I have a generally good relationship with my boss, but when I have had to set boundaries or disagree with her, she really beats herself up. I don’t want to send her into a tailspin — it’s not personal — but her overreaction turns small business matters into bigger emotional conflicts. How can I set a boundary and minimize collateral damage with someone who is so hard on herself?
S.S. / Bridgewater
First off, keep setting those boundaries and disagreeing when necessary — your boss might have lost good employees in the past, or missed out on valuable feedback, because of her behavior. It’s good of you not to let her make the same mistake.
Instead of trying to cure or manage your boss’s tendencies to self-blame, try to disengage from her tailspins as much as possible. Ride the wave, don’t try to stop it. You can’t keep her from overreacting to pushback — that’s almost certainly a deep-seated thing, and you’re not her therapist. You can, however, keep yourself from stressing out over her overreaction, which will end the cycle sooner. The next time you draw a line, be prepared. Interrupt her self-accusation session and say as clearly as you can, “I’m not mad, it’s not a big deal, I appreciate your listening to me,” or whatever she needs to hear. Then change the subject or ask if you can return to work. If you have to reassure again, do so with calm cheer and minimal emotion. Your own energy and attention are like oxygen to the flame of her anxiety.
How aware is your boss that she does this, and that it’s not helpful behavior for herself or her subordinates? If she knows this about herself, you might want to be explicit about the fact that you’re changing strategies and ask her what would be helpful. If she doesn’t seem to recognize it as a problem, keep your boss-management tactics to yourself.Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.