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Handling a manipulative boss

Connor (Producer) (00:00):
The following episode was recorded before the coronavirus pandemic, but we still thought the topics were useful and applicable today. Stay safe out there and we hope you enjoy

Drew Fortin (00:14):
Hello and welcome to In Confidence: Face your workplace. A podcast that seeks to reveal the true blockers of confidence at work on the job with a boss or in their career from real callers. So they can face their workplace and achieve their goals. In most instances, the names, people and workplace information shared have likely been altered to protect the identity of those involved. We’re your host, I’m Drew Fortin!

Alyssa Dver (00:35):
This is Alyssa Dver. So glad you’re with us today. As usual, I want to remind people that comments and suggestions that are made on the call are specific to the caller and their situation. While we hope they certainly help you in something that’s similar, please keep in mind that your results may vary. We have one of my favorite topics. Drew I’m so excited!

Drew Fortin (00:53):
It’s a very common one.

Alyssa Dver (00:55):
It’s a common one. Sean, I’m so happy that you called in and I understand you’ve got some micromanager angst.

Sean (01:04):
Hey you guys, it’s Sean here.

Alyssa Dver (01:06):
Ugh. Tell us what’s going on. What’s happening and give us the lowdown on this one.

Sean (01:12):
Sure. Okay. There’s a lot to unpack.

Drew Fortin (01:15):
Let’s unpack it.

Sean (01:17):
Alright, so then I’m in a new job that’s been here for about four months. Um, so in the first few weeks itself, uh, my boss starts to bring me to private in back sessions where she’s starts talking to me about a lot of my behavior? Uh, not exactly about my work. Like, you know, apparently I am a big disturbance to people in meeting. I stretch a lot. Um, I ask too many questions, irrelevant questions. I make humming noises. Um, I tend to repeat things and, and that I take it as a big shock. I have been working in the industry for almost 11 years now, and I’ve never had anybody tell that and all of this from one single meeting too. Um, so, but I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. Okay. I tell her I can work on those things.

Sean (02:07):
And I started working on those, but then, uh, then she talks about specifically my work a lot in my communication with other people in the team and other managers, which I get a little bit defensive about, because that’s actually been a big part of my work to be able to communicate with different people. And she said, I’m not supposed to be doing that. I’m supposed to include her in every single communication, even saying hi on a private chat, I’m supposed to be including her so she knows exactly what’s going on. And so I pushed back a little bit. So, but isn’t that part of my job, but she said, “You’re new. You need to, uh, you know, let me in on everything beore I can trust you.” I’m like, okay, fine, whatever. Um, and then, um, the problem is she says, “all this stuff comes from the team, uh, and not especially her, uh, all these instructions that I’m doing.

Sean (02:58):
All these feedback that I’m getting is coming from the team, coming from an individual from the team, which of course created a lot of doubt in me and this trust with me, with the team for a long time, for about a couple of months until I just at one point and just going crazy because I’m feeling extremely isolated because I don’t know who I can trust in the team. So I decided to finally open up to one person called out for another team. So, and I just conservatively go and ask, okay, “this is kind of what’s happening. Do you know, what are the inputs for me?” And she just gives me a two hour rant on what, uh, how bad the boss is and what she had gone through what the three previous employees who actually had to quit because of her had gone through and the current employee have gone through. That was a big revelation for me, I realized it’s not actually just me, its everybody else.

Sean (03:47):
And this kind of this tactic that the boss uses to control everybody, keep everything is that normally where you’ve talked to each other. Um, and that was a big relief for me. After that I start to be trend like she lies a lot use authority and recommendations. Like she says, “It’s a company policy that you should not be taking more than these many minutes of breaks.” And I’m like, I did not take that much a break. And then she just veers off topic. She uses our big boss. That is her boss, you know, name a lot as, Oh, he mentioned that he mentioned that. She uses authority a lot, she uses, uh, and I’ve caught her in a lot of lies. She says one thing then realizes, uh, and then recently a biggest issue is that a feeler banding together to, uh, to go for coffee and lunch timing. She’s told me that in a very passive-aggressive way that I’m kind of being a chauvinist, which I take big offense to. And when I ask her more, what do you mean? She just veers off topic. She doesn’t really engage that anymore. So I, I feel that I’m not really engaging with a micromanager at this point but rather an unstable personality who’s unfortunately, a boss. So I’m trying to figure out the right way to, uh, to handle it.

