Over the years that I've been in my executive director role at SFU, I've heard a lot of stories like Julia's. Julia* recently came to me and explained that she was having difficulties with her supervisor. She never knew how her supervisor might react on any given day. Sometimes Julia's boss could be warm and caring, and on other days cold, unnecessarily critical and occasionally hostile. Julia's supervisor's remarks could be downright cutting about Julia's work, even though over the fifteen years she'd worked here, Julia had always had great performance reviews. Naturally, Julia started to lose her confidence and lose sleep. She never knew how to respond to her supervisor, because she always feared that speaking up and asserting herself would invite more trouble.
There are many supports that I advise for members in Julia's situation—checking out the Employee Family Assistance Program at SFU and documenting the difficult interactions, for sure. Another is to work with us to see if there are other ways, short of filing a bullying and harassment complaint, that we can remedy the difficulties. There's much that I advise and suggest but won't cover off each item here.
Sometimes someone like Julia can benefit from a great book designed to strengthen her ability to assert herself and counter harsh criticisms and sometimes, yes, verbal attacks. One book I recommend to help people like Julia handle these difficult situations, professionally and calmly, is The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work. What I especially like about the book is Dr. Elgin's real-world scenarios and helpful techniques to help with a tough supervisor while preserving working relationships.
You can read more about the book here.
APSA Executive Director
*Julia is a composite of people I've helped. I didn't use anyone's real name or details.