Problems at Work? 10 Signs That It’s Not Them, It’s You

I got an email yesterday from a reader who wanted to know how she should explain why she’s quit three jobs in the past year. Her reason for quitting each job was the same—her boss was a bully.

Now, it’s possible that she had really, really, really bad luck and encountered three bully bosses three times in a row, but more than likely there’s something going on. If you’re encountering lots of problems regularly, the common theme is you.

Here are some signs that you’re at fault.

1. Everyone Bullies You

It would be totally awesome if everyone were super nice all the time, but that isn’t reality. If you’re always the target of the bully, there are two possibilities.

One is that you have some trait that bullies find super attractive. While this doesn’t make the bullying your fault, there is something you can do about it. Ask your friends for their suggestions and consider therapy to learn skills that will keep you from being so vulnerable.

The other possibility is that you’re way too sensitive. Bosses are supposed to tell you what to do and correct your errors. That’s not bullying, that’s managing.

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27 thoughts on “Problems at Work? 10 Signs That It’s Not Them, It’s You

  1. Some dangerous comments here. Please realise that bullies will default to accusing their victims as being over sensitive to dismiss them. Often bullies are incompetent and the victims are very capable, unintentionally making them feel inadequate. Advising people to “consider therapy to learn skills that will keep you from being so vulnerable” – are you serious? Would you advise the same to a victim of domestic abuse?

    What you say about race/gender being an excuse is terrifying to me- institutional racism / sexism is a very real problem worldwide, regardless of whether companies want to admit to it or not.

    Point 6 is a typical HR protect management at all costs comment.

    I suggest you read about bullying and mobbing in the workplace and the effects it has on those it’s happening to. Try Minding the Workplace blog.

    1. Of course, those things are very real problems, but they don’t occur all the time at every job. If you feel they are happening to you all the time and at every job, then you need to change your behavior.

      1. I’d also recommending taking #10 with a grain of salt. Bad and crazy managers exist. Certainly take a close look at the feedback you’re getting, but be sure to validate it with other feedback you’ve gotten and with what you know to be true. I learned that when a supervisor told me not to be so polite to my coworkers. When I asked for an example so that I could start to work on it, she told me that I said “please” and “thank you” too much. Again, your advice to take a look at yourself is good, but if you are working in Crazytown, normal behavior can start to look nutty.

        1. I had a boss tell me I “used big words that make people feel uncomfortable.”

          I asked for an example and he couldn’t give one and I didn’t know which words to change.

          A trusted co-worker, upon hearing this, laughed and said it was our boss who didn’t understand the words. Unfortunately, knowing that did not solve the problem.

    2. In fact, many DV victims DO need help/therapy to help them find ways to avoid or stay out of abusive relationships. Abusers and other predators are quite good at selecting and grooming their victims. It’s not blaming the victim to help them develop ways to avoid them.

      1. Exactly! I used to be a victim of both domestic violence and workplace bullying. I discovered that I was allowing the behaviour due to self-esteem issues and my own insecurities. Fortunately, I’ve now gained the confidence to stand up to bullies and I even exposed the horrendous mistreatment of others in my second book, Dirty Secrets of the World’s Worst Employee!

  2. “Even if you’re the boss. Strike that–especially if you’re the boss.”

    Yup. Super fun when the boss has 1-10.

  3. It is probably worth reiterating a common theme throughout your post that seems to be getting missed. This list really is for those who find one of these things happening at MULTIPLE jobs.

    As you say in the introduction, every now and then someone might just have a stroke of bad luck with a company or manager, but if it’s happening over and over again, despite job changes, then you have to look at what all of those places have in common. Often, that’s the employee.

    Note – sometimes it could be the industry you’re in – my spouse learned this the hard way. In which case you might want to do what he did – find a way to take your skills to a new industry

    1. Also as said above, persons in abusive relationships often skate from relationship to relationship. If this happens in more than one job, maybe don’t think about changing your behaviour in the ways EHRL suggests, but change your behaviour in the way you search for work.

      Also learned habits are hard to break, so you may need to look into therapy in terms of “how do I stop choosing jobs where there are bullies, how do I recognise dysfunction in my job, etc.” And more importantly, if I finally get into a job where it’s normal, how do I react to a normal job and not self-sabotage out of it. How do I learn the skills that people in normal safe jobs have and use every day when I’m always on the lookout for being blindsided.

      It’s like teaching someone not to choose partners who are controlling or abusive. If you’ve always had that kind of partner you tend to get stuck in a cycle of bad partners. Particularly if it started in your childhood with your parents.

      1. You are 100% right Antonia! I was a victim of an abusive relationship as a young adult and ended up being verbally abused by a boss a few years later. I didn’t have the confidence to defend myself, so I was an easy target. I actually wrote a book about what happened to me. Read Dirty Secrets of the World’s Worst Employee. I have a feeling you’ll appreciate it.

        1. What is the name of the book you wrote? Oh, yeah, there it is, you have mentioned it three times now.

          1. I know it’s annoying, but it just relates so well to this topic. I wrote my story, so others will recognize the signs and avoid the same misfortune I endured. Maybe give my book a chance and you’ll see why I brought it up?

            1. Jenn, I don’t doubt your story, but hijacking someone else’s blog to promote your book is an example of the kind of self-centered, tone deaf behavior that makes a person disliked.

    2. My education was in science. I was good at what I did. But I could not overcome the way women are treated in science. We are treated as inferior every day. It can be really hard to change industries but probably wonderful for those who can succeed at it. I am not working now and I don’t miss it.

