open thread – April 21-22, 2023 — Ask a Manager

Ooh, this is a tough one. I had to do something similar when I first became manager. I don’t have a specific diagnosis, but I’m definitely not neurotypical, and one of the ways my neurodivergence manifests is that my default tone of voice parses to people as annoyed and/or stressed. It takes a huge amount of cognitive load to override that, and if I’m concentrating on something–which I often am at work!–my voice reverts to its default.

What I did was on day one of my promotion, I put in my slide deck exactly that. I said that I would obviously make strenuous efforts to overcome this when talking to people, but if I slipped and sounded annoyed or stressed, I wanted everyone to realize that my default tone of voice may be misrepresenting my actual mood. And I added that I was aware that this would be amplified by the power dynamics. So I told my team that if they ever thought I was annoyed with *them*, or concerned that I sounded stressed, I would want them to bring it up with me and check whether I actually was, or if my neurodivergence was just showing through.

It also flares up when I’m tired, so if I slept especially badly, I will proactively warn everyone that my tone of voice might revert to sounding “off” today, and if so, it’s just sleep, nothing to worry about. Of course, this is in an environment where we have a medium in which we proactively announce things in the morning that might disrupt our focus today, from contractors to ADHD med shortages, so you do have to pay attention to your environment and whether this kind of proactive communication will make sense or will come across as weird.

In your case, your team/company dynamics may not make it as safe for you to say “chronic depression” as it was for me to say “neurodivergent.” But if you frame it as “dealing with some personal stuff atm,” you may be able to send the same message of “I’m trying really hard to keep this from spilling over, but in case it does, I want you to know that it’s not you, and to talk to me if you have concerns.”

Another useful complement to this might be to solicit feedback in 1:1s (I assume you have 1:1s or something similar). If you’re ever in a mental place where you can hear feedback like “Yeah, you snapped at me the other day,” you could proactively check in on how you’re being perceived. Here it would be important both to create an environment where people feel that you genuinely want to hear feedback and aren’t fishing for reassurance, as well as to react constructively if you hear that someone is being stressed out by the vibe you’re giving off.

Part of soliciting feedback effectively is framing the wording so that the person feels like they’re expected to have something constructive to say, and where they don’t have to be worried that their feedback is coming across as a personal attack. If I were going to ask if I had been short with people lately, I would say something like, “As I mentioned to the group, I’ve been trying to keep personal frustrations from spilling over at work, but I realize I may not be totally succeeding. And I definitely need your perspective on this, because what feels only a little annoyed to me may sound very annoyed to you, because of the power dynamics. So I would like to know: how often am I coming across as annoyed to you, like, several times a day, or once a week, or what? And then, how annoyed? What was the *most* annoyed I’ve sounded recently? Is there a context in which I’m especially prone to sounding frustrated?”

And, critically, I would present the questions and react to whatever answer I got the same way as if I was soliciting information on how much of a hassle filling out TPS reports was, along the lines of “How much time do you find yourself spending on them, what’s the most time-consuming report, etc.?” Like, “This is important information you can give me so I can make adjustments to benefit you.” Not, “Let me defensively explain what I really meant, i.e. tell you that you were wrong.”

If you can pull that off, I find people respond well to specific question-eliciting that presupposes that I want to hear what they have to say so I can work with that information. But I also recognize that I don’t have depression and that reacting externally neutrally may be a big ask for someone who does–that was why I suggested picking a better day to do this, if you have better days. It might also be worth prepping a script beforehand for how you want to react to various possible answers. (I say this as someone who doesn’t always think quickly on my feet in social situations and often do better with a script.)

Here’s another thing I’ve found in various contexts: having one meeting where you ask questions and *listen*, then take time to think about what the person said, then come back a day or two later to brainstorm solutions together, can be really useful. And I will tell people that that’s what I’m doing. So maybe if you hear that every time they ask you a question, they feel you’re snapping at them, you can take some time to think about what you or they could do to make that process easier. Like, would you prefer to receive certain kinds of quick questions in Teams, or via email? Or are you like the person on AAM who needed to hold up their hand and ask for a moment to finish a thought before responding to an interruption?

But even if the situation can’t be resolved by brainstorming, I find that people are a lot more able to empathize with someone’s struggles if they perceive that person as struggling as opposed to just “doing something wrong.” Admittedly, empathy only goes so far, but, “Boss sounds stressed because of personal things I don’t need to worry about” is a lot easier to live with than “Boss wrote me up because they were having a bad day, then apologized and asked forgiveness…again.” And there’s nothing to indicate you’re doing the latter.

I don’t know if any of this is helpful, but best of luck to you with your struggles in any case. The fact that you’re aware of this and you’re aware of the power dynamics means you’re light years ahead of a lot of people already. That probably manifests itself in other ways in your interactions with your reports, and that probably gives you a little extra grace to work with.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *