Supervisor’s Overdramatic Backlashes

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about blaming a coworker:

A co-worker has been assigned to a design project leader who not only over-dramatizes small items but goes a step further and insinuates, almost without fail, either directly or indirectly, that it’s the co-worker’s fault/mistakes- when in fact- the allegations are wrong.The team leaders’ loud backlashes using the assigned employee’s name altogether damages the assigned employee’s trustworthiness in terms of performance.What advice can I give my co-worker who has come to me with the concern? I mean, the team leader should be careful with his tone of voice and exaggerated backlashes towards the employee.

Signed, Want To Help Friend

Dear Want To Help Friend:

There are four possible things your co-worker can do: Three main options or a combination of them. I’ll use the pronoun “he” but the thoughts apply to anyone.1. He could talk directly to the supervisor. This is always my first suggestion. One reason to speak to a supervisor or project leader is that the employee may find out something specific that would help him improve in the eyes of the supervisor.It’s easy to say the project leader is wrong when he over-dramatizes small items and insinuates it’s the employee’s fault. But perhaps the items aren’t so small, and perhaps the project leader is being called to task by HIS supervisor and perhaps the employee DID do something wrong. I’m not saying that is the case, but I do think it’s wise for the employee to be very clear about what is being alleged and what he can prove actually occured. It will also allow both sides to see another perspective. Another reason to talk to the supervisor is to communicate, in a number of ways, that positive interactions work better than negative ones. Often employees think they could never suggest to a difficult supervisor that the remarks of the supervisor are hurtful or frustrating. But that’s because they are thinking of confrontation instead of communication.The other reason to talk to the project leader is to handle things in the most open way possible. Often the very act of talking with the leader lets him know that his communication about work is not being well accepted. If he cares, he’ll try to improve. If he doesn’t, he may have enough concern about his success as the project leader to want to improve. After all, the leader is responsible for the success of the entire team. If a team member isn’t successful but can show that he is trying to be, as well as trying to be positive, it reflects worse on the leader than the employee.Here’s the way to communicate about all of that: Communicate about everything, every day, so it becomes a normal part of work. Often when there is conflict communication ceases. Or, employees rarely talk to leaders or supervisors in a comfortable way, so neither sees each other as someone to talk with about problems. Tell your friend to make a sincere effort, if he isn’t already doing so, to increase the level of positive interactions about work, family, weekend time, books, sports, hobbies and anything else that will link him to the project leader in a better way. That’s not being insincere, that’s just being a purposeful communicator.Then, when something occurs and it appears the leader is blaming falsely, the employee can discuss it in a way that tries to understand what the leader is thinking. “John, I can tell you think I made a mistake on this, but I don’t see that I did. What do you think I should have done differently?” He might add then, or have said it at other times: “I want this project to be a success as much as you do. What can I do to help?”That might not work 100%, but if all of this ever becomes a major conflict, your friend will at least be able to show how much he tried. And the leader can’t say the employee never asked for assistance or offered to improve things.2. Your friend can see if there is someone higher in the organization to whom he can appeal what is happening. It may be he can be switched to another team. Or perhaps others are unhappy too and it should be known. This is obviously a very difficult decision to make, but in some cases it is the only thing that helps.It is particularly useful if the employee has gotten good evaluations and is well thought of, and only with this team leader have things gone badly. However, the employee has to be sure there is no evidence of wrong-doing on his part. If the leader can point to things that can be proven, those higher up will say he was right to try to correct things.The size of the organization and ability to communicate up the chain of authority can make a difference about this. But, it shouldn’t be automatically rejected as impossible. Businesses are focused on success and making a profit. If the way a team leader is handling things is hurting employee performance, they want to know that.If your friend talks to someone higher-up, the approach to take is to say how the leader’s style has inhibited the employee’s work and made him less effective. That’s an important point. Managers often care less about the employee’s feelings than they do about whether the group is getting work done efficiently.3. The third thing is not so easy either: Try to deal with it, focusing on work and keeping a record to show that the accusations made about the employee are false. That way, before evaluation time the employee can at least try to ensure that the evaluation reflects the truth. Or if worse comes to worse, the employee can go to HR or others and protest.If this is all that is done, I think this is the least effective option. But, sadly, many employees choose to be unhappy rather than bring something out in the open.4. The fourth option would be to combine something of all of those. I still believe communication is crucial. If there are others on the team, perhaps the employee could suggest team meetings about the project. If it’s only the leader and the employee, perhaps the employee could suggest a weekly meeting to talk about concerns. He may find that those meetings are mostly focused on what he has done wrong! But at least there would be a forum for him to counter those accusations, and to be able to say, “John, it seems you think I do a lot of things wrong. I need to know why that is and what it will take to make it better.”In the meantime, the employee can be increasing the level of positive communications in general. That tends to reduce negative communications about a lot of things. There’s something about spending a few minutes having a pleasant chat that makes you think twice before griping about someone behind their back or to their face!I also think your friend should at least give some thought to moving out from under the leadership of this person. Or, maybe he could at least consider what options are available organizationally if things get worse. There may be an HR section he could go to, a boss who would listen, other employees who might want to join in to make a change.The fact is, if things don’t get better soon, they might get worse. So, he needs to know how far he will allow this to go before he takes official action. If he is prepared to endure it, no matter what, that’s one thing. But, he may find at some point it’s worth it to say he can’t work with that person. If he is a valued employee, someone will care that he is so frustrated he’s thinking about quitting. That gets any bosses attention! While all of this is going on, your friend may find he will be able to deal with the situation better by simply focusing on his work and viewing the project leader as an ineffective, poor-quality leader who must be tolerated. The employee’s paycheck is continuing and if he otherwise likes his job, he may want to have the philosophy that this bad situation won’t last forever and he won’t let the project leader have such mental control over him that he is made miserable.The old adage is true: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes a few weeks can seem like months and months like decades, but rarely does someone have to work with the same person forever. Refusing to allow himself to be made to feel badly is important for your friend. At the same time, he should make a sincere effort to not assume the project leader is all wrong, even though that might not be easy to admit. There may be some areas in which your friend can learn and improve–that is true for all of us. So, letting himself get to where nothing the project leader says sounds right, won’t help.Those are the possible things your friend might do to make things better. He may have other ideas or think of ways to adapt these thoughts. The bottom line is to make sure he is viewed as an effective employee who can usually work with anyone, anytime and who will communicate effectively if things aren’t going well.Best wishes to him (or her) and to your efforts to help. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know what results.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.