Boss is “Unpredictable, Hostile, Critical, Belittling, Even Subtly Threatening.”

I am extremely upset about my boss’s behavior toward me, to the point that I now dread going to a job I otherwise love, and am considering leaving. As a 3rd year associate, I am working under the aegis of a law firm partner whose behavior has changed from “normal/stressed” to increasingly unpredictable, hostile, critical, belittling, even subtly threatening. In reaction, I find my self-confidence eroding and my anxiety mounting. The organization seems to accept the partner’s behavior – perhaps because she’s been here nearly 20 years – which leaves me with no recourse except to vent my feelings to a couple of my colleagues who sympathize but can’t really help. Can you offer any suggestions? The situation you describe is not as uncommon as you may think and can indeed be very difficult to manage, especially when the organization lacks the policy or structure to address it. You don’t mention whether any of your predecessors have had a similar experience with this partner, which may help you to take it less personally. We can only speculate as to explanations for your boss’s behavior, e.g., adverse personal circumstances or mood or substance abuse disorder. Any of these might produce symptoms of irritability, unpredictability, blaming, etc.

But there is another key player in this scenario – you. Whenever we have a powerful reaction to a particular individual, chances are that this person’s behavior is triggering a vulnerability in your own psychological make-up. The situation becomes more potent and complex when, as in your case, the two parties occupy different positions of power, e.g., boss/employee, parent/child, teacher/student. Confusing emotions can be stirred up that may cause us to question our own perceptions, or wish to flee.

Perhaps it will ultimately be in your best interest to move on to another job. But before taking action, we would recommend conferring with a professional. When this kind of emotional turmoil disrupts one’s normal social and occupational functioning, a therapist can serve as a sounding board and help to clarify feelings and gain some objectivity. You would then be in a position to consider possible courses of action, feeling less stressed/powerless and more aware of your options. An assertive and pro-active (rather than reactive) response is more likely to bring about the best possible outcome.

LCL’s clinicians are available for a timely consultation on matters like these. If the situation calls for more than a few sessions, we can assist you with a referral matched to your needs (and your health insurance). Our services are completely confidential, free and easily accessed with one phone call.

THE ABOVE Q&A, PUBLISHED IN MBA LAWYER’S JOURNAL, ELICITED THIS LETTER TO THE EDITOR:

I read with some concern your column in the October 2003 issue of the MBA Lawyers Journal. As a managing partner of our law firm, I have come to understand that the behavior exhibited by some partners toward associates is, indeed, inappropriate. The characteristics of “unpredictable, hostile, critical, belittling, even subtly threatening” behavior that the associate as described are very real, and I believe legitimately upsetting to associates. How can an attorney who cares deeply about his/her professional development not take this conduct personally? I would be very sorry to see any associate, including particularly an associate of this firm, believe that a distressed reaction to partner conduct of this nature is a problem with that associate’s emotional or psychological makeup.

What I find most disheartening about these situations is that associates rarely call matters like this to the attention of anyone in the firm who might have the ability to affect a change in the working conditions. While the associate writing the letter has vented his or her feelings to “colleagues who sympathize but can’t really help,” I wonder if any of the colleagues are partners themselves with a seniority level sufficient to address the issue. I would certainly hope that an associate in my firm experiencing this level of anxiety would speak to me or some other member of our Executive Committee. Perhaps this is further advice that LCL can offer to associates who raise this kind of concern.

Very truly yours,
Lauren Jennings
Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP

LCL’S RESPONSE (published 12/03):

We truly appreciate Ms. Jennings’ response to our October column about an associate who described increasingly debilitating anxiety as a result of working under a partner who had become “unpredictable, hostile, critical and belittling.” Because the firm was portrayed as accepting of the partner’s behavior, we recommended that the associate seek to better understand the intensity of his/her reaction and to make any career decision from a more assertive, pro-active position.

Our experience suggests that corporate cultures that tolerate negative or abusive behavior among their personnel, including toward subordinates, are often not prone to self-correction and change, or to addressing complaints from those without significant status in the organization. We have sometimes been surprised by the degree of various types of inappropriate behavior that is tolerated from partners in law firms, especially from those valued as “rainmakers.” Associates generally interpret this behavior as consistent with firm practices and values, geared toward honing that adversarial and aggressive edge that presents the appearance of strength and confidence.

We endorse wholeheartedly your recommendation of raising the issue with a partner with sufficient seniority to take action, and we commend your firm for this approach. Often, associates perceive the choice to confront a superior’s abusive behavior as a “career decision,” fearing potential political fallout and even a foreclosed opportunity at that firm, having been perceived as weak and complaining. They struggle in the “sink or swim” atmosphere and strive to emulate their superiors who may appear to prioritize productivity over civility, balance, and personal wellbeing.

We would encourage firm partners/administrators to consider adopting a practice such as the one you describe. Ideally it would be bolstered by a policy statement that advocates mutual respect and support, and outlines a process of problem solving and conflict resolution. If taken seriously by those at the top, such an approach could ultimately make for a stronger and better functioning firm. We also welcome any further feedback/commentary on this issue from readers.

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