There could be more going on, which is why I think this warrants careful reflection on OP’s part, and most likely a non-judgmental follow up with Jane to check in (and apologize for the tone) is the best course of action here. OP may be surprised at what she hears. Or she won’t be, but she’ll still have done the right thing.

        2. Glitsy Gus*

          I think it would be worth looking into the overall situation here if you’re worried about that. If someone is generally feeling put down and then the one person who’s usually nice snaps at them it can be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.

          At the same time, I’ve found that a whole lot of people don’t actually understand the definition of the word “disrespect” and basically use it interchangeably with “that hurt my feelings.” Just because Jane didn’t like how the manager phrased something or it hurt her feelings to be reprimanded, however mildly, doesn’t necessarily mean it was disrespectful. That’s why, if OP does have a good relationship with the other manager, it might be a good thing to get a bit of a reality check from an outside party.

          1. Devil Fish*

            This is valid. I’ve Socratic-method slow-walked people from “disrespectful!!1!” to “it was embarrassing to be corrected” plenty of times, especially people who think admitting to hurt feelings makes you weak but being disrespected is a transgression that justifies severe retaliation.

      2. sunny-dee*

        One thing that jumps out to me is that OP didn’t address what Jane actually said — Jane said the mistake was unavoidable while the OP berated her because the mistake was serious. But Jane didn’t say it wasn’t serious — she said it was unavoidable, and apparently never got a chance to say why. If she had bad information from another department or the client missed a deadline or something else that was totally outside her control, the mistake really was unavoidable and yelling at Jane isn’t going to fix the underlying problem.

        1. Lance*

          Honestly, though, I’d put that in at least some part on Jane. It’s not really good form to just shrug and say ‘it couldn’t be helped’; tell the manager why that is before they (rightfully) get as concerned about it as OP did.

          1. Sparrow*

            Not just say why, but then focus on finding a solution. Mistakes happen, and, yes, sometimes they’re out of your hands and you can’t avoid them. But to shrug instead of turning your attention to solving the problem? In context, I can imagine that reading as back-to-back refusals to take this seriously, and that’s the part that would irk me in OP’s situation.

          1. Lexi Lynn*

            While the OP was there and probably read it correctly, I was putting myself Jane’s position with the scenario of “I need to explain this without throwing someone else under the bus” and my body language seems like it could be interpreted as a shrug while I’m trying to figure out what to say.

        2. LKW*

          I think the word ‘berated’ is unnecessarily harsh. Reiterating a point and not accepting at face value that a mistake is unavoidable, is not berating.

        3. boo bot*

          I noticed this, too. I can see how “it couldn’t be helped” could come across as dismissive depending on the tone, but if Jane is generally a conscientious worker (which it sounds like she is) who takes responsibility for her actions, then I would be inclined to take that statement literally.

          And, if I were trying to tell my boss, “the error you’re talking about was unavoidable because of something beyond my control” and their response was to harshly tell me to fix it without letting me explain what happened, I would absolutely feel disrespected. I’ve dealt a lot with people whose approach to life was, “It’s your fault if I say it’s your fault, and all explanations are just excuses,” and it’s frankly just a disrespectful attitude to have toward other people. (And ultimately self-defeating: if you’re busy yelling at me for letting everyone go home early, you’re not giving me a chance to warn you about the hornet infestation.)

          The OP doesn’t sound like they’re coming from that perspective at all, to be clear, but I can see how it might have felt a bit like that to Jane.

          1. sunny-dee*

            I am totally speculating here, but I have been in a situation where I had informed my manager, repeatedly, that if X didn’t happen than Y was going to be late or dropped from a deliverable. And yet, when X didn’t happen, suddenly Y was a new and horrible and unexpected emergency. My response probably was pretty close to shrugging — like, yes, I’ve been telling you every 2-3 days for the last month if X then Y, so I’m not particularly shocked or upset right now (even if the problem itself is serious). And, in fact, my manager did try to blame me for this, he overreacted, and his lack of respect (and awareness) was the major factor in me looking for a new job.

            It’s possible that Jane totally dropped the ball and then refused to take responsibility. That is a major issue. But it’s also possible that Jane wasn’t the one at fault here and there really isn’t a lot that she can do to prevent this kind of problem in the future, so being impatient with her really is pointless and disrespectful.

          2. Emily K*

            Hm – I had interpreted the past tense here differently. It sounded like the employee was saying she couldn’t fix the error, rather than saying she couldn’t have avoided making it, and that LW put that in the past tense because the exchange was past tense: “She shrugged and said it couldn’t be helped… I said something like, ‘No, we need to fix this because otherwise X.'”

            The response of, “No, we need to fix this,” sounds like a response to, “This can’t be fixed,” rather than, “This error couldn’t have been avoided.”

            1. Ace in the Hole*

              I think the point still stands that if a generally competent and conscientious employee says “this can’t be fixed,” the response should not be an irritated “We have to fix it or else.”

              I have been in the position of telling my boss that there is no way to fix a problem that will get the results they want, or at least no way to do so with the resources we have. It is absolutely disrespectful to ignore that kind of input. It disregards the knowledge and experience of the employee and is condescending by implying that they are ignorant to the potential consequences. A more appropriate response might be to walk Jane through how OP would like her to solve it, or ask what the major roadblocks are, or look at alternatives for damage control.

        4. Kella*

          But the OP also says that they worked together to find a solution and everything was fine after. I don’t know whether that was fixing the original error or fixing whatever circumstances that lead to the error, but it seems like in order to formulate a solution, OP would have to have enough information about the situation that if this really was an unavoidable error, OP would know the reason. OP would’ve had to totally bulldoze Jane and not listen to her at all in order to form a solution that totally ignored the real reason for the error, and we don’t have any reason here to believe that OP manages that way.

      3. Agree!*

        This really felt to me like Jane didn’t like being held accountable and was embarrassed so that the crying in public was a bit performative. It allowed her to say, ‘See, OP disrespected me so much I’m literally overcome’, when someone unfamiliar with the situation, but still with some authority, asked her what was up. Now OP’s on her back foot so the focus isn’t on Jane’s mistake and cavalier attitude but rather how mean OP is. I don’t have a good feeling about Jane…

        1. Glitsy Gus*

          Yeah, I think there may be a bit of this. Also, shrugging off mistakes to your manager is pretty disrespectful in itself. If I were her manager I would probably call her out on being cavalier as well. I mean, maybe it really couldn’t be helped, but if that’s the case tell me why, don’t just say ‘oh well’ and go about your business.

          Also, “it hurt my feelings” and “that was disrespectful” are not the same thing, though a lot of people use them interchangeably, so was it really disrespectful? Or is Jane just upset because her feelings were hurt? Ideally reprimands shouldn’t bring someone to tears, and if she was already having a bad day and OP’s tone hit harder than it normally would that sucks, and OP could try to keep an eye on that in order to be more effective in the future, but it isn’t necessarily disrespectful.

        2. yala*

          “This really felt to me like Jane didn’t like being held accountable and was embarrassed so that the crying in public was a bit performative”

          I mean…some of us just cry. It happens. RSD is a thing, but also, just…some people cry easily. The suspicion that it’s just “performative” is something we’re well aware of, and that just makes it worse.

          1. Devil Fish*

            Yeah, I’m an easy-crier. I have overactive mirror neurons or something and literally anything will set me off most of the time. It sucks and I hate it and I know it’s unprofessional but I also know it’s just something my eyes do sometimes and I try to minimize it as much as possible. I was written up once by a manager because I started silently crying during a meeting where she verbalizing the cost/benefit of whether to fire me if I took another day off sick (chronic illness, awful insurance plan but desperately needed the job) and she refused to continue the meeting until I “got control of [myself].”

            LW needs to consider what they know about Jane and whether she cries often or dramatically and how she usually handles it.

        3. aebhel*

          Yeah, that was kind of my read as well. Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure without the rest of the context, but crying in public at work over being told she made a serious mistake is, uh… not super professional on the surface of it.

      4. Melissa*

        We don’t know that Jane takes correction well, though. She’s described as being a good employee, with some praise from the LW. This may be a combination of not being used to getting any corrections, and defensiveness over the error. I think sine the LW has looked at her own behavior, and Jane is back to behaving normally, that this one can be put to rest. What I wish we knew is, did Jane self-report the error, or was it discovered?

      5. Eukomos*

        My manager has trouble with being disrespectful to her staff, and a big part of it is tone. It’s not so much harsh as it is unnecessarily condescending, and it can really damage her relationship with some people. The tone is also combined with a poor ability to judge what people know and don’t know; she condescendingly explains things to people that they clearly already are aware of, and then speaks harshly when they don’t know some non-obvious thing that she has decided they should have somehow divined.

        Possibly Jane felt that she had shown awareness that it was a serious problem, and by scolding her for not taking it seriously enough OP was being disrespectful and not paying attention to whatever her major concern was that she was trying to bring attention to in the meeting? Take it from me, that kind of dynamic can be really frustrating and upsetting.

    3. londonedit*

      That’s what stood out to me, too. If Jane had said ‘I was taken aback by the tone OP used with me earlier; it’s not how we usually communicate and I felt it was out of proportion to the conversation we were having’, then fair enough. But when people immediately reach for ‘So-and-so is disrespecting me’ I tend to feel like it’s more of a ‘them’ problem and that Jane probably doesn’t take criticism well. Yes, there are times when bad managers can be genuinely disrespectful, and of course we don’t know the OP’s tone of voice, but in general people should expect their manager to occasionally have to give them negative feedback, and that on its own doesn’t count as ‘being disrespectful’.

      1. matcha123*

        I don’t know about that. There are definitely ways of speaking to people that are disrespectful.
        It’s hard to tell from the letter whether the OP took her ‘shrug’ as not caring, versus her ‘shrug’ being her personality. Along with that, the way the letter was written sounds like rather than approaching the employee saying “This was a problem, we need to find a solution,” it sounds more like she said “This was a problem” and then later said “Wait we need to fix this!”

      1. C in the Hood*

        Yes, especially since this seems like a one-time thing. My manager has occasionally been impatient with me , but I’ve never jumped to “this has to change or I’ll quit!”

        1. goducks*

          Yeah, that’s quite the escalation, especially if the OP is accurately representing the conversation and the history.

        2. Emily S*

          Agreed. Jumping right to, “I’ll quit over this,” when it’s a single incident that didn’t involve shouting, cursing, or physically aggressive displays (throwing things, slamming things, etc) seems seriously disproportionate.

          It somewhat reminds me of a young woman who used to rent an apartment in my basement. For even the smallest inquiries or requests, she would cite landlord-tenant law even though I had never denied or pushed back on any request she’d made, and from the beginning of the process I had been complying with all the rental laws in my area including using my county’s boilerplate sample lease to ensure everything in the lease was legit. Maybe she had a bad experience before and was just trying to cover her bases this time around, but from my perspective it came off like she was liable to become litigious and was trying to create a paper trail for a lawsuit which just felt incredibly unwarranted in the context of our business relationship. I got rid of her after a year because I couldn’t take the anxiety of living in fear of her suing me over something frivolous like, IDK, nothing ever happened but I would worry about things like, “If there’s a non-emergency plumbing issue and my preferred plumber I work with can’t come out until 2 days from now instead of same-day is she going to find fault in that because I could have called the super pricey same-day corporate plumber?” She just seemed like an expensive time bomb waiting to go off.

      2. Archaeopteryx*

        Yes, people overly concerned with being ‘disrespected’ are often unreasonable and unwilling to admit fault. If she’s filing legitimate feedback as disrespectful then that’s a huge red flag.

    4. Witchy Human*

      One thing that does seem a touch condescending to me is the arm pat. If Jane assumed LW knew that her brusqueness was the cause of the tears, which is quite plausible, I wouldn’t blame her if an “are you okay” and an arm pat rubbed her the wrong way.

      1. ChimericalOne*

        Yeah, that part could’ve come across as condescending or rude if Jane thought it was obvious that she was upset about the mistake.

      2. Aurion*

        Yeah, that part I thought was disrespectful/condescending; as an adult professional, I don’t need to you manage my feelings. But I’d be annoyed about it, not in tears, and I wouldn’t use that annoyance as the fuel for possibly quitting unless there is a much larger pattern of condescension.

        1. Ico*

          If she is openly crying in the office to where another manager has to ask what’s wrong, someone needs to be managing her feelings. Ideally it would be her.

        2. Nonny*

          The way that some people express annoyance IS tears. I’m an angry crier and I wish I wasn’t because it’s caused a lot of problems for me, but it’s literally a physiological reaction that I can’t control.

      3. Avasarala*

        Eh, I can see an arm pat going either way, but I think you’re not allowed to complain about how people try to console you when you’re visibly crying in the office.

        1. Who Plays Backgammon*

          But being touched by anyone–you get to set the boundaries on that, even with a manager. You don’t have to allow it. And the arm pat, to me, sounded a little “there, there, dearie.”

    5. Kathleen_A*

      It’s not a good sign, that’s for sure. It could be that the OP was too harsh, but out of all the words that could have been used to describe one’s reaction to this particular reprimand, “disrespect” is a strange one to pick. The shrug really bothers me, too, but that might be explained by the fact that Jane clearly didn’t know what to say.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        Jane is entitled to her emotions. Maybe a little exploring and listening to Jane is in order.

