Taylor Tobin
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“Nightmare boss” stories run rampant on the internet and in urban legends told among groups of professionals. But these tales tend to focus on outwardly-aggressive supervisors who yell, rage, and make ridiculous demands of their employees, while making few mentions of bosses who take a low-key approach to degrading their employees’ morale. But these kinds of bosses cause just as much damage as their more bombastic counterparts. Not sure whether you’re dealing with an emotionally manipulative boss? Keep an eye out for these three signs your boss is manipulating your emotions. 

1. Your boss withholds communication, leaving you constantly unsure where you stand.

If your boss wants to use underhanded methods to influence you, she may choose to leave you in the dark about your job performance, whether you’re completing tasks to her satisfaction, and whether there’s room for improvement in your work. This tactic allows your boss to avoid confrontation while also sowing confusion and discontent among her employees.  

If you rarely receive feedback of any kind from your supervisor, you’ll subconsciously push yourself harder in order to earn evidence of her approval. But because this method lacks direct communication and relies heavily on guesswork, it frequently leads to employee disillusionment, resentment, and eventual burnout. Strong managers will elect to discuss their opinions of your performance on a regular basis; a boss who avoids these conversations can’t lead effectively in the long run. 

If you notice this behavior from your supervisor, try taking a proactive stance by asking her for a meeting to go over your progress. A direct request is more difficult for her to dodge, and by leading the conversation, you’re more likely to receive the feedback you need.

2. Your boss encourages employees to compete for their attention and favor.

Bosses with poor communication skills sometimes use their lack of openness to encourage intracompany competition for their attention and approval. If your boss sparingly doles out praise to some employees — and criticism to others — while largely remaining opaque to the rest, he’s using a manipulative strategy to keep his workers constantly striving to catch his eye. 

The best way to combat this problem involves reframing your boss’s actions in your head, and refusing to let him pit you against your colleagues. Keep your goals and your team’s goals at the forefront of your mind, and you’ll be impervious to your manipulative boss’s childish machinations.

3. Your boss uses guilt to convince you to invest more than your share of hours and labor.

See if this sounds familiar: you have a major project due at work, and time’s running short. You’ve pulled plenty of overtime hours to complete the task, but your boss still wants you to work an extra shift over the weekend. You push back due to prior plans, and your boss responds with something like: “Oh, well, when I approved your week-long vacation earlier this month, I hoped I could count on you to work some extra hours on this very important project.” That’s a classic example of a boss using guilt to convince her employee to invest extra time and energy at work. While there’s nothing wrong with a boss scheduling overtime shifts to finish a major task, a boss who plays a game of “quid pro quo,” using your PTO against you isn’t playing fair. 

If your boss tries to make you feel bad for using your benefits during a busy time, remember that PTO is part of your compensation, and you have the right to make use of it. If your boss wants to enforce blackout dates during hectic periods, that’s his prerogative. But a mature and respectful boss will communicate those policies clearly and won’t wield your benefits as ammunition for future guilt trips. 

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