Drew Fortin (05:06):
Wow, Sean.

Alyssa Dver (05:07):
That was a suitcase and a half.

Drew Fortin (05:08):
You unpacked it. I don’t know you unpacked all of it.

Alyssa Dver (05:13):
You know what, Sean, the best thing is that there are so many people who are listening to this going, Oh my God, I totally have the same situation.

Drew Fortin (05:20):
I mean, I can raise my hand. I’ve been in that situation. So, um, can you tell us a little bit about the context of your role, the seniority of your role in the seniority of your boss’s role? I’m just curious.

Sean (05:32):
Sure. So me and well, she has, she is her, she is my reporting manager and the rest of the team also is in the same level I am, although my role is different from-. The rest of the team is the more technical team. I’m more of a communicator, but both of us, both of the, both sets of people report up to, his boss. He’s a technical boss. And then you have another boss on top of her who was not in this area. He works remote, but he comes in every couple of months, um, for yeah, that’s congenital reporting structure.

Drew Fortin (06:06):
Okay. And what, what kind of a function within the company do you work in? Is it finance, marketing and sales engineering?

Sean (06:15):
Is it engineering, engineering, engineering? Yep. IT engineering. Yep.

Alyssa Dver (06:19):
Is I just have a little question here: The boss’s boss, the remote one, is he also technical?

Sean (06:26):
Yes. Yep, yep.

Alyssa Dver (06:30):
And you said you’re, you’re, you’re technical, but you’re not really as technical, you’re more of a communications role,

Sean (06:36):
Right? Yep, yep, yep. Yep. I am technical but my role in cases and making sure every call communications are going right. A lot of topics basically.

Drew Fortin (06:45):
Okay. And you know, you said you’ve been doing this for over 11 years. Um, it, and, uh, is what you were hired to do in this role, the same as the work you’ve done in the past,

Sean (06:57):
Correct. Yes. I’ve been doing the exact same role for almost five years now. It’s a big role.

Drew Fortin (07:03):
And I’m just curious, you said you’ve been there four months. So you were recently hired. So what, um, tell us what that process was like and how involved, um, was your boss?

Sean (07:17):
So when I got in, uh, we were kind of, the team was kind of in the middle of a major project. So it was kind of easy for me for the first few months there. I was kind of told that I didn’t have to be too much involved. Uh, at the same time, I kind of did feel that she was still not engaging me as much as she possibly can to kind of get me on the road soon. Kind of get me more things that at least I can come in and understand. So I actually did not officially get any kind of official onboarding. In fact, the bigger boss, the big boss, and another couple of managers who I’m supposed to be interacting with during this time were very surprised that, uh, my boss, uh, didn’t engage them at all of it, because I’m supposed to be talking to them a lot, even though it’s a busy time. So the onboarding was very, um, not very clean.

Drew Fortin (08:08):
And who in the hiring process, who did you meet with? Did you know that you would be reporting to the boss you have now? Were they heavily involved in the process?

Sean (08:16):
Yes. And the whole team, they were part of the interview panel.

Alyssa Dver (08:20):
Alright, Drew, I gotta, I gotta stop this before we lose us. You said something really important, Sean, I want to go back to it here. You said, “In the, the lack of onboarding these other people, these other senior managers are aware that you weren’t onboarded properly and subsequently didn’t know how much… So she looked bad. Didn’t she?

Sean (08:41):

Alyssa Dver (08:44):
So it’s they know it was a black eye for her because they can’t say it was your fault that you didn’t get onboarded, right?

Sean (08:50):
Oh no, no, absolutely not. It’s different connotations where I got understood that they were surprised that this was not done properly.

Drew Fortin (08:59):
Do you think that, um, so if we think about this, do you think that, is it possible — that’s why I asked about seniority, if people were to rank on the team, who’s number two, are you like next in line? Do you think you’ve been, you’re being viewed as a threat or more as like you made me screw some stuff up?

