help — manager is giving me negative feedback

This post was originally published on July 22, 2009.

A reader writes:

I have an issue with my manager. She often gives me negative feedback without specific resolution. She has said to another manager that I am belligerent. This has bothered me for weeks and had a negative impact on work and virtually everything. I never got such feedback until this year when I moved into this new group and it is a challenge every day to say the least.

I have no details or examples of why she said this or specifically what she is referencing. Her behavior has been such that I am experiencing a degradation of my character. She micromanages me, singles me out and pings me when I have a call or meeting that she doesn’t know about. I have to give feedback for the year-end review.

You need to talk to your manager. She gives you negative feedback without you understanding why, and she told someone she thinks you’re belligerent? These are not good signs.

There are two possibilities here:

1. You are not performing well and you are belligerent. You didn’t get this feedback previously because you had a manager who was too wimpy to address it, and now you have a manager who’s more assertive about problems (or the problems didn’t come out until you moved into this new job). She is micromanaging you because she’s concerned that if she’s less hands-on there will be problems with your work.

or

2. Your manager is the problem. Her feedback is unwarranted or she doesn’t know how to deliver it properly, and she doesn’t know how to exercise appropriate oversight without micromanaging inappropriately. Hell, maybe she even has a personal problem with you.

We don’t know which one it is. Remember that if it’s #1, chances are reasonably good that you wouldn’t realize it, because many people in situation #1 have trouble seeing that and assume that it must be #2.

But what we do know for sure is this: You can’t just let this go on without addressing it, or you risk having your professional reputation affected or even losing your job. You must address it with her.

I recommend sitting down with her and telling her that you can see she’s unhappy with your work and you’d like to get a better understanding of what she wants you doing differently. Then listen with an open mind. Don’t focus on defending yourself; focus only on hearing and understanding what she tells you. If she’s vague, ask her to help you understand by giving you a specific example or two. When she does, remember: Don’t focus on defending yourself. You are just trying to understand what her concerns are with your work. (In fact, read and practice the advice here on hearing critical feedback.)

Then thank her. Yes, really. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her assessment or not. Thank her for giving you honest feedback. This can be disarmingly effective.

Now, once that’s over, hopefully you have a better idea of how she views your work. Spend some time thinking about it. Don’t react — even in your own mind — immediately. Let the information sit for a while. Start asking yourself why she sees it that way. Is there any truth to it? If there’s not any truth to it, is there an explanation for why a reasonable person could perceive it that way?

The goal here is for one of the following to happen:
1. You’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you can/should change, and you can work on changing them. If this happens, let her know.
2. You’ll realize that she’s pointing out things in your work that you don’t particularly want to change, and you can decide to look for other work.
3. You’ll realize that after giving her feedback a fair hearing, you just can’t see any merit in what she’s saying, and so the two of you are at an impasse. This likely means it’s a bad fit and you’ll know to look elsewhere.

The point here is that it doesn’t really matter if she’s crazy or a bitch or not. What you need to know is where you stand with her and why, so that you can make good decisions for yourself, based on candid discussion, not speculation. Good luck!

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