        1. aebhel*

          Jane is entitled to her emotions, but ‘entitled to her emotions’ doesn’t mean ‘entitled to act however she wants’, and unless OP is misrepresenting what happened, nothing here says that Jane was disrespected. Negative feedback isn’t disrespect.

    6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      It’s true that addressing mistakes is not disrespectful, but it’s entirely possible that OP came across more “shout-y” than they realized.

      When I was a very young law student intern, my supervisor was a very junior attorney. She gave me a hurried assignment with incomplete direction. I came up with a condensed outline, emphasized that it was a very nascent draft, and asked to meet with her to discuss. She “screamed” at me for 45 minutes—her voice was at a normal volume, but her tone was exasperated, impatient, accusatory, and condescending. I can usually deal with harsh feedback, but I was incredibly shaken up, sat at my desk for the rest of my shift on the verge of tears, and ultimately ended up quitting over it.

      It’s possible that OP’s tone undermined their message. Some impatient tones can sound condescending, belittling, or abusive. “Disrespectful” may not have been the right word, but it’s such a specific concern that I suspect that OP’s impatient tone may be harsher than they realize. Jane may be over the top by threatening to quit over it, and it sounds like she was substantively in the wrong. It may be that OP’s tone was perfectly acceptable. But this is a helpful early warning sign in case their impatient tone is worse than they realize.

      1. Shan*

        I had a partner teacher when I was doing my main practicum who seems very similar to your supervisor. She offered me no direction, was never available, and was so unbelievably condescending and rude when she gave feedback… but it was never loud. And I can almost guarantee she doesn’t think she was ever being harsh – in fact, the one time I started crying in front of her, after she’s ripped apart a lesson I’d spent all night putting together off a very vague description and been forced to teach with zero review (because she arrived two minutes before class), I apologized out of embarrassment and said “I’m sorry, it’s not your fault” (even though it was, kind of) and she replied “Oh, I know, I wasn’t concerned it was.”

        I’m absolutely not saying the OP was anything like this, just that tone and word choice can convey a lot. Plus, Jane’s statement is being reported secondhand by the other manager, so there’s potentially context missing or phrasing altered.

      2. Lady Blerd*

        I was a witness to this exact situation a few weeks ago, to the point where I poked my head it so the supervisor knew that he could be heard by other on the floor. It was a horrible situation but luckily the employee got the resolution she wanted from that drama.

    7. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Maybe! It’s definitely possible. But if the OP unknowingly has a pattern of speaking to Jane disrespectfully, this could have been the last straw. That’s why the OP needs to look at evidence on both sides.

    8. Dust Bunny*

      I work in a discipline where literally nobody is the slightest bit endangered if I mess up and there is no way I’d shrug if my boss pointed out an error to me. OK, maybe the LW was more brusque than she meant to be, but maybe Jane is a prima donna.

    9. Don*

      Let’s remember this is second-hand, we don’t know how Jane really communicated this. Probably better to focus on what we can know for certain than try to precisely parse a retelling.

    10. Mia*

      That stood out to me too. This is obviously just an anecdotal thing, but the only people I’ve ever met/worked with who default to “so-and-so disrespected me” instead of like, “so-and-so was being harsh/hurtful” have been pretty resistant to criticism in general.

  2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    My experience is that employees who complain about being “disrespected” when corrected are usually problem employees. Keep her on a short leash, document all of your interactions with her, and be ready for her to escalate this into a serious conflict.

    1. Snark*

      I share your sense that this is a potential issue. I’ve worked with several people who get really wrapped up in “respect” when they screw up and catch a little flak for it. No spoiler, people who prioritize their standing over their accountability are not always the most accountable colleagues!

      If you’re going to be flippant and dismissive when your boss tells you about a critical mistake, I don’t think you can complain about being disrespected when you get a sharp response. “It can’t be helped” is not a constructive response from someone taking an issue seriously, and it should not come as a surprise if that garners a sharp response.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        ‘…people who prioritize their standing over their accountability are not always the most accountable colleagues!’

        Well said. I’ve experienced this with a very small number of direct reports – thankfully – but also with peers/team members. Some self-appointed experts in any/all things dug in their heels when it would have been better for them to simply acknowledge the issue, correct it, and move on.

      2. JSPA*

        I wonder if someone who uses “disrespect” to mean “I felt bad and not valued” might use phrases slightly idiosyncratically or loosely. Not intentionally, in a Lewis Carroll Caterpillar way, either.

        OP, have you noticed anything like that? If Jane’s approach to language involves lobbing balls in the general direction of the right base on the mistaken assumption that it’s how everyone plays the game, it might help to clear the air, to ask her what she intended to convey by “it can’t be helped.”

        I have met people whose sensitivity to language nuance is low enough (or they learned from people of whom that was true?) that they could very well use “it can’t be helped” to mean, “oh, that’s too bad” or “oops, my bad” or “dang, I guess that got away from me.” It’s not a lippy blocking off of the “what do we do next” conversation; it’s a (sloppy) intro to that conversation.

        If Jane (legit) intended her words to express understanding and contrition…and then you jumped on her for being flip and unconcerned…that would account for her level of distress. I don’t think you have anything to lose by gaming the conversation through with her:

        You’re used to her taking responsibility and working with you to make sure that anything broken, gets fixed. When you heard her use a phrase that’s literally, classically used to blow off responsibility and further action, you were startled. Thinking back on it, you started to wonder if she uses the phrase more generally, or perhaps ironically. What was she trying to communicate, when she used it? [if different than the standard meaning]: Can she see how that would have landed as meaning something very different, and much more problematic, than her intention? With her intention now clear, you feel a lot better about her attitude at the time. Does she understand that you were responding to what sounded, at the time, like entirely unexpected, overt disrespect for the job?

        Reiterate that, when there seems to be some sort of intense disconnect between our positive experience of a person, and a feeling of disrespect, it’s essential to keep communication open, to figure out how the misunderstandings played out.

        On the other hand, if Jane is usually good, but she’s really fried and reactive at the moment, it’s fair to say, “it’s because I respect your commitment and professionalism that your response landed so strangely. If you’re getting burnt out, I’d rather have you take a little time off [check first that she has time off, to take!] than have this job wear you down to the point where work feels wearing and antagonistic.”

        Finally, if she’s trusting enough to tell you what words (not swear words, just cutting ones) she feels a manager should not ever use, with a trusted, generally good employee? That’s worth managerial gold. THANK HER. Confirm that it’s not always easy to hear, but it’s much harder for her to say it, and she’s done you a great favor.

    2. Tuckerman*

      Maybe? But in this case the LW says Jane does a good job and is happy in her job. To me this sounds more like someone who is not reprimanded often, caught off guard by a sharp criticism she thought wasn’t deserved.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I wonder if the LW in general is not as firm as she needs to be, then. I am very rarely corrected by my supervisor but if I make a mistake, yes, I expect him to call me on it. I have never shrugged off a correction but I would totally expect him to be short with me if I did.

    3. boop the first*

      True, maybe it’s unfair in this case, but it’s good to know that “respect” is a word that is commonly abused by jerks. A lot of people who are known as “jerks” have this overlap in conversation that goes: “Yeah, I’m a good guy, but people should know that I’m blunt. I’m an HONEST person, and I’m blunt. If you RESPECT me, I’ll RESPECT you.”

      Jerks are always going on about how much they deserve respect. Maybe Jane’s not a jerk, but the association is there for a bunch of us, so maybe take some care in using it.

      1. CupcakeCounter*

        Agree. I once responded to a person you told me I needed to respect them with “No actually I don’t. Respect is earned, not owed.”

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          This is also abused by jerks, though.

          Example from my problem employee:
          Boss: Please hurry up, you’re late and the kids you’re supposed to be teaching are unsupervised.
          Problem Employee: You are DISRESPECTING ME!
          Boss later: You cannot yell at me in front of the children.
          Problem employee: Respect is EARNED, I will not respect YOU until you RESPECT me.

          1. Parenthetically*

            I can’t remember where I first read it, but there’s a whole segment of society who, when they say, “I’ll respect you when you respect me,” mean, “I’ll treat you like a human being when you treat me like an authority figure.”

          2. Archaeopteryx*

            Exactly. The only people I’ve ever heard say the phrase “Respect is earned” have been abusive creeps.

            1. boo bot*

              For real. There’s two kinds of respect: the respect that’s a basic right, that we should all have for everyone, everywhere, all the time. And, earned respect for individual people, which you do in fact have to earn, through actions.

              People who say “respect is earned” usually mean, “I deserve earned respect as a basic right, and you have no basic right to any kind of respect at all.”

              1. Eukomos*

                Very well put, and totally in line with my experience. When people say “respect is earned” it’s usually a red flag.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  Agreed, boo bot has a handle on this one.

                  Growing up, I heard this expression so. damn. much. The thing that I noticed was that no one could ever arrive at that point where they were respected. They were in constant earning mode. And no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, they still had not earned respect.

                  We can’t hit a moving target, especially when it’s zigzagging all over the place. There were points where it made sense to me to stop trying so hard. So I did.

                  But this side discussion here is wonderful to read. I did not realize others had reached similar conclusions. I did notice much less talk of earned respect as I grew older and I added that to the list of how society has changed for the better.

              2. Door Guy*

                The phrasing I’ve seen is that there is respect to authority, and respect to fellow man. And those “Respect is Earned” people tend to use it as “If you won’t respect me as an authority, I won’t respect you as a human.”

            2. Devil Fish*

              I’ve used the phrase “respect is earned” when talking to abusive creeps, but that was in response to their demand that I respect their opinion that I shouldn’t have basic human rights, so the context is probably a little different than how the creeps use it.

        2. JSPA*

          You respect someone’s HUMANITY with no further qualifications. That’s owed. It’s along the line of holding certain truths to be self-evident.

          You respect their ABILITY and potential based on an optimistic extrapolation from their current expressed talents, in light of any known, relevant history.

          You respect their PERFORMANCE based on what they’re showing you today, with very conservative extrapolation from yesterday, last week, and last month.

          If you push someone to the point of feeling disrespected in their basic humanity–even in the face of absolutely sucky performance or jerk-ass attitude–you’re being a jerk, and a bad manager. If they can’t hear anything against their performance without conflating it with basic human respect, they’re being a problem employee. Both of those things, however, can happen concurrently.

    4. Bulldog*

      I agree. I, personally, think Jane should have been gone yesterday. Not for the mistake, but for her nonchalant response.

      1. JSPA*

        If it’s wildly out of character, it makes more sense to dig deeper. Good employees are not so common that they ought to be fired for one strange phrase (especially one which some people use incorrectly) or bad moment. After all, people have been forgiven for pushing the wrong button and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes that wrong button event is a passing attitude or phrase, not a bad keystroke.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I got forgiven for generating $66k that did not exist. ;)

          OP, one thing I have done that perhaps you have already done, but skipped in your letter, is to ask how the mistake happened. Then I remained quiet and listened. You know, I learned A LOT of stuff this way. Yes, it involved me getting down in the weeds with their work, but I learned about bigger problems that actually were MY responsibility. If I had not taken the time to analyze how the problem of the moment happened, I would not have learned of the larger issue.

          This led to comments such as, “Can’t you just yell at me, do we HAVE to sit down and figure out why something happened????”But once they got used to my sincerity and they got used to me taking action to prevent recurrences, they became really good trouble-shooters. They’d have a problem half-solved before they even brought it to me.

          To start this ball rolling, I said, “Bring me mistakes or problems. I won’t get upset with anyone if you are finding problems or trying to fix them.” (Previous boss would get upset.)

          For me, the fact that she did not tell you there was a problem is the bigger deal. The fact that it is “not fixable” has little to no bearing. As a supervisor I still need to know about problems that are not fixable.
          And privately, I tend to believe that the supervisor makes the final determination if something is fixable or not. This is because the supervisor/boss has a broader perspective of what is going on in the workplace.

      2. MaxiesMommy*

        Jane should go because she doesn’t understand her job, therefore she doesn’t communicate important info downstream. If line employees understand why X must not happen, they’re careful to see that it doesn’t. The “oh well” attitude would have many managers seeing payroll.

      3. Parenthetically*

        I… what? One instance of having the wrong response to something and you fire an otherwise productive, happy, competent employee whom you’ve repeatedly and genuinely praised for her good work in the past? Mmmmm, it’s a no from me, dawg.

    5. tamarack and fireweed*

      Even if this were true (it ooes not fit my experience) I think it would be terrible advice to make a visible attitude change of this sort. For two reasons:

      – Workplaces are not in actual fact particularly respectful places. We see descriptions of disrespectful managers every day on AAM. If you actually are being disrespected, complaining about being disrespected is fully justified.
      – Not to make a fine point of it, employees do not get disrespected randomly at work. People in certain groups are more likely to be disrespected than others. If you follow the rule to change your attitude to a more adversarial one (whatever the metaphor of “keeping them on a short leash” might mean — I hear, reduced autonomy, closer scrutiny of their actions) you will treat your reports inequitably. This is how discrimination is perpetuated by people who think they are following apparently neutral principles.

      By any means, make a note of any interactions that pertain to any conflict you’re involved in. There may be many reasons you may want to refer back to the time this happened and your notes of the moment.

