The Scariest Words a Boss Can Say

Why hearing “can we talk?” evokes so much dread.

A nervous woman biting her nails at work.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and bowie15/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

“Can you stop by my office?”

For a lot of people, hearing those words from their manager launches a tailspin of panic, as they try to figure out what they’ve done wrong or brace for bad news.

I regularly hear from readers who say they freak out when their bosses ask to meet and don’t explain why. Their minds instantly leap to assuming they must be “in trouble,” as if they’re being sent to the principal’s office. This account is pretty typical:

My CFO will instant message me to ask me to swing by. It’s always a work-related thing—asking me to look into something, can I assist with X, etc. But *every time* I see that “hi—can you swing by” pop up onto my screen, I get the instant (and fleeting) feeling of dread. Comes from being a goody-two-shoes in school and never getting in trouble.

Given that regular interaction between a manager and employee is designed to be a normal feature of work life, it’s surprising how many people freak out when a manager initiates a meeting without explicitly providing a reason. On the other hand, it becomes somewhat less surprising when you consider how many terrible managers are out there—managers who only ask to meet when something is wrong or who are so relentlessly negative that their employees have solid grounds for fearing any discussion.

In fact, much of the time, that instinctive panic is dysfunction from an old job that the person is still carrying around, even though they’ve since moved on to new employment:

At age 56, I still struggle with the whole, “Am I in trouble?” emotion whenever my supervisor wants to speak with me out of the blue. It’s that momentary pit in my belly, racing heartbeat that generally subsides rapidly—but I know that it stems from an earlier supervisor who used the stick way more than a carrot. I am an outstanding employee, and was then—but was a constant churning mess because I always felt threatened about “being in trouble.” I was a wreck by the time I finally quit that job.

While we don’t talk much about it, people often do carry dysfunctional habits from terrible managers into their next jobs, just as they might bring negative patterns from a romantic relationship into the next one:

Once upon a time I worked for a very toxic manager. The only time he called me into my office was to scream at me, belittle me, and mock me. … Finally, after three years of this nonsense, I screwed my head on straight, got myself two excellent job offers, put in my notice, and bolted. … Unfortunately, my new manager wound up with the results of how I’d been treated. Every time she called me into her office I assumed I was going to get yelled at. She’d say things like, “Calm down. You look like you’re expecting to get beaten with a stick. Where did you work before; does this company own a *prison*?!” It took me six months to stop cringing every time I heard, “Would you come into my office?”

Managers, though, are often surprised by this and struggle to understand why someone is anticipating doom from what, to them, is just a normal work conversation:

I am a mid-level supervisor of a team of nine and oversee a shift of 30 at a public safety 911 dispatch center in a major metropolitan area. … In order to keep our operation running tight, we need to give our employees frequent informal feedback about their performance on a 911 call with a citizen, on the radio with a field unit, or on their interactions with a coworker. … Often when I approach these employees, they try and start the conversation off with “am I in trouble?” This happens in any setting, whether on the open operations floor, or if I call them into my office to discuss an incident. When they ask this, it kind of derails the conversation and I have to spend a moment reassuring them that I simply wanted to remind them of a policy, offer praise, or ask them why they chose a particular protocol. Some employees do this on almost every interaction with an authority figure.

There are ways for managers to mitigate this fear, at least to some extent. Managers should be aware that some employees will read an ominous subtext into requests to meet and make a point of specifying the topic when they can—like, “Could we meet this afternoon to discuss X?” or “Can you swing by when you have a chance to talk through the numbers on Y?” And in general, managers should set up a regular meeting structure including weekly or biweekly one-on-ones so that talking regularly is normalized and expected. (Regular meetings are great for lots of other reasons, too, like staying engaged with people’s work.)

But even then, there are still times when it won’t make sense to preview a topic ahead of time, as this manager explains:

I do occasionally schedule one-on-ones to talk about an important announcement that will impact people without telling them the topic ahead of time. Staffing changes are the most common reason, followed by circumstances that will result in someone being out suddenly for a period of time (such as a death in the family). It’s the kind of news you want to deliver live and have them hear the message and be able to ask their questions at the same time, so dropping it in the invite takes away a significant part of the purpose of meeting. Also, putting it in the invite creates so much space for speculation and between-the-lines readings that aren’t reality but take hold like kudzu.

In those cases, it’s helpful to at least lead into the purpose of the meeting fairly quickly so that people aren’t waiting and worrying about what the topic might be. (You don’t need to cater to this too much, of course; while you should do what you can not to freak out your employees, it’s also reasonable to assume that these are adults who can handle some uncertainty in the course of doing business.) Most of the time, though, a simple “I want to talk with you about X” will go a long way toward mitigating the anxiety of mysterious meetings.

And on the employee side, it helps to pay attention to what you know about your manager. Is she one to spring terrible feedback on you out of nowhere? What about other times when she’s asked to meet with you without any context? Has that typically led to bad news, or has it generally turned out to be more mundane, like “Can we look at the figures for the Johnson account?” Rather than letting anxiety have its way with you, it makes far more sense to look at what you actually know about your manager and how similar meeting requests have gone in the past.

If you can remind yourself that the previous time your manager called you into her office it was to ask you to take on a new assignment, and the time before that it was to show you a funny email, or that she told you last week that your work was going well, or that she’s always given you feedback in a fair, respectful way, or that this manager is not your previous terrible manager, that can allow you to unclench in the moment. If you do that consistently, over time it can even help you recalibrate your default reaction from fear to a calmer confidence.