A reader writes:
I’ve been working IT support for a company for nearly four years, and I wish I could say I’ve been a better employee but I can’t. Around the beginning of 2018, my mental health began to take a severe nosedive after the end of a very long personal relationship, and in late 2018 I was diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety, and adult ADHD. Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, I’ve been working with various doctors to get back on track, and I’m in a much better place now than I was two years ago.
The problem is, at work, I’ve built up a reputation for being lazy, inattentive, and generally problematic. My coworkers used to walk on eggshells around me because my anxiety could cause me to take an innocuous comment and react badly to it. Nowadays, they recognize that I’m doing better, and even joke with me that they can’t intentionally set me off even if they wanted to. My manager, on the other hand, has decided that he needs to micromanage me to keep me in line, and it’s not great. He’s banned me from using my personal cellphone (a tool I used to use frequently to try to manage my symptoms and keep my priorities in check) in the office, citing it as a distraction. He changed my work hours to more closely align with his. He’s prohibited me from doing any work at our auxiliary sites where he can’t watch me, while my coworkers are free to go about their business however they please. Finally, he demands that I keep my desk at work absolutely void of anything other than my company workstation “to minimize distractions,” while my coworkers are free to keep books, pictures, anything that’d make their area a bit more homey.
These measures, combined with the fact that I can expect a heated email from him any time I make the smallest mistake or oversight on an incident I’m working on, are causing a vicious cycle. He feels the need to micromanage me, so I try to avoid him and work as autonomously as possible, and since he can’t see me, he assumes I’m up to no good and tracks me down. I have FMLA time for my mental health issues, and this just causes me to use it to the greatest extent just so I can calm down and get some space away from him.
I’m honestly better at managing my symptoms and getting my job done now — it’s been about a year and a half without anxiety causing outbursts, and about three to six months since focus caused major issues — but nothing I do seems to get through to him. Is there anything I can do as an employee to get him to back off, or would you say it’s too late for me in this job?
Well … it’s possible that it’s too late. Sometimes if you establish a bad track record with a manager, it’s hard to ever get them to see you differently, no matter how much you change. You’re stuck in their head the earlier way. Or the mistakes earlier were significant enough that they’re just not willing to risk them recurring, no matter what you do. When that happens, the only real option is to leave and start fresh somewhere else.
But there are things you can try meanwhile. These strategies might work or they might not — but if they don’t, you’ll at least know for sure that you’ll always be under a cloud with this manager, and that’s useful info.
Three things you can try:
1. Direct conversation. Have you talked to your manager to acknowledge the previous problems and demonstrate that they’re behind you now? You might figure that it’s obvious and doesn’t need to be spelled out — that anyone watching you would be able to see you’re operating differently now — but sometimes when people are used to seeing you a certain way, you really do need to nudge them to realize they haven’t actually seen that behavior from you in a long time. So it could be worth having a conversation where you take responsibility for the problems earlier, say you’re aware of the difficulties you caused your team and you’ve worked hard to change the way you operate, and point out what your more recent track record has been. You could say, “I understand that I need to earn your trust back and I’ve been trying to do that. Since it’s been X months since anything like Y or Z happened, would you be willing to experiment with giving me more autonomy, similar to what other team members have? Or if we’re not there yet, can we work toward that?”
But an important note here: you said it’s been three to six months since your focus caused major issues. If it’s been six months, have the conversation above. If it’s been three … give it more time first. Three months can feel like nothing, and if it’s been that short, your manager might just need to see a longer period of sustained improvement from you, and that’s understandable.
2. Stop avoiding your manager. You’re trying to avoid contact with him because it’s unpleasant, but that might be keeping him mired in past impressions of you because you’re minimizing the opportunites to update those impressions. And if he’s thinking, “I’m barely hearing from Jane. Where is she and what is she up to?” that’s going to add to his impulse to manage you more closely.
In fact, while this is counterintuitive, the best way to deal with a micromanager is often to give them more information. Micromanagers are often motivated by a worry that they don’t know enough about what’s going on — that there could be problems unfolding that they won’t catch early enough, or that things are off-track. If you’re proactive about keeping them in the loop, often that reassures them things are going well, which decreases their need to hover over you. Plus, over time they build confidence that you’ll proactively inform them about the things they care about, so they feel less compelled to check in and check in and check in. (Not always! Some micromanagers are impervious to this. But it works with a lot of them.)
So in your shoes, it might really help to lean into contact with your boss, rather than avoiding it. See contact with him as an opportunity to demonstrate how you work now — to gradually override his old, outdated impressions.
He can’t change those impressions if you’re hiding from him; you’ve got to give him new ones.
3. Take a fresh look at how you’re using FMLA. I’m not suggesting that you not use FMLA time that you really need, but you wrote that you’re using it “to the greatest extent” to get space from him. If you can move away from doing that, it might help — both because of #2 above and also because it might be reinforcing for your boss that you’re really struggling. (This is tricky because if you are really struggling, you should take the time — but if I’m reading correctly that some of it might be more optional, take another look at whether there’s room to do that differently.)
Now, you might do all of this and still see no change. In fact, I’m positive that you won’t see change immediately, because even if change is possible, it’s going to take time. I’d combine the tactics above with at least another three months of really strong performance (ideally including no recurrences of any of the previous issues — which admittedly is not fair because other people get to make mistakes, but you’re on an image rehabilitation plan here). If you do that and you’re still not seeing a difference, then at that point I’d conclude the well is just poisoned between the two of you, and moving on is the easiest way to solve that. But — especially considering the job market in most fields right now — it’s worth giving this a few months and seeing what happens.
can I ever repair my bad reputation with my manager? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.