It feels like a gut punch.
Has this ever happened to you? You think the meeting is going great. You’re confident about your presentation. Then, right in front of everyone your boss says, “That’s a terrible idea, what were you thinking, are you a fool?”
Or maybe it’s not during a presentation. Maybe your boss speaks negatively about you behind your back. Or she belittles your work, or pointedly ignores you in team meetings.
Let’s face it, not everyone is a great boss. Sometimes bosses are unintentionally hurtful. Sometimes negativity is the only way some people know how to communicate. And, frankly, sometimes people are real jerks.
Having your boss belittle you once is a bad experience. A boss who disrespects you on a daily basis can be soul sucking. To be clear, an occasional outburst, cursing about problems and even demanding standards are not belittling. Belittling is when someone makes it personal, and they do it in public.
My mother was a schoolteacher for 30 years. She used to say, “You can teach people how to treat you.”
If your boss belittles you, address it quickly. Go to your boss and be absolutely clear about what was disrespectful or hurtful.
This isn’t saying, “You’re out to get me” or “I can’t believe you’re so horrible . . .”
Instead, simply say, “When you did that, it made me feel like this…” If it was the first time it happened, follow with “I’m sure that wasn’t your intent.”
The objective is to lay the facts on the table. Then, you want to come to an agreement on how to avoid that dynamic in the future. Say something like, “If that comes up again, would you please talk to me about it in private rather than in front of the team?”
What happens next depends on your boss’s reaction. If he or she apologizes, say thanks, drop it and change the subject.
If your boss gets defensive, with some version of, “I do that to everyone, don’t take it too seriously.” Consider saying something like, “It’s challenging to stay (focused, positive, enthused) when I feel I’m being (publically critiqued, ignored, dismissed, etc.). Let your boss know: You’re the boss; I work for you. But we’re also both humans, and I expect to be treated like one.
Before you judge your boss as a horrible person, it’s worth considering how little training most bosses get, and what their background likely prepared (or didn’t prepare) them for. Often past teachers, previous bosses and even their parents followed the model of: if you want people to do better, you need to make them feel worse.
This previously popular model is ineffective in school, home or work. Countless studies have now proven, people who succeed in the face of constant belittling did so in spite of it, not because of it.
However, many managers still belittle their people because they don’t know any other way. If this is the case with your boss, you have to protect your own spirit. It starts with being politely clear about which behavior crosses the line. If that doesn’t fix it, limit your contact. If you’re still being belittled, ask yourself, what is this costing me?
A belittling boss erodes your spirit, and with no spirit, your career is on a downward spiral. Tough bosses can make you better. Belittling bosses have the opposite effect.