I joined this company a month ago in China as a software development intern, having worked at two previous internships prior (in the US).

I am having issues working with my technical project manager who is a very good developer, but is rather hard to work with, and would frequently belittle me.

Having read other threads on Workplace @ StackExchange, I picked up some knowledge on how to deal with the verbal abuse. I developed thicker skin, ignored his comments, and talked to him privately about the effects his verbal abuse is doing to me. Below, I documented some (not all) of his verbal abuse:

  1. I talked to him privately. I told him "Hey Bob. Thanks for taking the time to mentor me on programming, but I'm a sensitive guy. When you call me "useless" or "don't know how to do anything", it makes me feel pretty bad about myself." He replied, “oh.. you shouldn’t have told me this,” and smiled. He told me he is this way because he wants me to be a good developer. I understand that challenging me technically as making me a good developer (which I agree, and I am not complaining about taking on technical challenges) but I do not see how giving me verbal abuse is "making me a better developer." Two days after privately talking to him about the effects of his verbal abuse, the mocking comments came back, with greater severity.

  2. Asking Bob (let's call him Bob) the question about having issues understanding the structure of the SQL database, he asked me “what school did you go to?” I told him “someUniversity, which is the same school as Derek (our boss).” He replied by saying “oh, Derek said, this new guy we’re hiring is from my school and he’s really good!”, and then staring at my manager followed by me “now look at this,” in a mocking and patronizing tone. This comment actually made me angry, but I didn’t say anything or showed that I was.

  3. I don’t often ask him questions, but when I do, I try to present to him my research and what I’ve done. I would present the question like this: “hey Bob. I am having issues with X. Here’s what I know about X so far..” He would interject by saying “you don’t know anything.” Asking Bob questions has always been an uphill battle always followed by verbal abuse. Knowing this, I stay under his radar by only asking him questions when I know he is the only one that knows this domain of knowledge. I brave the verbal abuse to get the information I need, but even at those times, his answers are brief and vague. When you ask a question to clarify his explanation, you are met with condescension and utter disbelief that I am unable to at first understand what he is saying or want clarification. He is never at fault even though his replies are often vague; it's always the recipient who is the "idiot" for not understanding what he is trying to say.

  4. His verbal abuse is not unique to me; it is to everyone on the team (at times even to the boss). He frequently calls other developers of the team “useless”, though I seem to get the blunt of the verbal abuse since I work directly with him and literally next to him. When once asked by our manager to do something, he replied “my time is important. Why don’t you ask the useless developers over there to do it instead?”

  5. I would sometimes try to start a conversation with him (which I've stopped) to get his casual opinion on technology and programming. He would see these questions as my ignorance to the topic, and would immediately dismiss them.

  6. I got close with another technical PM (his name is Joe), he told me that he understands working with Bob is very difficult. In a meeting between Bob, Joe, and Derek, when Joe tried to present a solution to an issue, Bob got emotionally defensive for something. Our boss Derek had to mediate and say "Hey Bob. Chill out. We're here to help."

I like Bob for his technical abilities. I have learned a lot from him on a technical level (he's pretty good on a technical level) the past month I’ve been in this team. I appreciate the mentoring he’s given me, since I am still a junior dev. But working with Bob is a nightmare, and his non-stop verbal abuse is a drain on me, to the point sometimes I ask - "am I really that useless?".

I enjoy my work and most if not everyone in the company, but I literally dread having to ask Bob a question, especially at times when he is the only person that knows a technical side of the project. My manager handles his verbal abuse as well, and actively is aware of Bob’s verbal abuse to other devs of the team as well, but with him being a rather shy person, he has never stood up for himself or others, so going to him would likely not be productive.

Understanding that he is like this to everyone in the company regardless of their position, it has made me feel I am looking into his verbal abuse too much.

Is this normal? Is it worth it to do anything?

UPDATE Nov 10 2014:

Quite a lot happened today..

I was going to mention to my boss about my thoughts on Bob and how it was really preventing me from both getting a big picture of the project and at the same time, really stifling what I am capable of because:

  1. I cannot get the information I need

  2. I am emotionally and verbally abused by Bob on a daily basis

  3. I cannot get the mentoring I need.

Before I could talk to my boss, first thing in the morning, Bob, my manager, Joe, and my boss held a meeting. Later, from what Joe told me(the tech lead that has my back), my Boss Derek mentioned that the lack of communication is causing the failure of the project (our project is now 3 weeks late, so we likely have lots to explain to our client). Apparently, even in this meeting with everyone in it, Bob was showing resistance and defensiveness.

I was then invited to the meeting - Bob wasn't in this one. My boss asked me what I have done in the project and what I still need to do. I told him what I did and what I still need to do. Derek was understandably concerned about my progress since we're in crunch time with the state of the project, and I couldn't get some things done without some obvious guidance since it involved the scope of the project and involvement of other people's code that I do not have an awareness of (since no one communicated with me despite me asking). He told me I need to get my things done ASAP and to talk to Joe about my issues (something that brightened me up).