  4. If you are involved in 10 negative incidents and in each one you are not at fault. But somehow you are involved in each one, then guess what. You are probably the reason for the negative incidents.

  5. I am well-liked, was promoted at three different places, and earned internal awards at two companies. I am a good employee and my personality was not the issue. However, I was bullied and railroaded out of a company because an evil woman viewed me as a threat. She was a narcissist who did the same to several others. I even wrote a book about my experiences, Dirty Secrets of the World’s Worst Employee. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not the employees fault and there is truly nothing you can do to fix the situation.

    1. I totally believe you, Jenn! I have always gotten along well with my bosses – took the train to Chicago last week to spend the day with my boss from 20 years ago, in email and Christmas card contact with other former bosses, have dinner with them when we are in the same town.

      But my last job before this one had me questioning my sanity because all of a sudden, I could not do anything right. I got a new job with a great boss and realized that the problem was the other boss, not me. It does happen.

      1. Me too!! I thought it was me until the woman who replaced me found me on Facebook months later because she was experience the same abuse and bullying. Then it happened to the woman who replaced her! The worst part is that the owners know she’s done this to multiple employees and yet, she still runs their company.

  6. I’m glad this thread came up because I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

    “It’s not them it’s you.” or “The common thread here is you.” is pretty useless advice. Especially if all the examples of how you may be the problem fall flat.

    In my case, this advice is simultaneously right and wrong. I’ve frequently found myself excluded from teams and I could never figure out why. I’m not a jerk. I help people. I’m friendly, but I don’t pry and I certainly don’t spread rumors. So what’s the problem?

    It’s not me, it’s them. They aren’t the right team for me. And no amount of self-annualizing how high I hold my eyebrows, or attempting to hit the casual-convo sweet spot is ever going to change that. I’m fundementally incompatible with my current team, and I’ve been pretty incompatible with most of my teams since switching to business.

    However, it’s not them but me who applied to this team. It’s finally dawned on me that the common thread isn’t that I am somehow messed up beyond repair, or terrible at communicating, or completely unlikable (after all I’ve excelled and made friends before coming to the workplace), but the problem is that I am not doing a good enough job self-selecting out of team’s whose culture aren’t a good fit for me.

    In essence, the problem is that I suck at interviewing. I’m great at proving that I’m a good fit for them, but I suck at figuring out if they are really going to be a good fit for me. I’ve finally realized this and the next time I interview I am going to be sure I find a team that meets my needs.

    My guess is that this is true for a lot of people. There is nothing inherently wrong with them. They don’t need professional therapy, but they probably could use a mentor to help them suss out what they want and need in co-workers and how they are going to determine when the see it.

    1. I am very intelligent and a strong introvert and do my best work deep inside my head. I have a deep sense of integrity. For most of my life, I simply did not “get” the social conventions that others are born knowing. As a result, I was mercilessly bullied for over 40 years. Thanks to therapy to help me become aware of how to fake it around others and finding a workplace where my intelligence and integrity are appreciated instead of derided, I am finally comfortable enough to not have to be exhaustingly always on the defensive for fear of being bullied again. My perception of interactions has changed.

      I think many in our society has become hypersensitive to the least little perceived slight, whether any was intended or not (microaggressions, etc.) Young women and minorities have been taught almost since birth that they are “victims”. Children are raised to believe that they are the most special person in the world. When boundaries are imposed (by the workplace, for example) on these people, they cry “Victim!!”. After all, they are so special that the problem couldn’t possibly be themselves now, could it?

      1. I appreciate honest, even if it was brutal, and completely respect your opinion. I’m not trying to hijack someone’s blog. You may feel it’s self-centered, but I’ve been told my first book (which I haven’t named) has helped people end toxic relationships. I talk to strangers daily on my social media sites to help them rebuild their self-esteem. I promote my book because it’s purpose is to show people they are not alone. I made $400 total in 1-1/2 yrs off my first book and would have done it all for free cause I know I’ve helped people. That gratification keeps me going. Yes, I want people to read my book. That’s because my heart goes out to those who have been bullied and I want to offer them comfort. I know how it feels. I’ve had strangers reach out and thank me after reading both my books. I exposed all my mistakes, struggles, and suffering to help others heal. I apologize if that’s not the impression I gave, but you really don’t know me or my intentions.

    2. This fits into #1. It’s not that there is something inherently WRONG with you, or that you are bad, worthless, etc. But sometimes there is a pattern in a person’s behavior that puts them into the target spot.

      If that’s true then it makes sense to figure out how to change it, whether it take “coaching” or therapy or just some really good job hunting advice. That doesn’t justify bullies, of course, but it’s going to make someone’s life much easier to get out of the target spot. And, while sometimes it’s not really possible, when it is possible it makes sense, because that’s in your control in a way that the bullies’ behavior generally is not.

  7. Stop knocking Jenn. Her posts are highly relevant to the discussion topic. I have full editing abilities and if I didn’t want her to link to her book, I would have deleted it out.

    1. Thank you! I really wasn’t trying to hijack your blog (which is a great site!). I just know sometimes it is them, not you. I spent years doubting myself because of the bullying. My self-esteem is still fragile, which is why I felt the need to defend myself last night. I’m more confident than I’ve ever been, but I still take every attack personally. I’m working on my issues and want to help others do the same.

  8. I appreciated the article and felt it was well written.

    Odd reading some of the comments here and for me proved the meaning of the article even more. This was not a blanket statement that applies to all workplace situations but for some who are ALWAYS in these situations in the workplace a little self reflection might be a good thing.

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