5 key steps when your boss makes you feel incompetent
Does your boss make you feel incompetent and downright stupid? Are you bombarded with snarky commentary about how incapable you are of doing your job?
It wouldn't be surprising if this situation at work is turning into a significant source of stress and anxiety in your life.
Here we will take a closer look at the underlying reasons why your boss is acting the way they are and suggest steps that you can take to escape this unpleasant situation at work.
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7 possible reasons explaining why your boss makes you feel incompetent
Do your best to look at the situation from your boss's perspective, as this might help you get to the root cause of the problem, which is crucial for solving it.
It is important to think about the situation carefully, as there could be various reasons why your boss is implying or downright saying that you are incompetent. Here are some of the more likely reasons.
1. Your boss is correct – you are incompetent
The simplest explanation would be that your boss is correct. So consider this: are there certain professional skills and knowledge that you lack to do your job optimally?
If that is indeed the case, then the harsh reality is that your boss is right – you might be fully or at least partially incompetent when it comes to certain aspects of your jobs.
Even so, this gives them no right to treat you with disrespect and diminish your worth as a person.
All this psychological pressure and constant reminders of your professional deficiencies are not constructive at all, and they won't solve the problems that you are dealing with at work.
However, if you are a confident and experienced professional who meets or even exceeds what is expected of them at work, then you can certainly move past self-doubt.
It is clear that you are not the problem.
In fact, the behavior of your boss suggests that there are other underlying reasons for the unfair treatment that you receive. Or they are simply testing you.
2. Your boss is the one is who incompetent
If your boss is constantly criticizing your work or blaming you for certain failures without offering any constructive feedback and support, then it is more than clear that they are being incompetent.
After all, one of the main responsibilities of professionals who take managerial roles is to ensure that their subordinates are provided with the best possible conditions to work optimally.
All this finger-pointing and negativity without offering any reasonable steps toward improvement is the actual issue at hand. Of course, at some point, you might start thinking that your boss simply wants you to leave the company.
3. Their personality issues are taking over
It is possible that you are dealing with a narcissistic boss. Workplace narcissism is a well-documented phenomenon.
And what's even more fascinating is that there are a number of narcissist subtypes.
For example, if your boss is competitive at work, constantly trying to show just how much smarter and more capable they are than everyone else, then this means that you could be dealing with what is known as the antagonistic narcissist subtype.
In fact, one of the behaviors that characterize them is that they are often critical of the work and actions of others.
If you are a capable and experienced professional, but your boss is being unreasonably critical of you, then we could draw a curious conclusion: it is absolutely possible that they feel professionally threatened by you.
Another good example would be if your boss is more of a bully. They are rude, mean, and arrogant. It seems that it actually gives them pleasure when they downright insult the work of others.
This is what is known as the malignant narcissist subtype, and you can check our complete guide on dealing with narcissists in the workplace.
4. They are insecure and scared
Does your boss get visibly angry whenever something at work is not done according to their standards?
All anger comes from a place of fear – particularly the fear of losing something.
Perhaps your company is going through some rough times, and your boss desperately wants to improve the performance of your team and/or department.
5. The company culture is to blame
It's possible that the company requires employees to be thick-skinned so they can perform and commit to a certain standard of work desired by the company.
This is often called the “only the strongest survive” strategy, and all superiors tend to test their workers' ability to deal with highly competitive and even hostile environments.
While this is not personal behavior toward you, you are not obliged to endure that environment against your will.
6. It's their weird way of motivating you
As tempting as it could be to assume without a doubt that your boss is on a mission to expel you from the team or the company, it's worth considering whether there could be another motive behind their actions.
Some managers are just rude and use harsh language when showing you what you've done wrong in a certain situation.
If this is indeed the case, then it won’t be hard to detect because it can be backed up with supportive actions after a conversation – i.e., giving you more opportunities to prove that you are capable of good work.
7. They have a crush on you
While this may seem weird and absurd, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Your boss is using their authority over you in order to get under your skin.
By criticizing you often, they are invading your mind on an emotional level.
Who knows, maybe they are the Machiavellian scheming type. They are being critical of you on a regular basis in order to communicate with you more often.
Is this behavior counterproductive and somewhat creepy? You decide for yourself.
You know your situation best. So if this seems entirely plausible to you, then consider checking out more signs that your boss is into you.
What to do when your boss makes you feel incompetent
No matter what, it's best to remain calm and think carefully about the situation that you are dealing with. Do your best to distance yourself from the waves of negative emotions that you are experiencing.
There's no universal resolution that will erase the disturbing fact that you have been made to feel incompetent by your boss (or downright accused of being such).
And it would be even more painful if it happens often, especially in front of your coworkers.
However, there are certain steps that you can take toward a resolution of this unpleasant situation.
1. Move past self-doubt
Self-reflection is important. Especially when it comes to one's work. So it is important to figure out whether you are at fault for being incompetent or your boss is just being toxic.
Here are some questions that might help you to figure this one out.