Sean (09:23):
Um, I’m definitely not a threat to her, uh, position because I don’t have that skill set. Uh, and like I said, based on my conversation with Alex and then I had started to open on to other folks in the team. It’s not specific to me. And that’s what I initially thought, and everybody has had specific issues with her. And there’s a very good pattern here exactly what’s going on. Ultimately, I feel that she’s very insecure about information. She wants to be in control. She wants to know every conversation. Everything exactly. She does not want anybody making decisions without her. Um, and it’s very obvious in those kinds of conditions. So it’s not, I don’t think it’s specific to me or the trust issue with me, but generally what I’m observing.

Drew Fortin (10:09):
And is this coming across in a accusatory judgmental way? Is it coming across in a “Oh, this person just completely lacks empathy. So they’re just…”

Sean (10:20):
I cannot tell you how unempathetic she is. She is an ice queen. She is, I mean, I just had, uh, two days back, a one hour session of her telling me all the things I’ve done wrong in the last two weeks. And this is specific to one, one communication that I sent out which nobody else had an issue with. She commented to me for an hour. She actually pulled in a couple of other people who were all supposed to be in the conversation. So, uh, so, and, uh, I can tell you from my years of, uh, work and that was not an issue.

Alyssa Dver (10:57):
Sure. No. So I got, I have one more question. Drew, if you have more, and then I got a lot of ideas here on what we can do here, but my last question, Sean is, this is when you have that meeting, let’s just like, kind of, unfortunately put you back in that uncomfortable situation. What did you say? What did you do?

Sean (11:15):
So initially, I, I was very defensive, independent, but my first few weeks, right? So I was shocked that I’m getting this negative feedback because it’s a lot. I’ve never gotten- I’m generally a good guy, a good boy. So after 11 years of being a good guy, I’m supposed to be a big disruption in meetings and I’m the big, bad boy. So I was very, uh, completely very hard on myself. So I really dig deep to plan what to improve on and I just couldn’t find out what was wrong. And then after I finally find out from Alison, that did not really mean, um, I I’ve stopped. I stopped reacting, whatever she says, I’ve got a nice clean face, myself. So nowadays I just don’t really, I just keeps hearing things. I don’t react to them. And I, you know, because I know she’s feeds on that reaction.

Sean (12:06):
I think that’s why I’m trying to understand. So I just don’t get anything at all. Now I think that kind of irritates her. This week, I started taking notes of her conversation, all the details. She actually said to me, you know, I don’t want you to take notes right now. Uh, you know, um, and I was surprised, uh, why she issued for that twice before, as well. But of course I forgot to mention the important thing. Uh, the previous person in my role also had big issues and that was Peter. And, uh, Peter, I know, had to leave the company. There’s a big HR issue. I’m still not sure if Peter complained or the man or the boss did. It was a big issue and he was blocked and, uh, Alison told me, and now I’m going into a bit of a he says, she says thing, but she says that it’s possibly because Peter used his notes from conversations. And that’s the reason why the boss is telling me not to take notes. So I, and that’s, again, you know, the assumption that again…..

Alyssa Dver (13:10):
Yea, yea… brutal.

Drew Fortin (13:10):
Is it, is it possible that there’s a gender thing happening or is it pretty, is that not an issue?

Sean (13:16):
Well, well, coincidentally, a couple of days back and then one hour session, she actually kind of hinted at me being a male chauvinist, but like she said, you’ve got to treat me the same way as the other boss, man, the guy. And I was shocked because I don’t interact. I hadn’t really interacted with them as much for her to need the comparison. So wondering where she’s coming up with, and then she said, no, you don’t have to handhold the female employees of the team. It just basically gets out. And she’s basing that purely on me communicating to the team, that whole app and had the issue with her laptop. She’s going to go to the help desk. And she communicated that in our public, uh, chat channel, she said that that was me handholding female employees. And I should not be doing that. She’s, she’s a, she’s a big girl. She can take care of herself. Well, that’s insane. I mean, I don’t think it’s a gender thing, but, um, but, but I’ve heard of that. Seeing that she uses that against people. And as she started to use that with me and I ended up starting to push back on, “can you explain more what you mean by that?” She gets the big statement and I asked more, she just throws off topic.

Alyssa Dver (14:27):
Alright, well, you know, here’s the thing, I, my heart is bleeding for you because this is such a painful thing. And you know, we started off by calling it a micromanager. There may be a little psychosis going on here too, but.

