Let’s face it, John.
You’re not very well-liked in the office.
Fortunately, the Mute button over Zoom disguised the sound of my heart breaking into a million pieces. For months, my head replayed the tape.
“You’re not well liked” became the top hit single in my brain.
I felt disrespected. For months before this incident, I tried to improve my workplace relationships, talking to people, connecting to them, and being real.
Yet this was what my boss said?
I felt a deep sense of disrespect that all my efforts didn’t seem seen. That my feelings weren’t considered at all in giving me this criticism.
What do you do when you feel disrespected by your boss?
Before that, let’s talk about what disrespect is.
What is disrespect?
According to the dictionary, respect is,
due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others
Disrespect is the absence of respect.
Different people have different thresholds for feeling disrespected. But it boils down to having one’s feelings, wishes or rights valued and held in similar regard to one’s own.
When you’re disrespected by your boss, you feel as if you’re not seen. You feel like you don’t matter. You feel like whether you work hard or not, it doesn’t matter.
Having worked in places like Peru, China, Singapore, and the U.K., I’ve seen how different cultures perpetrate disrespect in the workplace. But there are always 2 common themes in these stories of disrespect.
Feeling like someone cares
When you’re disrespected, you feel like your boss doesn’t care about what you feel. I’ve heard stories of how friends have their bosses shouting at them. Even though the boss knows that this is unacceptable behavior, they still do it because, as one friend shared about her boss’s response,
I know what I’m doing is bad.
But I don’t care.
Feeling disrespected is feeling like your boss doesn’t care. No matter how passionate you may feel, having your boss treat you like this can leave you feeling lost and dispassionate.
Feeling like your dignity matters
It’s a Friday night.
I’m returning home from work. I see the cleaner in charge of my block. He’s wet from the rain. His mask is pulled down. Maybe its to better breathe. I notice his white mask is stained, with spots of black. Across his orange shirt, there are also streaks of black.
Hi! Have you had your dinner?
He smiles. He doesn’t speak much English. His eyebrow is raised. I don’t think he understands me. Just then, another cleaner comes, driving a cart, with a trash bin at the back.
I wave to him.
Where are you going?
Going up, like you.
He follows me into the lift. There’s another older lady that’s already in the lift. She turns away the moment the cleaners come in. She pinches her nose.
The cleaners don’t notice this.
But I do.
Because I know what it feels like. To have someone not want you in their presence.
Dignity is like clean air.
Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like
When you have it, you take it for granted.
But when you’re disrespected, you gasp for it. You struggle to breathe.
Being disrespected by your boss can make you feel like you’re not wanted. For all the effort you’ve put in, dirtying yourself in the work you have to do, it doesn’t matter. Because that’s what your boss thinks. Like you don’t matter.
How do you address disrespect by your boss?
Process it with someone
You may want to walk up to your boss and talk it through… but you may end up with poor consequences.
I did that and landed with a Performance Improvement Plan for being disrespectful.
When you feel disrespected, emotions are high. Disrespect touches a primal aspect of ourselves, because it concerns your identity.
Your identity is wrapped up in the work you do. And when bosses criticise the work, you may feel that you don’t matter at all.
Talk to someone you trust instead. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your personal feelings.
Process it with him, and be open, raw and vulnerable. Seeking support is about recognising that you can’t do this alone. And you don’t have to do it alone. You are not alone. You have people who care for you. Don’t suffer disrespect alone. You are doing yourself a grave disservice.
Ask yourself why.
I read the email. Again.
I couldn’t believe what she wrote.
She had copied my director, my assistant director, the administrative assistants, my supervisor in the email loop.
She wanted to ‘put it on the record’ about the paperwork I missed.
It wasn’t the first time I was publicly shamed or humiliated. But it was the first time I walked up to her and confronted her about it. For the rest, I had been content to walk away, and let it go.
Why was I so affected by it?
Why do you feel so affected by it?
When someone experiences a criticism from a boss, different people take it differently. Some people might end up taking the view,
I have the chance to improve from this!
I can grow from this experience!
But others may think,
Gosh, I can’t deal with it.
I need to confront this, NOW!
All these different responses depend on your own threshold. It also depends on your previous experiences. For me, in reflection, I saw that my negative behavior stemmed from my own history with being shamed at home, and never feeling like I measured up to my parents’ expectations.
When you ask yourself why you’re so affected by what your boss has said, you discover more about yourself. You understand more about your triggers. And you uncover what can move you from despair to hope.
You expected more from your bosses.
In the following weeks from experiencing disrespect from my boss, I found that I had made a crucial error. Because my parents had failed to celebrate me as a person, I found myself looking to my bosses to play the role of affirmative and supportive parents.
That’s not wrong. Some bosses can be like that, but not all are like that. Therefore, expecting so much of your boss is a definite recipe for discontent.
Because your boss is not your mum.
Don’t expect her to be your mum.
Detach from it
Replaying the scene of disrespect, ruminating over what your boss has said, are common responses.
Defusing and detaching from the experience helps you to move on from it.
In Guy Winch’s book, Emotional First-Aid, he shares a strategy you can use to put greater distance from what has happened.
Sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes, and recall the opening snapshot of the scene or the experience in question.
Zoom out so you see yourself within the scene, or if the scene involved two locations (e.g., if you were on the phone) imagine a split screen so you see both yourself and the other person or locale.
Once you see yourself within the scene, zoom out even further so you can watch the scene unfold from an even greater distance. Allow the scene to unfold as you observe it from afar, as if you were a stranger who happened to pass by as it occurred.
Make sure to use this same perspective every time you find yourself thinking about the events in question.
Guy Winch, Emotional First-Aid
When you stop replaying those tapes in your head, you find yourself with more headspace to think.
Write a letter of love to yourself
When someone like your boss criticises you, you may find yourself struggling to find your self-worth again.
For the months after my boss’ criticism, I found myself unable to get out of the doom loop of self-flagellation, I found myself in.
Even when a great opportunity came for me to quit, and leave such a destructive environment, I found myself struggling with self-doubt. I wondered if I had what it took to take a better job, even though the interviewer had clearly seen something in me.
He had seen so much good in me that he offered me the job on the spot.
But I didn’t see it.
Writing a letter to celebrate your qualities can remind you of the good within yourself. Today, write a letter of love to yourself, with five qualities you see as great in yourself, and how you’ve shown in that in the past.
It’s so easy to forget that, especially when you’re stuck in an organisation, with a boss that constantly reminds you of how bad you are, what a waste of space you are, and how you’re terribly incompetent.
Do this. It can help you find your passion again for giving your best at work.
It’s how you treat yourself that matters
Being disrespected by your boss is never an easy experience to go through. But as you go through it, you will realise that it’s an invitation for your personal growth.
Sure, you will not find it easy. But you will find it easier to celebrate yourself intentionally. Because it doesn’t matter what people say of you, what people do to you, or how people disrespect you.
It matters how you treat yourself, when that happens.