Help! My boss keeps putting me down

By Anne Fisher, contributor


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I was hired about three months ago as part of a 12-person training team, and I really like the job and my colleagues, with one exception. Our team leader can't seem to stop picking people apart and tearing down everything we do, even when we have followed his requests to the letter. He's an incredibly negative person -- the glass is always more than half empty -- which unfortunately is contagious. Morale here is in the dumps, with everyone just going through the motions.

At first I lost sleep over his snide comments and went out of my way to try harder to please him, to no avail. So lately I find myself just trying to stay out of his way and avoid him altogether, but it's not always practical. (This is also the approach several of my teammates take.)

I'm looking for a job in a different part of the company, but if I don't manage to escape for a while, is there anything I can do about his constant carping? -- Color Me Blue

Dear Blue: The fact that you're no longer losing sleep over this person's nasty comments is a good sign, since it suggests you're not taking his negativity personally. It sounds as if he belongs to a category called Chronic Critic, one of no fewer than 20 distinct types of bad bosses identified in a fascinating book called Working for You Isn't Working For Me: The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Boss (Portfolio, $25.95).

Authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster have spent the past 21 years coaching companies on how to resolve personality clashes and other kinds of workplace conflicts that can keep even the brightest teams from reaching their potential, and they've seen lots of managers like your boss, for whom nothing is ever good enough.

Dealing effectively with any bad boss, say Crowley and Elster, begins with detaching yourself emotionally from his or her behavior -- which includes accepting the fact that you are never going to change this person's outlook.

"You can never fully please this kind of boss," says Crowley. "Chronic critics are perfectionists. They are on a quest for the unobtainable."

Adds Elster: "This person must find the flaw in every situation. You can do your best to get them to be less critical, but it will only get you more frustrated."

Once you've come to terms with that reality, you can stop trying to make your boss happy and focus your full attention on doing your job. You might even find yourself developing some compassion for him: Chronic critics are usually just as hard on themselves as they are on everyone around them, or even harder, say Crowley and Elster. That can't be fun.

Over time, a chronic critic's perpetual fault-finding can erode your confidence in your abilities, the authors note, which is unlikely to help your career in the long run. So while you're waiting to escape, you and your dispirited teammates might want to try these four confidence-building exercises to help keep morale up:

1. Aim for small wins. "The idea is to experience success on a micro level," says Crowley. "Take one item from your to-do list that you've been putting off and complete it." Researching a new product idea, finally turning in an overdue expense report, updating your resume, or clearing all the clutter off your desk -- whatever it is, give yourself credit for tackling it.

2. Find ways to be useful outside your department. Your hypercritical boss may not give you credit, but other people will. Look for opportunities to get involved with events, committees, task forces, sports teams. Who knows, making a contribution that gets noticed beyond your usual stomping grounds could even speed up your in-house job hunt.

3. Write down your successes. "So your boss can't acknowledge your successes at work. That doesn't mean they don't exist," says Elster. "Take a minute to jot down three work-related accomplishments every day." These don't have to be earth-shaking, she adds: "Notice and list simple things, like helping a colleague solve a technical problem, meeting a deadline, or catching a bookkeeping error and saving the company some money." In an ideal world, your boss would notice these things and give you a pat on the back once in a while, but as things are, why not do it yourself?

4. Spend time with people who support you. When you work all day, month after month, for a chronic critic, it's possible to lose sight of the fact that you do have some positive qualities. So after hours, the authors recommend spending as much time as you can with your biggest fans, whoever they may be -- your kids, your significant other, or your friends.

Since you happen to belong to a whole team of people who are bummed out by the same leader, you have in effect a ready-made support group: Avoid wasting too much time whining about your boss (or badmouthing him behind his back, which will inevitably boomerang on you), but do find ways to cheer each other up. After all, a bad boss isn't the end of the world: If nothing else, he's a negative example -- an object lesson in how not to treat your underlings when, some fine day, you are the one in charge.

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