    6. JoJo*

      Yeah, the advice seems strange — managers need to be able to … manage, ESPECIALLY when a mistake has been made. And the teary behavior and complaining NOT to OP but to someone else to address the OP is unprofessional, at the least. I’m just weirded out by the assumption that the OP is the one who is all wrong.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        But it doesn’t sound like Jane went searching for the other manager to complain. It sounds like the other manager noticed Jane was upset and asked if anything was wrong. I get Jane not wanting or not feeling ready to talk to her own manager about it, but I also understand why everything would spill out to the next sympathetic person to appear. It’s not necessarily professional, but it’s human. I think all of us have fallen out of our professional personas from time to time when emotions are in play.

        I just don’t think we have enough information to know if all the reactions here are proportional. I agree with Alison’s advice for OP to really think about their own past behavior as well as Jane’s, and ask trusted friends and colleagues for their take.

    7. NW Mossy*

      That word jumped out at me too, but read it as more of a “something’s moving in peripheral vision” thing. There’s something there, but it’s not clear exactly what it is. I’ve definitely seen people talk about disrespect as a way to deflect negative feedback onto the giver, but not consistently enough to know for sure that’s how Jane is using the term.

  3. Megarita*

    Holy smokes, I literally almost wrote to AAM about this issue last week. I’m the manager as well, and I lost my cool at a meeting out of pure frustration and lack of control. (VERY unlike me.) I apologized at once, but I’ve been agonizing over this feeling. Sometimes it feels impossible to be the calm port in a storm.

    1. Future Homesteader*

      Sometimes it is impossible! You’re human! Hopefully you can find a way to mitigate those feelings of frustration/express them elsewhere. But in the meantime, I’d cut yourself a break!

    2. Snark*

      I’ve done it before myself. It’s not acceptable or desirable, but it happens, and the best you can do is learn from it and move forward.

    3. Bagpuss*

      I thinkthe fact you apologised at once is very relevant – it frames it as being a ‘you’ problem rather than than anything else, and I think that it does mean that most people will be able to see that it was mostly you haveing a bad day, and not you being a bad manager.

    4. Jamie*

      I lost more than my cool on one occasion at work, I lost my sh*t. I am not proud of it, I will never do it again, but I was able to move on and continue working with the target of my ire.

      And I did apologize, in the way everyone hates which is I apologized for the way I said it, but not what I said because I wasn’t going to let that go. But I was angry at myself that my reaction made it about me, in my head, rather than about the colossal f up of the other person and I was annoyed I let myself lost the moral high ground.

      (Days before a major recert audit I found a document which had my authorization and name forged by one of the problem managers. Don’t commit record fraud when I’m running on adrenaline and no sleep. But I shouldn’t have yelled.)

        1. Jamie*

          As soon as I hit submit I regretted explaining what it was as I didn’t want to sound like I was excusing it.

          TBF I absolutely think he should have been fired immediately, but that wasn’t within my power.

          My own lesson learned from that was I had been skating very close to burn out for too long and had lost perspective. I had too much emotional investment in a job where tptb were making bad decisions out of my control and I should have taken several giant steps back for my own health.

          That’s how I know it won’t happen again – I looked at root cause and that rests with me assessing situations properly and protecting myself emotionally.

          1. JSPA*

            I have the world’s shortest fuse on fraud, but I also feel terrible when I blow up.

            Yes, fraud is worthy of something blowing up in the fraudster’s face! But that something should be their job (and maybe even their career) but not their boss.

            Adding the context is super valuable, because it’s not only hot-head douches who need to check their non-righteous anger at the door. No matter how righteous, anger sends everyone’s blood pressure sky high (not just the miscreant’s) and stinks up the atmosphere. It provides at best a short-term high, and likely makes efficient correction of the situation harder, not easier.

          2. Observer*

            It does add valuable context though. And it does explain why you apologized for HOW you said it, but not what you said.

          3. Door Guy*

            I’ve skated dangerously close to burn out before, it’s not fun. While I never actually had a true blow up at my employees, I was definitely much more curt and abrupt, to the point that I found out they were worried about me since it was so out of character.

        2. Minocho*

          Yeah, something like that would make me livid as well. Using someone else’s good reputation fraudulently to cover up some problem is taking an already problematic situation and doubling down on it. Ugh.

        3. NotMyRealName*

          We recently found out about signature fraud with an outside contractor. There has been a lot of swearing around here about that situation, and none of us were the people whose signature was forged! Yelling and swearing would be least I’d do.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        You just lost your cool on them and it didn’t end in “And you’re fuc*ing fired, get your sh*t and go.”

        But I’ve fired people for so much less than my bells are all screaming.

        1. MaxiesMommy*

          I’m with Becky. I’m calling payroll and handing them a box for their personal effects. That’s unforgivable.

          1. Jamie*

            I had been making that case to tptb for a long time by that point, but they weren’t ready to admit they made a bad hire at that time.

            And shameful as it is to admit, I didn’t yell so much at him…I yelled at my boss about him, with him right there, as we were all together when we discovered it. And he was sheepish enough to make bad manager tell me the several other instances of fraud I hadn’t found yet.

            So – yeah – on me for being too invested and upset that people who had control refused to do what needed to be done.

            Had I the authority to fire him I would have, and there would have been no raised voice. It’s the loss of control when it’s something that really mattered to me. I’ve learned that when the people who own the company clearly don’t give a crap, I shouldn’t be marinating in stress over it.

            1. Observer*

              Had I the authority to fire him I would have, and there would have been no raised voice. It’s the loss of control when it’s something that really mattered to me.

              Allison mentions this a lot – that bosses shouldn’t need to yell, since they have other options.

            2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              Ah I forgive you fully then, especially since the person who did have the power was involved at least. Been there, done that before as well. So at least it got the point across to more than just the degenerate who would forge a signature.

    5. Heidi*

      I’m also in the “forgive yourself” camp. I also kind of get the sense that whatever it was that caused you to lose you cool was pretty egregiously awful. We might not even blame you for it, at least not as much as you’re blaming yourself.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        So forgive yourself, but not Jane, who herself might have just “lost her cool” that once (meaning her reaction to her boss’s feedback, not the second-hand information the boss got that Jane felt disrespected)? I astounded at the number of people saying off with her head and here’s her pink slip. Sounds like this story is hitting a very personal nerve all over the place.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      I do have a go-to question for when I feel my temper going up and up. That question is, “What do I want here that I am not getting??”

      Sometimes the answers are useless, such as “a job anywhere but here” or “to be home in bed”. So I make myself narrow my focus on the immediate situation and put into words what is missing from the immediate situation.

  4. yellow*

    I love this letter and this answer. I grew up with some bad habits re taking out impatience on the people around me and really like this perspective on how it might play out in the workplace.

  5. Jellyfish*

    Hmm, Jane’s response feels a little odd to me. I’ve had otherwise kind and even-keeled managers get upset before. My response was usually to think they were having an off day with stressors I didn’t know about, or that I screwed up more than I realized.
    While no one likes to be corrected, I’d think it takes a longer pattern or something more blatant to feel “disrespected at work.”

    So… is there a pattern of small things built up enough that one episode of impatience was enough to solidify the problem in Jane’s view, was Jane having an off day, was the OP too harsh, or is Jane overly sensitive to criticism? I can’t tell as an anonymous Internet reader, but I think it’s worth the OP’s time to discreetly ask other managers or people who’ll be honest with her to give more feedback.

    1. Minocho*

      Yes, I do agree that once I lose trust in my boss, or I feel disrespected, I will also look for another job. But it takes more than one incident to cause this with me – it should be a pattern. If I were in a new position, or my manager was newly placed, one bad interaction could definitely get an outsize weight in my mind and evaluation, though.

  6. KHB*

    In my experience, the people who get the most worked up about your supposedly “disrespectful tone” are the same ones who will ignore everything you say if you stick to a “respectful tone.” That is, it’s not about your tone, it’s about how you’re telling them something they don’t want to hear, or asking them to do something they don’t want to do.

    I don’t know if Jane is one of those people or not. Most of the ones I can think of in my own life have been men.

    1. Jellyfish*

      That’s also a good point. I’m dealing with this in a personal capacity right now. When I set a boundary or say my piece calmly and gently, the person assumes it’s not a big deal and ignores me. If I get more visibly upset, then I get tone policed for not being “respectful,” and this person still ignores the substance of what I am saying.
      They don’t want to hear me, so there’s always an excuse not to listen. It’s possible Jane is reacting the same way to criticism of her work or her response to a mistake.

      1. LKW*

        In my younger, no authority years, I would give people three chances before I’d raise my voice. I was discussing an ongoing issue, and my voice was pretty harsh. When a manager said I shouldn’t be yelling at my team mates, I asked him “Oh, did they include the part where I asked them twice prior to ensure they didn’t make this specific mistake? Did they include the part where I recognized the issue from 2500 miles away and warned them about the impact? Because I asked nicely twice and was ignored so I figured I should be a little more clear.”

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          This sounds similar to some of my interactions with my children – they know if I’m “yelling” that I asked nicely at least twice and they ignored me …

          I am very glad I am not a manager.

      2. Devil Fish*

        DTMFA (in whatever context that applies). Seriously: you don’t need to deal with that bullshit. You can do so much better.

    2. Snark*

      I don’t necessarily get that read, which as you say is usually a male thing, frankly. Jane may instead be one of those folks who’s generally competent and a good worker, but who is so unaccustomed to getting negative feedback or being corrected that it feels like an indictment of her personally. I had an intern like that, and when she screwed up massively, she almost couldn’t accept that what she did was a mistake, because she didn’t make mistakes, and what’s your problem, this is totally fixable.

      And then I yelled at her, to my regret, so I totally get where OP is coming from on this one.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        This was the feeling I got as well. When you’re used to praise and compliments, even a very mild reprimand can feel like a huge insult. I was always a “good kid” too, and the first few times I got called on the carpet for a mistake once I joined the workforce felt like massive blows. Taking criticism is a skill just like anything else, and it’s possible Jane just hasn’t had much practice.

        OP, if you don’t think too much time has gone by, it might not hurt to close the circle on this with a short conversation. Something like “I want to apologize for losing my patience in our meeting about X. I shouldn’t have taken my frustration out on you and I hope in the future we’ll be able to discuss things like this calmly as a team.” Don’t bring respect into it at all, because I agree that part of Jane’s reaction is outsized. But own your mistake and tell her you’re working not to repeat it.

      2. Joielle*

        Yeah, this is my read on it too. I think it’s pretty likely that Jane doesn’t often get corrected, maybe she was having a bad day already for unrelated reasons, and OP’s slightly-harsher-than usual comment landed poorly.

        I’ll admit that I’ve been there – when you know, logically, that the correction was legitimate, but you still feel wounded (for reasons that are not necessarily/not entirely the person’s fault, but that can be hard to see when you’re in the middle of it), so you reach for a reason for your upset, and land on something vague but important-sounding, like “disrespect.”

        We’re all human. I think there’s a good chance that Jane has had time to reflect and is kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. If I were OP, I’d be particularly nice to Jane for a few days so she knows there are no hard feelings, but I probably wouldn’t bring it up again.

      3. Rusty Shackelford*

        Honestly, Jane reminds me very much of a young niece of mine, whose mother instructed her to tell the head cheerleaders (when she was a first-year newbie) that no, she did NOT have to sit and watch them demonstrate a particular move, because they needed to EARN her respect.

        1. Devil Fish*

          But that doesn’t even track though. It’s not disrespectful to be shown how to do something by more experienced peers when you’re brand new to something.

          Wtf was wrong with her mother and how did that advice play out?

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            No, it doesn’t track. That’s the point. Sometimes people have weird, completely inappropriate ideas about respect. (I still don’t know what’s wrong with her mother, and I don’t know what happened after that.)

      4. CanuckCat*

        I used to be that person (combination general anxiety plus whackass old job that severely skewed my perceptions of workplace behaviour (as in, regularly yelled at multiple times in a day over nothing at all)) but there was a point where I had to admit that it was on me, not my boss, to manage my response to feedback, even if it was negative.

    3. Mediamaven*

      Agreed. I had an employee like this. She relished getting praise but if she made a mistake and it was addressed, she would get very offended. We had to explain that receiving critical feedback is part of growing as a professional and it’s not a personal thing. I find it ties back to professional maturity. I tend to think that LW isn’t the issue here and this is not the last problem she’s going to have with this employee.

      1. CommanderBanana*

        Same – I actually wrote to AAM about a direct report at my previous job who couldn’t take any feedback or training without getting defensive and teary.

        1. EH*

          I really feel for people who can’t take criticism. I was/am one, and the only reason I’m able to cope now is a ton of therapy. I had to deconstruct the emotional equation “mistake/not being perfect at all times = failure = I am bad = I am going to be fired = I will never work again = death.” We really do have to learn to take criticism, of course. And also it sucks to be overwhelmed by fight-flight-freeze instinct in reaction to a normal, not-infrequent occurrence. It literally turns off the higher brain functions, so we can’t be reasoned with until that passes.