- Is your boss overly critical of the work of other workers?
- Does your boss make other people feel incompetent?
- Does your boss display narcissistic traits?
- Does your boss seem to be a manipulative person?
- Does your boss work actively towards a resolution of the problems they point out?
- Does your provide any resources and support to “incompetent” workers?
The answers to these questions should help you to move past self-doubt.
The thing is, even if you have certain professional deficiencies, your boss should be the one to provide you with enough resources and knowledge so you can improve.
2. Practice emotional distance
Regular direct or covert confrontations with a superior at work can be a sign of a toxic work environment.
Such an environment will only bring you strong negative emotions. You might experience:
Practicing emotional distancing will help you to protect your personal life from the negative effects of your work environment.
It’s all about cultivating an ability to not take things personally at work.
Not allowing other people's problems, emotional state, stress, and words to affect your state of mind may sound too hard to achieve and almost too good to be possible.
However, it can be achieved with time and practice. The key to cultivating this skill is practicing it consciously little by little, day by day.
It takes a huge effort to be persistent. However, it is well paid off, as emotional detachment can help you remain unbiased and use your common sense when dealing with unpleasant people – not just at work but in all walks of life.
3. Ensure psychological safety through collaboration
Psychological safety is a must for a harmonious work environment. When psychological safety is present, team members are free to speak up about their thoughts and ideas without risking negative consequences.
In such environments, decisions are made through collaborative efforts. Therefore, a single worker could never be blamed for something that could be considered a failure.
In order to establish such a work environment, you can encourage a culture of sharing feedback and opinions without shame and judgment.
For example, asking for debriefing meetings upon project completion or procedure amendment discussions will give you and your team members the space to compare your personal positions and see where you stand as a team.
This way, your boss won’t be able to single you out as the one to blame in case of outcomes that they have deemed unsatisfactory.
4. Check your options outside the company
Part of having psychological safety at work is knowing that you have other options for employment.
In the meantime, toxic work culture and lack of appreciation are among the leading reasons why workers decide to quit.
Looking forward to a new job opportunity is always a good way out of a toxic work environment, considering that in the future, you will be more aware and educated about situations that made you feel incompetent in the past.
5. Be open and address the issue
Clear communication is key to problem-solving, and no behavioral strategy can replace the results of an honest conversation with a clear goal.
In this case, to find the root cause of the problem and eliminate it.
You can request a meeting with your direct manager once you establish that the current situation is significantly interfering with your self-esteem and work confidence.
Consider inviting a mediator from the HR department to the meeting if you feel like the conversation can turn too personal or you may be misunderstood.
In such a meeting, you must be very precise and explain the situation from your point of view, pointing out which specific actions and behaviors of your boss you consider inappropriate.
A piece of good advice is to start with ”I've noticed…” and then wrap up by asking your manager to explain their behavior.
There are three main reactions you may expect from your boss after such a direct intervention.
The first one is the best-case scenario – you receive an explanation and/or apology from your boss, which is then followed by further actions to rectify the situation.
The second option is to receive the “I don't know what you're talking about” response, which is also a very common defense reaction. Being in denial, your manager most likely tries to avoid being held responsible for his action, even more so if he's aware it has been affecting you negatively.
The last and most unpleasant variant is to get into a direct confrontation, as such a discussion can trigger an offensive reaction in your manager.
If this happens, you should probably expect to be blamed for complaining instead of working harder and improving your performance.
You can anticipate such development of the events if you have already noticed narcissistic traits in your manager – if so, be sure to invite a third party(HR) to the conversation.
My advice on what to do when your boss makes you feel incompetent
Moving past self-doubt is the most important step when you are dealing with a self-absorbed, self-important, toxic, narcissistic tyrant of a boss. It's not your fault. It's theirs. They are being incompetent.
After that, you need to muster the courage to stand up against this workplace bullying. This is where methods like emotional detachment and psychological safety come into play.
It would be best if you formed a workplace alliance with other coworkers who have endured the degrading behavior of your boss in the past.
Having allies with whom you can share the burden through difficult times will give you more psychological safety and increase your chances for a successful resolution of the problem.
Frequently asked questions
How can I differentiate between constructive criticism and a boss making me feel incompetent?
Constructive criticism is specific, actionable, and aims to help you improve. It's often paired with positive feedback. If the feedback is vague, consistently negative without guidance for improvement, or undermines your abilities without reason, it may be a sign of a boss making you feel incompetent.
What are the legal implications if a boss's behavior borders on harassment or discrimination?
If a boss's behavior constitutes harassment or discrimination, it can violate employment laws. Victims may have the right to file complaints with HR, seek legal counsel, or report to appropriate labor authorities. Companies may face penalties, lawsuits, or reputational damage for not addressing such behaviors.
How can I approach HR with my concerns without fearing retaliation?
When approaching HR, document specific incidents, ensuring you have evidence of the behavior. Express your concerns professionally, focusing on the impact on your work. Familiarize yourself with company policies and employee rights to ensure you're protected against retaliation.