I’m 28 and I’ve been working in the same job in the charity sector since I graduated from university. I’ve managed to work my way up to mid-senior level and for most of that time I’ve had a really good relationship with my boss. I was even a bridesmaid at her wedding last year. Around six months ago she left to take on a new challenge, which was wonderful for her, but the person she has been replaced with has made it really clear that he’s not much of a fan of me. He rarely ever speaks to me and when he does it’s to tell me what I’ve done wrong – even if it doesn’t feel objectively fair or even true. He seems absolutely fine with the rest of my team and everyone else in the business. He recently organised a team night out and “forgot” to tell me about it. What should I do?
It’s wonderful that you had such a close relationship with your former boss; you must have felt very sad when she left – and it must feel like quite the stark contrast now that you’re working with someone with such a different management style. It could be that he takes longer to warm up than your previous boss, or it could be that he doesn’t like to blur the lines between business and pleasure. Give yourself a pat on the back, firstly, for managing to carry on working even though you feel anxious about what’s happening behind the scenes, and secondly: give yourself a break.
An important step to self-assurance is reminding yourself that not everyone will like you, all the time – and that’s okay. Often, when people take against someone without obvious reason, it’s because they remind them of someone else, or trigger an entirely separate incident or dynamic from the past that actually has nothing to do with the person in front of them. So, try to look objectively at the situation – has there been some kind of incident in your workplace that may have given cause for your boss to view you negatively, such as a crucial work project-gone-wrong? If not, and you (hand-on-heart) cannot see any justifiable “reason” for your boss to dislike you, then you can sleep freely at night: you’ve done nothing wrong.
That doesn’t mean it makes it any easier, though, because we’re social animals – and it can affect us if we feel left out of the pack. It takes us right back to the days of the school playground: wanting to fit in, wondering if we’re “cool” or “popular” enough.
There’s also a lesson for us all, here – in paying attention to the things we profess to hate; or the qualities that drive us mad in someone else, we could actually learn a lot about ourselves. When I find myself annoyed and shouting at my kids for not getting ready for school on time, for example, what I think I am really annoyed at is the fact that I’m not the organised parent I feel I should be – it’s not their fault we’re rushing, it’s mine. So, too then, with your boss.
Perhaps he sees something in you he envies, or realises he lacks. Perhaps you remind him of someone else, or a relationship that has been difficult for him in the past. None of this, of course, is your fault – or even within your control – so focus on what you can do, which is to ask him for a personal development review, or an informal chat. Then, when you’re alone, ask him if he has any feedback for you in terms of your performance; or if there is anything concrete he feels you need to work on. This will be crucial in establishing whether or not he does, in fact, have a grudge or a grievance against you. You’re giving him a non-combative, open (yet also intimate) space in which to air it. But be warned: you’ll have to take it on the chin if he does give you something to chew on.
You could then continue the conversation – depending on what comes up – by asking your boss if he has any suggestions about how to make the workplace a more cohesive, successful and enjoyable environment for everyone. Make sure you reiterate how keen you are for the company or project to succeed. Don’t leave him in any doubt of your commitment. Importantly: don’t be confrontational, or storm in and ask him if he’s “got a problem with you” – instead, prove to him you’re keen to learn, keen to do well – and want to do whatever you can to meet his expectations. If you express a desire to grow and improve, sincerely and genuinely, my guess is that he’ll be forced to acknowledge that whatever his issue with you is has no basis in reality, to start to take you seriously – and to treat you fairly.
If, after a meeting like that, your boss still continues to criticise you disproportionately, or to leave you out of social events, you’re going to have to take a deep breath and hold fast to the fact that you have done all you can. Grit your teeth, smile, resist the urge to gossip or bad-mouth him and be the epitome of a cool, consummate professional at all times. Don’t give him any cause to pull you up on your behaviour; on the contrary, be so sparky (and sparkling) that it will be beyond him to find fault. Make it a pledge to yourself to be the very best you can be – at all times – even if it’s (let’s be honest) just to prove him wrong.
If things improve, marvellous. If they don’t (or, if they get worse) it might be worth making a note of specific incidents in which you feel you’ve been unfairly targeted, blamed, or treated badly. If things feel too unjust to ignore, you might need to ask for another, more direct meeting to tackle the issue – even one in which HR are present. But you’ll need concrete examples – so don’t forget to write down dates, times and locations; and keep hold of emails.
To sum things up: while he’s your boss (like it or lump it, he’s not going anywhere) you should primarily focus on the one thing you can control: which is how much his behaviour affects you.
Focus on the solid friendships you do have and value at work, as well as outside it, and remember that office relationships are really only one part of the great pie chart of your life. You can, should and deserve to plough your efforts and energies into those people who add to your happiness, rather than taking it away – those who (crucially) don’t make you feel “less than”.
Try not to waste precious time ruminating over those who don’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated. Instead, remind yourself (yes, you can even say it out loud, like a mantra) that you are enough, you are likeable – and that one person’s opinion doesn’t have to mean the world.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s new advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org