Drew Fortin (14:37):
This is a little more than a micromanager.

Alyssa Dver (14:38):
Yeah, this is a little bit more, but you know, I’d like to flip into proactive mode because you know what? The reality is, you can’t control her as much as you can control yourself. But if you control yourself indefinitely, you will make a, a positive impact on everyone around you. And maybe even on the crazy person in there. Drew. Dig. What kinds of things can we do to help our dear friend here, Sean?

Drew Fortin (15:01):
First, it’s kind of like when you’re talking to your financial advisor and they’re like, what level of risk do you want to take when you’re making an investment in this? And in this case, it was like, um, you definitely sound like you’re coming at this from the right spot. You’re sounding totally rational, logical. Um, and, and it’s, people are hard to change. So you taking a step forward or maybe a bold step forward could be a good step in actually helping positively impact the rest of the world while potentially, you know, not securing yourself a job. Um, and, and are you okay with that? Or is it like, no, I need to have this job, so I need to make this work.

Sean (15:48):
Right. So I kind of did make a step last week. Uh, and then the, uh, the competition that happens, uh, all this stuff that happened after my talk with Connor, the producer. I actually talked to the boss, man. I know enough is enough. I have to escalate this. Um, because I didn’t know, it sounds like extreme bullying, uh, extreme passive-aggressiveness that I really, she called me out in between those. So I talked with him last week. He was, uh, he had, he said he had a lot of suspicions about all of the, but nobody is actually coming forward and telling him that. So he said, that he’s going to now talk to all the folks in the team. Um, and I have another talk with him planned out for next week. Um, he seemed to be very understanding.

Sean (16:40):
He was extremely appreciative of me coming forward with this. Especially the fact that I’m somebody you’re right. I should be aware that I should not need a long impression thing to complain with the boss, but really appreciative. And he said he has noticed a lot of things, but he hasn’t, he hasn’t been able to pin things down because nobody really comes up and says these things to him. So, yeah, I had made that step, but my concern is, it’s coming to a level of an extreme bullying and harassment. And I’m thinking, should I go to HR at some point? Because you know, I don’t want to be subject to this for too long.

Drew Fortin (17:16):
How long has she been there? Sean?

Sean (17:19):
Close to three years.

Drew Fortin (17:21):

Alyssa Dver (17:21):
Alright. So, so there’s a couple of very, very practical kind of legal things that I, you know, kind of obvious here. I think you, and I’ve been through this ringer before and you, you, even if she says, don’t take notes, you take notes. And if you have to take notes after she leaves the room, you write it down, you write the time and the date, the room you were in, you put as much data as you can to say, this really happened. And this is what was said, make it as fact-based as you can. Cause whether you go to HR or not, you’re going to need that.

Alyssa Dver (17:49):
BUT. I think the heart of the matter here is, um, you know, if, if she, and you’re right, she’s a complete bully. She is, um, not only trying to make everyone miserable to make herself better, but I don’t think she recognizes the destruction that she’s doing. And, uh, you know, it always surprises me. I actually shouldn’t say surprise. It disappoints me that nobody knew, you know, everyone’s sitting there taking it, the upper management didn’t know. And then you walk in, you’re like, what do you mean you didn’t know?

Drew Fortin (18:18):
Like we kind of knew…

Alyssa Dver (18:21):
But nobody had the data. Like, come on BS, let’s call it. Right.

Alyssa Dver (18:31):
Yeah. You know, it just, it’s, it’s horrible. And maybe because you’re the new guy on the block, maybe she’s just waiting for the next person. It doesn’t matter. Right. It just doesn’t matter. Um, I think Drew’s point about the risk taking, you know, is if you really want to keep the job and you love the group and everything else, except her, you might have to swallow some of your, not so much pride, but swallow the fact that she is psychopathic. Um, I’ll use that word loosely, but you know, she’s a little crazy. And rather than being an ice face, because ice face, if she gets you to be ice faced, she controls your behavior. Just don’t let her control your behavior. Be the charming, lovely human being that you know, you are, and don’t let it affect you. And eventually she’ll find somebody else to bully who can’t be as confident, right? That’s, that’s really the goal here. You know, now can you get fired over being a human? Of course you can, but you know, that’s kind of a defensive position. If you only want to make the place a happier place for everybody else, then I think that’s, that’s the tough decision.

