how can I stop being afraid every time my manager wants to talk to me?

A reader writes:

How do you get over “the fear” when a manager wants to talk to you?

In jobs I’ve had before my current position, managers only contacted you when they wanted to moan about something – which was a lot of the time. As a result, I dreaded every time my manager called or emailed, knowing that I’d be in the wrong about something. Even procedural changes we would have had no other way of knowing about were expressed as “you’re doing procedure X the wrong way, it needs to be done this way now” rather than “there’s been an update to procedure X – you should now be doing Y then Z, rather than A and B as before.”

When I left there I was incredibly relieved, but 4 months into my new job and I still can’t shake the feeling that every time a manager wants to talk to me, it’s to give me a dressing down about something. As a result, I enter into these conversations with an automatic “what I have I done wrong?” fear. Thing is – there’s no reason for me to be so defensive. I’m 4 months into my current job and not once have I been taken to task about anything. I’ve made some mistakes, but these have been gently pointed out to me for me to fix with no malice or anger. But I just can’t seem to get out of the habit/attitude/fear that anytime a manager speaks to me it’s because I’m in trouble. Do you have any practical tips on how to stop feeling like this, or will it just come with time?

Well, first, it’s really common to carry dysfunction from a previous job forward with you into the next one. It’s similar to what people sometimes do in relationships too — carrying toxic patterns from their family or past relationships forward into relationships with new people.

In fact, this is one more reason why it’s important not to let yourself stay too long in dysfunctional workplaces. If you spend too long there, they can reset all your ideas of “normal” in some pretty messed-up ways. And that can hurt you professionally, just like the relationship version can hurt you personally. For instance, if you work somewhere that always shoots the messenger and punishes dissent, you might get used to keeping your head down, never speaking up, and even covering up mistakes when they happen. And that behavior might serve you very well in that job. But if you move to a healthier workplace, that same behavior that worked previously could be hugely damaging. So it’s key to recognize this stuff for what it is, and not let it permanently recalibrate your sense of normal.

(I actually see versions of this in the comments here sometimes, when someone will comment that you should never confide in a manager, or that managers will always seek to pay you less than what you’re worth, or so forth. That kind of thing is true of some managers, not all, and when people think it’s universal, it’s often because they’ve had a string of really horrible work experiences.)

Anyway, back to you and the fear you’re carrying around from your old workplace. I’d do three things:

1. Recognize that fear response for what it is — a specific reaction that developed from a specific situation that you’re no longer in. It sounds like you get this intellectually, but not on an emotional level. So spend some time really thinking about where it came from, and the fact that it’s no longer the case.

2. Think about what evidence you have about your new manager. How have you seen her act? How does she handle mistakes? What kind of feedback does she give you? How does she give it? What kinds of things does she call you into her office to talk about? Spend some time really dwelling on this, because you need the answers to these questions to lodge themselves firmly enough in your mind that the reality of what you’re seeing and experiencing won’t get so easily displaced by the fear response that got wired into you at your old job.

3. Make a conscious effort to refer back to this evidence when you’re having a fear reaction. The next time your manager wants to talk to you and you feel your stomach seize up, remind yourself that the last time she called you into her office it was to give you a new assignment, and the time before that it was to show you a funny email, and when she has had to correct your work, she’s done it with kindness and respect, and last week she told you she was thrilled with your work so far.

Doing the three things above — and continuing to do them, thoughtfully and deliberately — should speed up the time that it will take to recalibrate yourself. It won’t happen overnight, but it should happen in time, and it should prevent you from getting stuck in habits that no longer serve you well.

And hey, congratulations on getting yourself out of a cesspool of ick and into somewhere that sounds a lot better.

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