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Does Your Boss Make You Feel Stupid? Here Are Some Tips

September 17, 2010
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Every day people land on my Blog by typing this desperate phrase into their Google search bar:

“My Boss Makes Me Feel Like an Idiot.”

This good Google fortune is driven from a couple of posts I wrote dealing with the subject of “feeling stupid at work.” These have led to numerous comments, private emails, and even some behind-the-scenes counseling from good people in bad situations looking for some advice.

Apparently, I have captured a micro-audience of tortured souls dealing with the unpleasant challenge of facing a brutish boss every day.

Welcome, friends.

Their story is almost always the same: a once-confident worker is suddenly thrust into a new situation with an intimidating boss, and instead of rising to the challenge, a downward spiral ensues of little mistakes, negative self-talk, more fumbling, obsessive rumination and complete loss of confidence. Leading to a search on the internet to figure out what to do.

I know it might be hard to believe, but almost everyone I know has had this kind of experience at some point in their career. The arrogant boss, the feeling of being singled out, the intimidation and negative self-talk, the jealousy towards all the suck-ups around you – it’s all part of the strange hazing known as Your Career Development.

So how does one handle a boss who makes you feel stupid? Here are some suggestions, from an expert.

1. Dial Down Those Negative Thoughts! Your first order of business is to manage yourself, and quick. This negative self-talk is spinning out of control, and your other half (the real, better you) must step in and take charge, immediately. The thing is, you probably build things up in your own mind much greater than the situation calls for, and it is rarely as bad as your inner loser is telling you it is. Try not to generalize the negativity to your entire life.

When those negative voices start taking over, give them the boot with positive affirmations. Remind yourself of all the great things you have accomplished. Get with someone who will tell you how great you are. Or, do what I do, which is to furiously write them down into a notebook that no one will ever see. Then I go back a few weeks later to look at what I wrote, and think, “Ha, Ha, wasn’t that funny how I got so worked up over that little thing!”

2. It’s not you! Some people are just plain mean. But in my experience, if you are feeling the chill from an intimidating boss, then others up and down the organization are, too. And it usually comes back to haunt the bad boss later on. Hold your head up, and give it time. Keep showing up every day and looking for opportunities to shine. If you can, find an ally outside of your boss’s realm, in another department, who you can appreciate your smarts and who can back you up in the future.

3. Surround yourself with encouragers. Time to get out of your self-loathing cocoon. When you are feeling stupid, it’s usually easier to run away and hide under a rock – or cubicle. But instead, take initiative and get support and advice from others. Start meeting with people you like and admire at work and tell them you are looking to improve your performance – ask them what they think you can do to do better, how to learn and grow. You’ll be surprised at how many helpful people are actually out there, if you ask.

If you can, get a personal coach. You need someone to keep you line, to tell you that you can do it, and not to give in. Is there a friend, a confidante? A shrink? (Seriously, therapy can be life-altering). A mentor would be even better. Go out there and start networking.

4. Find your voice. Believe it or not, your confidence level emanates from your voice, and people around will respond to it. If you feel stupid, usually it shows up first in your tone of voice – and then translates to the rest of your body. Sometimes your commitment to overcome will have to precede your attitude. No matter how you feel, act confident. Dress confident. Walk confident. Talk confident. Find one or two things that you can have a legitimate opinion on, and speak up about it.

5. Do one thing really well. Focus on just one task or accomplishment that you can successfully complete in a competent manner. This will give you something to point to that will allow you to mentally tell yourself that you really are not stupid, that you are learning and growing. It can also be something that you refer others to when they are questioning your abilities.

6. Get Direct Feedback. Okay, here’s a crazy idea: ask your boss what you can do to improve your performance. If your boss is so all up in your face, why not be proactive and face it head on? Pull together any documentation you have that speaks to your performance – evaluations, reviews, examples of superior work done, so that you have an arsenal of hard data which references your good work. Take an honest stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Get a development plan together for your boss to be part of the program, so that he or she can buy into your growth as a person and as a professional.

7. Get another job. You may be in the wrong position, with the wrong boss. When all else fails, and time doesn’t help, then maybe it’s just time to look for a new job, or a new boss.

If these tips don’t do the trick for you, head over to Bob Sutton’s blog, Work Matters. He is author of “Good Boss Bad Boss” and has developed an entire career dedicated to this subject. Or, you could always prove your boss completely wrong. Go home, get your Masters in Leadership online and becoming their boss.

Photo by Nancy Rosback.

UPDATE: You might want to pick up my e-book, “At Work as it is in Heaven.” It’s not exactly on this subject of “Feeling Stupid,” but there are plenty of stories and insights around the challenges of dealing with job stress and finding a greater purpose in your work. And it’s only $2.99 – how can you say no to that?  Click here to purchase and download onto Kindle. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get the Kindle app installed for free on your i-pad, i-phone, or home computer, and read it from there. Thanks for visiting!