Drew Fortin (19:34):
And I think what’s interesting too, is Sean, it sounds like a lot of the feedback is not work-related it’s like you make faces and you do this and you, and you do that. And some of that I’ve, I’ve had people that I’ve worked with and that have worked for me where you’re like, there are sometimes people make a weird face and it’s to say like, Hey, did you know when this happens? You kinda make a weird face, like that could be perceived in this way, like as a way to help them versus being like, wow, like, it really seems like you’re not engaged here or there, it sounds like your boss is making…

Alyssa Dver (20:09):
She’s finding reasons.

Drew Fortin (20:10):
She’s she’s casting judgment she’s already made and validating that. And I wonder, you know, part of this is you went and spoke to the bossman, which, you know, I would have said like, eventually you should have that conversation. How, however, you sh you’re not going to get fired for saying, like, thanks for that feedback. Right. Um, and, and, um, I’ve never gotten that before. So it might be weird that it’s manifesting in this way here, give me a specific instance. And then you can go corroborate and say, Hey, Oh. And I also spoke to these other people about that. Cause I got, got your feedback and they, they didn’t have that perception. So I’m a little puzzled by that. Right. Is there, is there, is there something deeper?

Sean (20:56):
She banned me from talking to other people.

Drew Fortin (20:58):
Yeah. And so this is exactly. Yeah, yeah.

Sean (21:03):
Yes. The moment she feels that you’re talking behind her back about any of these things.

Drew Fortin (21:09):
Yes. And so yeah, no, go, go, go right ahead. It’s horrible.

Sean (21:15):
Oh, just yesterday she was thinking that me and a couple other folks, the people that kind of opened up to, we’re taking coffee breaks together, going on our own way. And she was calling one of the other folks on the team things, but you should not do. And I do feel like taking a coffee can go yourself. You have to wait for others. And she was passive-aggressive…

Drew Fortin (21:38):
Yeah, she is obviously there’s there. You know, I always said, there’s, there’s more than meets the eye. Something’s happening. And you know, and maybe check with people if this isn’t the way that she’s always been or whatever, there’s, there’s something going on. She’s getting, it seems like desperate, um, in, in, in ways. And you’re not going to be able to control that situation. What you can do is you can, you can, you can protect yourself, right. So even if she doesn’t want you to take notes in the meeting, that’s fine. You can send an email after that. That says, Hey, and with kindness, thanks so much for the feedback on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’ll be sure to look into that. Right. You’re just documenting it with, with her so that she has the opportunity to respond and be like, can you please confirm that this is the, like, I’m happy to address it as feedback. Because the moment that she, that she’s kind of telling you, “Hey, this is off the record, but you’re a bozo.” Come on.

Alyssa Dver (22:32):

Drew Fortin (22:32):
Um, you know, there’s, there’s more here and, um, it’s obviously getting in the way of work. And so part of me thinks that having- just face it, have a conversation with this person, um, and, and say, this is making it difficult to get work done. And, and don’t try to say, I’m talking to other people and you know, this is a, you know, just be, just be like, I’m not sure how to address this. Right. How do you think we should address this? Do you think it’s interpersonal? Do you think you can’t work, work with me? Right. And then get it if you need to get HR involved.

Alyssa Dver (23:03):
Yeah. Well, you know what this is.

Sean (23:05):
I actually did that already.

Alyssa Dver (23:06):
Yeah. So you know what, Oh, you did, you did try that.

Drew Fortin (23:10):
I want to hear.

Sean (23:11):
Well, I did so, and she got very defensive. She pushed back. I said, okay, I know what, how can we improve? What are they saying? And she just gave an example, which made no sense at all. And at the end of the day, she just say, you know, uh, okay, what’d you did was wrong. Know, and then I pushed up again and this is very polite pushback. I’m not saying I’m getting up in the room and just hitting on her face.

Drew Fortin (23:36):
You strike me as a wild person.

Alyssa Dver (23:37):

Sean (23:40):
Bad boy.

