Thursday, January 03, 2008

Reader Question: Dealing With a Moody Boss

Being the second to last baby in the family, it's not often that I'm asked for advice by my older, generally wiser family members, so I was really flattered to get the following e-mail from my cousin Tim last week:

Hey Meg,

As you know, I just graduated from the college and moved to Atlanta to start a new job. Unfortunately, my boss is always in a bad mood. She brings her personal life with her when she arrives at the office. She is over-stressed and takes some of her anger out on me and another employee. She has her good days and her really really angry, stressed, upset bad days. How do I tell her to take a chill-pill and relax? Let me know what you think Meg.

Miss you, cousin. Take care.


I can definitely sympathize with you, Tim, as I've had a few bosses like this myself. I think sometimes it's harder to deal with a boss who's happy one minute and lashing out the next than a boss who's just cranky and mean all the time. You can never predict how she'll respond to something you've done, and it sucks to have to be on edge all day, walking on eggshells in the hope that she won't explode.

That said, I think you do have a few options for trying to remedy the situation. Next time she overreacts, wait a few hours and send her an e-mail asking if you can speak to her about your job performance. How you broach the subject is really, really important, so choose your words carefully. I think the best approach is to begin by telling her how much you enjoy working at X company and how you've learned so much in the months you've been working there, etc. Then tell her how you're sorry that Y happened (the situation she yelled at you for that morning or the previous day) and ask if there's anything you can do to improve your job performance. You could say that you're really trying to be a better employee and learn the ropes, and that you feel bad when you make mistakes, but you'd appreciate it if she could give you more constructive criticism so you don't repeat the same mistakes.

I know this isn't the most direct way to tell her to "take a chill pill," but as a new employee, you're not in a position to criticize your superior, so the most you can do is show her that you're trying your hardest, and hopefully she'll recognize that she's being too hard on you. The other issue is that nothing you can do is going to make her less moody, angry or stressed. You can't change who she is, you can only do your best to be a good employee. Keep in mind that things are likely to get easier as you work at the company longer and get to know her and your job better. You'll make less mistakes and she'll grow to appreciate your lovable personality (as your cousin, I can attest to this). And if that doesn't happen, you could always talk to human resources about switching departments or teams (but only after you've been working for longer).

Does anyone else have advice for my cousin Tim? How have you handled bosses or co-workers who take out their stress and personal problems on you?


Corey said...

If your boss's superior is someone you can trust, go there. The superior might not be aware of the problem and could help you address it.

lisa said...

Those are good tips if Tim feels like his job performance triggers her to unleash her bad moods on him, but from the sounds of his email (and it's hard to tell without more context so I might be off), the problem is with her mercurial personality and not his overall job performance.

This situation is tricky because she's his manager rather than just his coworker. I've had coworkers who fly into bad moods and take them out on hapless bystanders and ones who take their personal lives to work. Admittedly we're all human and not emotionless robots, but sometimes there's a line that shouldn't be crossed (I don't want to hear a twentysomething minute story about the latest crazy stunt that your ex-husband pulled, thankyouverymuch).

If her stress comes from her personal life and she takes her personal problems to work with her, there are a couple of things you can do to mitigate her foul moods:

-Don't ask and don't tell. Don't ask about her personal life, and if she asks about yours, keep your answers short and perfunctory. Even if she asks about your weekend, just say, "It was okay, how was yours?" rather than go into detail. This can set some boundaries and establish your relationship as a strictly professional one, and maybe she'll pick up on your cue and try to keep her personal life at bay.
-Keep conversations in the office strictly professional.
-If you have questions about something that can be answered by coworkers or other managerial staff, go to them instead.
-Make friends and network in the office so you have other people to talk to, or you have established contacts if you ever do need to switch teams or departments.

Anonymous said...

I have had a lot of bosses like this.

My advice is to change jobs as soon as possible, and do what lisa said in the meantime.

I'm sorry if that sounds drastic, but a great many years of my life have been wasted in tenacious holding patterns in toxic environments. I've seen people improve their behaviour temporarily only to return to their habitual levels of viciousness (regression to the mean, you might say). Worse, I've seen people become outwardly more functional while covertly enacting carefully-planned campaigns of malice. The one thing I've never seen is a nasty coworker turn into a nice one.

Run away.

Lella said...

Meg, I think that's great advice. A few ideas to add to it--it's always great to suggest potential solutions too when discussing how to improve performance next time. And, why not keep in mind it's not the last job in the world. There's something to be said for persevering and learning to work with difficult people, but you should also value your own health and wellbeing.

knoxwhirled said...

I agree with anonymous. This person has no boundaries and is unlikely to change. You're better off leaving.

I strongly disagree with corey--the worst thing you could do is go over her head and tattle to her boss. Don't do it unless you're already on your way out the door.

Cate said...

I don't know how large the company is, but if it's big enough to have an HR department, I suggest going there. They will keep your claim anonymous and speak to your boss; as well, they will file it away for future reference should you or someone else make another complaint. I'm with Meg, a moody boss is the worst! Eventually, you may have to decide to leave. Just try to stick it out for a year or so, so that it still looks great on your resume and you can make an upward, rather than a lateral, move! Good luck!

Jenny said...

I would have agreed with the HR approach before, but after my last job, I know better.

I also had (and currently have the same) excruciatingly mean boss. My office was laid off; when faced with unemployment or working for her once again, I chose a paycheck over my sanity and happiness.

On several occasions, her behavior caused such backlash that my colleagues felt it necessary to report their mistreatment to HR.

We were all under the impression that HR would setttle the matter anonymously. However, we later realized that HR had CC'ed the boss/supervisor in emails, inviting retaliation and further mistreatment.

Test the grounds first. Ask a trusted colleague about previous efforts used to address the supervisor's behavior. If HR proved itself ineffective in the past, I'd be in favor of the negotiating/request-for-constructive-criticism approach Meg suggested.

Anonymous said...

Do what I did.
We had a 60% (or more) turnover in our company in one year. I got tired of showing up to customer sites and getting yelled at for the incompetence of others (over the top salesman promises, programmers, executive level decisions, etc). So when my boss got moody, which was all the effin time, I vented at a company meeting. Everyone was DUMBFOUNDED but not surprised.
I was fired a few months later.
I have never been happier.