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 9:40 am

    Great advice. It makes me wonder what that looks like from a Managerial side. What kinds of things do we do that make others feel stupid? And how can we try to steer away from that, since it’s so damaging?

    Your ‘stupid’ posts make me, for some reason, smile :)

  2. September 17, 2010 10:15 am

    …strange hazing known as Your Career Development.
    i like that line.

    i also like your advice, it is helpful to me.

    and #3 like…the referral.
    very attractive.

  3. September 17, 2010 3:40 pm

    I just sent this post to a former colleague who suffered through a bad boss with me. Too funny. We both had a good laugh. I wish you had posted this 10 years ago (but then I wouldn’t have read it — not sure we even had blogs back then).

  4. September 17, 2010 7:02 pm

    I’ve never had a boss that made me feel stupid. I did have one who stopped talking to me. When confrotned or simply asked (with others around) he’d deny it. But he stopped talking and refused to say why. It was a clever but ham-fisted means to control. I first went through the “what did i do wrong” stage, and then gradually got to the “he’s got a serious problem, and he may or may not be aware of it.” I followed some of the steps you outlined above, and they helped. I also sought out the counsel of others — to make sure I wasn’t inventing the whole thing in my head. I wasn’t — my peers saw the same thing I did.

    Why organizations tolerate this is unknown. The HR people were aware of it, tried to intervene — but he denied there was any problem. They couldn’t deal with that, so they went on to other things.

    Attending a company event in the middle of this, his wife came up to me (when he had left the room), smiled with understanding and simply said, “I’m sorry,” and then moved away before he returned. I had a feeling she knew exactly what I was going through.

  5. September 17, 2010 7:04 pm

    This is good stuff Bradley – thanks. As L.L suggests this needs to be analyzed from the side of the boss too. Some of us may be in the category of managers who make our staff feel stupid without realizing it. I think I’ve been there though work actively on it now. Reasons?
    1. Felt need to prove one’s own knowledge and ability – always at others’ expense
    2. Needing someone to blame
    3. Impatience and unwillingness to take the time to train, explain, etc
    4. Lousy communication skills
    5. The employee really isn’t right for the job, or is lazy, or is unwilling to listen, etc. This is a hard one – making them feel stupid isn’t the answer of course, but it can be the side effect of even good coaching.

    Of course you know my primary response to this. A boss MUST see employees as valuable, unique individuals created in the image of God. Nothing, not anger or frustration or impatience or anything else, must be allowed to trump this. If I allow God’s view of the other person to be overcome by my own issues and shortcomings, I am sinning against that person. Period.

    Secondarily, we need to learn how to communicate better (especially including feedback, active listening, etc), we need to seek peer and 360 feedback and counselling and then work on what we learn, and we need to be open, honest and constructive in our counselling, including helping employees to recognize when they really are in the wrong job – out of their depth, mismatched skills or passions, etc.

    I’m sure there’s lots more but hope this is helpful for starters particularly for relatively new managers who typically get zero practical training in this stuff.

  6. September 18, 2010 7:05 am

    I remember when I was in the corporate business world, I used to tell my staff everything could be done in 20 minutes. I thought I was just reassuring them that what I was asking for wasn’t a big deal….”it’ll only take you about 20 minutes”. One day one of my managers finally said “Everything may take you only 20 minutes, but it takes us longer!” I hadn’t realized I was making them feel bad when they couldn’t accomplish the task that quickly.

    As LL says, we do need to think about what we say as bosses, because sometimes we could be hurting our team and not realize it.

    I also think that supports #4 Find Your Voice. After this brave soul said something, it became a standard joke in our division. Everyone began saying ‘it’ll only take 20 minutes”!

    Thanks for the tips Bradley.

  7. September 19, 2010 1:36 am

    This is a great post and good for you for watching how people were getting to your blog and giving them something good when they get here. I see far too much fear in the workplace and think that is when our faith must “kick in”.

  8. September 20, 2010 12:26 pm

    This is good, Bradley. I think you are right, we all have someone who makes us feel this way–even if it’s not a boss. And BTW, thanks for the comment counseling you sent my way over at the Wellspring the other day. Long story, yes you’re right, been sittin’ here a while. But thanks for reminding me to look for the lesson.

    I’m trying to be clay.

  9. EdisonBlue permalink
    February 5, 2011 9:44 pm

    I realize now the predicament of working under a horrid situation such as working under a boss who literally makes you feel intimidated and stupid. I just started this full time job and work under a team lead who literally makes me intimidated to ask questions to the point where I had to write an e-mail one day expressing to him, “I am sorry for the absent-minded mistake I made. That was stupid, stupid, stupid.” The guy did not even have the guts to apologize. I said hello to him in the rest room the other day, and he merely answered with a sort of pissed off “what’s up?” and proceeded to loudly clear his throat and spit in the toilet. He appears to be a bit over-confident as he has been with the Company for nine years and produces the most output on the team. But experience has taught me that even the best performance can be overcast by a looming flaw in the way one treats co-workers and people in general. I feel like I am in such a bind with this new job and all: this particular co-worker just does not seem to know how to talk or express himself in a professional, diplomatic manner. I know if I have to lead and assist someone some day, I do not want to be such a character as intimidates the heck out of them.

