How to Deal With a Condescending Boss

When a Manager Belittles a New Employee, What Should the Employee Do?

Boss condescendingly speaks to her reporting staff member.
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Have you ever had a manager who speaks to you condescendingly? They make comments such as, “Oh, do you need help with that task? No one else ever seemed to have a problem with it?” This is a common experience people have when they work for a condescending manager.

If the job is otherwise a good one, and you enjoy the work and your colleagues, it doesn't seem reasonable to quit over the problem of the manager’s condescending attitude. But, you do need to understand the situation and take steps to make your work life more harmonious—for you.                            

What to Consider About a Manager Who Is Condescending

It's wrong and unprofessional of your manager to tell you off as if you're a child. But, then again, generally it's wrong to treat a child rudely. So, first, you need to understand what issue your manager has with you.

Are you lacking training and struggling in areas where other employees are not? Does your manager get snippy because you are struggling? This can be difficult to self-evaluate—especially if you are new. You don't know how other people reacted in the same position.

You may be clashing with your manager's management style as well—you may like direct instructions, while your manager may prefer to let people figure things out on their own. He or she might feel like you need your handheld and that you don't prioritize your work.

The only way to find out is to ask them directly. It may be best not to respond immediately after a manager says something condescending, but you do need to say something. You may have different views of what goes on in the office and your manager may be condescending as a last resort before completely snapping.

On the other hand, it's possible that you are completely fabulous and the boss is a horrible manager. The truth about the reporting relationship is probably somewhere in the middle. You learn best when someone demonstrates how to do a task. Your manager and the other staff don't have time to do these demonstrations. It seems like a management style clash.

So, what can you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Recommended Actions to Address the Problem of a Condescending Manager

Take these actions to address the problem of a condescending manager.

Get over the lecture.

Condescending behavior is not illegal in and of itself. (If your manager speaks to you condescendingly because of your race or gender or other protected characteristic, then that could be illegal discrimination, but if they’re just generally condescending, it's legal.) So, you may have to deal with it if you can't find a solution. Take a deep breath and work through your own feelings before tackling the situation. You don't want to show up to a meeting about the manager's behavior and start crying.

Ask your manager for a formal sit-down meeting.

The formal nature of this request makes the situation more serious. If you grab your manager in the hallway and say, “Hey, Jane, I need more guidance,” it won't change your situation. If you have regular one on one meetings, this is something to bring up in the meeting.

If you don't have regular meetings (bad), then ask for a formal meeting. In this meeting say, “I'm unclear on how to do this process. I want to make sure I'm doing it correctly.”

Listen to what your manager has to say during the meeting.

Once you've asked the question, if he or she gives you vague responses like, “Do the most important things first.” then you need to push further for a better direction. You need to phrase your questions from an "I" point of view. Try one of the following statements and questions to start.

  • Can I have 15 minutes of your time on Friday afternoons to go over and prioritize my tasks for the next week?
  • I'm having trouble figuring out the most important task to focus my time on. Can you give me some insight into your goals for the department?
  • Sometimes I get too focused on details and miss the big picture. Can you recommend a training class that will help me learn to see the overall priorities?

Notice that what you're not doing is saying, “You never showed me how to do that.” Even if it's true, managers don't respond well to "you" statements like that—and they'll feel like you're attacking them. This won’t improve your situation and may make it worse.

Follow up with your manager who you believe is condescending.

While managers should be responsible for following up, when you're the one who is struggling with the manager's behavior, you often have to do the follow up yourself.

If you can get your manager to help you prioritize your work according to what they want (which may or may not be logical), then you'll be able to pull off the follow-ups. But, until you're confidently able to predict what your manager thinks is the most important task to accomplish, you'll need to double-check.

If you can get your manager to help you prioritize your work according to what they want (which may or may not be logical), then you'll be able to pull off the follow-ups. But, until you're confidently able to predict what your manager thinks is the most important task to accomplish, you'll need to double-check.

Stand up to your condescending manager.

This is not advice to confront your manager. This is advice to stand up for yourself. If he or she starts to belittle you condescendingly, “Jane. I apologize for my error.” That statement might stop her in her tracks.

If it doesn't, then you can add to it, “I've apologized for my error. Can you please lower your voice?” and then the third step is to stand up and walk away. The last step takes a lot of guts and, honestly, it may end poorly. You need to prepare for the potential negative consequences.

If your manager is truly a horrible person who loves to yell, this won't go over well. But, if they are generally a good person who occasionally loses their temper, this will cut the condescension off. You'll have to judge that based on your further treatment.

The Bottom Line

The key issue in handling any confrontation is admitting your own weaknesses and approaching the conflict from a position of “what can I learn to do better?” rather than “you (the manager) need to change what you're doing.” You'll experience much more success when you make issues about something that you can control.