updates: the trash-talking boss, the excessive thanker, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. My boss trash-talks all my coworkers

At first, this didn’t get any better. And I realized the issue was systemic—at one point, I was sitting in her office for a one-on-one when HER boss just walked in and started talking shit about another manager…right in front of me. They laughed and made fun of her and all I could think was, “How on EARTH do they find this appropriate?” (I’ve since found out that this has happened to other people who also didn’t appreciate it.)

But then, the company had some restructuring happen. She stopped being my boss because, frankly, it made no sense for her to be in the first place (she has no experience in my area). When my boss changed, basically everything got better, including with her behavior. Her boss changed AND she got a larger team who aren’t just friends she’s hired. Many of them are in different offices across the country, so she has no personal face-to-face time with them. Which means she has to be careful of what she says so she doesn’t get HR complaints (though she got one very soon after the restructuring). And since she was the ring-leader, the behavior from her friends has also stopped.

And my new boss doesn’t behave that way at all. We get along—sincerely, this time. I don’t feel like I have to tip-toe around her feelings. It’s awesome.

I was a little taken aback by the number of commenters who thought I was enjoying her including me in these things. Maybe I didn’t phrase my letter in a way that made my feelings clear, but I wouldn’t have written in for advice if I didn’t want it to stop. So I didn’t really understand.

But the problem is gone and my work atmosphere is MUCH less toxic.

2. My manager thanks me publicly for the smallest things, and it’s humiliating (#3 at the link)

When I first wrote to you, I’d only been on our team for a few weeks, and I misdiagnosed my own problem! Something felt “off” about my manager, and I knew we weren’t quite clicking. Because his excessive praise was the most noticeable characteristic, that’s what I attributed my problem to. But that wasn’t quite right.

It wasn’t that my manager was too nice – it was that his praise was concealing a tendency to micromanage. “Oh, you’re so good at PowerPoint!” can obscure refusal to let a person make a single edit to said PowerPoint without approval.

Over the course of several months, my working life descended into being unable to take a single action – scheduling a meeting, crafting an agenda, you name it – without my manager’s approval. (My favorite incident: I was on speakerphone scheduling a meeting my manager wouldn’t be attending, and he stepped in and changed the time and length of the meeting. Again – a meeting he wouldn’t be at.) If I contributed an idea, it was heavily praised – then ignored. Yet if I didn’t offer ideas (being micromanaged is extremely time intensive, I was finding myself at work until 7 or 8 p.m., and it was sometimes faster not to have an opinion), I was berated for not being a team player.

Being new, I didn’t have historical context. I later found out from other team members that the last, not one, not two, but three people who held my position had all left for other projects because of this manager’s micromanaging.

However: I have truly amazing grandbosses who noticed this trend in people fleeing this team and who sat me (and a few others) down to get our honest opinion about what was going on. They subsequently had a come-to-Jesus talk with my manager, and, to his credit, he made a significant effort to change. He’s still not someone I ever want to work with again, but he really did try to improve. And, on my end, I didn’t handle the situation particularly well: I could have spoken up about feeling this way, I could have been more proactive at finding better ways to work together. I was saved not through my actions but through the dumb luck of having brilliant grandbosses.

I’m on a much better team now where I have a manager who has already helped me grow immensely – including figuring out when I need to push back.

3. Should I relocate with my company? (#5 at the link)

In the end, I decided not to relocate.

I was in a position where I was able to wait to see what decisions others made about relocating before I made my own, and ultimately, almost no one did. Whether it was because of changes in the way the roles would be structured, family reasons, or obtaining other offers, they said no. I would have been moving to work with an almost entirely different team, and for me, the team had been a major plus.

I would still have been considering it at least a bit, but a former boss in my current city heard about the impending office closure and thought of me for a vacant role. It’s an exciting step forward in my career!

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. Oxford Common Sense*

    “being micromanaged is extremely time intensive… and it was sometimes faster not to have an opinion.”

    I’ve just had an epiphany. You’re absolutely right OP2. Glad things are better now.

    1. Waving not Drowning (no longer Drowning not Waving)*

      Yes!! I’ve just escaped from a similar situation, even down to the excessive praise. I also learnt that it was much easier to have no thoughts than to offer up suggestions and be shot down in flames. It was soul destroying.

      I spoke up to grand boss before I left, and grand grand boss after I left. Sadly there has been no change. There has been an 80% turnover in staff in that department in 2 years.