    • Lynn permalink
      July 7, 2013 8:00 am

      How did you handle this situation? going on with me at this time.

  10. August 12, 2011 9:06 pm

    For the past fifteen years I’ve worked for the software company that hires the smartest people that can be found anywhere and then stack ranks them twice a year in numerical order and washes out the lowest ten percent. This leads to a situation where high achievers from all over the world often find themselves in situations where they are dog-paddling out of their depth. Nobody can be on top of every area of technology. But nearly all of these over-achievers have been top dog in places where the competition is fierce. When some start to sink, the howling is subdued. No one wants to admit he is drowning. Instead many project their inadequacy on other workers. This is easy to do if one is a manager. Being put down by somebody who needs to bolster his own ego doesn’t make me feel stupid. It makes me angry. I try to be a Christian about it and turn the other cheek. This has been working out reasonably well for most of my working life. I’ve often been bruised, and I’ve seen abuses, but there is a bigger boss than these guys, than even the biggest of them. He seems to give me break more often than I deserve. I rode up the elevator one morning with the biggest boss in this company. I was struck by how old he looked, then in his early fifties. I wouldn’t trade my life for his, not for a minute.

  11. Rob permalink
    August 24, 2011 12:05 pm

    Today I attended an important class on learning to use Sharepoint.
    When I arrived back at my desk my boss asked me ” Well, did they put a dunce cap on you and stick you in a corner? ” I replied ” No, I actually paid attention, stayed awake the whole time and even asked questions.” He replied with ” Well, Ok “. This got me a little steamed because he does not seem to do this with anyone else but me. I am glad that I read this article because it did make me feel better and I think I am better prepared to handle situations like this in the future.

  12. Erin permalink
    February 3, 2014 11:27 pm

    This is happening for me right now- it’s killing me. I’ve never messed up so many things or felt so incompetent. I’ve never felt like this at a job, period. This is nuts and I’m not sure how to get out of this emotional cycle. I’ve found that the positive self-talk is helpful – just wondering how long it will take to internalize. I’ve been going thru this since I started 6 months ago and it’s getting worse. I barely recognize myself. And it’s all very subtle on my boss’s end – but I know it must really be happening – I’ve never felt this way in my life.

    I’ve started seeing a therapist and trying to decide what my next move is. I’m also at a startup, which makes things tougher because I have a crazy workload (aka more room for mistakes) and few allies.

    Helps to know it isn’t just me. Hang in there, everyone. We should all just start a company together! ;)

    • Debbie permalink
      February 16, 2014 12:59 am

      I know what you mean. I recently went back to work after almost 10 years of caring for a sick husband. The job I got is in a Technical area and while I made it through training fine and even got out of the 2-4wk post training class in just 2 weeks, I now have a manager who seems to be stalking me to find mistakes. She is constantly asking why are you doing it that way, and who said you could do that, etc. I tell her thats the way I was taught, or told to do it and she says it isn’t the right way. Today, for example, I was dealing with a customer and she came up behind me and said you are doing it wrong, you need to do it in this program, so I go to that program and it doesn’t have an area for what I needed to do. She makes me doubt I learned anything at all. Yet other managers that help out come by and seem to think I’m doing ok. I don’t know if I will be able to handle it much longer. I keep thinking, and probably am messing up things because she makes me feel so dumb. I can’t just switch teams and I don’t know what to do.

      • February 16, 2014 3:56 pm

        I’ve worked for something like fifty years now. I’ve run businesses and been the boss, and I’ve been the worker. In my experience the boss usually knows less about the core skills required to get things done than most of the workers. This makes bosses nervous. When I was in business, I had employees who were better than I am at the core skills. I tried to appreciate them. But, too many bosses resort to various kinds of intimidation instead of cooperative management. Many are afraid you might get promoted instead of them.

        So what would I do in your situation? It’s not easy to knuckle under to somebody who is trying to intimidate you more than they are trying to get the job done. Sometimes there isn’t much you can do but wait them out. I find my patience in my understanding of the gospel story. Jesus was clearly morally superior to the people who were running the country and the religious establishment. They were trying to intimidate him at every opportunity, and eventually they got him. You know, the bosses and religious leaders conspired to kill him. But, without lifting a finger to fight, he overcame them and their self serving system.

        Sometimes they’ll get you, and you think maybe you’re finished, but hang on and wait for the resurrection. There will be a new beginning. Many times over the years when I thought I was finished and they had won, the new start was better than anything the intimidating bosses could have provided. It doesn’t seem to get any easier, even after all the years, but there is justice in the universe. Wait for it in faith.

        If you prefer fiction to my reading of the gospel, read Lord of the Rings. The story goes on and on with one catastrophe after another, but there is always a new beginning. You’ll always get another chance.

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