Tell Me About It: My threatening boss is causing me stress
I feel dread going into work and Sundays are becoming full of anxiety
Illustration: Guido Rosa via Getty Images
Q In some ways I am so lucky: I am in a job I love and the organisation suits me. However, one of the people in charge is causing me huge stress, and it is now so bad that I am thinking of leaving. My boss is very well-known and respected in the field and initially I was thrilled to get the chance to work with her.
But she has turned into an unpredictable and unstable person: she is arrogant, threatening and unreasonable, and she dismisses me at every opportunity.
Sometimes she can be nice and friendly. Somehow this makes it worse, and I keep thinking it must be something wrong with me. I feel dread going into work and Sundays are now becoming full of anxiety.
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I’ve tried talking to her but nothing works and now I am almost unable to answer the phone or email without shaking for fear there will be another accusation against me.
A Working with difficult people is a certainty of life, and it is well worth learning how to mind yourself in a situation such as this. The effects can be very serious, and many people end up leaving work and struggling with confidence for a long time afterwards.
Most people try to manage the situation by speaking calmly and reasonably, and are shocked to find this does not work. They continue to try to communicate in this manner with little or no change in outcome, and then resort to commenting about the difficult person to colleagues, friends and family. Initially it is a relief to sound off about the boss, but it changes nothing and helplessness and frustration set in. Often, obsessive thinking about the difficult person takes over and it is hard to let go even when you are not at work.
It is worth having a look at the overall picture: your boss is both eminent and respected but is also a poor manager and seems to be completely unaware of the effect she is having on you and on your ability to work well. She also seems to think that threatening and belittling you will somehow get better results.
Every time you try to deal with her you are communicating through your own negative emotions, and the chances of her responding positively to this are slim. If she is not listening or is totally lacking in self-awareness, it is unlikely anything you are saying is getting through. Your frustration and dread rises and her inability to manage grows also.
The reason most people do not take disciplinary cases against their bosses is that they fear it will tarnish their reputations and positions, and there is a leftover fear from school of being “the rat”. However, if you have tried everything else, it seems pointless to continue to do the same thing over and over. You need to have her listen to you, and for that to happen you need to get her attention. This may pull you way out of your comfort zone, but your professional confidence and personal happiness depend on it. Some people will not listen until they are challenged, and, although you may not want to be the one to do this, it has to happen if the situation is to change.
It may be that she will only listen if there are a number of staff standing together in front of her, if she is faced with a disciplinary procedure or if her own boss or board challenge her. Everyone would benefit from the challenge: she would have a chance to become a better manager, the organisation would benefit from happier staff and you would benefit from having stood up for yourself.
Fear makes us tense, withdrawn and negative. If it becomes part of our everyday lives it can make us bitter and small-minded. No one wants this. What you need in this situation is courage and self-belief, but it is important to tackle this in small stages; otherwise it might send you into panic.
Start by speaking clearly and strongly that you need the situation to change. Follow up with an email to verify your position. If there is no positive response, go to someone higher up and do not be afraid to use the organisation’s procedures. Your boss is not now and never has been in charge of how you feel – only you have that privilege.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. For advice, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into