          1. Jadelyn*

            *fistbump of solidarity* I think there are a lot of us who’ve had to unlearn that thought pattern. I work in HR, at an org that is explicitly (and actually, in practice) pro-employee. I’ve personally seen the lengths to which we’ll go to work with someone if they’re a good employee outside of whatever issue they’re having. You absolutely cannot fire someone on the spot in this organization. It doesn’t happen. Ever.

            And it *still* took me almost 3 years here before I finally was able to stop taking any criticism as “I’m going to be fired, oh god, I’m going to lose everything”. It’s a hard mentality to break out of.

          2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            This is why schools now are looking at building resilience into children as young as possible. Give them opportunities to fail and recover, and to see other people fail and recover. This is growth mindset stuff.

            Besides anything else, a person who is terrified to fail will not stretch herself, so she cannot excel.

    4. Matilda Jefferies*

      Yeah, I have to say – based solely on what’s in the letter, I’m more concerned with Jane’s tone than with OP’s. I’d be pretty impatient too, if I were bringing up a serious mistake and the employee shrugged it off and said it couldn’t be helped! Yes, obviously managers should try to be even-keeled as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean showing no emotion at all.

      And honestly Jane’s reaction to the mistake was so out of line, that I would think this is the exact situation where OP *should* let their impatience show! Especially if Jane is generally a good employee and OP is generally a calm manager, this is exactly where a well-placed show of emotion would be appropriate, to show how inappropriate Jane’s behaviour really was.

    5. Kiki*

      I’ve found this sort of thing to often be a reaction to a perceived “flipped” power dynamic. For example, if I, a woman, discipline a man or critique him, he may perceive it as more disrespectful than if a man said the same thing to him in the same manner. I’ve also seen it happen when a younger manager is in charge of someone older. I’m not saying this is the case with the LW’s situation, just something to look out for. As a woman of color, people react to me differently than they would to a white man in my same position– knowing that helps me wade my way through these interactions.

      1. Jennifer*

        Also black women are always perceived as being “angry” so an impatient tone reads as hostile to some people.

  7. Jennifer*

    Jane sounds a little precious to me. If a person that’s normally been kind to me and always praised my work had ONE bad day and snapped at me because of a mistake I’D made, I would definitely cut them some slack. I know I have certain days where I feel a little oversensitive, and I know you can’t always control the tears when they start coming, but I never would have told the boss that I was crying because I’d been “disrespected.” Cry it out, wipe your tears, and get back to work, princess.

    1. boop the first*

      I totally understand where the upset comes from, I would be upset too.

      But like you, I also wouldn’t have called it disrespect. I would call it shame.

    2. Mary*

      I don’t quite get the logic that a snappy manager could have been having a bad day, but Jane telling another colleague that she was upset was out of order. She didn’t go running to the boss and demand that Something Be Done: another colleague at the same level as the OP said, “Hey, are you OK?” and she responded that no she wasn’t and she was feeling disrespected. It also sounds like the other manager took it on themselves to mention it to OP.

      If “having a bad day” is a reasonable excuse for the OP, it’s a reasonable one for Jane too!

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah; I’m a little puzzled by the rush to paint Jane as precious, a problem employee, manipulative, a jerk, etc. It’s possible that Jane and OP are both good people who had a bad day.

      2. Jennifer*

        I get that she was having a bad day. I admitted that I have had oversensitive days and cried over things that probably weren’t that big of a deal in hindsight. I think Jane overstepped by telling the grandboss that the OP “disrespected” her. Even after she’d calmed down, she didn’t apologize or correct it.

      3. Jennifer*

        Plus when she was confronted about the mistake, she shrugged like it was no big deal. Then cried when she was rightly corrected and complained about being “disrespected.” That sounds like princess behavior imo.

        1. banzo_bean*

          I have two issues, first Jane did not tell a grandboss she felt respected she told a manager of another branch. Jane might have worked with this manager in the past or even currently. OP says she’s relativley new to managment so Jane might have a stronger relationship with more background with the other manager, and thus felt safe confiding in her.

          Also, we don’t know that “she was rightly corrected”, we know that Jane was corrected, and that the correction was not necessary, but even the OP is unsure if she was “right” in her manner of approaching Jane. That’s the whole point of this letter.

          Finally, some people are sensitive. I am an easy crier, and if I am at all under stress I cry. I’m not a problem employee. I take criticism well, and I am able to improve upon mistakes, but yeah sometimes I cry. I don’t think there is enough information to label Jane problematic. Just like there isn’t enough information to say OP handled this situation correctly.

          1. Jennifer*

            I’m not labeling her as problematic simply because she cried. I said in my original comment that I am a crier too. I didn’t like that she shrugged off what sounds like a pretty big mistake and didn’t take it seriously until her boss took a sharp tone with her, then whined to grandboss about it.

            1. banzo_bean*

              Again, the other boss is not Jane’s grandboss. It could be a manager she even currently works with. I think there is not enough information to know how bad that shrug really was, and OP says she is an otherwise strong employee. I don’t think there is enough information to call her problematic at this point.

              1. Jennifer*

                Sorry, typo. Whether she went to the grandboss or another manager, it was inappropriate. She is used to being praised and couldn’t handle a rather mild criticism in my opinion.

              2. PeteyKat*

                Big shrug or little shrug – a shrug is dismissive and bad to give your boss especially when they are calling you out on a mistake you made.

            2. Mary*

              There’s nothing about grandboss, is there? Another manager asked her why she was upset, she answered, and the co-worker decided to talk to OP about it. Literally all Jane did was ask the other manager’s direct question, it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to get OP into trouble.

            3. A*

              In addition to there being no ‘grandboss’ in this scenario – Jane didn’t go to/whine to anyone. She answered the question that was directly asked of her.

              Whether we agree with what she said is another thing. But there is a huge difference between answering another branch manager’s question, and going out of her way to try and get OP into trouble/whine about the situation etc.

              1. Jennifer*

                Whether she answered a question that was asked of her or not, she was still whining and the answer she gave wasn’t appropriate.

                1. Mary*

                  Nobody’s saying it was a great or admirable response! It’s just weird to cut the OP slack and say, yeah, not ideal, but understandable and not grant the same benefit of the doubt to her employee.

          2. CupcakeCounter*

            No, Jane was rightly corrected because she made a serious error. OP was concerned that their tone, not the message, could be considered inappropriate. OP was absolutely in the right to talk with Jane about the mistake – where the OP thinks things took a left turn was when Jane shrugged off the error as if it wasn’t a problem when OP clearly stated it was.

            I do think you are correct that Jane might have a stronger relationship with the other branch manager and that is why she unloaded to them and not OP.

    3. Kiwiii*

      Right, like. The issue with Jane isn’t so much that she cried about it (there are sensitive people all over the place for a variety of reasons including “my hormones are doing something crazy” to “my anxiety is acting up” and “i take criticism poorly”), it’s that she’s framing the situation as being disrespected.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        To be fair, we don’t know that she’s *still* framing it that way. It’s entirely possible that she exaggerated and described her feelings poorly while her emotions were running high, and once she had time to cool off she started thinking differently. I was in a similar situation last week where something my boss had done felt like a major offense, but once I got past the emotional piece of it I was able to see the incident for the small thing it actually was. That’s one of the reasons I think OP should circle back and have a lower stakes conversation about it now that emotions have had time to settle.

  8. AndersonDarling*

    I had to learn that when a manager is upset and using an unpleasant tone, that they are upset at the situation and not at me personally. (I have had abusive managers that would shout at me personally, but that is a different situation.) Managers aren’t robots and they have emotional reactions and sometimes those reactions happen in front of me.
    I used to ball up anytime I heard a raised voice because I wasn’t exposed to loud reactions. I was raised in a very quiet home. It took a few years to learn that I wasn’t personally the subject of every negative conversation. It wasn’t even “toughening up,” it was more of just adjusting to norms. The first time I had dinner at a boisterous home, I was terrified! It was just a regular loud and rowdy family, but they were so loud that I was involuntarily frightened.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      There is a huge difference between “There is a large mistake here, how did this happen?” and “YOU screwed this up like you always do!”.

      Sometimes taking a deliberate look at the focus of the sentence is necessary to keep a solid frame of mind. I used the parallel of someone yelling “fire, fire!”. I would not assume they were accusing me of setting it, I would assume they were yelling so I would take immediate action to save myself and maybe the situation. For years I used this extreme example to help myself address WHAT was said and ignore HOW it was said.

  9. Bagpuss*

    Yes, I think the fact that Jane’s initial response to having made a serious error was “it can’t be helped” and that her reaction was then to say she felt ‘disrespcted’ does flag up for me that this may well be a problem with Jane rather than a problem with OP. Especailly as OP checked in directly with Jane later on so Jane had a further opportunity to speak to her directly, but chose not to do so either then, or at a later stage when she had had the changce to calm down.

    I agree that yelling is never going to be appropriate, but I think that letting some irritation show isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, where it is justified that you would be annoyed or frustrated.

    I think OP could have a conversation with Jane, say explicitly that she was concerned to hear that Jane felt ‘disrespected’ and that she would prefer that Jane speak to her directly if she has any concerns in future. She can also raise that while no-one expects anyone to be totally error-free in their work, the fact that JAne seemed blase about a serious error is concerning and it was that apparent lack of concern, or ownership of her error, which casued you to be shorter than usual in speaking to her.

    I do think that Alison’s advice to ask a trusted per whether LW’s tone or style comes over as harsher than realises.

    1. londonedit*

      I agree, I think Jane’s ‘I need to be respected at work or I’ll quit’ sounds like an overreaction. Of course, everyone deserves to be respected at work, but being respected doesn’t mean no one will ever challenge you, or ask you to correct something, or give you negative feedback on something you’ve done. If Jane isn’t used to getting negative feedback then I can understand her being surprised and maybe a little upset by it, but she should have said something to OP when OP asked her about it, and she shouldn’t have jumped straight to ‘I need to be respected at work or I’ll quit’. That makes it sound like she’ll threaten to quit every time someone asks her to do something she’s not happy about.

    2. Mockingjay*

      Yeah, I think Jane’s flippant response is what ticked off the OP, not the error itself.

      When the boss points out an error, the correct response is “oh, sorry, I missed that. I’ll fix it right away.” Followed up later with: “Boss, I added a step to the work process to check item B, so this error shouldn’t happen again.”

      No one likes to be caught making a mistake at work; it’s uncomfortable. But employees have as much responsibility to fix mistakes gracefully as do the managers who call out the errors.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        And those flippant responses need to be addressed as they come up. “NO, we can not let this go through like this. The next time you see this you must come tell me. We cannot keep pushing the mistake along even though it’s not our fault.”

        I’d like to add that there are cases where it’s not under the subordinate’s domain to fix a particular problem. It’s good to point out, “This is not your circus. However, I do need you to tell me so *I* can get it fixed.”

    3. Sloan Kittering*

      It sounds like Jane’s true mistake was not taking the error seriously, partly as conveyed by her tone to OP when it was pointed out. It makes more sense to me that OP’s tone was harsher than normal as a result. I’m not surprised that Jane was upset by the interaction (I would be too) but I’m not convinced OP was really in the wrong. Jane might need to be coached about feedback and not interpreting “disrespect” with an issue that is work related, not personal. I have needed this coaching myself – I believe it’s more common with perfectionist types who rarely get in trouble.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think OP was caught by surprise with this lackadaisical response. Perhaps part of the surprise was that it did not fit with what she knows about this subordinate. Why is this otherwise good worker passing along bad work?

        And there is a part of our brain that can run amok at this point, “Holy crap! How long has she been doing THIS?!”

        1. Auntie Social*

          The attitude also tells me that she doesn’t really understand the job. If you get it, you can explain it to the people you manage. Really, they’re smart. If you tell them X should not be included because of Y, they’ll remember. Plus, it’s good for them to see that their manager understands their job from beginning to end. So is she lazy, uncaring, or does she not understand the process she’s supposed to be overseeing? Yikes. Just yikes.

  10. MyDogIsCalledBradleyPooper*

    It is the crime of the century that you may have come off as impatient or harsh in this context. If it is not a regular occurance it shows how you really feel about this. Jane should have seen that as a bit of a wake up call that her response did not have the urgency or weight that you were expecting. If you were impatient and yelling all the time that would be an issue.

    Now that the issue is resolved you could talk to Jane. You could appoligize for upsetting her as that was not what you intended and then review what you thought that this was an issue and further explore how the error affects X and what can be done to prevent this.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah there’s a chance your tone was actually too harsh but if you weren’t yelling and didn’t use any unkind words, I’d say you’re on the safe side even if you did sound annoyed.

  11. Jane's response?*

    What stands out to me is Jane’s response, that she must be respected at work, or she’ll quit, which seems a little tone deaf. Jane made a serious error, shrugged it off, and then is surprised and hurt by the perception that she’s not respected at work. Respect is earned, and it’s not clear to me that Jane, who spent the rest of the day teary and never seems to have owned up to her mistake, actually took steps towards earning the respect she wants.

    This is not to say that Jane should be yelled at. Nobody deserves to be yelled at, at work. But owning up to and correcting mistakes will go a lot further towards earning respect than asserting your need for respect.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I don’t blame Jane for being teary at her desk, but I wonder about that disrespect comment. That might be worth some followup from OP, especially if you see it impacting any future interaction. It’s not unlikely that Jane just said that to save face with this coworker (I wouldn’t necessarily relish telling a coworker I had screwed up either, and it’s easier to convert sadness/shame into anger than ask yourself some hard truths sometimes). But if she truly feels that the comment was disrespectful and she will need to quit if not handled with kid gloves, that is worth discussing, because it seems a little out of step with office norms.

