Ask Ellie & Jill: Butthead Bosses

Posted on July 7, 2020

Ellie and Jill

Ellie and Jill (get it? EL and GL?) are two anonymous ELGL members who answer your most pressing and sensitive questions. Because everything is anonymous, you can rely on Ellie and Jill to tackle the issues you’ve always wanted to talk about but were too afraid to ask. Want to submit your own question for Ellie and Jill? Send an email to [email protected].


“I am five years into my local government career, specifically in a budget position that is really interesting with room to grow, but working for a new boss that is really unsupportive and tends to put me and my coworkers down. While I like the work I do and want to work in budget or another centralized department long term, the recent culture shift has burned me out and demoralized my team in general. I have a couple of potential opportunities to move into departments which more directly deliver services, but I’m afraid of losing progress and setting back what I’ve accomplished so far where I am. Should I grit my teeth through a rough culture to continue building a resume toward my future goals, or risk a career detour through a new experience and environment?”  

Ellie & Jill:


Working with and for a butthead boss who condescends and doesn’t provide the managerial support that you need can be a real challenge. It’s good that you have options within your organization, but before you take the leap and move to a different department, here are a few ideas to help you be successful in your current role. Most of our advice stems from the adage:

You can’t change other people, but you can change how you respond to them. 

So let’s take a look at what’s really going on between you and your boss. This should start with an honest evaluation of the feedback you’re receiving. Your boss may have a crummy communication style and poor interpersonal skills, but is there any validity to their criticisms? 

This might be a good time to engage in one of our favorite thought exercises. Imagine you are hearing the same words, but spoken by someone else – someone you respect and admire. Is the feedback valid? Even partly? People aren’t always as kind and supportive as we would like, but if their feedback is accurate, you’d do well to accept it graciously and work on whatever it is that needs addressed.

You mentioned that your boss is new. If they are new to managing in general, it’s possible that part of what you are seeing is their lack of experience showing through. Whether they are new to being a manager or just new to your organization, this is the time for you to employ the technique of managing up

Managing up is the process of building the supervisory relationship you are looking for by shaping your own interactions with your boss. In this case, you can begin managing up by creating clarity about expectations and making clear and direct communication the norm. 

For example, you can model the type of direct and non-condescending communication that you value. You can acknowledge the issues that your boss has talked smack about, but frame them constructively, using a script like this one, which should be delivered calmly, pleasantly, and ideally face-to-face:  

“The last couple of times that I have done X,  I’ve noticed that you have said Y. It appears from those comments that my work is not meeting your expectations. Can you help me understand what it is that you are looking for specifically so that I can do better in  the future?”

The benefits of being super direct like this are many: 

  1. You’re effectively calling your boss out on the smack talk – demonstrating that you’ve heard it and you are not intimidated by it; 
  2. You’re putting the ball in their proverbial court, reminding them that it’s their job to be clear about expectations and defining what success looks like for you and your colleagues; and 
  3. You’re modeling a mature way to address feedback and demonstrating that you are open to valid constructive criticism.

Another strategy is to mirror the way your boss receives and digests new information. Do they prefer emails? In person meetings? Hallway conversations?

While it sounds like your boss is not a gifted communicator, taking a moment to reflect on how you observe their own personal information gathering can be useful so you can meet them in their happy place. 

We’re reminded of the Five Love Languages. It’s not just about knowing what you want, but understanding what your boss wants and then responding appropriately. And this can be hard, especially if your language is very different than theirs.

But what if the condescension and misunderstandings stem from the fact that your boss needs to read an email to reiterate tasks and work plans from a meeting, while you’ve been relying on the meeting discussion or a followup  drive-by conversation in the hallway? 

We often talk about giving grace in this column, and that’s good advice for a boss who is still figuring out what they’re supposed to be doing. That doesn’t mean you have to stick around and take the abuse, though. We’re just pointing that out in case it helps you through the rough days with a compassionate lens.

If, however,  these strategies aren’t getting you anywhere, and the new boss is truly too much of a monster to work for, simply leaving the department for another offer won’t help change anything for your current coworkers or future staff in the department. 

If you truly get to the point where moving out of the department is the only tenable solution for you, please take your concerns to your organization’s HR department or your grand boss first. They may have no idea what’s going on, and may be in a position to help. Or, they might know there’s an issue, and be collecting evidence before they take action. Even if they can’t or won’t provide any support at all, at least you’ll know that you have exhausted your options before jumping ship. 

If you don’t feel comfortable going to HR right now, at the very least, document your boss’ behavior for a future time. We like to sit down at our desk right after a negative interaction and send ourselves an email detailing the incident. For example:

To: Ellie

From Ellie

Date: July 10, 2020

Subject: HR File

Today during a meeting, Joe told me my Excel skills were worse than a second grader’s and called out a scrivener’s error that was easily corrected and not in any public-facing document. I got the impression that he was trying to bully and embarrass me in front of the other staff members. After the meeting, when I asked for examples of Excel skills I needed to improve, he went into his office and shut the door, saying he didn’t have time to babysit employees.

Doing this accomplishes a few things: you have a concrete example. It’s time-stamped on the email. And you can search for the email later on when you do talk to HR or your grand boss, and can print out this email and others like it for easy access. 

Over time, documenting situations like this can demonstrate a pattern of poor behavior – one that is more likely to inspire action by HR or senior leadership than a report of a one-off occurrence. 

One last item, in response to your worry about taking a step back in your career: we’re believers that careers are like jungle gyms, not ladders. In the past there might have been just one way to advance and climb the local government ladder. 

But we’ve seen so many talented and gifted local government leaders who climb two rungs up, a few rungs over, sometimes climbing down or through. Success and talent win the day and if you end up leaving your department, please don’t look at it like a setback. The old way of advancement just doesn’t happen anymore. You’re growing and expanding your own leadership skills and knowledge. (Plus, jungle gyms are WAY more fun than ladders.)

Sadly, for as many great bosses as there are out there (we’re looking at you, ELGL members) many of us have had experiences like you’re describing at some point or another in our careers. It may help to know that you’re not alone, and many of us have developed strategies for dealing with this specific issue. 

ELGL members – what other advice can you provide for our letter writer?

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