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I am having problems with my boss. He always criticises me by saying things you cannot validate. For example: you are not giving your maximum.

I reply by asking how exactly do you "define" the maximum and how do you know I am not giving my maximum and I don't get a specific answer.

Is this bullying? What can I do?

  • Have you been given any measurable goals or targets? (Something like response to critical emails within 4 working hours, make $x in new client sales, achieve 70% unit test coverage on new code, etc). Do you have quantifiable measures of success you can refer to? – Meg Dec 17 '19 at 18:59
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Is this bullying and what to do?

No. Criticism and bullying aren't the same thing.

Instead of asking for definitions and just challenging his criticism, ask for specific examples of where you could do better.

Something like "Hmm. I thought I had been working hard. Can you tell me about a time when you feel I wasn't giving my maximum? I'd like to understand so I can do better."

This will diffuse the situation, and change it from "impossible to validate" into "something we can work on together".

You don't even have to agree with the sentiment. Just have a discussion so you'll be able to understand where your boss is coming from.

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    Yes, but when you don't get specific answer despite asking, you get the feeling that is some kind of manipulation because you can always say "you are not giving your maximum". – Quirik Dec 17 '19 at 18:18
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    @navi - it sounds like your ego is getting in the way a little bit. Maybe your boss is indeed a manipulator, and there's really no satisfying him. Or maybe he's simply human, and you meeting him halfway will mollify him into giving you a break. Either way, you're going to figure it out by following Joe's advice. If it's the later, you'll forge a stronger relationship. If it's the former, quit. – AndreiROM Dec 17 '19 at 18:31
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You are missing a number of key pieces of information. As someone who has managed people before, let me share them with you.

First of all, when I come to you and tell you I have a problem with your performance, I am doing you a favour. I am giving you a gift. I may not be very good at it, but I am. I could have just stopped by your desk and fired you. Instead, I am trying to help you get better.

Second, if you manage to prove that I said it wrong somehow when I gave you this information, you will not magically cause me to be happy with your performance. That problem will still be there, and in addition, I will have the problem that you think telling me I am wrong is better than solving the problem.

So, "proving" that no-one can know your maximum won't solve your problem and will probably make things worse. What should you do instead? You should ask questions, and listen.

First question. You can't tell from "you are not giving your maximum" whether your boss means:

  • you are not producing enough to keep your job. I think you could if you just tried harder, and I really don't want to go through the hassle of firing you and finding someone else, so please try harder or else I will fire you
  • you are clearly very smart and capable but you're kind of coasting here because you are so much better than the others. Go ahead and outperform them: I'll reward you when you do.

A good formula for getting more information from a boss and not upsetting them is:

  • start with acknowledging what they have said. Make sure your tone and expression match the information. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear you're not pleased with my performance."
  • express your position, which should always be that you want the best for your team and your company. "I want to make sure I work to your standards and help the group."
  • ask about anything you don't understand. "Are you telling me I'm not meeting a target? Can you tell me more about that?"

As your boss tells you more, don't rebut or argue. Ask more questions. It's ok if some of them are designed to keep things fair ("do you ask everyone to handle that many tasks a week?") as well as just to gain information ("does it matter what project the task is for?"). Don't stop until you understand specifically what you need to start doing differently to have your boss be happy with your performance.

Check in with your boss after about a week and ask "have you seen an improvement in my performance?" You need to know how you're doing. If you're not where you need to be, keep asking things until you understand what is expected of you.

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    You can never go wrong by asking your supervisor for advice on how to do your job better. – O. Jones Dec 18 '19 at 14:04
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I reply by asking how exactly do you "define" the maximum and how do you know I am not giving my maximum and don't get specific answer.

To me, this sounds like you're trying to be a smart ass. If your boss says you're not giving your best effort, only you can determine exactly what that is.