  12. rayray*

    Maybe Jane is a little sensitive, or was having a bad day herself. I think it could be a good idea if maybe you did just acknowledge it like Alison suggested and apologize if you spoke to sharply. Maybe you could ask Jane for her feedback about how you might handle those kind of errors in the future. I know I disliked it at a previous job when they would act like the world was going to end over a minor mistake that could be easily corrected with just a few minutes. I admit I probably acted like Jane by seeming dismissive over things, but I acted like that because people thought it was necessary to have a sit down discussion over typos or missing one little check box (that you could go back and fix and be fine). Open up communication, and make her feel comfortable approaching you if she has made a mistake, and also that she knows when she makes mistakes, you’re a reasonable manager who will focus energy on correcting the mistake, not getting huffy about it and wasting time whining.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      FWIW I disagree that OP should apologize, personally. Jane sounds like she’s struggling with this but I don’t think I would ask how she wants OP to point out errors – presumably she’d like them not to be pointed out, wouldn’t we all! It doesn’t sound like OP belabored the point. I think Jane should do a little reflecting on why she was so blase about her error.

      1. rayray*

        I see your point. I guess I just thought of that because LW said they’re new to management, and maybe it could be a good idea to get some feedback about the situation. Maybe my suggestion wasn’t worded the best, but I personally would like communication with management about that kind of thing. I think if the LW can just acknowledge that they didn’t mean to be disrespectful at all, maybe Jane would calm down. This is one of those things where we just don’t know the LW’s tone, Jane’s mood that day or in general, or what exactly went down. I just think communication and making sure people feel comfortable discussing mistakes goes a long way in helping productivity.

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          Yes! I agree that it might be good to communicate more about this incident. Maybe they’ll *both* end up apologizing.

  13. Buttons*

    Jane’s reaction seems to be a bit dramatic. If someone who isn’t normally like that snapped or was a little harsh I would be surprised, but realize that the situation was stressful or they were having a bad day. Jane was told she did something wrong and instead of taking it seriously she was flippant in her response, she wasn’t being disrespected, she was being corrected. OP, I wouldn’t spend any more emotional energy worrying about it, and if it happens again I would let her know that you are human, and have a discussion about the difference been disrespect and corrections.

  14. A Tired Queer*

    Thank you, Alison, for providing a recording of how tone should sound in situations like this! I’m not the letter writer, but I’ve struggled with producing the correct tones for things for my whole life (I tend toward either flat or flat-out inappropriate; it runs in the family), and sometimes it’s hard for me to interpret other people’s tone as well! It’s always really helpful to hear examples like this one. Thank you!

  15. Ama*

    I have to say her response raises some red flags for me. She’s thinking about quitting after one incident of someone getting frustrated with her? Unless the OP is seriously playing down the harshness of her tone, or has forgotten to mention this is a frequent occourance, I do tend to think it seems like a bit of an overreaction. While I agree that losing your cool is never ideal as a manager, I can see why you would feel frustrated with a serious mistake being dismissed so thoughtlessly. My guess is she’s used to being praised, and doesn’t know how to handle criticism.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      “My guess is she’s used to being praised, and doesn’t know how to handle criticism.” I agree. This may be her issue to manage, not for OP to fix or feel like she was in the wrong. Some of us are sensitive and need to figure out better coping skills for the work world.

    2. Oh No She Di'int*

      I agree. OP seems very thoughtful and conscientious. I would remind OP that–while it is obviously important to treat people well and with respect–she also should not automatically judge the fitness of her criticism on other people’s reactions.

      It took me a very long time to figure this out. I hired a crier a few years ago. The gentlest criticism or difference of opinion typically led to tears. I even got tears from her once because I suggested it would be a nice idea to publicly recognize someone on her team for his extraordinary efforts that month. (She took it as veiled criticism that she had not performed well enough.) It is clearly important to be sensitive to people’s reactions. However, that cannot and should not be the sole barometer of whether you’ve done the right thing.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        I can also say it as someone who *is* oversensitive! I’m a perfectionist and I’m used to getting good results and praise. That doesn’t mean my boss is doing anything wrong by pointing out my very real errors! But it does mean that one of my challenges is to struggle with feedback. It’s *my* struggle! I may not always react well right in the moment – I’m working on just being neutral and polite, but my first instinct may be self pitying or even defensive. It doesn’t really matter how my boss delivers it, and I wouldn’t want them to beat themselves up if I don’t handle it the way I want to.

  16. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    We’re all human and you may have an off day, but in general managers should be able to articulate when there is an issue without being mean, harsh or demeaning. This is not to say that the way you spoke to her was in any way wrong, but if you came off as impatient (as you’ve recognized), it may be worth a chat with Jane. Maybe explain to her that what you said stands, but apologize for the way it was said.

    I had a great boss once, who was very patient and kind. We had a big project happening, and he was very stressed out. I messed up once, and when he confronted me about it, he spoke to me like I was the dirt on the bottom of his shoe. And he did it while another colleague was at my desk. I lost all respect for him that day. I understood that he was stressed, and yes I messed up, but he didn’t need to treat me that way because it was very disrespectful and he never apologized.

  17. LawBee*

    Like other commenters, Jane’s use of the word “disrespect” really stood out to me. It’s an odd choice for what apparently was a one-off scolding. I’m not willing to name her as a problem employee just based on that, but she seems to not understand what professional respect actually is. It’s not “you’re wonderful all the time” and never ever being corrected (sometimes impatiently because managers are human).

    Follow up with your peers just to make sure you didn’t cross a boundary (it doesn’t sound like you did), but drop it with Jane. She’s not going to quit over this, and she’ll get over it.

    1. KarenT*

      That stood out to me as well, but I’m not sure. It’s possible LW and Jane have a very warm relationship. I’ve had managers that I wouldn’t blink if they did that, and other managers where it would be weird or condescending. I wouldn’t do that to any of my reports but I’m not a particularly warm person.

    2. NW Mossy*

      Yes, and particularly with the added context that Jane felt disrespected. Patting someone’s arm when they’re upset is fine for someone you have a strong personal relationship with, but at work, it can far too easily come off as infantilizing.

    3. Joielle*

      Yeah – that could definitely come off as condescending. If someone’s upset and you condescend to them, that is pretty disrespectful, which could be where Jane is coming from.

    4. The Boy Out of the Bubble*

      I think maybe this element has not gotten as much attention as it should as a possible cause of the word choice “disrespected.” I’m glad you highlighted it.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yeah. Especially after a bad interaction, don’t touch a person it will make it worse all around.

      I’ve had really close relationships with all my reports and my bosses over the years, I can count on one hand how many times there’s been physical contact and none of them were after a disagreement like that or anything work related TBH.

    6. Was a ChurchLady NowAFed*

      Oh man. I used to hug and gently touch on the arm as a church secretary who really knew what people were facing, and they did the same to me. Now in NewJob, I basically stay away. In some ways it saddens me, but that is life.

      Also, as someone diagnosed with a major chronic illness this summer, my boss’s professionalism, and lack of irritated tone when counseling on work absences was greatly appreciated. We know bosses are human, but employees are, too. Tone matters. No one reacts well to bad news, some of you need to lighten up on Jane. The boss is the boss, and as pointed out, has all the control. It’s hard to hear bad things about yourself.

  18. Elbe*

    I agree that managers should be a calm and straight-forward as possible. But I also think that occasionally little hints of frustration or annoyance or disappointment can also be helpful. Seeing the human response that their actions produce can help people understand the issue and gauge the severity of it. It can let people know where they stand.

    Only the LW knows if the conversation included a hint of frustration or if she unleashed all of unfiltered annoyance she was feeling at the time. If it’s the latter, she should definitely apologize and make an effort to keep her emotions in check.

    1. Yorick*

      I agree. Sometimes people think every criticism is no big deal unless they can hear it in your voice a little.

      1. Pescadero*

        I’d say that is a case of “use your words”.

        An employee shouldn’t have to figure out whether a criticism is a big deal or not from a bosses “tone” – the boss should just outright STATE whether or not a mistake is a big deal or not.

  19. RUKiddingMe*

    OP Can we maybe not call Jane “oversensitive?”

    It’s highly gendered and treats people (particularly women) as if their feelings aren’t legitimate.

    “Sensitive” maybe… even that’s gendered in a negative way. Jane’s feelings are what they are.

    Yes she does need to do X but whatever/however you said what you said, her reaction to/feelings about it were just her feelings. Not *over*sensitivity.

    1. Yorick*

      Can we maybe not nitpick someone’s word choice?

      Sometimes people can be oversensitive – especially in a certain situation/time

      1. Mockingjay*

        It’s not gendered. I have a meeting in half an hour with the most oversensitive member of the team, which I am dreading. He makes it very clear that he is very emotionally invested in his work. It makes nearly impossible to suggest changes or update work status, because I spend so much time managing his feelings. (That’s an open thread story.)

        1. Snark*

          I don’t think discussing a notable, telling framing of a situation – construing very slightly harsh feedback to a fippant dismissal as a respect issue – is actually nitpicking.

      2. yala*

        “Can we maybe not nitpick someone’s word choice?”

        *looks at the couple dozen comments specifically picking apart the appropriateness of the word “disrespected”*

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This is regularly used towards men as well in my experience. It’s not as gendered as that, it is something very much so that men get labeled.

      Now if they were saying things like “She’s acting like such a girl and crying about it” then that’s an issue but the word oversensitive works for everyone, everywhere when they are reactive to feedback and criticism.

    3. LawBee*

      “Oversensitive” is gender-neutral. Just because it’s being used in the context of a woman doesn’t make it gendered.

      1. Snark*

        Eh, it can be gendered, but it can also be the best word to describe someone. OP does not generally seem to be viewing Jane through a gendered lens, and Jane does seem to overreact, so.

    4. Snark*

      I don’t think this is a helpful take. Yes, her reaction was just her feelings and those are what they are, but if she’s feeling disrespected to the point of quitting by what OP said to her, I am comfortable characterizing that reaction as more intense than typical professional norms dictate, which is as good a definition of oversensitive as any.

      Maybe “oversensitive” was a gendered response. Maybe Jane really does tend to be overly reactive to perceived slights and conflict. We don’t know. Which is why taking OPs at their word is great.

      Also, the “can we maybe” is real condescending. I’m not sure that’s an accident, but it’s also not really something that would make me want to submit a question to AAM, so.

    5. Oh No She Di'int*

      To me this is like the word “bitch”. Yes, men do get called that. But it does have a particular valence with women that it does not have for men.

    6. Observer*

      Feelings may be what they are. But reactions can most definitely be “over-sensitive”. Being teary-eyed most of the afternoon IS oversensitive for more situations, unless the OP was really a LOT harsher that they think.

  20. Sensitive Employee*

    Disclaimer: I recently left a job where I felt frequently blamed for things that genuinely couldn’t be helped, and where managers would never apologise or take anything back… So I have a definite sympathy with Jane here that could be colouring my response.)

    I wonder why Jane would say that an error couldn’t be helped if it was clear that the error was serious and she normally has high standards and is generally competent? I am probably over-identifying a little bit (as a cryer who gets frustrated when spoken to harshly), but it is the kind of thing I would say if I had, for example, been to see my manager saying that I was finding my workload too heavy, and that something was likely to fall through the cracks due to how much I had to do. If nothing changed, and then something did fall through the cracks or go wrong, I would probably feel like an error couldn’t have been helped (not by me anyway).

    The more I think about it, the more I think that’s an odd response from a generally competent worker. Why would she think an error she made had not been her fault? I expect if you can understand that, you will understand where she is coming from. Is her workload too heavy? Is she covering for sick or slow coworkers? Has she been off sick for a period of time? Has she been to you with concerns that you haven’t been able to address?

    If none of the above apply, and you can’t think of anything else, then maybe she was just feeling oversensitive that day. I completely understanding not apologising if you wouldn’t mean it, but refusing to apologise because you don’t want to lose authority is counter-productive by the way. In my experience, no one respects those bosses who can’t take responsibility for their own errors. (Not saying this necessarily is one, but it seemed worth mentioning.)

    One final point – if she is a good and competent worker, this is a sign that she is currently feeling unappreciated and disrespected. It might be worth looking at if this has any justification, and talking to her about it, or coming up with a way to show her that you do value her work.

    1. CupcakeCounter*

      Jane is a good employee who is usually praised for her work and decided (in her head) that since she has such a good track record one mistake on her part isn’t a big deal since making mistakes is part of being human. Unfortunately for her, the mistake she made was serious (per the OP) which can’t be blithely shrugged off because “I’m a really good employee and due an error or two without consequences”.

      1. Mary*

        This is also possible, but the point is not that Jane is clearly perfect, but that it’s worth the OP reflecting on the wider situation to think about whether Jane responded in a way which is out of character and if so, why that might have been.