      Luckily my manager in my new department is the complete opposite. Presumes competence in her staff, encourages, and genuinely seeks out feedback. There is no longer a sense of dread coming in to work.

  2. Kitty*

    LW #2, I’m so glad your grand bosses picked up on this and actually took action! I was in a similar situation and ended up leaving the company over it. Even after five (yes, you read that right, FIVE) employees of this manager left the company and directly cited her micromanaging as a reason in their exit interviews, the grandbosses have still done nothing. There’s been almost a complete turnover of her team and many years of combined experience and expertise lost, but clearly they just don’t care.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed, I’m glad OP 2’s grandboss noticed the pattern and took steps to correct it. Unfortunately with some problems the only way to fix it is to make the problem visible to the person who can actually address the issue (and hopefully that person will then address the issue).

      1. Mama Bear*

        This is something grandbosses should do. Unfortunately in a lot of situations they don’t take action. My child’s former principal has driven away a lot of staff but the district doesn’t seem to care. Similarly, my old manager was replaced with a micromanager nobody liked. I left mostly because I didn’t appreciate that (or the person’s attitude toward me in general). I’m glad the OP got a better situation.

  3. RUKiddingMe*

    “ I was a little taken aback by the number of commenters who thought I was enjoying her including me in these things.“

    I just re-read your original letter and FWIW it seemed pretty clear that you weren’t enjoying her/their behavior.

    1. Xantar*

      The comments section here has a history of wildly baseless speculation. It’s unfortunate, but you have to take it with all the genuinely good advice.

      1. Wakeens Teapots LTD*

        It’s an Internet Thing and it shows you why “just anybody” can’t be an advice columnist, doesn’t it?

    2. Bostonian*

      Yeah, at first I thought it might be the commenters’ imagination going wild, but when I reread the letter I saw something to the extent of “I’d like to stay in the inner circle, thanks”, which I could see how that didn’t do the OP any favors.

      1. ligirl*

        That doesn’t seem any different than “i don’t want this nastiness turned on me” though, which is a perfectly reasonable concern to have in this situation

  4. Thankful for AAM*

    I notice that problems with bosses often don’t seemed to be solved with awesome AAM wording but by leaving or higher level managers stepping in on their own. It males me sad.

    1. MK*

      Well, it’s not really odd that problems are more often either solved by the people who have the power to solve them (higher-ups stepping in) or not solved at all (and the OP usually leaves the job) than by employees trying to “manage up”, as I think the expression goes. It’s actually pretty common for Alison to caution that the situation might not be salvageable or add the caveat “if your manager is at all reasonable”, but usually, if the manager is reasonable, the problem won’t have been created anyway. Once in a while you get an OP who could have solved the issue with speaking up and only needed encouragement to do so and advice how to go about it.

      1. Thankful for AAM*

        For some reason, I was really thinking that if I just got better at managing up, things would get better. It has really just hit me that it was wishful thinking on my part.

        1. Fikly*

          This line of thinking is really common among victims of any type of abuse. If only I did x, he wouldn’t… Or, well, he only abused me because I did x…

          They’re just abusive, full stop. It’s not your fault or responsibility.

          1. CynicallySweet*

            Way to jump to abuse. The updates lately have been calling out the huge jumps in logic commenters have been making lately. Maybe part attention to that

        2. Artemesia*

          I am excellent at managing up, and it often makes a huge difference BUT if you have an irrational or personality disordered or vicious boss who revels in control and micromanaging then the only solution is a new boss.

    2. AcademiaNut*

      The problem is that well phrased words alone don’t tend to work well with someone who is unreasonable or vindictive, or with strongly entrenched behaviours. Sometimes pushing back works with someone who is a decent person but didn’t realize the effects of their actions, or a bully who backs down when confronted, or when they realize that there are potential consequences to their behaviour. If they don’t want to change, though, it takes someone with power (like HR or their boss) to do something. If words alone could reliably make people be reasonable and kind and competent, the world world would be a very different place.

      And think of it this way – there are lots of people who write in with problems with their reports, whom they have power over. And in a non-trivial fraction of those cases, words and consequences don’t work and the person has to be fired.

