Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Is It Toxic? My Supportive Boss Did a 180. Now She’s Grilling Me and Nitpicking.

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Welcome to “Is It Toxic?” our new advice column for all the most pressing questions you have about toxic work situations but didn’t know who to ask—until now. Here to help is Benish Shah, a startup operator who’s coached executives and managers on navigating toxic workplaces, negotiating exits, and architecting workplace policies to combat toxic cultures. She’s currently working on a book about creating anti-toxic workplaces. Have a question to submit? You can reach her at benishshah.com or @benishshah. And for more advice, visit our “Toxic Aware” hub.

Dear Benish,


I said yes to a job because I was excited to work with the manager on my team. She had great experience and I felt like I could learn so much. And for the first few months, it was great. She was tough but she spent time helping me and listening to me.


Over the last few months, everything changed. She’s become nitpicky, wants to know everything I’m working on, and if something goes wrong she goes into what she calls “cause finding mode” and grills me. She’s being harder on me and my team and I’m tired. While I want to be good at my job, I don’t understand how I went from having a supportive boss to one who micromanages my every move. I feel like I’m suffocating and every time a Slack message pops up from her, I panic that I did something wrong. I feel like I can’t succeed here.


Signed,


Confused and Exhausted in New York

— 

Dear Confused,

It’s tempting to declare your boss is toxic and call it a day. Believe me, it’s the easier conclusion.

The anxious response to a Slack message, the micromanaging, the feeling of being grilled for mistakes all point toward an environment that lacks psychological safety for you. Research, including an analysis from Google, shows that psychological safety—the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for making mistakes or speaking up at work—is essential when it comes to feeling motivated and collaborating with our teams for the best results in the workplace.

What’s less clear is whether the issue is your boss, full stop, or internal pressures coming from the top down that are leading to her behavior change. My experience leads me to wonder: Is she trying to protect your job, and your team, from a larger issue going on behind the scenes? Is this as unpleasant for her as it is for you?

Early in my career, my otherwise wonderful manager at a consulting firm started pulling me aside and grilling me on my projects. She would ask why I missed x, y, or z, or whether I was paying attention in a meeting. I felt singled out and held to a standard of perfection that no one else on our team had to match. I compared my work to my colleagues’ and constantly wondered why I wasn’t forgiven for small mistakes or missteps while others were.

During that time, I noticed that she was in more and more meetings with the leadership team. It was frustrating because she was becoming less accessible and yet I was getting more negative feedback—or what I perceived as negative feedback. I’d been applying to law schools while this was happening and made a decision to confront her when I had my law school acceptance letter in hand and knew I was going to quit.

This is what I learned: For the last two quarters, she’d been trying to save my job. One of the men on the leadership team had taken a particular dislike to me. She disagreed with his assessment of my work, making it clear that not only was I doing my job well, but I was also exceeding expectations. Yet for months, he would take any misstep or oversight on my part and turn it into a reason to demand I be fired. It turns out she was as exhausted protecting me as I was meeting her suddenly heightened demands.

Since then, I’ve seen this scenario play out time and time again with managers I coach. They hate how critical they have to be of their direct reports, but know that even a tiny mistake can be used against their team by toxic leaders. These managers increasingly need to know everything and unknowingly create a “no-mistakes” environment in an effort to protect their teams from company politics. It takes a toll on them and their mental health, just as it takes a toll on their team members.

The easier way out for truly toxic managers? Fire the team member at issue without trying to stand up for them or help them be better at their job. The hard way? Take on toxic leaders while also working with their team members to be criticism-proof against those toxic leaders.

So what do you do?

Set up a 1:1 with your manager and write down your talking points. For example:

  • You used to love your job and working with her.
  • You’ve noticed that she shifted her way of managing you from being supportive to being harder on you than before.
  • This has made it harder for you to feel like you can succeed in your role.
  • You want to understand what’s changed.
  • You’d like to use this time to discuss how to work better together.

Here’s an example of how to incorporate these talking points into a conversation with your manager:

When I took this job, I was so excited to work with you and for the first few months I loved the thoughtful feedback you provided. In the last several weeks it seems that something has shifted. I’ve noticed that your way of sharing feedback has changed. As you may understand, this change in how we’re working on projects together can make it seem as if you trust me less to do my job, which I hope is not the case, and I’d like to use this time to better understand how we can work through it.

The most recent example I wanted to mention, simply as context to my experience is [share the salient points of your example]. This differs from the way we’ve worked together in the past when [add in 1-2 points describing how they handled this differently in the past].

Could you tell me what has changed that caused this shift in how we work together?

Keep the conversation cordial and open; focus on not being defensive or accusatory in your delivery. Practice the conversation with friends or other colleagues who are managers to get their feedback on how it’s coming across.

Here’s the most important thing: Be prepared to hear that someone at the company isn’t happy with your performance. If your boss tells you that, try not to respond with fear or defensiveness. You clearly have an ally in your boss, so use the time to create a strategy to save your job together.

On the flip side, if your boss responds with gaslighting or anger rather than listening and discussion, you’re likely dealing with a toxic boss and need to find your way off her team or out of the company.

Here’s to hoping it’s the former.