Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
My boss is really reactive. The slightest thing will make her roll her eyes and display obvious signs of anger or irritation. For example, this can happen if you come to her office at the wrong moment or don't know an answer offhand. She gives these knee-jerk reactions and, although the next minute she is acting normal, being met with these reactions is really hurtful and demoralizing. It also brings forth a lot of anxiety as to what kind of reaction she will have. She does this with everyone who works for her, not just me.
What is the best way to respond when she does this? What can I do so I don't walk away with so much negativity about her or the job after encountering one of her reactions? I work really hard and she knows it, but I am not a mind reader. I can't always tell if she is in a bad mood, is busy, or whatever. What do I do?
I'm a big fan of just being direct in situations like this. For instance:
"I'm getting the sense you're frustrated. How would you like me to handle this differently?"
"You look annoyed by that." (Pause, wait for response.)
"You sound upset by this. My thinking was X, but would you like me to do this differently?"
As someone who's worked with a lot of difficult personalities, I can tell you that simply naming what you're seeing that's unsettling you and asking about it--in a completely calm and neutral way--can actually defuse a lot of this. Difficult people don't always realize how they're coming across, or you may create an opening for them to tell you something more constructive than what the eye roll conveyed, or you may hear that it's not about you at all but is about something entirely different. Worst-case scenario, the person may lash out at you, and then you'll know that the person is not someone salvageable--which is good information to have as you decide how you want to proceed.
I'm also a big fan of the big-picture conversation: "Jane, I've noticed that you seem irritated when I come by your office when you're in the middle of something. Is there a better way for me to approach you when I need something? Is it better for me to use email, or schedule a meeting, or something else?"
Or: "Jane, I've noticed that when you ask me a question and I'm not immediately sure of the answer, you seem frustrated. Are there things that you think I should be more prepared to talk about, or something else I could be doing differently?"
Again, you want to have this conversation in a calm and neutral tone--no emotional investment, just the tone you'd use if you were trying to solve a business problem. I like to sound a little genuinely curious, too.
But if this doesn't work, then you probably need to accept that this is the way she is. It's not about you; it's about her--and you know that for two reasons: (1) You see her doing it to other people too; and (2) no reasonable manager acts like this, so even if you were the most annoying, frustrating person in the world (which you're almost certainly not), this wouldn't be an appropriate way for her to handle it. So she's in the wrong here, and remembering that this is all about her own shortcomings rather than yours might help you stay sane.
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