Dear Dr. Lisa —I’m reaching out to you with a problem that I’m afraid will sound dumb. I love your podcast and your relationship advice, and I’m hoping you can give me some guidance in my relationship with my boss. While I love my job and I feel competent at work, my boss treats me differently than others, and it’s really starting to get to me.
My career has always been a place where I felt good about myself, no matter what’s happening in the rest of my life. I’ve never had any big talents that make me feel special, but the one thing I have always had is a super-human work ethic. I’m used to feeling valued in the workplace, but these days I feel invisible. Not only does my boss rarely acknowledge my work, but he seems to appreciate my coworkers much more than me. I’m the odd one out and it makes me feel like crap.
This is not a one-time thing. It’s a consistent pattern. My boss will praise my colleagues’ work while ignoring mine. Sometimes he’ll give other people credit for projects that I also contributed to while not mentioning me at all. He gives my coworkers new responsibilities and opportunities, while I mostly watch from the sidelines.
I’ve thought hard about my work performance and I’ve asked for feedback from my coworkers, who’ve been nothing but supportive. They seem to recognize all that I’m doing. But when it comes to my boss, it’s like he can’t even see me.
This whole situation is affecting my self-esteem and my motivation. I earn a good living and I’m otherwise happy with my work, but I’m constantly second-guessing myself and my value because of how indifferent my boss seems to be toward me. He’s always given me positive performance reviews, but I’m still watching my coworkers move ahead of me and it feels terrible.
I’m starting to wonder if it’s time to consider other opportunities. I would feel embarrassed to quit over this, but I also feel stuck.
I’m at a career crossroads, Lisa. Which path should I take?
Invisible Worker Bee
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Dear Invisible Worker Bee,
I’m so glad you wrote to me — what you’re feeling isn’t dumb at all. Far from it. Your letter illustrates something that I think is so often missed: That workplace difficulties can have emotional roots that stretch much deeper than what is addressed by basic career advice. They can cut to the core of who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and how we show up in our relationships with others, at work and beyond.
As a therapist who works closely with some highly talented career coaches and career counselors, I know that feelings like yours come up again and again at work. The relationship between boss and employee can be a particularly fraught area. It can resurface old dynamics and relationship patterns that started when you were a small child. I wonder if you ever felt invisible and unvalued then, or like someone important couldn’t quite see you, no matter how hard you worked to be seen.
Many kids get the message that acceptance, approval, respect, and love are things that they have to earn from others, and they carry these expectations into adulthood, including the workplace. I see you working for much more than a paycheck — I see you working for your boss’s validation and recognition, and feeling profoundly let down over and over when you don’t receive it.
You can’t rely on your boss to give you these things, worker bee. Your boss is there to guide you to do your best work, not to right the wrongs of the past or bolster your self-esteem. Take a look at your boundaries at work and the expectations you have for your boss, and consider whether they’re reasonable. If you’re expecting too much of yourself and him, you’re going to feel let down.
I also see you making an identity for yourself out of your “super-human work ethic.” What an interesting way to frame it. “Super” is Latin for above, over, or beyond — beyond human. Is that what you’ve been striving for? No wonder you can never quite get there. How would it feel to drop the super and just be a human? One who has a work ethic that is just okay, who some days accomplishes heroic feats of productivity, and other days has a bad attitude and wants a sandwich and a nap?
All I’m saying is, being human isn’t so bad. The best part is knowing that you’re just like everybody else, no better, but no worse.
I don’t doubt that your boss may be lacking in some ways. Good leaders take care to acknowledge everyone’s contributions and they certainly don’t play favorites. It’s natural to feel slighted when your boss treats you differently than others. But consider that it might not be personal. Your boss may be overworked. He may be under so much pressure from his own superiors that your feelings are the last thing on his mind. He may not have yet developed certain emotional intelligence skills that would make him a better manager for you.
If you want to have a better relationship with your boss, I recommend practicing a technique called managing up. I recorded a podcast all about how to manage up with my colleague Dr. Lisa S. a while ago. Give it a try before you start polishing up your resume. I think you’ll find it helpful.
Furthermore, you’re also telling me that you’ve been going through this emotional turmoil but haven’t addressed it with him. Is concealing your feelings a pattern for you? If so, you should know that we develop closer relationships through vulnerability. Open up a dialogue with your boss about what you’re noticing and how you’re feeling about it, in a professionally appropriate way. That gives him a chance to be a better leader for you, and it gives you more information about why you’re not hearing the positive feedback you desire. Whether your boss changes or not, you’ll feel better in your relationship with him for having expressed yourself authentically.
You say that you love your work and I believe you. I don’t think you want to quit, I think you want to feel more secure, stop comparing yourself to others, and find sources of self-esteem that do not depend on your boss’s validation, or anyone else’s for that matter.
That is your real work, worker bee. It’s important work and it will follow you from one job to the next until you do it. I see you, standing there at your crossroads, and I know that you can.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby