How to Deal With a Condescending Boss

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

Boss condescendingly speaks to her reporting staff member.
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A reader asks this question about a boss who belittles her performance. She says, "My boss told me off for not doing a task like I was a child. I was really shocked and stated the task was on my to-do list, however, I got bogged down doing something else.

"I have just started the job but she does not show me how to do things. When I say I don't know how to do a task she says, ask other staff questions. I said, I do but they don't show me, and I think she shares what she does with another manager, as when I walk into a room there is an atmosphere.

"One good thing, though: I really get on with the clients and they always ask for my help."

Here's What to Consider About a Boss Who Is Condescending

Honestly, this question is hard to answer without knowing both of you personally. It's wrong and unprofessional of your boss to tell you off like you're a child. But, then again, generally it's wrong to treat a child rudely (which is what the assumption is about what happened here). There are a whole bunch of things going on in your reporting relationship with your boss.

First, you feel like you're unfairly picked on, have not received training, and that you're not receiving the support that you feel you need from your boss. She feels like you need your hand held and you don't prioritize your work. There is no way to know which one of you is in the right.

It may well be that you are completely fabulous and she's a horrible manager. On the other hand, you may be a nightmare of neediness and she's tried every management trick in the book before she finally lost her composure and chewed you out.

The truth about the reporting relationship is probably somewhere in the middle. You learn best when someone demonstrates how to do a task. She and the other staff don't have time to do these demonstrations. It seems like a management style clash.

She prefers employees who figure things out on their own. You prefer a more hands-on approach from your manager. Neither one is bad. They are just different approaches to managing and reporting.

Recommended Actions to Address the Problem of a Condescending Boss

So, what can you do about this? You have a number of options when it comes to dealing with a condescending boss. Try these:

Get over the lecture. 

Your boss behaved inappropriately when she condescendingly belittled you. It's not illegal, though, and since you wrote “told me off” and not “tells me off” it sounds like a one-time situation. Every boss and every employee make mistakes from time to time. It's probably best to consider this as a one time mistake and to let it go and move on.

Ask your boss for a formal sit-down meeting. 

The formal nature of this request makes it more serious. If you grab your boss 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 I can prioritize my workload. I want to make sure I'm doing the most important tasks first.”

Listen to what your boss has to say. If she gives you vague responses like, “Do the most important things first.” then you need to push further for 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 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 she'll feel like you're attacking her. This won’t improve your situation and may make it worse.

Follow up with your boss who you believe is condescending. 

While managers should be responsible for following up, in a situation like this where she values independence and you value guidance, you'll have to be the one who does the following up.

If you can get her to help you prioritize your work according to what she wants (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 she thinks is the most important task to accomplish, you'll need to double check.

Stand up to your condescending boss. 

This is not advice to confront your boss. This is advice to stand up for yourself. If she starts to belittle you condescendingly again say, “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 she's generally a good person who occasionally loses her temper, this will cut the condescension off. You'll have to judge that based on your further treatment.

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