Maybe your boss is fond of saying things over and over again—as if you didn’t hear the first time. Maybe she tends to overexplain the obvious—as if you couldn’t possibly understand. Or maybe he throws in a snide remark or two whenever he’s having a bad day. Your boss might have an extensive menu of ways to condescend to you, which range from mildly annoying to totally infuriating.
Here’s the thing, though: Unless you’re weirdly lucky, you’ll have to deal with a boss who condescends to you—at least once in a while—at some point in your career. So it’s worth knowing how to respond to it. Here are a few helpful guidelines.
Don’t Just Sit There And Take It
Your first reaction might be to just accept what’s coming and wait for it to pass. Defending yourself is only going to make it worse, right? Wrong.
When your boss is being condescending, clamming up is the last thing you should do. If you don’t muster some sort of a response, you’ll come across as disengaged—like you don’t really care about what’s happening. In fact, staying silent will likely ratchet up the condescension level. You need to stand up for yourself, without being so confrontational that it blows up into an all-out argument with your boss.
And here’s where it gets tricky. While some degree of pushback is necessary, the way you push back depends on your company culture, your boss’s personality, and the relationship between the two of you. If their patronizing attitude only turns up when there’s a difference of opinion, that’s something you can work with. Here are a few ways to express different views—and say “no” if you need to—no matter how condescending your boss gets. In some situations or companies, open (even heated) disagreement is actually encouraged. In other companies, you need to tread more carefully.
Either way, you still need to somehow let your boss know that their condescension isn’t productive—that it’s going to spark some form of respectful pushback they might not have planned on.
It’s Not Really About You
But that’s only half the battle. In fact, if you focus all your energy on coming up with a way to counter your boss’s remarks, you’ll probably just get more exasperated than you need to be.
Instead, you should remind yourself that your boss’s condescension isn’t really about you. Your boss is obviously upset about something, and you happen to be on the receiving end of whatever it is. Maybe it’s an issue in their personal life that you aren’t privy to. Maybe your boss is frustrated with something business-related that isn’t your fault.
Or maybe it really does involve something you did. But if it was only about you, your boss would offer constructive criticism, not condescension. Passive aggression, of any kind, is usually a sign of something aggravating that doesn’t have a clear outlet.
I recently worked with an executive from a global apparel company who told me that her CEO was very condescending. I asked her if he treated other people this way, too. “Absolutely!” she said. So I told her that in all likelihood, it probably wasn’t personal, that she should listen carefully for what the real issues were behind the condescension. Eventually, she was able to develop a constructive relationship with her CEO—she even ended up advocating for him when the board criticized his behavior. It wasn’t something she would’ve expected months earlier.
Like so much office behavior we tend to find grating, the worst of it often isn’t personal. Dealing with it usually gets easier once we realize that.