Why we hate it when our boss wants to talk to us

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It’s happened to most of us. Our boss or manager sends a Slack message or an email, or (in pre-COVID times) pops their head into our office. They want to “chat.”

In all likelihood, this brings on a sudden burst of anxiety. Our minds race with the possibilities or worry about what’s coming next.

What happens when our boss asks us to talk?

A recent study was recently done to find out what effect these kinds of statements from our bosses can have on our stress levels. Employees were asked to wear heart rate trackers throughout the workweek, while the senior staff was instructed to say certain phrases or ask certain questions to their employees. One such phrase was “Let’s have a chat:”

“On average, the phrase ‘let’s have a chat’ raised respondent heart rate beats per minute to 147 BPM — an 84% increase to the average resting heart rate beats per minute (80 BPM).”

For anyone who’s been asked this question, that physiological response sounds about right. And, to start, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for bosses to consider their phrasing or tone before asking their employees such a question.

But our fear responses to these invitations are usually rooted in something deeper: fear of our bosses.

Fearing our bosses

Traditionally, fearing a boss might be seen as a good thing and a sign of respect. But these days, most of us know that it’s pretty unhealthy and might be a sign of a toxic workplace. If you find yourself jumpy, scared, or anxious around your boss, ask yourself why. Is it irrational fears or a long-standing fear of authority? Or are there dynamics in the relationship that are cultivating that fear?

Being afraid at work is not sustainable and does no good for us or our work productivity. If anxiety is a regular part of your workday, take some time to reflect and figure out what the root cause of the anxiety is.

If it’s fixable, then take the steps necessary to change it. Maybe that’s discussing communication strategies with your boss or having a better mutual understanding with your managers. Maybe it’s learning techniques to calm your fears when they spring up.

But if the issue isn’t fixable, and it continues to persist and interfere with your work and your happiness, it might be that a bigger change is needed.