Miscommunication, management style may be roots of dispute

Dear Joan:
I am presently having problems with my supervisor. I work as a nurse in a small hospital in the Midwest. No matter how well I feel I am doing my job, my supervisor is never satisfied. When I told her I feel more comfortable about my position and feel I know what I am doing and pointed out my improvements, she responded by saying, "You only did well because we had a lower census and fewer patients." She also said, "You only did well because you had easy patients to take care of."

She has also told me that other staff members are complaining about me. Not one person has told me anything about what I am doing wrong or has said anything to me. Everyone acts pleasant to my face and tells me not to worry so much about what others think. I have no idea who is badmouthing me behind my back or what they are saying about me.  

And to top it off, my supervisor said to me in our last meeting, "Your record is clean. You had better find another job or show me that you are interviewing for another position by the end of the month, or I will have no choice but to write you up."  

I feel threatened. I am presently looking for another job in order to protect myself and my reputation. The atmosphere at my workplace is filled with tension and most employees are unhappy. Upper management is currently dealing with a budget deficit and implementing a plan to increase the patient load on all of the nurses and cut staffing hours.  

My self-esteem is at an all-time low due to this situation. I would like to know where I can find a counselor to discuss career-related and self-esteem issues, learn how to deal with difficult people and learn strategies to help me succeed in the workplace.  

There are a tangle of issues here and it’s hard to know which one is the snake. On the surface it appears that your manager is the boa constrictor, tightening the squeeze until you give up and leave. But from past experience, I know that there are two sides to any story. Either you haven’t been hearing the feedback she has been telling you, or your supervisor is poisonous, or a little bit of both. Based on what you’re telling me, I’d say her approach is reptilian.  

She appears to be looking for opportunities to tear down your self-esteem. She may be a graduate of the "don’t let them get big heads" leadership school. Good sense dictates that a leader doesn’t tear down an employee at the very moment she is feeling more confident and proud of her recent accomplishments. How cruel to start any sentence with, "You only did well because…" That is pure venom, meant to paralyze self-motivation and self-esteem. Even a person, who is struggling on her job, deserves to feel good about improvements. If more improvements need to be made to come up to standard, they should be articulated in a positive way.  

The "other staff members are complaining about you" strategy is another nasty bite and run approach. If a co-worker has a legitimate complaint, why isn’t your supervisor advising him or her to come directly to you? If others have been saying things about you, why hasn’t she made an effort to observe what you are doing first-hand, so she doesn’t have to use paranoia-building tactics like this? And where are the specific examples? Anyone would feel isolated and threatened. You must feel as if you’re tiptoeing through a dark jungle full of creepy crawlers.  

If one or more of your co-workers are indeed complaining about you, they don’t have the courage to tell you. If the morale is as bad as you say, it’s no wonder no one will come forward. In fact, I’ve seen cases where the supervisor is the one who initiates negative conversations about individual employees with other employees. If this is her style, she is trying to keep others threatened, too.  

Your comment about "everybody tells me not to worry so much…" makes me wonder if you are spending too much time soliciting co-workers’ opinions of the situation. The person you should pin down is your supervisor. I would insist that your supervisor give you concrete examples of what the standards are, how you’re doing against those standards, and what you need to do to improve. If there is a trusted co-worker who is honest and straightforward, perhaps you can ask for advice, but don’t discuss it with everyone around you.  

I find it contradictory that your supervisor told you that your record is "clean." What does that mean? Apparently, it must mean that she hasn’t put anything in your file—yet. If you are so close to being fired, why is there no documentation? This supervisor must be na├»ve or lazy, or both. Perhaps her intimidation tactics have worked for her in the past and people have left, too demoralized to fight back in court.  

The questions she would face in a courtroom are:


1.    Does the person know the problem exists? (If so, it may resolve itself when brought to the employee’s attention.)

2.    Have you clearly communicated your expectations concerning the employee’s performance?

3.    Does the employee clearly understand your expectations? (Could the employee restate your expectations?)

4.    Do any of the following obstacles outside the employee’s control affect her performance? (Lack of resources, lack of authority, conflicting directives, lack of time, etc.)

5.    Do you have evidence that the employee has the necessary abilities, knowledge, and skills to do this job?

6.    Has the employee performed this task adequately in the past?

7.    Does the employee have the knowledge or aptitude required to improve performance?

8.    Is training available for employees who have the required aptitude but not the required skills?

9.    Do existing policies reward poor performance or punish good performance?

10.Have you done what is necessary to change policies that produce inappropriate consequences?  

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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