A Frustrating Boss

November 30, 2009

Dear Survival Guide,

I have been involved in a project for a number of years, beginning as a graduate student. A new assistant director for the project was appointed several years ago (while I was still a student) and this individual has systematically fired, terrorized, or otherwise run huge numbers of people off of this project, while bringing in some people she worked with at her previous university. I managed to complete my degree despite efforts to push me out and I am still tenuously part of this project. Despite completing my degree, I have been told by this individual that she hopes to ruin my career and make my research and publication life very difficult. It is impossible to extricate myself from the project without throwing years of work down the drain. I feel I must remain involved since I am a young academic and research and publications are particularly essential at this stage of my career. The project director seems blind to the issues. How do I broach this subject and carve out my own niche so I can get my work done?

--Between a Rock and Hard Place

Dear Between a Rock and a Hard Place:

What you describe is a new supervisor, respected in your field, who seems to favor people from her last job, bringing them in as she creates positions at your place by firing people you perceive as competent. You also stress the importance of finding a way to make things work where you are, because of its unique facilities and your enormous investment in your project, which would have to be foregone should you leave. The new supervisor has said and done things that you take as hostile to you and with ominous portents for your future. In sum, you have little leverage and a huge investment. Your goal is to carve out your own niche to get your own work done and your career established.

We’ve had several exchanges, and your situation is complex and delicate. The most important part of my answer may be a difficult one to hear and what I’d ask is that you balance the likely outcomes if you work to implement some of my advice, as opposed to other approaches.

Let’s start by taking stock. Going to the director is probably not a strong choice, since there is a lot about this situation that you do not know. Does your project have a human resources manual that includes an ombudsman or a grievance procedure? You might not want to invoke the policy or that resource, but a first step is always knowing the options. Is there anyone on the project who falls into the category of respected elder whom you might consult in confidence? Without falling into a gossip trap, is there anyone whose confidential advice you can solicit without broadcasting your concerns? Consider your options here carefully, and only after you work through the rest of this advice.

The most important -- and hardest to accept -- rule of dealing with difficult people is that you do not get to change their conduct, only your own. It’s pretty common in a charged situation for people to say “everything would be fine if only X would change his (or her) conduct.” Unfortunately, that’s not a choice here. (Being a grown-up is sadly overrated in many respects, and this is one of them.) What is a choice is to change what you do. The good news is that your conduct is entirely under your control and that your changes can have an enormous positive effect on how the situation develops.

The first step for you to take is to re-imagine your supervisor. Have you ever experienced one of those optical illusions that can be seen two ways? They’re sometimes called ambiguous illustrations. One of the famous ones is the young woman/old woman image, and another has vases and faces, depending on which image first catches your eye. These images teach us that a situation can be two things at once, and more. In your case, you’re seeing the situation one way, and opening your mind to other interpretations is a step that will help you cope better.

Think about what your supervisor faced, coming into a large and complex project with a long history. How friendly and welcoming were people when she arrived? How good are her social skills? Might she be shy (which can often come off as gruff) and found her early efforts rebuffed, so she retreated and started seeking people with whom she was more comfortable?

Social psychologists tells us that the sinister attribution error is one of the cognitive biases that infect our interactions with others. Cutting to the chase in lay terms, the sinister attribution bias translates as “I’m OK, but you’re a jerk.” We interpret our own actions through our intentions (“I am friendly to her”) and others through their actions (“she’s so haughty, she doesn’t even acknowledge me, much less say hello in the hall”). The more you dislike her, the more you’re likely to project cold or even hostile feelings. The more you fear, the more unlikeable you probably seem. How open have you been to her initiatives, inquiries and requests?

What you get to change in this situation is you. Start with listing for yourself every statement you’ve heard your supervisor make about the project and her goals in taking her job. Likely, she’s made some kind of remarks or been introduced with some context. Take her statements as indicators of her personal goals. Are there ways that you, in your position, can assist in making her job easier and more likely to achieve her goals? Can you take initiative to be helpful?

Another of the lessons that social psychology and common sense teach us is that it’s hard to be horrible to someone who is being pleasant and courteous to you. It’s not hard at all to return and escalate aggression or hostility to someone who is sending those feelings -- or, in an academic environment, blaming, shaming or, worst of all ignoring you. Assess your own conduct to date toward this new supervisor. Have you been unfailingly correct and positive? You do not have to like someone to behave correctly to her; it’s just harder. Since you’re the one with so much to lose, you need to be the one to make the extra effort.

Again, I know this is not fair; it’s just reality. There are some things we don’t get to change, and in those circumstances, if we want to succeed, then we need to change ourselves. You have a tremendous investment in your project. You want and need to stay. Rather than working to pull the veil from the director’s eyes about your supervisor, dedicate yourself for a set period of time, say at least four months, to doing all you can to change your supervisor’s impressions of you.

Don’t brown-nose (human beings have hyper-sensitive hypocrisy detectors), but do look for the good things about your supervisor you might not be seeing and work to respect them.

Keep good records of your contributions, not as a “gotcha” list, more to encourage yourself and to document your value to the larger project. What do you bring to the table that contributes to the overall project? How are you an asset? Who else on site do you assist? Are you taking on duties that are necessary and important for the overall project, and also not particularly desirable? Can you contribute to covering them?

Be exceedingly careful not to discuss your negative impressions of your supervisor’s personality or performance. Comments like that, no matter how confidentially made, tend to travel, and will almost surely get back to your supervisor. Professionalism and career preservation both require you to keep your own counsel. Say only things about your supervisor that you can say sincerely and mean. Look for things that fall into those categories and practice saying them, both for your own perspective and that of others.

Your goal here is to demonstrate through your attitude and actions that you are a valuable team member, someone who has earned your own independent project -- one which, even after you get it, will not keep you from contributing to the overall project. You are doing this because you choose to do it, because it contributes to your goals. While this is hard advice to hear and to act upon, the more you frame this to yourself as your own choice, the easier it will be to move forward in a way that protects your enormous investment.

Bear in mind that you are not privy to the specifics of why individual personnel actions have been taken. They might have been arbitrary and unfair, and they might have been based on reasonable evaluations about contributions to the overall project. You can’t know.

What you do know is that you truly want and need to stay. With that as a goal, work to change your own attitudes. The glass might well be quite empty; while it’s important for you to succeed there, it’s also in your interests to focus like crazy on whatever extent to which it is full. If this is something you do not or cannot do, then recognize that you are choosing to leave, even with what it will cost you: in that situation, you are not the one being acted upon (always a terrible feeling) but instead one who is choosing because of your own professional and personal goals.

Keep writing, if corresponding about this more will assist you. This advice isn’t easy to follow. What it does do, though, is meet your stated goals, when any other approach is likely to cause you to lose out on them. Your choice.

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