Managing your critical, unsupportive manager

What do you do if you have a manager who treats you disrespectfully and is regularly critical of your work? It is one thing giving feedback to a co-worker. It is quite another thing to give feedback to your manager who has the power to hire and fire or at least to make your life more miserable.

Although most people can tolerate awful behaviour for a period of time, everyone reaches their limit eventually. I often think people tolerate bad behaviour for too long. You then need to decide whether you want to have a shot or two at influencing change or to leave that workplace.

It will help you to make up your mind by first deciding what sort of difficult person this manager is. Firstly, there are those who know they are not perfect and are open to change. Then there are those who are not aware of how they are coming across, but are also open to change. But there are also those who think they are perfect, don't care how they are coming across, and are not open to change.

Keep in mind that people are often wrong when they assess people as not being open to change. But if they fall in this last group, you will be better off heading for greener pastures. But let's assume for a moment that there is a chance of effecting change in this relationship. There are what I call, the face-saving, as well as the tough, ways of influencing change.

Here are three ways to influence change in face-saving ways. The first is simply to catch your manager doing the right thing. Even with disrespectful, unsupportive managers, there are times when they are more respectful and supportive. With your body language, tone, and comments, you can at least let them know you appreciated the way that conversation was handled. I don't suggest you say, "Thanks for speaking to me respectfully at last!" as this will be quite rightly read as a back-handed compliment.

You could also criticise yourself first before giving them feedback. For example, "Perhaps I am reading this the wrong way, but sometimes I find the way you speak to me very hurtful ..." or "Perhaps I should have let you know the best way to improve my performance. Along with the constructive comments, it really helps when you give me a lot of positive feedback." You might also want to offer what you are willing to do to help the relationship as well. "How we both watch the way we speak to each other and I try to be a little less sensitive?"

There are also the tough ways to influence change. I have known a number of people who have achieved good outcomes by literally 'spitting the dummy' at such individuals, telling them quite emotively how awful their behaviour has been and how they are unwilling to tolerate it any longer.

For some managers who are quite 'bullying' in their management style, this may be one of the few times when someone has stood up to their behaviour. Dare I say it that some even respect people who give them direct feedback in a strong way. You can further help them see the need for change by talking about the natural consequences of continued poor treatment. This might range from making it hard for you to work with them, to lodging a formal complaint, or seeking work elsewhere.

Of course, for every good outcome I have heard from such tough approaches, I have also heard stories of worsened relationships and formal grievance processes commenced by the manager. So this approach is high-risk. Some who have resorted to this have already made up their mind to leave if there is no change and figure they have nothing to lose.

You may know others who have expertise and can be of help. People who know your manager well may be able to share with you information or approaches that have helped in the past. If your workplace has a Human Resources person, it can often be helpful speaking with them about what you have been dealing with and your approaches to date. This is when keeping a journal of incidents, what occurred, and how you responded, can be of help.

Of course we know that this manager is making a number of classical mistakes - perhaps not giving you some freedom with how you do your work, only telling you about what they are unhappy with, not seeking feedback themselves, not adjusting themselves to the individual, and not providing frequent and meaningful recognition. I could go on.

I would encourage you to at least not make the mistake of doing nothing. Although the approaches above do not guarantee a good outcome, inaction certainly guarantees more of the same.


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