      2. Sensitive Employee*

        It’s also possible, of course. I don’t think it’s any more likely than my interpretation though. We just don’t have the information to know – and there are a lot of cases where good, steady workers are under-appreciated by managers who see good results but not the painstaking work that goes into them. In my case I was in a job where managers came from a different area – they had never been in my position, and didn’t know the ins and outs of the role. Sometimes things which seem “obvious” to a manager are actually very complex. Totally fine, if you can explain that to your manager calmly, but it’s difficult to do that if you’re already feeling upset and wrong-footed.

    2. Mary*

      Yes, this is a useful set of questions.

      I wonder whether the problem stemmed from a discrepancy between the OP’s perception that it was Jane’s error, and Jane seeing it as an error that was outside her purview. If Jane felt that the error wasn’t hers–if it happened further up the chain, or was introduced by the system you’re using, or as Sensitive Employee suggests it’s because she’s feeling overworked or under stress for whatever reason–but that she was being asked to take responsibility for it and snapped at when she didn’t immediately accept responsibility, that would feel pretty disrespectful to me.

    3. juliebulie*

      Even if the error really couldn’t have been avoided, the proper response now is to fix it. Not to shrug helplessly as if no further effort is required.

      1. Sensitive Employee*

        “It can’t be helped” or “it couldn’t be helped” aren’t necessarily ways of saying “I can’t fix it though”. They’re often attempts to say in a non-confrontational manner that, actually, it wasn’t your fault and you couldn’t help that it happened.

        1. CupcakeCounter*

          That is so far from what I would say if I was getting blamed for an error I know was unavoidable due to a system issue or bad/missing information from another person. First thing out of my mouth would be “let me take a look and see if I can figure out what happened”. And I keep everything so I would 100% be able to say “Based on this email from IT, it looks like the source data was bad due to X system outage. I didn’t catch it because I had already turned the project in before anyone realized there was a problem” or “I will have to check with Regional Sales Guy as that is the number he provided me on Y date in the attached email.” While I won’t necessarily throw someone under the bus, I will not shrug off a serious concern simply because I wasn’t the person who was the root cause of the screw up. My name is on the project so of course boss is going to come to me first. If it is my mistake, I will fix it. If I find the mistake and it wasn’t my fault, I will inform boss of what I found and let them know I am working with person who made the actual mistake to get the information corrected and will resend ASAP.

          1. Sensitive Employee*

            Hmm. I’m not suggesting it’s the ideal response, but I think it’s an understandable one.

            Take an example from my own work situation. An important case file wasn’t signed off on schedule (very serious). My big boss called me in, because emails about this go straight to her, skipping my direct manager, because it’s so serious. What my direct manager knew, and big boss didn’t was that the case file hadn’t been signed off because a particular social worker was on long term sick. The duty worker wasn’t entitled to do it, due to a lack of background on the case, and the case needed to be assigned to another worker, or wait for the original one to come back from being sick. That that hadn’t happened was perhaps an error, but social care is a completely different agency from us and we have no jurisdiction over that. I was literally not able to click the “complete” button to send the case file off without the signature that we needed.

            I could have shown a list of emails of me begging social care to assign the case, and a log of multiple phone calls doing the same. But when my Big Boss called me in to tell me what a mess up it was that I hadn’t sent the file off, she spoke to me in such a tone that I wasn’t able to say much at all, as I was trying not to unprofessionally break down or snap at her because I was on the defensive. In addition, big boss is known to snap at people who “make excuses”. The discussion ended with her telling me how to fix it, and me nodding – although her suggestion was utterly unworkable as it would require me to have legal and administrative rights that I don’t have. But I couldn’t say so because the injustice of it all meant I was too emotional to react in an ideal manner.

            I certainly had less sensitive colleagues who would have handled the situation better, responded politely as though it was their mistake, and privately asked their manager to explain to *her* manager what the problem is. That would have been the 100% best response. But my response doesn’t make me bad or incompetent either. And if I had responded explicitly “it wasn’t my fault” or “there was nothing to be done” that would also be a perfectly reasonable response in a difficult situation – if not the ideal one.

            Apologies for the long response, but I find it hard to express where I’m coming from without a solid example.

            1. Sensitive Employee*

              I should say too, that there’s no way I would have been so much on the defensive or emotional if it hadn’t been for two things:
              A) The mistake would have been serious enough that I was hurt that anyone would assume it was my fault – my past work had been effective enough that I would expect the benefit of the doubt about something like that.
              B) There had been a TON of additional work piled on recently, to the point that my colleagues and I were all missing sleep to complete it all. We had not been thanked for this, but rather criticised for things like missing meetings (because we had been told to be elsewhere at the scheduled time, in emails that included the meeting coordinator).

              All this to say, I have good reason to know what combination of factors might cause a generally good worker to come across as emotional, oversensitive and lacking in judgement. Also this letter could easily have been written about me as after a different incident I did tell my manager I was leaving due to it. (And I did leave.)

      2. Mary*

        If OP’s tone (or actual words) implied, “What are you going to do about it?” and Jane genuinely felt that it was a systems/management problem that she was being blamed for, a defensive reaction is pretty natural. Again, it’s worth OP thinking about whether this was the case.

  21. Jaybeetee*

    So I have gone the “I feel disrespected” route in a couple of situations in my life – times when there was a pattern of the other person speaking to me or behaving towards me in a way I perceived as disrespectful! Though one person did leverage the “only assholes complain about being disrespected” idea when I tried to have that conversation with him (variation on “you’re too sensitive”.).

    There is a difference though, between a pattern of behaviour (if you were snapping at Jane on the daily), versus a single stressful moment in an established, otherwise positive working relationship. Threatening to quit over an isolated incident does sound like a pretty dramatic reaction, and reminds me a bit of that other letter where the guy told his new manager he didn’t want to receive any feedback?

    I like Alison’s advice here, to check with some trusted people to see if perhaps your tone is harsher than you realize. Since it sounds like things with Jane have returned to normal, I wouldn’t rehash it now for the purpose of an apology. Try to keep your tone level when interacting with her in the future. But keep an eye out that maybe she just never wants to hear that she’s done anything wrong.

  22. Hedgehug*

    This is very difficult to tell without seeing the interaction, because it is so subjective, especially if you are comparing to past aggressive bosses/managers. In comparison to the boss that shouts and swears, anything you say less than that would be considered respectful and calm by your standards. My goodness, I used to work with two sisters who hated each other so much that when they would fight it was pure rage of shrieking, cursing and me doing a quick sweep to make sure no sharp objects were around! So if my boss is not doing that, I consider it a win, haha. That being said, at a quick glance Jane does sound like she’s being too sensitive, but we’re missing a lot of context. My only question is, does Jane work with others physically near her? Because I personally hate receiving criticism in front of my peers, so perhaps that is what she found disrespectful? She may perceive that you embarrassed her in front of her coworkers.

  23. auburn*

    I have a reputation for being endlessly patient and very even-keeled and not getting visibly upset at work. Great right? For the most part, I’d say it is, except once you’ve earned the reputation of being unflappable the slightest raised voice or tone of frustration is a very very big deal. People will gauge your reaction relative to how you typically react. So people who are more prone to quick frustration of flashes of anger might get a pass for reactions that everyone will notice from you.

    So what registered as a very mild reaction to you because you often see that or worse from others might be perceived as a big deal from others if it’s out of character and may take it much more harshly.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      There’s also a long learning stage where you have to de-couple personal feelings and relationships from work interactions. Jane may have had a lot invested in “OP is nice and likes me” (which is probably even true!) which may feel to her incompatible with “OP was annoyed at me about this mistake.” They’re not incompatible, but it can feel that way especially if you’re younger or less experienced.

      1. IvyGirl*

        Or if someone doens’t have the emotional maturity and self awareness to separate the two. I’ve seen this with “seasoned” workers as well as with new to the workforce folks – sometimes even more so with the former, especially if no one has taken the time to call them out on it.

  24. cncx*

    I had a string of bad bosses and it took me a good seven or eight years with my current boss to not be reactive to criticism. It’s self-protection on some misguided level.

    The funny part is my boss is British so he really never sounds annoyed or frustrated, it was all on me being oversensitive. I’ve actually only heard him mad mad once (the other times it was stuff like “maybe let’s try another solution” or anything else from a “speaking British” meme).

    I agree with AAM and the other commenters saying cross check with peers rather than bring it up again with Jane.

    1. Lora*

      Ha! Look up John Bercow on YouTube – British Speaker of the House of Commons. There are many times when I have dreamt of being able to shout, “I DO NOT REQUIRE ANY RESPONSE FROM YOOOOOUUUUU MISTER, GO HOOOOOME YOUNG MAN, YOU WILL NOT BE MISSED, GO HOME!” at top volume.

  25. OrigCassandra*

    OP, one thing you might want to think about is whether your interaction with Jane represents a last-straw-breaking-the-camel’s-back situation, and if so, what the history leading up to the last straw might be. Depending on what you believe might have happened, you may need to do some highly discreet inquiries (perhaps of the other manager) — the pattern Jane is responding to may well predate you, for that matter.

    Your letter suggests that you don’t have much practice or skill recognizing when something at work is getting people down — understandable in a new manager, but maybe not ideal. Moreover, your description of your interactions with Jane previous to the error sound rather superficial to me. I don’t understand why Jane responded as she did, but that’s partly because your letter doesn’t have enough detail about Jane’s work history and interactions for me to make an educated guess.

    I reacted differently to the word “disrespected” than other commenters so far. To me it may hint at Jane having had to swallow a lot previously from her colleagues or management. Worst-case, the history here could contain harassment based on a legally-protected characteristic, in which case it’s something you absolutely need to know about and deal with — because if that’s it, your well-meant arm-pat takes on sinister overtones you didn’t intend.

    None of this may be true. It does strike me as an alternate reading that fits what we know from your letter. Try to find out, OP?

    1. Yorick*

      There is nothing to suggest there has been harassment based on a legally-protected characteristic, and it isn’t helpful to OP to speculate to this degree.

      1. A*

        Ya, I…. am struggling to understand the mental gymnastics that brought us here. Please don’t pursue this path OP.

    2. Jamie*

      Your letter suggests that you don’t have much practice or skill recognizing when something at work is getting people down — understandable in a new manager, but maybe not ideal.

      I didn’t read that at all into her letter. Even experienced managers can’t always know how something lands with someone and we certainly aren’t privy to their histories or all external factors which could contribute to someone being down or having an off day.

    3. LGC*

      I’ll go a little more mild than Yorick – you’re right in that Jane might have some priors where she just took what LW said far more personally than intended. (This is not to say that LW acted perfectly appropriately! It’s just that it feels like Jane took LW’s criticism as a personal insult, and I don’t think LW intended that.) But I don’t know whether I’d necessarily consider discrimination at first – although this might depend on the field.

      I do think that…maybe you’re reading a bit more into the letter than there is? (Coming from a guy who prefaces at least 2/3 of his comments here with “Maybe I’m reading way too far into this…”) A lot of LWs leave out details for brevity, or because they don’t think it’s that important. Or Alison might edit for brevity. She’s said she does edit a lot of the letters that appear here.

      1. Pontoon Pirate*

        That seems to be the order of the day, considering the commentariat here has seen fit to decide Jane is a jerk, a prima donna, precious, manipulative, needs to be fired… all based on a second-hand account that Jane told someone she felt disrespected and would not want to work for a company where that could continue to be the case.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Wait, where did the commentariat decide she needed to be fired or is a jerk? I see people saying she’s too sensitive, and one person who called her precious, but I am not seeing the rest of what you’re seeing.

          1. Jaybeetee*

            I don’t think anyone has outright called Jane a jerk, but there have been some “this is the sort of thing jerks do” comments. There is like a 2-3 comment thread about firing Jane not “just” for being sensitive, but for what seems to be a nonchalant response to the error when LW first pointed it out.

            Comment boards tend to contain a certain amount of projection. People remember incidents in their lives with people who did similar, and thought those people were jerks and wanted them fired – but probably not just for the one thing. But Jane’s one-off puts them in that frame of mind again.

    4. Antilles*

      What legally protected characteristic? What harassment?
      Let’s assume that this IS a pattern and OP flies off the handle at every minor slight – doesn’t seem to be the case from anything in the letter, but let’s pretend. Even if we make that assumption, there’s still no clear, legally actionable case here. Being a loudmouth jerk is legal unless the boss’ tirades are based around discrimination, threats of physical violence, inducing you to break applicable criminal laws, or something else along those lines.
      The whole point of the at-will doctrine is that you’re free to walk out the door at any time if you feel your boss is being unreasonable.

    5. Samwise*

      This is worth thinking about. I’ve had jobs where I’ve been unappreciated; if the boss who has always had a good working relationship with me seems angry or disappointed, I might have a stronger reaction than seems reasonable, especially if the unappreciation has been going on for awhile. (Sort of like, You Too???) Is there something else going on and if so, is there something OP can do about it?

      “Something else” might be worst-case, or it might not, but OP won’t know without looking into it.

  26. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    She shrugged off a mistake and then got all fluffed up over you showing impatience, hmm. Yeah that sounds like Jane has some issues to shake out as well. Despite that, you do have to now watch out how you speak to her but I would be tracking her closely to see if this is a one-off bad day of hers or if she’s that flippant about mistakes in the future as well.