For example, if you had to turn in your TPS Report by 5pm, but you really turned it in at 6pm because you forgot, then you'd know you didn't give your "maximum" effort because you didn't take the time to put it in a calendar and write out the necessary form. Just say you're sorry, and try to turn in the form next time.

This is assuming your boss is correct. If you know you've been giving your best effort and the only reason why your boss is giving you a hard time is for no reason then you know it's time to leave.

Take for example if your company has a rule to wear 15 piece of flare, and your boss pulls you aside and says you are just doing the minimum and need to give your maximum effort to really show yourself. You can't answer it and you don't know what he wants, so you really can't say you did anything wrong, except not know what your boss wants.

Yes, I pulled a lot of this from the movie Office Space which seems to apply to your situation.

  • The things is I have results behind me that are easy to measure and that are above average for my position. If you also know there are things you have done he took the credit for, then he owes me at least an explanation what "maximum" is. – Quirik Dec 17 '19 at 18:46
  • The upper or lower limit are not determined. If I make 5 things, you can always say that is not enough, you should do 7. Then when I do 7, you should do 10, etc. If I do 7 and the other person 4, it has problem only with me. – Quirik Dec 17 '19 at 19:34
  • @Quirik - Have you asked your supervisor how you can improve? Avoid the responses you have used so far, stay professional, your example response is NOT professional. – Donald Dec 18 '19 at 18:32
  • @Donald Yes I did and did not get specific answer. I asked if there is something I didn't or missed to do and the answer is negative. And that's the problem - it is not that I am not willing to improve, but I cannot read someone else's mind. – Quirik Dec 18 '19 at 18:40
  • "the answer is negative" - You mean the "not your maximum" comment? When I read something like that it sounds like your supervisor believes your skillet exceeds the work they are getting out of you. In other words, it sounds like your supervisor, believes you are not applying yourself to your full potential. However, the example statement, likely is being loss in translation because you are not giving your maximum is not proper English and likewise does not really mean anything. – Donald Dec 18 '19 at 18:52
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I somewhat agree with Joe's upvoted answer, but having been in a similar situation, it's not always that black-and-white.

You should start by asking your manager for some concrete examples of things you could have done better. Are you missing deadlines? Is your work not up to standard? Something else? If you ask for examples then you can learn from them.

However, what I've found is that often managers are not able to give examples; they simply levy charges like "you're not giving your maximum" and then leave it at that, and fumble when asked for clarification (or worse yet, accuse you of being difficult when you ask for clarification). In that case, it's time to find a new job. You are trying to keep the discussion work-related by asking for concrete examples of things to improve, but your boss is unable to provide them and hence your conclusion should be that these ostensibly work-related criticisms are not work-related at all, if your boss is unable to provide work-related examples to you. If your boss is starting to criticize you on things not work-related (or equivalently is unable to relate his criticisms to your work), then you should get out; work is where your relationship with your boss begins and ends and that's what your boss needs to explain, how to do your work better.

  • I had a similar quandary; my manager said I was "hard to work with." When I asked for examples, he said that five years earlier (!), I had agreed to work only six days, not seven, between Christmas and New Year's Day. Also that I had offered to come in on a Sunday night (with no extra pay) to help with a project but I had asked whether the company would pay for transportation and meals, which it used to do. I talked to another manager, who said that my manager was just looking for something negative to record. – Literalman Dec 20 '19 at 18:38
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Your boss is probably saying you need to continuously improve your output.

Based on a comment you made, you mentioned that you're above-average in your results compared to your coworkers, but you don't think that it's possible to codify a maximum because you could always theoretically improve.

That's what your boss wants: for you to continuously improve. If you made seven widgets today, try to make eight tomorrow, rather than coasting by making seven, even if your coworkers are only making four. Then, once you're consistently making eight widgets each day, start trying to make nine widgets, then ten widgets.

  • Excellent idea. Obviously the boss should also give the maximum and give you a raise. – gnasher729 Dec 19 '19 at 12:24

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