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Hello Businesslady!

I’ve been at my company for more than three years, but increasingly I feel like I’m drowning. I started in a part-time position and recently worked my way up to full-time. My boss and I generally get along pretty well and I enjoy him personally. But when he comes into the office in a foul mood, or I make a stupid error, then it’s like Mr. Hyde shows up. I pride myself on being able to take criticism, which is a basic part of what I do. I think I’m probably not actually doing that badly, and my boss just wants me to perform as well as I can. But I miss the days when I felt competent at my job and could go home and not be kept awake by feelings of inadequacy. (I’m a journalist, FWIW, so when I say boss, I mean “editor.”) Incidentally, two people who previously held my position both left because they felt like they were under too much pressure from our boss and couldn’t keep him happy. (They had other job options to go to, and I currently don’t have a good exit strategy.) Others have complained to our higher-ups about our boss’s anger management issues, and while he keeps those better contained these days, there’s still the occasional door-slamming outburst.

I haven’t had a performance review since starting my full-time position and I would like to ask my boss for one. He might be an asshole sometimes, but I think he’d be honest about whether I’m actually valuable to the company or not. I’d also like to explain that I need an “atta girl” every once in awhile and some less directly personal criticism. Is that a crazy idea?

Dear Drowning,

I’m not sure where to begin with this response, probably because you’ve introduced the specter of the Vengeful Editor and I see your boss scowling at every sentence I start to write. He’s not even here and it’s stressing me out, so I can only imagine how tough it is for you to work with someone who makes you feel inadequate.

There are also a lot of different dimensions to your problem, so I’m going to try to break it into its component parts.

First and foremost—in case it makes you feel any better—the yelling, door-slamming, and other nonsense your boss is pulling is decidedly unprofessional. It’s not okay, and it’s likely something he gets away with because he’s so stellar at some other aspect of his job that higher-ups are willing to tolerate his otherwise bad behavior. We can debate the wisdom of that tradeoff (although he’d better be really good at meeting his goals if he has an entire office walking on eggshells around his moods), but one way or another, it’s the way things are.

The good news is he’s basically throwing tantrums, and tantrums are not to be taken seriously. If you offer a toddler a cookie, and they throw it on the ground and say “I hate you,” the correct response is not to begin doubting your relationship with said toddler and your own capacity for cookie selection. Now, in your case, I realize that giving your boss a time-out isn’t exactly practicable, but what if he doesn’t know he’s in time-out? The next time he storms in directing glare-beams at everyone in his path, treat him like the cranky child he is and mentally insulate yourself from him until he’s calmed down. And if you do have to deal with him, remember: this has nothing to do with you.

We talked about feedback last month, but we didn’t really touch on its close companions: bad management (more on that below) and impostor syndrome. Obviously your boss is there to ensure your work meets certain standards and help you improve, but when that’s mixed with his prickly personal style and your own sense of self-doubt, it can create a vicious cycle where you feel truly incapable of success.

I could probably do an entire column on impostor syndrome, but for now, let’s just think about how it might be applicable to you. When you’re just starting out in the workforce, a certain degree of humility can be beneficial: You’re new! You’re eager to learn! You’re going to make mistakes, but by golly, you’ll learn from ’em! Traits like that can help launch your career, but after a certain point you have to stop seeing yourself as “the person whose inadequacy is tolerated.” In your case, you got promoted after a few years on the job and your boss doesn’t exactly seem like the type to tolerate poor performance, so clearly you have to be doing something right. The time has come for you to trust your own competence and learn to ignore criticism that isn’t actually helping you improve.

I’m glad you included the parenthetical about your field, because while a lot of what I’m saying is broadly applicable, I think there’s something especially tricky about negotiating negative feedback in a writing/editing context. As a writer, I’ve experienced the horrible whiplash between “yay, my piece is finished!” and “nobody likes my piece.” As an editor, I’ve inflicted that sad deflation upon others, saying things like “I’m not sure why, but I hate this.” You’re absolutely right that it’s part of the gig, but so is having a thick skin.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can hear “this sentence is terrible” and calmly respond with “how do you think we can fix it?” I don’t even feel a pang in my gut accompanied by a rush of cold fear that I’ll never amount to anything—at least not most of the time, not anymore. And for a while before that, I just faked my chill until it actually became real. It’s not easy to cultivate that sense of detachment, but if you can do it, it’s incredibly freeing.

To answer your question more directly, I think you could definitely benefit from a performance evaluation so that your work can be assessed in a big-picture sense. Minor errors might seem like a big deal, and might get a big emotional reaction from your boss, but what’s really important is how you’re doing in the day-to-day. That said, asking your manager to be more vocal in giving props may or may not be productive—it sounds like it’s not really his style, so you’ll have to decide whether you’ll be more bothered by the lack of praise after specifically asking for it. One way or another, though, a review discussion should give you the chance to finally hear “you’re doing well,” and hopefully you can let that knowledge buoy you through the tantrum times.

It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to stick it out indefinitely in an environment where explosive rage is the norm. While you’re there you might as well treat it like bootcamp, where you can learn to inoculate yourself against taking things too personally, but you might also consider following in your former coworkers’ footsteps and developing an exit strategy of your own. After all, if you’re managing to thrive under Cranky McTantrumpants, just think of what you might accomplish with a boss who threw you the occasional compliment.