  5. Quake Johnson*

    This is the third time in update season the comment section has been reprimanded for baseless assumptions…

    1. I don't know who I am*

      I must admit these days I just skim the comments due to this. Some comments have me going back and re-reading the letter to make sure I didn’t miss a huge chunk. It’s sad as when I first found AAM the comments section was one of the best on the internet. These days it just seems like a projection-fest. I have noticed on some posts that Alison is putting up a note that she is removing comments that speculate wildly. With a site with as many comments as this it is unrealistic to do that with all posts.

      1. Ariaflame*

        Why Captain Awkward has less open to comments threads, spending 99% of the moderation time dealing with 1% of the problem posters is still a lot when the numbers get high.

      2. Sled dog mama*

        Same here. I’m usually only interested in what Alison and a few long time commenters have to say.

        1. Lucette Kensack*

          Yep, agreed! I have a few folks whose names I Ctrl-F for, and other than that I find the comment section an actively negative factor on the site.

            1. Third or Nothing!*

              I don’t do ctrl+F but I do tend to gravitate toward certain commenters. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock, The Man Becky Lynch, and Quill are some of my faves. (Hey y’all!)

              1. Mirabel*

                Surprised you need to ctrl+F to find those people when they are absolutely everywhere in the comments of every post

            2. Torrance*

              I always look for Mike C & Gazebo Slayer. I really see them as the conscience of the site/commentariat.

        2. Oilpress*

          The problem with that approach is that it can limit the diversity of thought. Any site like this becomes much less useful if you only pay attention to what you already agree with and never challenge yourself to see a different side of the issue.

    2. hbc*

      To be fair, one of those times was a pretty understandable issue to raise, if not to draw conclusions about. (Mangy dog without apparent access to non-filthy food, if I remember correctly.)

      People are going to read and respond with their own biases, often projecting the situation onto their own maybe-similar experience, possibly from the other side. We all write with more blanks than we realize, and we all fill in or project more than we realize. So I think commenters can probably be better on the whole about using “if” or “in my possibly similar situation” and such, and I think some advice askers* could better keep in mind that a misunderstanding of the words or gaps isn’t personal.

      *I think this LW did fine in this incident.

      1. OP #1*

        “ We all write with more blanks than we realize”

        That is very true. And it’s so hard to fill in those blanks when you’re trying to stay anonymous. (I am pretty sure some of my coworkers read AAM occasionally.)

  6. Observer*

    #1- I’m so glad that your situation has improved. I’m curious what happened to your grand-boss who seems to have been part of the problem.

    Also, I’m betting that the fact that your former boss got that HR complaint and that they followed it up is why she is now being careful to behave herself. So, kudos to your HR department.

    1. OP #1*

      Oh, I forgot! I don’t want to be too specific, so I’m not identified. But let’s say the restructuring process resulted in him no longer being in that position of power.

  7. Observer*

    #2- Don’t feel so bad about not pushing back. It’s hard to do so in the kind of situation you were in. Especially since it took you a long time to figure out what was really going on.

    1. Marthooh*

      Yes to this. Newbies just don’t have the standing – or institutional knowledge – to force change. Even if you did, it’s literally not your job to manage your manager.

  8. Marissa*

    #1 I’m so glad you’re out of that situation! And that your coworkers pretty quickly seem to have fallen out of the gossipy habits too. I remember your letter, and it seems like a shake up and restructure is just what your office needed. I wonder how many of your coworkers who were your boss’s friends aren’t naturally as gossipy but were going along with your boss.

    1. OP #1*

      A lot of people are somewhat gossipy still, but definitely not in the same trash-talky way. Mostly if they’re frustrated with a procedure or a coworker (though they’re careful who they say anything to), they might want to get it off their chests. I don’t mind and I have managed to bring some compassion into the conversations. (Paraphrased example: “Old coworker who was fired sucked at her job, let’s talk about how terrible she was.” “Yeah, but someone close to her died at the same time she started sucking. I think she just didn’t take as much time as she needed to grieve.” “Ah. True.”) This is so much easier with coworkers than with bosses.

      The BIG difference is that they don’t seem to feed off the negativity like old boss did. She seemed to crave it, whereas they want people to do well and just get very frustrated when they don’t (in part because it affects their jobs). That’s something I feel is much easier to deal with.

      1. your favorite person*

        Compassion makes a huge different in the workplace (and in life). You are modeling excellent behavior. Sometimes positive behaviors can be contagious, too. Thanks for the update and coming back to comment!

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