    The last person who got upset over tone was one who was prone to the most mistakes. We bit our tongues after the first meltdown over the way we spoke to them and just kept it bland and straight forward, ending in their termination since they never fixed their accuracy issues, despite being in a position that required that attention to detail, since their job was data entry that would result in the wrong materials being shipped or the materials not being shipped at all and you think the managers are grumpy with you about the mistake? Well I can’t control the customer who you’re going to get on the line and start laying into you.

    1. Jamie*

      I agree with this. I would be more likely to give benefit of the doubt that it was a bad day if she hadn’t then said something about quitting to another manager. For me that’s a few steps beyond having a bad day and not dealing as well as she normally would.

      Thinking about quitting over a perceived slight? Sure! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve done that I’d be a long retired wealthy woman by now. But mental hyperbole is one thing, saying it out loud would make me track closely as well.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        The fact that she is thinking of quitting over it makes me wonder what else has happened…because I’m cynical like that.

        I was pushed over the edge only once in a similar way and I’d love to see how the boss spun it in their head to say I was overreacting. So if Jane really is a go-to rockstar, then it could be something much deeper than just this weird situation. But in the spirit of taking the OP at their word and going with their letter as the only thing that I can judge on here, yeah Jane needs to be watched to see what else is going on there!

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I agree that I would start watching her to see how many times she is passing mistakes along without notifying me.
      The first time is a free pass, the second time is a heads up and the third time is a one-on-one. But I would make it clear that if she received work with mistakes in it, or if she was having an external problem (computer, etc) that was creating an error in her work, it was her job to tell me as soon as she became aware of something going awry.

      I would start working with her on problem solving skills, such as the first step is to tell me so we can look at it together and perhaps figure something out. If we can’t figure something out, then I may bring in others to help get things fixed.

      The fact that she went to someone else, kind of bothers me. I might tend to tell myself that I created that somehow. So I would start to think about ways that she could tell me things. But to me this is a problem solving skill, you go to the actual person who can do something about the problem. I think the person who talked to you meant well, but I find their advice not that helpful because it’s not that specific. It might be interesting to role play with this person how they think you should have handled the situation.

  27. Nikara*

    I’m curious if the feeling of disrespect could have stemmed more from the second interaction than the first (or at least built off of that second interaction).

    It may have been the manager asking what was wrong, then patting her on the arm that felt disrespectful to the employee, on top of the conversation that they’d already had. She may have felt that the manager clearly should have known why she was upset, and not acted surprised by it, or patted her on the arm.

    As an occasional office crier after a hard conversation with my boss, the last thing I’d want would be the boss to come by looking surprised that I was upset. I’d generally want to hide away, and maybe vent a little to a colleague (even if I was the one who did something wrong). The fact that some of this is coming second-hand, instead of directly from the employee, makes interpreting what happened, and where the offense specifically was, challenging.

    1. Librarian of SHIELD*

      This scenario feels really likely to me. The original conversation may or may not have been too much, but OP’s reaction when Jane was already visibly upset was not ideal.

  28. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    I try to use tone as a tool. Looking at this purely from a human perspective (and not a management/managed perspective), sometimes people have difficulties reading a room or truly grasping the gravity of what has just happened. Tone can be helpful for conveying the information they’re missing, as long as you’ve also tried using flat or neutral language.

    If an employee made a fairly serious error and seemed to be treating it as nothing more than a typo, I would absolutely allow myself to show visible frustration, and would carry that through with the tone in my voice, though I won’t let myself infantilize, or condescend. I find only a little bit is usually needed, once they’re clearly onboard with the message I will pull myself back to flat.

  29. goducks*

    Perhaps it’s just me inserting things I’ve witnessed into the OP, but I couldn’t help but wonder if part of the problem is that OP is a new manager who is usually “cheerful and mellow” and perhaps manages from a place of trying to be friends with her staff, rather than managing them. She mentions heaping praise, but she doesn’t mention how she deals with giving other types of feedback.
    I’ve seen new managers fall into the trap of trying to be the eternal friendly cheerleader, shying away from any type of ‘conflict’ (really just necessary, not positive feedback). And then when they do finally get fed up and provide even one bit of criticism of someone’s work, they’re suddenly the devil for even mentioning it, because their staff has become so accustomed to the constant praise storm. This especially seems to happen when the new manager is a former peer to the staff.
    I don’t know that’s what’s going on here, but that’s the image it conjured in my mind.
    If that’s the case, I’d encourage the OP to work on giving other types of feedback so that her staff isn’t trained into thinking that anything other than praise is disrespect.

  30. Lora*

    *shudders* This is so culturally-dependent, in my experience. And I mean company culture, though international standards for professional communications can also be involved. Generally I find that in organizations with more worker protections, or where the local economy is strong and finding another job is relatively easy, and where layoffs and firings are incredibly rare – there you will find workers who are less exquisitely sensitive to criticism, because they don’t perceive it as such an implied threat of firing/being moved to the top of the layoff list.

    You don’t say in your letter but I hope you gave her this feedback in private; it would definitely have felt embarrassing to be called out in front of other people, and runs the risk of starting the rumor mill churning. Cubicle farms and open office areas are objectively THE WOOOOOOOORST when it comes to this sort of thing.

    And I agree with those who have said, think carefully on why she says it couldn’t be helped, when her work has otherwise been excellent. It’s no fun at all to have your boss Monday-morning quarterbacking a stream of consciousness at you in lieu of a real root cause analysis that would guide a logical path forward.

  31. CupcakeCounter*

    Based on the contents of the letter, Jane appears to be the one who was acting disrespectfully. When your boss calls you in and says “Hey we discovered Big Serious Issue your project” you don’t respond with “Yeah mistakes sometimes happen – nothing to be done about it.” I have never had a boss where that would not elicit some kind of WTF response.

  32. NW Mossy*

    I’ve definitely had moments where my facade as the perpetually cool-headed leader slips, and it’s been OK. Not my best work, certainly, but it’s recoverable in most cases. There have even been times where a somewhat bluntly worded statement actually worked to my benefit, because it made the light come on for the employee that [topic] is actually a very big deal.

    One tip I picked up that I find very practical for tone in delivering critical feedback is mentally appending the word “dude” to the end of what you’re saying. “You have to get this right” given flat reads pretty harsh (especially in people-pleasing, conflict-averse work cultures), but “You have to get this right[, dude]” hits that note of friendly caring that makes it clear that the critique comes from a place of kindness and sincere desire to help the employee improve.

    1. LGC*

      Hell, say it out loud if it sounds natural for you (and fits with your work culture)! One of the things I’ve learned is that “professional” doesn’t always mean “formal” – and part of being a manager is managing people’s feelings to an extent. (Sometimes you have to not care because no matter what you do they’re going to be offended. But you’re generally trying to balance being critical with not offending the person personally.)

      But that’s a really good tip.

  33. Kaitlyn*

    This sort of sounds, to me, as though you and Jane have a friend-based relationship rather than a manager/staff relationship. Someone who can shrug at their manager is someone who feels pretty comfortable with that relationship, and when OP put on her manager hat and asked for changes, especially with *a tone*, I bet that scanned as like, “whoa, I thought you were cool, I thought we liked each other, I’m unsure of my footing here now.” If it’s not beating a dead horse, maybe a conversation where the OP can both own and apologize for a brusque tone AND remind Jane that, as a supervised employee, she’ll need to be open to working with through whatever issues that pop up with her manager’s direction?

    1. CM*

      I like this approach the best. It opens the door for Jane to communicate about her perception — rather than just talking to a third person about it — and also lets Jane know that the OP does respect her, but also that Jane is going to have to be able to take feedback and maybe learn to focus less on tone and more on the words the person is actually saying. I think that’s a key skill that allows you to take criticism without taking it personally.

  34. Not a Blossom*

    Without knowing more about Jane, I have no idea if this is anywhere near correct, but the fact that she felt it was appropriate to shrug off a correction from a manager about a major problem combined with the facts that she said she felt “disrespected” and threatened to quit makes me think that Jane isn’t going to take any critique well. Sometimes people (especially high performers) get into their minds that they should not be corrected and take it poorly when they are.

    1. Auntie Social*

      And when there was a problem Jane wasn’t about solving it, she was busy being indignant about being criticized. It seems there’s something about the process she doesn’t understand if she’s okay with “can’t be helped”, and doesn’t understand consequences of part A being missing from every package. That’s not a good manager. I would want to talk to her later about her overall understanding.

  35. banzo_bean*

    Why not just talk to Jane about what happened. OP, you don’t have to approach it from an apologetic place, but it might be helpful to tell Jane your side of the story and her side as well. I would like to know if as an employee it bothered you that I shrugged and said it couldn’t be helped.

    Maybe there is a bigger misunderstanding Jane has that makes her think that this error was unavoidable. Maybe there are tools/training/mentoring opportunities Jane isn’t aware of that can help her avoid similar mistakes in the future. Maybe Jane forgot her coffee that morning and please excuse her general attitude/emotional reactions. If Jane is a good employee generally, which you say she is, it’s definitely worth hearing out.

    And maybe there is something on your end you’re missing as well. Or maybe Jane is sensitive to certain turns of phrase you might innocuous. As a new manager, you might not be aware of something that comes off harmless from a co-worker is not well received from management. If Jane is a good employee, it’s worth figuring out how she likes to receive feedback- even when its coming from an annoyed place.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah I think because Jane apparently told someone else she was thinking about quitting, I might go back and have that conversation with her if I saw signs that this interaction was affecting her work. I wouldn’t necessarily apologize if I was OP because to me she sounds like she was pretty reasonable, but I’d ask Jane about her feeling of being disrespected, what that means to her, etc. to see if there are other incidents she’s thinking of or basically if she’s going to interpret all negative feedback as “disrespect.”

  36. Ingalls*

    I think Jane is the one being “disrespectful” by shrugging off her managers concern over an error on her part.

    1. Oilpress*

      Not just that, she is also spreading that opinion to others at work and refusing to talk to her manager about it. Jane is a problem.

  37. LGC*

    So – practically speaking:

    1) LW, I feel this because I’m not that great at it. I’m a fairly open book naturally. I’m also a 6’5″ black dude with a beard. My personal self-image (which is true!) is that I’m shy and introverted. What people see is that I’m aloof and stern and intimidating.

    Suffice to say, if I seem irritated, people think it’s the end of the world. (Like, I could be slightly annoyed, and everyone is convinced I’m going to fire the entire department. Even though I don’t have any firing authority.)

    2) I’ve actually tried to compensate by being…kind of open about why I feel annoyed if I do feel annoyed. It’s not the most ideal, but it’s better to say, “I’m sorry if I seem annoyed at you, it’s really because now we have to do X and this is going to cause major delays,” rather than making it seem like it’s pinned on Jane. (It’s still better to not be visibly annoyed to begin with! But as Alison noted, people slip up.)

    Also, I’d definitely pull Jane aside and offer an apology (she may not take it, which is fine). I’d also file this away as very useful information – Jane may be overly sensitive, but that also means that you do kind of have to communicate with her in a certain way to get her to listen.

    1. goducks*

      I’d argue that it’s ok to tell someone who shrugs when a critical error is pointed out them that I’m annoyed with them right now. That’s not an acceptable response from Jane. You don’t need to yell or berate to do so, but I think that it should be called out.

      1. LGC*

        Actually, I’d disagree with that straight up – mostly because that makes it about the person, not the behavior.

        By all means, you should clarify that they get it and understand this is a major issue. But I’d switch the wording to, “Do you understand that this is a serious issue?” (Or alternatively, “Okay, but this is still something major.”)

    2. Snark*

      Yeah to all this. I’m also a big dude with a boomy voice. I can be at a solid 6/10 annoyed and frustrated, and come off as a 10/10 back away slowly. And in addition to restraining myself, yes, being very communicative about what is going on and how I feel about has been very helpful.

      1. mcr-red*

        My husband’s the same way. Big guy, loud voice, and the only person who doesn’t react to him like he’s a scary giant is me, who is like at least half his size.

        1. LGC*

          In my case, it is literally the opposite outside of work! Like, for whatever reason strangers find me extremely approachable. So do my friends from what it seems. Like, most of the time I’ve been told to speak up more!

          I kind of get it – I actually do minimize myself much of the time, unless I’m being “bossy” – but it was still really weird to realize how people at work might see me.

          1. mcr-red*

            Oh, he’s a social butterfly, and I’m the “Please don’t talk to me, I’m begging you” person with strangers. He’s like my giant shield with people, lol. But if he sounds the least bit irritated, people react like he’s at OMG levels and I’m just like, meh, calm down, dude.

    3. NW Mossy*

      #2 is a good callout, and it can also be useful as a way to reflect that you take your team’s frustrations seriously. When they come to you with concerns about how something’s working, a “man, that is annoying!” in front of your “so how can I help fix this?” reinforces that you’re listening and you care enough to take action.

      1. LGC*

        True – although I tend to approach it as more deflecting from a slip-up. (I mean…okay, yes, I do get annoyed at my team sometimes. But I feel bad that I do! And more importantly, me telling them that I’m personally annoyed at them isn’t helpful.)

        But that’s actually a good point. I’ve chimed in agreement with ongoing issues – like, I have agreed that the big machines at my job are frustrating to deal with, for example. There are some places where it’s more acceptable to sound frustrated, I think – sometimes, yeah, your team does need to be told that they’re not wrong for being frustrated with a less-than-ideal situation.