Drew Fortin (23:41):

Sean (23:41):
Yeah. So, um, and then at the end she said, you know what, you’re being too defensive. Normally, when I give people feedback, when I’m expecting to thank you a thank you that, that she’s literally told me that I cannot defend myself. And I’m supposed to just say, thank you and that’s it. In fact, she sends me an email after one of the sessions saying, all these things, she does that. She does that to me. She gives me, you know, knowing that all the stuff I replied back to her, seeing that, okay, I can work on these stuff, et cetera, but all that stuff, she, she, she said that I should not be doing that, that she got offended by my response. And she thought I was somehow back talking to her, which I read the email 10 times and I couldn’t figure out how to find it, uh, offensive. That, that was actually my breaking point, by the way, I decided to go and talk to Allison.

Drew Fortin (24:34):
Okay. So, I mean, that said, I would just say, speak to HR and say, “Hey, I want to have a mediated meeting with my boss and HR.” Um, and, and go to HR first, ask if they’re willing to do that and then tell your boss, be like, “we’re obviously not communicating, right. Because, um, I you’re telling me you we, we don’t, we don’t seem aligned on this. And so I’d love to just have a mediated conversation.” Um, and I mean, they can’t, they can say no, all they want, but once you get HR involved, they’re going to have to do that. And I think that’s going to be what’s necessary. This doesn’t sound like a rainbows and kittens story on the other side though.

Alyssa Dver (25:18):
No, but you’re going to come out and I promise you, you’re going to be stronger and you’re going to be a better manager and a better everything, because you’re going to learn a lot of what not to do. So wrapping up our call, which we could go forever, because this is such an important issue. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of stuff going on there. Love to hear how things go in the future as you confront some of this. But, you know, what’s the one thing today that we talked about that you’re like, yeah, I’m going to do that. What, what was helpful?

Sean (25:45):
So, so your last addition to mine, the HR thing, I think that’s going to be, not necessarily, the next step, but I think I’ll hold that in the back of my head. But I liked the idea that you said about me creating notes and sending that email as the proof of what she said. Um, I know she does that to me. I think that I could start doing that myself. I think I’m going to do that for sure.

Alyssa Dver (26:08):
Good. I’m going to tag on one thing though. Cause I want to be really clear on stuff like that. When that happens. Remember that acknowledging does not mean agreeing. Right? Do not say I understood. And I agree. Or any form of that say, this is what I heard you say. Right. And make sure it’s documented, but that you not necessarily saying, I agree. And I’m going to work on all those things because that then by definition means that you agree.

Drew Fortin (26:31):
Yeah. So it’s more like, this is what I heard you say, have I have, I haven’t misstated anything. Right, right. And have them…

Alyssa Dver (26:38):
And keep the notes. All right. My friend, we are definitely keeping our fingers, crossed toes and want to hear good things from you in the future and let us know how we can help. Thanks for calling in today.

Sean (26:48):
Thank you so much, guys.

Alyssa Dver (26:51):
Ay Drew, that’s so hard. Oh, I’ve been there too.

Drew Fortin (26:55):
I know for, for anyone else, you know, always check with others on the team you’re about to join before you check, before you accept a job. Right. Cause you will learn some people aren’t gonna outright say, Oh my God, that’s a little, you know, what’s it like to work for this person? What’s the hardest thing? Give me an instance of a bit of a challenge. It’s super important.

Alyssa Dver (27:14):
Can you just ask them? Are they crazy? *laughs*.

Drew Fortin (27:16):
In the interview you could…

Alyssa Dver (27:20):
Needless to say, you know, we all go through it. We all survive. And hopefully Sean will too, because man, he sounds like he has got a lot to offer.

Drew Fortin (27:27):
The good thing is he’s not in his own head.

Alyssa Dver (27:28):
No, that’s awesome.

Drew Fortin (27:29):
All right. Good luck, Sean.

Connor (Producer) (27:34):
Thanks for listening. Consider applying to be a caller, to get answers to your questions and help other listeners in the process. You can find out how to apply in the show notes of this episode. Also, if you found this content useful, consider telling just one friend who you think would like it, we’d really love your help, spreading the word. Thanks so much.


Drew is a former SVP of Sales & Marketing at The Predictive Index. He is currently the CEO of Lever Talent, a PI Certified Partner.

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