From what I understood of what he told me, Joe picked up the project management aspect and I am to talk to him about any issues, which I did. It was incredible the difference in the communication between me and Joe. He really understood what I was going through, and stood up for me the entire time even against my "manager", who seems to be taking the side of Bob, for whatever reason.

My manager, Joe, and I ate lunch together, and Joe said to my manager, while in front of me, that "when you see behavior like Bob's verbal abuse to other developers and people, you HAVE to let him know that this behavior is unnacceptable and must be stopped." My manager, for some reason, seems to still be taking the side of Bob, and said that Bob gets stuff done, even though sometimes he is reluctant and has an attitude. For one thing, I know I cannot trust my manager to stand up for himself, let alone me.

Joe later told me that in China, it can be common that decent developers are like this, since good talent is so hard to find, and that most decent developers want to work for large and established companies, and not for small-to-medium sized ones. The point said by one of the people that posted an answer about the cultural differences is quite true.

Later, I talked to Joe about needing help with one of the final APIs I needed to do. For the first time since joining this company, someone patiently listened and gave me advice on how to approach the issue, something I never received either from my manager let alone Bob. Joe simply gave me the feeling that someone has my back, and that it's not simply me against everyone else, let alone me being part of a team. The difference is astounding.

I usually meet with Bob at 6:30 every night to talk about the things I've done. The difference, again, talking to Bob, versus talking to Joe, was astounding. Bob, again, was cold and non-understanding. He was visibly a little ticked off that I was talking to Joe about our project, and asked me why I even needed to talk to him. Bob simply did not or chose not to understand that communication is important, despite what happened today, and seemingly our boss having a chat with him. He said "I'm really not happy that you're talking to Joe about these things, since he doesn't understand our project." It was as if Bob's control of me was slowly fading, and he was desperately trying to regain control of me. It was a very weird and dreadful feeling talking to Bob. I don't know Bob outside of work, or whether he's normally like this (since we're in a deadline), but how he is working under pressure and in response dealing with people, is seriously a little messed up.

After work, I thanked Joe for caring about me - not just using words to care, but showing it through action by standing up for me and more. I told him, "generally working in China, no one really cares about each other, but you proved to me that's not true." He replied "whatever you do, always come back. Never forgeit that. Also, if that's what you believe (in reference to what I said about working in CHina), will become true. We shape our reality; we don't just live in it."

Despite all this happening, I still have sympathy for Bob. With another intern leaving just a week ago, and him and I being the only software developers left for the web portion of the project, he is responsible for the majority of what's still left to be done. Does that make his behavior acceptable? No, I do not think so. I do think, however, that he's not in a very good position himself either.

I hope we can end this peacefully and effectively; my boss wants to chat with me tomorrow again about working together cohesively with Bob and Joe to get this project done. I plan to be honest with my boss about what's happened so far with me in the project and with Bob, and ask him how I can effectively communicate with Bob so we can work together to get this project completed.

  • possible duplicate of How can I deal with an abusive manager who publicly belittles me? – Jim G. Nov 11 '14 at 9:57
  • "I joined this company a month ago in China as a software development intern", "I am having issues working with my technical project manager who is a very good developer, but is rather hard to work with, and would frequently belittle me." Damn ! When I read you, I feel like reading my own story !!! – Brainless Mar 24 '15 at 16:44

@bharal's answer is spot on. However, as an intern in another country your choices may be a bit more limited. So what I offer is advice on how to survive this with your ego intact until the escalating works or your internship is up.

First, he does this to everyone he can, so it is not you. You are not useless and you can treat what he says about you as a person as just noise like the air conditioning system. You don't hear it, you don't have to act on it and it is irrelevant to you and your life. Or if you can't achieve that, in your head, every time he says something bad about you, think, "But at least I am not an asshole."

Something else to consider here is that you are in a different culture right now than your home culture and it may be that such behavior is more acceptable there. So you can also make it sting less by chalking it up to cultural difference, nothing to do with you personally.

You can also ask for feedback from someone else about how you are actually doing. You need to know that, but you don't need to get it from the jerk. If they think you are doing well, it should offset some of what you are hearing from the jerk. If they think some things needs work, then you can work at those productively and be proud of yourself when you have made progress. In any event, remember, Bob's opinion is irrelevant. He is a jerk and nothing a jerk says about you as a person or a developer is relevant.

And go ahead and directly ask for that transfer and make sure they know it because of his belittling behavior.

  • I have updated my question with what happened today. Feel free to check it out. – theGreenCabbage Nov 10 '14 at 13:08

I was you 4 years ago.

My "Bob" had a profile neurosis because of bad experiences in the past (which I only found out later). He was as blunt as your Bob, and also a drain on the whole team. Even worse, he created a zero tolerance atmosphere which I like to call the "Fear Driven Development Zone". Let me introduce you to the species of Bob:

  1. Bad news first: Bobs can be found in any company or department that favors competence over social skills. Your manager sounds like one of these people. They are everywhere.
  2. Bob is a child with issues that go far beyond the workplace. A guy who needs to feed his ego by abusing others is not a very happy person. You can't change that and in an ideal world you shouldn't, but in the real world...
  3. You need to find a way to deal with Bobs, because there will come a time when you can't run away from the current Bob. There is a lot of literature on this.

