Don’t bother trying to confront condescending supervisor

Dear Joan:
I am an administrative assistant to a director in a large university. I began the position in late June and I am seriously contemplating leaving the job already. In fact, I knew after one week that I had made a mistake in taking the position.

There are several angles to the overall problem, but I specifically want some direction on how I can handle my supervisor. In the following bullet points, I will try to capture what her typical behavior is like:

·        She calls staff and part-time student assistants "my little worker bees."

·        She calls me "my little administrative assistant."

·        She often makes disparaging remarks about two of her three assistant directors to me about their personalities and work habits.

·        She constantly interrupts other employees, including me, when they are talking to her or explaining something to her.

·        I have witnessed other employees try tactics such as "Please let me finish, Linda," or "I'm not finished talking." She either continues to interrupt them or speaks in a louder voice saying things like, "Well, let me tell you what I think..."

·        She consistently overlooks meetings on her calendar with me and with other support staff. When reminded, she often uses a tone of voice and vocabulary that indicates she is not interested in keeping the appointment.

·        Her moods and personality turn on and off like a light switch. With the public, she is friendly, vivacious, and attentive. Particularly with her support staff she is grumpy, mumbles under her breath, and hands out directives as commands.

Because my supervisor is very active in the local community, I am certain that should I leave the university and find another position in this field, I will encounter her again. I am fearful that she will blackball any attempts I may make to find employment with other non-profit organizations and companies.

To date, I have been silent in my opinion of her behavior. She is the most intimidating person I have ever met, much less worked for. I am unhappy in my job. I go home felling miserable every day. My three month review is coming up next week and I am wondering if I should say something to her at that time or pretend that everything is going along fine. Then, when I am able to secure a different job, I will leave, citing that I was able to find a job that paid more. This way I avoid confrontation and lessen the chance that of being blackballed by her in the future. What is your advice?

In an ideal world, I would advise you to prepare some carefully worded feedback for your supervisor. Being the practical world that it is, I can't imagine that it would do you a lick of good in this case. Here's why:

Every example you have described paints a picture of a woman whose ego is only surpassed by her ignorance. Pathetically, the more she acts superior to those around her, the smaller she shrinks in their eyes. She reminds me of the old joke about the ego-centric, self-important person who says, "Oh dear, I've been going on and on about myself. That's enough about me. Now, what do you think about me?"

Her condescending and critical remarks, her interruptions and refusal to listen to others, and her dismissal of missed meetings as insignificant non-events, all point to a woman who really doesn't give a darn what you think of her and her management style. Any criticism from someone as "insignificant" as her new administrative assistant would likely be met with insult and outrage. I suspect she would quickly rush to others in the department (whom she has also badmouthed) and angrily proclaim, "Who does she think she is?" I suspect your job would become unbearable before you were either fired or driven from the place.

I don't think you can win this one, so why bother? You don't own her anything. You've only worked there for several months, so you don't owe the organization anything. She has been in her job for awhile and I suspect she isn't leaving it anytime soon. You have no leverage with anyone in her department or above her, since you haven't been there long enough to build any credibility. Because of this, you would have little to fall back on if she retaliates against you. Your tenure there has been too short to allow for a transfer. So my vote is to quietly look for another job.

Good administrative assistants are in such demand that you should have little trouble. You might want to affiliate with a staffing service and advise them to be discrete in finding a position for you. If you are asked why you are leaving your job so soon, you will need to weigh your words carefully. I suggest something such as, "I'm looking for a job where I can have more responsibility and be in a 'partnership' with my manager." Another approach is to look in the private sector. By describing what you want in the future, rather than what you don't have now, you may be able to avoid saying anything negative about your manager.

I have talked with others who have been in your situation and they tell me that one of the advantages of working with a respected temporary and permanent placement agency is that they have confided in someone at the agency who then acted as the intermediary with the new employer. It's better coming from them than from you, but I still urge you to be cautious when discussing your former manager.

In any event, the next time you interview for a position, spend enough time interviewing your potential boss. Ask questions such as, "How would you describe the best employee who ever worked for you?" "What are your biggest pet peeves regarding your assistant?" "Have you ever asked your assistant for feedback on ways to improve how you work together?" "What level of candor do you expect from your assistant?" If you really want to be a partner, you've got to act like one from the beginning. By being forthright in the interview and giving your potential boss an indication of what you want, you stand a better chance of finding a manager who will value your contribution and your partnership.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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