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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Help! My Boss Has it Out for Me

Dear Fran,

I would love to share my name, but I am afraid of retaliation. Let me start by telling you that I have worked for the same company for eight years and have run the same team for seven. During that time, I've had six different executive leaders.  

To make a long story short, a little over a year ago, my relationship with my most recent direct manager started to go downhill. It all started, I believe, when I gave her feedback about a decision that had been made while I was on vacation. Not knowing that she was the one who had made that decision, I shared my opinion with her. 

After that, she began to act differently toward me—everything seemed to turn into a battle between her decisions and mine. At times, I thought she felt threatened by my knowledge, so I stopped questioning her decisions and just applied them. And I respected most of her decisions, but I still told her why I didn't support the others.   

After I shared with her the great news about my engagement to a co-worker (who does not work directly for me—our relationship does not violate company policy), the situation got even worse for both me and my husband.

My leader turns every situation into something to use against me. She holds me responsible for any mistake made by any of my team members—including things my peers (at the same level as me) do. I am expected to chase them down for information on what should already be a priority to them. I feel that it can get harassing, so I leave them alone. But by leaving them alone, I am being told that my performance is not meeting the company's expectations.  

There are many decisions that are out of my control, but every time I say something, my leader tells me that they sound like excuses. Sometimes, she will even take my team from what I've instructed them to do so that they can do something else completely different from their job responsibilities.  

I go home stressed, in a bad mood, crying, and disappointed. I've talked to HR about this, and how I feel this has turned into a personal issue, but it gets ignored. I get told that I have to work my differences out with her, and so I try, but it only gets worse.

So basically, I have to deal with it. I don't think it's appropriate to report to someone who has a personal issue against me. I now feel threatened about my job security, and I am uncomfortable reporting to work and talking to her, because anything I say or do will be used against me. Help! What can I do to change this situation?

—Anonymous and Distraught

Dear Anonymous,

The very first time I read your letter, I thought: Wow, what a mess. It’s time to move on. Eight years at the same job, or even at the same company, is a long time. We are well past the days when you stayed at a single company for your entire career and got a gold watch when you retired—job hopping is more the norm.

And even after reading your letter several more times, I still think it’s time to move on. Or at least see what’s out there. And when you do, remember that we find jobs most often through networking, not only by putting a resume on a website. So start working your network and your husband’s, and also figure out whom you can trust and start working their networks, too. Make yourself visible. Go to conferences. A few times a week, have coffee with someone in that network, looking for leads, introductions, and opportunities.

But, the question you’ve actually asked is what you can do to change the situation—so I’ll focus my advice there.

You could try going over the executive leader’s head to complain, a risky proposition. Here’s a less risky way of proceeding: Try to get reassigned in the company in a neutral way. First, research different possibilities, identify what skills, ideas, and energy you can bring to new areas in the company, and make a list of your accomplishments in your current assignment. Then, go to someone who could help (probably not HR) and say that, after eight years, you’d like a new challenge. Don’t say anything negative about your leader.

It doesn’t reflect very well on the company that in eight years you’ve reported to six different people. Tell me: Where did they go? Did they leave the company? Were they fired? Or were they promoted to preside over other teams as executive leaders? If one you worked well with in the past is now an executive leader for one of the other groups, he or she may be the person to approach.

Next, try to undertake a non-emotional, logical analysis of the situation. For example, check out the profitability of your division under the leadership of this woman versus the profitability under the others. If this woman has suddenly made things wildly profitable, you probably aren’t going to be able to do anything. You could, of course, look at morale under each of these leaders. Are you the only team leader having a problem with this woman? Is there a way you can find that out discreetly?

One of the most important things I’ve learned in life is that we can’t change how others behave—we are only responsible for how we behave. However, relationships are a little bit like dancing. If you change your steps, the other person will be forced to change her steps. So, think about how this all started and what you might have done differently (this may also help you in the future). Then, consider: What might you do differently now to try to change your dance with her?

I assume you haven’t told her you think she’s threatened by you, but sometimes our emotions are more obvious to others than we think they are. If she senses you think she’s threatened, or if she is actually threatened, how do you expect her to react? I say this not to embarrass you, but to help you try to begin to rationally observe your own role in this situation, for that is the place where change can begin.

At the same time, remember that knowledge is power. And believe it or not, so is empathy. It’s possible that this situation isn’t as personal you’re making it. Most of us go through life with distorted but habitual ways of thinking that go under names like catastrophizing or black-and-white thinking. Your automatic assumption is that this woman has it out for you, but maybe that isn’t completely true.

One strategy for coping with such negative thinking is to do a kind of Socratic exercise. Think of the belief you have, then think of examples that support the idea, as you have done in your letter, and then counter the belief by thinking of examples that contradict it. For example, maybe this woman is also under great pressure for reasons you’re unaware of, or maybe she’s about to be fired. Sometimes developing empathy for the other person or a different way of thinking about a situation can go a long way.

As for your stress level and crying, try some stress management techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, mindfulness, or writing. And adapt at least one technique from positive psychology. Every day, write down three things you’re grateful for. And be specific. The job isn’t everything, right? You just got married (or are about to), right? Can you focus some on that?

And finally, it strikes me as a bit strange that you mention your husband, but fail to say what he thinks about this, except to say his situation has also gotten worse since you announced your engagement. Are you suggesting there’s a relationship between the two? In any case, I think one of you may need to make a plan to leave the situation, and two of you need to sit down and talk about this and decide as a couple what to do.

I would consider which of you can deal, or learn to deal, with the work situation more effectively and which of you has better prospects elsewhere. Once you decide, then you (or he) must give all support to the other in the quest to try to find a new situation, either within the company or elsewhere. Once that’s done, the other can start looking to move, too.

I wish you the best in your job and in your life, and thanks for asking.


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