—Businesslady

***

Dear Businesslady,

My supervisor is kind of a perfectionist control-freak who, I’m beginning to suspect, doesn’t trust me. But she doesn’t provide me with a lot of oversight. Early in my job, I would send her messages (we only communicate via chat programs) asking for clarification/help, and she got extremely tense and finally just told me to email her all my problems in one big dump at the end of each project. This has not been a very effective tool, because it means I often don’t realise I’m making errors until they’re caught, either by the client or by my supervisor. When this happens, she stresses out and levels a lot of passive-aggressive comments in my direction (“I just trusted you to get this right the first time” and so on). She has expressed to me in the past that she is always stressed and over-worked, but when I offer to take some tasks off her hand, she resists. Occasionally, she will send me a project, but when I ask for direction (usually because the project she sends me will be something I have little-to-no experience in doing and I don’t want to make mistakes) she will simply say it’s too complicated for her to explain and revoke the project.

I don’t know what to do. I’m frustrated and discouraged. I feel like I’m not doing good work, just because of a handful of (easily fixable) mistakes or because I’m not getting everything perfect the first time. I really enjoy working for this company otherwise, but my supervisor is just stressing me out.

–Stressed and Making Mistakes

Dear SaMM,

For good or for ill, your situation is a lot more straightforward than the one in the first letter. Instead of a mercurial personality crossed with an editorial sensibility, you’re dealing with a classic workplace villain: the manager who won’t manage.

And look, I get it: it is often far more time-consuming to walk someone through a new process than it would be to just do the thing yourself, and it’s frustrating to encounter mistakes that you know you wouldn’t have made. But if you want to live in a world where things only get done in the exact way you’d personally do them, you shouldn’t have employees. Training, delegating, and learning to be flexible with different approaches are all crucial aspects of management.

In short, your boss is kind of a pain in the ass and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to change her fundamental inability to be a good manager. As always, that puts “so find a new job” on the table as one potential solution—but since you otherwise like your position I’ll try to help you figure out how to work around her shortcomings.

For your boss, the world is apparently a constant tornado of stress and overlapping priorities, so you want to make it as easy as possible for her to give you the guidance you need. I can see how instant messaging could be a bad fit for someone with that temperament (the interrupting sound cues, the sense that questions are piling up in the chat window until you’re able to respond), so I’m going to seize on her “email-dump all problems at the end of a project” suggestion and tweak it to be more useful for you both.

The next time you get an assignment, spend a little while thinking through your process for completing it. Make note of anything that you’re confused about—on a continuum between “slightly uncertain” and “completely lost.” (This counts as work time, by the way, so you should include it when tallying your hours.) After you’ve developed a plan, email your boss with questions. Only don’t call them questions per se—questions stress her out, right? Instead, say something like “Boss, here’s how I’ll be approaching the XYZ assignment. There are a couple things I’d like you to weigh in on—such as [thing you’re unsure about A, thing you’re unsure about B]—so when you have the chance, please let me know if you’d like me to handle things differently.”

Then you summarize the work you’ll be doing as briefly as possible. Wherever you’re feeling stuck, offer what you think is the best potential solution, but remind her that her input would be helpful. For example: “I’m worried that the shipping turnaround is tight, but FedEx two-day should get things there in time—unless you’d prefer to use three-day shipping to save money and try to expedite production from the manufacturer? We’ve handled this in different ways for our past three clients, so if you have a preference in this case, please let me know.” And repeat.

Once you’ve sent this missive out into the ether, begin working as usual. I’m not super optimistic that you’ll get an immediate response, but at least she’ll have your write-up, and whenever you really need to consult her, you can follow up in the same thread (or send her an IM referencing the email, whichever you think would be more effective). Something like, “Hey, I’m getting ready to place the ABC order. We should just use the usual manufacturing turnaround plus two-day shipping, right?” If you anticipate a sending a few queries in quick succession, batch them into one email so she doesn’t feel overwhelmed. And if you’re pretty sure you know what needs to be done, just say “I’m doing this (unless you tell me otherwise).” If she gets mad later about how you were wrong, you can point out that she had the opportunity to correct you and didn’t take it.

I’m not going to pretend that this will magically repair your dynamic—in all likelihood she’s still going to be stressy and unhelpful, and you’re still going to find yourself blundering into problems due to her lack of direction. But I suspect it will help.

Additionally, while there may be reasons why chat/email are the best ways for you to communicate, I’d suggest trying to introduce a weekly or monthly phone call/Skype conversation between the two of you. She’ll probably protest that she’s too busy, but sometimes Typing an Email or Answering a Chat feels like a whole thing in a way that verbally addressing a series of questions doesn’t. Additionally, talking voice-to-voice will give her an opportunity to interrupt if she’s confused by the way you’re laying out a particular problem (a benefit that text-based venues don’t offer), and you’ll be able to detect from her tone whether or not she’s starting to lose patience with whatever you’re trying to discuss. Again, it won’t make things perfect, but it could help nudge your relationship into one that’s more functional and less stress-inducing for you.

By way of conclusion, let me just reiterate my advice to LW1: don’t take shit like this too personally. If your manager can’t be bothered to give you clear instructions on how to do your job, then miscommunications and mistakes are going to be a regular consequence. That’s not your fault, and if you start feeling like it is, then maybe it’s time to move on after all.

—Businesslady

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Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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