Here's how I'd suggest handling it:

  • Show Bob that you are respecting his competence but not his behavior. Show Bob that he cannot feed on you and at the same time show him that you are great to work with. When Bob is abusing you pick out the information you need and ignore the rest. See it as a joke the two of you share. "Dear Bob, I know I am useless and needy but can you give me your 2 cents on this issue". Defuse his words. Bob will stop eventually if he can't get to you.
  • Use Bob as source of motivation: Say to yourself "I don't want to depend on people like bob, therefore i have to surpass him." Maybe almighty Bob as good as it gets, but even than you can get good enough so he has to respect your competence.
  • When you reached the point where Bob has no hold over you, your manager will want to keep you, since you have become competent enough to deal with Bob. Than it is for you to decide if you want to stay or leave for a company which suits you better.

Bobs will inadvertently teach you very valuable lessons in life, and I don't regret meeting my bob, because it made me better. But this is a personal decision and it is not for everyone. So you need to decide for yourself.

A word of caution: There is a little Bob in everyone of us. Manage him or you will become a Bob yourself one day.

  • 3
    Do you mind restructuring your answer so that it's clear to everyone that you are addressing the OP's question? I myself didn't get that you were addressing the question until I read your answer for the third time. – Vietnhi Phuvan Nov 10 '14 at 19:47
  • Thanks for the restructuring, its a better read now. @Vietnhi: aside from the restructuring issue, how do find the the experiences i have shared? Do you think this could this help the OP? – zhengtonic Nov 11 '14 at 8:06
  • Agreed, the restructuring did the job :) You're basically saying that Bob is playing a head game and "don't let Bob's game get inside your head" and "get to the point where you don't need him any more" - that's definitely sound advice and will help the OP. The general rule is to address the OP's question, but to address it is not necessarily to answer it - I've had to deal with situations where the OP was clearly out of touch with reality and his question reflected that. In which case, I addressed the question by saying "you're out of it, you're asking the wrong question and this is why", etc. – Vietnhi Phuvan Nov 11 '14 at 10:11

All the sound advice you have read in the Workplace amounts, at the end of the day, to you performing due diligence with you being in the right and you trying to manage the situation without bloodshed. Let's summarize:

  1. You speak with him privately. He does not bother to deny his behavior and he practically sneers at you. That tells you he knows perfectly well what he is doing, and he is totally unrepentant and unapologetic about it. And that any solution that does not involve you leaving - that situation will have to involve someone willing to lean on him. And someone powerful and determined enough to lean on him. Hard. Whoever that someone is, it's not you and it certainly isn't your boss.

  2. Your boss is probably powerful enough but won't confront him. The top-down management structure falls apart because the top won't crack down, leaving the field open to the "down" to go crazy and range and rage freely. The top-down authoritarian management structure applies to everyone but miraculously, not him. Your boss is aware of your senior colleague's behavior but your boss's support extends only to commiserating with you. Your boss is useless. Your boss will not support you openly and the most you can count on is his overt support - Better something than nothing, I guess. Otherwise, your boss is useless.

  3. You may very well end up having to confront him by yourself as some point. I regret to say this, but it's all on you. Your senior colleague can dish it out but he is not clearly not as good at taking it.

    • A confrontation over his general behavior may lead to an explosion followed by a series of running battles over every single issue. Probably not the best tactical approach, because the management may react by cracking down on you instead of him. You may be in the right but what counts in management's eyes is re-establishing the "peace". And getting rid of you sounds is a powerfully attractive alternative, because you are the easy target.

    • If you need cooperation from him, bite his leg pants and don't let go until you get it. and to your satisfaction. He'll scream, he'll yell, he'll whimper but so do the chicken when they are being slaughtered for dinner. If you have a task to do, you need his cooperation and you aren't getting your task done because he is not cooperating - that won't work because the only thing that matters is that the task gets done. Be ruthless in your persistence until he spits out the knowledge you need. You are better off picking your battles and bring to a successful conclusion those battles you choose to fight. But even then, prepare to be exhausted. Manage your energy level and your timing carefully. This means that once you get what you want, you immediately let go of the pant leg you bit into.

  4. You are milking the situation to your best advantage by picking his brains and learning as much as you can - that's all to the good. Because the work experience gained will stand you in good stead as you eventually start floating your resume. Don't be overly grateful for the opportunity to learn - there are plenty of opportunities to learn out there that are less painful.

  5. Look at it on the bright side: your former workplace would be a good place to raid for talent should your next employer need talent.

  • You may very well end up having to confront him by yourself as some point. Psst... He already did... – Jim G. Nov 10 '14 at 4:53
  • @JimG A quiet, private talk is not a confrontation. But it's possible that the kind of quiet, private talk that produces in the other party an irresistible urge to run for the nearest restroom, do their business in a hurry and stay hidden there - that's does not meet the definition of "confrontation" either. – Vietnhi Phuvan Nov 10 '14 at 5:07

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