  38. LKW*

    I’m going through something similar now – but my team’s reaction is generally “Yeah, we get it. Your frustration is understandable.” I’m not yelling per se, but I know my tone and my words clearly communicate my unhappiness.
    Still, I give everyone credit for the things they are doing right… but you never want to so diminish the point that it becomes lost in praise.

    Funnily enough, years ago when I was just starting to manage others, my team gave me feedback that they preferred when I showed my emotions. That instead of being an automaton where everything was “fine” they preferred when I expressed my frustrations and exasperation (mostly directed to my team about the crazy client).

    Also, in a weird way, expressing frustration respectfully and professionally helps the whole team understand that if they screw up, they’ll be held accountable. If no one screws up… great! If everyone screws up sometimes and gets the same general treatment…great! If everyone screws up but only one or two team members get scolded… not great! Also, we learn from mistakes, so being aware of things that could have gone better – without it being a “LOOK AT THE MISTAKE!” but more of a “hey, this is a good lesson for everyone” is part of the job.

  39. Super Duper Anon*

    I am in agreement with a lot of the other commenters and say that this situation needs careful evaluation from all sides. For sure, have an impartial person check your tone and make sure you are speaking calmly and respectfully. But also, I would monitor the situation with Jane more closely too. “…or I will quit” statements are so loaded. I have only ever said it once to my manager in a situation I felt was untenable, and I didn’t even word it that strongly. Is Jane feeling an overall pattern of disrespect, or is she overreacting to a single moment? Was she on her way to explain why the situation couldn’t have been helped, but here is her solution for fixing it and you interrupted her, or was she actually being flippant? Was she just having an off day, or is this an ongoing problem?

  40. !*

    Yes, you have it right when you wrote that apologizing might undermine your position, you never want to do that with subordinates especially in a situation that seems out of proportion with the actual events. That Jane would threaten to quit if she felt disrespected is a red flag to me. You wanted her to know that the serious error she made should not have just been shrugged off, and you did nothing but express your frustration about her reaction. The two of you worked through the problem together, and it was only after the fact that she became teary-eyed, and did not say anything to you about the situation but another manager. Something stinks about Jane, I would keep an eye on her.

    1. Colette*

      I definitely disagree that you should never apologize to a subordinate- strong managers apologize when they’re wrong. Weak managers are concerned with acting tough rather than doing what’s right.

      1. !*

        Hi Colette, I was actually referring only to this situation where the OP did not seem to be in the wrong, and apologizing might jeopardize her position. I absolutely think managers should apologize to their subordinates when they are wrong.

  41. Alanna of Trebond*

    People are people, and they’re going to get frustrated. Threatening to quit over it is absurd. But if you feel like this is derailing your relationship with Jane in an unproductive way, there’s a way to come back to it that models having a calm and critical workplace conversation without minimizing her error.

    At your next 1:1, say something like “I apologize for being short with you on Monday when we talked about how you handled [whatever she screwed up]. When said [whatever she said] and shrugged, I felt you weren’t taking the mistake seriously, and I got frustrated and impatient. We haven’t had to have many conversations about errors or areas of improvement, but when we do, I need you to engage with me and take it seriously. That means [describe whatever you’d rather she do besides shrugging]. Can you commit to that going forward?”

    1. Kiwiii*

      I like this a lot, because it’s an apology that’s also addressing why it happened (her shrug) but also acknowledging expectations (engage with me) and that her response was maybe not prepared because the situation is new (we haven’t had to have many conversations about errors). Hits all the bases.

  42. Josh Lyman*

    This happened to me when I took over managing a team from someone who quit. The manager never, ever corrected anything done wrong and gave ZERO feedback to anyone. If people did something wrong, she didn’t acknowledge it or share it with them, or even have them correct it. She said “thanks” and then fixed it/did it herself. I did not know this. So I get a document back that someone worked on, I do track changes, and then call the person to sit with me so we can go over it together for context. I was nothing but pleasant! I would say sunnily-matter-of-fact: this is how I want it done, I don’t expect you to know that, so I want to go over it with you. This person literally said our next check-in that I was disrespecting her. I asked her what she meant and she said is was disrespectful that the document had so many corrections and that she felt that I was talking down to her by pointing them out. While we had a decent conversation in this moment, it didn’t get better. I made sure I was super mindful of my tone and attitude, but definitely still had to correct her work. She never learned from any mistakes. So sometimes, it depends on how they were being managed before. If they weren’t been corrected in any way, this could be new and surprising.

  43. I edit everything*

    I haven’t read all the comments, but does anyone think the “disrespect” might have been perceived by Jane in the LW’s reaction to seeing Jane upset? A pat on the arm and a “take a break” comment, depending on delivery, might come across as condescending. Maybe she was upset about the mistake or the reprimand, because she’s normally a high performer, but LW’s later interaction came across as disrespectful in some way (rubbing salt in the wound.”

  44. Gaia*

    Ok so confession time. For most of my 20s I worked in roles where I was a “rockstar” performer. I literally never got criticism or told I made an error. I’m sure I did make errors but they were glossed over because I had specific skills that put me in a position of high value. At the time I thought this was great!

    The first time my manager pointed out an error I had made (and it was fairly minor but still worth raising) it felt like a slap in the face. I didn’t make mistakes! And if I did it is because it was inevitable! And certainly not something worth criticising me over! I absolutely felt disrespected.

    As someone older and wiser and who has had some great managers that helped me realize that you can be a highly valued high performer AND still have areas to improve, I now recognize my reaction was ridiculous and unprofessional. But oh I see my younger self in your employee, OP.

  45. Coverage Associate*

    I want to point out that people are expecting something of a performance about the error, same as a performance in pointing it out. What I mean is, equally as the manager is expected to point out the error calmly and clearly, so the employee is expected to show remorse or regret or apology. And as the manager may not actually be calm, the employee may not actually be regretful, for example if the error is unimportant compared to a personal crisis. And as managers vary in ability to display calm, employees vary in ability to display regret.

    Also, it’s a different thing to shrug off an error versus avoiding a fix. A person can be uninterested in the retrospective “how did this happen” and very interested in the prospective “how do we fix this”. Also, some situations call for fixing before figuring out what went wrong, and sometimes you figure out what went wrong first.

    I point all this out because the OP’s narrative goes straight from shrugging off the error to needing to fix it, but logically and maybe practically, they are not the same.

    1. Aurion*

      I see your point, but I don’t think Jane was particularly moved by the need to fix the error or figure out why it happened. If she were very interested in the prospective of “how do we fix this” I’d have expected at least a “human error, couldn’t be helped…let me go redo that spreadsheet/brush the llamas again/whatever“.

      There’s a time and place for root cause analysis and process improvement, and maybe that wasn’t the time for any number of reasons. But if Jane was invested in making sure the product was error free, I feel like she should’ve said something towards that end, and not wait for OP to explain “no, we need to fix it otherwise X”.

      1. Zillah*

        I think it’s really difficult to definitively say this, though, and you’re kind of reinforcing Coverage Associate’s point re: performing regret. In general, there are some reactions that are always completely unacceptable, but there’s a lot of room outside of that for people to react in less than ideal ways without not caring about their job. The OP explicitly says that they immediately went on to work with Jane to figure out a solution. That sounds like caring about a fix to me.

        As I read all of this, simple differences in body language also come across to me. A shrug definitely sounds dismissive and I can understand why the OP would read it that way, but I know a people who are more physically expressive (myself included!) who will sometimes move their shoulders when talking about something serious. It generally doesn’t come across as apathy because I’m clearly engaged in the conversation, but I can see some people interpreting it an apathetic shrug if they don’t know me.

        I’m not saying that’s what happened here! I’m just pointing out that people’s perceptions of the same situation can differ. What’s processing for Jane might seem apathetic to the OP, and what’s impatient to the OP might seem really harsh to Jane.* I’ve had a coworker privately tell me that I was coming across as rude and dismissive in some conversations where I thought that I was just being clear and direct. It happens, and nobody needs to really be the bad guy for it to be a problem.

        *I think people are writing the coworker off as validating the OP too quickly – it’s not at all uncommon to replace “you shouldn’t have done that” with “you’re right, but maybe you can try doing X in the future to avoid this anyway.” I don’t know if that happened here! I’m just pointing out that validation+redirection is very much a thing.

  46. mcr-red*

    I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions here. Why was the mistake something that “couldn’t be helped?” Was it something out of her control? I can see a couple of scenarios here: If the mistake really was something out of her control, it is very upsetting to be told well now it’s your fault, fix it! OR, if it is a problem that she has brought up to you before, and was ignored, that is also very upsetting. Both have happened to me before, and yeah, I went and cried in the bathroom. Another possibility: Have you overwhelmed her with a lot of projects? We are operating at a minimum capacity to run, so I am, not kidding, doing four people’s jobs right now. And I have had some issues and straight up told my boss, this is what happens when we do this. Mistakes get made because this is work that four people are meant to do, not one person.

    My final possibility, it IS your tone. My husband has this issue. When he gets impatient, he gets this condescending tone to his voice. He’s a big guy, deep LOUD voice, and he can look intimidating. So those things together mix and he has had some issues with co-workers before and couldn’t understand why, and I was like, “Hello? It’s THE tone.” He uses it on me and I’ll be like, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” or will just snap right back at him and he figures it out and alters how he’s speaking.

  47. Kiwiii*

    I’ve only skimmed the comments, so I apologize if this has been said already. My thought when reading the “couldn’t be helped” comment and then that Jane was teary about it later may have been that Jane worked really hard to ensure that it didn’t happen, was upset that it then happened anyway, and was trying to respond in a way that was as uninvested as she could have been to avoid sounding/becoming upset about it. Which isn’t an excuse for her “disrespected” comment in the slightest, but I do wonder how much she asked for help in the process of the thing vs. how much was given to her, etc.

    When I’m personally frustrated with a thing and/or have asked for help I wasn’t given, I tend to either get teary or put on a “oh it’s fine” mask. It mostly happened with a terrible manager, but recently at my new job (where I’m still getting my footing but everyone has been mostly really great), I asked a coworker for help on a thing and she implied that I should know how to do it or have the needed document already and it set me off crying on and off all day because I was overwhelmed with other things and felt brushed off. Which was stupid, but super did happen lol.

  48. CastIrony*

    I feel for Jane, to be honest. I was just there.

    Has OP been critical and having to correct Jane a lot lately? It could be that if they were, that Jane may have simply had enough, and that she snapped.

  49. Noah*

    I’ve worked with people who only thought their mistakes were a big deal if somebody got upset about them. Their managers did not “have the power to get people to do what they want” just by talking to them, or even by threatening their job. They could get what the wanted (perhaps) by replacing them. Or by the far less expensive option of showing they were annoyed. As long as it’s deployed intentionally and in the limited contexts where it makes sense, I really don’t understand the problem with this. Humans use tone to communicate. This is very normal. (I’m not supporting yelling, but it is 100% okay to sound annoyed in the right situation.)

  50. Beep boop*

    I feel that there are many reasonable options to explore here which don’t involve trying to discredit/judge/ mind read Jane –
    1) Re engage with the employee in a positive way, that assigns some acknowledgement that she is upset.
    2) Let her open up and try and understand the root of her feelings
    3) Clarify expectations / your intentions as required.
    4) take on board any feedback on your own behaviour

    I say this as I have been in a similar situation where one roughly delivered comment was the final straw and really made it all come out emotionally which is extremely unusual for me.
    I was running the delivery of something under a huge amount of unforeseen circumstances (lots of suddenly leaving colleagues etc), my manager didn’t manage the situation well (made us pick up all leavers work: essential and inessential with no time to train and no guidance) plus our existing work. After the storm, Said manager nitpicked one detail that wasn’t perfect from that period and that was it: Final straw – i felt totally rough shod over for all my hard work (and unpaid overtime) in difficult circumstances, and my manager wouldn’t acknowledge my point of view at all as it would require her to admit her (poor) management was responsible for some of the outcome. We’d all been miserable in that period and tried to rally, and the thanks we got was.. increased downward pressure and criticism. To this day, no one ever got thanked and my manager never apologised or conceded any responsibility/contribution. I lost a lot of respect for her after that and have learnt that is how she reacts in times of stress – A large point that contributed to my decision not to remain in my job long term.

  51. pcake*

    When Jane shrugged and said it couldn’t be helped, I’d have asked her why it couldn’t be helped. By not doing this, the OP may have gotten more context that could have modified her perception of the situation.

  52. Len*

    My boss sounds frustrated/impatient *all the time*, and it really wears on me. Any time one of us doesn’t immediately understand or agree with a technical point he’s trying to make, which is often. One of the reasons I’m eyeing the exits…

  53. NotVeryActiveHere*

    Is the person who wrote the letter a woman? Because Jane’s response is something I’ve observed from the outside when someone else was trying to boss while female.

    Women are often perceived as soft, friendly, seeking to govern by gently persuasion – and this boss wasn’t doing that .

    I have observed colleagues who would have accepted much, much worse from a male boss without raising an eyebrow protest loudly about any perceived criticism from a female boss, because she wasn’t living up to their ideas of what a female boss should do and be.

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