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How open can/should I be with my boss/manager?
August 19, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

How open can/should I be with my boss/manager?

I was chatting with a fellow co-worker the other day and after I had told her how glad I was to have completed an 8-month project that really put a damper on my social life, she said that were she in my position, she would have told her manager that she was unhappy with the project and whatnot.

At first I disagreed with her because I feel that you shouldn't give hints about being unhappy at work or that you're complaining or have a bad attitude, etc. So during my time on the project, I always told my manager I was doing fine and that things were great when we had our check-ins, but truthfully, I was dissatisfied with the project in terms of the nature of the work and the people I was working with (I was the only entry level employee on the project and everyone else was way older than me and married, etc, so I could never really relate to them and I just felt incredibly lonely and isolated).

So where do you draw the line with being open and telling your manager how you truly feel about things at the workplace and what are some things you should hide? Obviously you don't want to say bad things about other people, or that you're looking to jump ship to a different job, but in my example above, should I have told my manager about the aspects of that project that left me feeling unhappy?

For what it's worth, I'm in management consulting so it's a very competitive, cut-throat atmosphere so I don't want to come off as weak and whiney.. but if I can improve my quality of life by being open and honest with my manager, it seems worth it.

I've only been in the workforce for a year so I'm still very new to navigating office politics. Help!
posted by 6spd to Work & Money (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
It'll depend largely on the type of manager, your manager is. Some are very open and receptive to criticism in all shapes and forms, while others can be very cookie-cutter defend-the-company-at-all-costs types.

In either case, your best bet is to have suggestions for how things can be improved next time. It's OK to vent to your manager, but the professional nature of the relationship needs to focus on what can be done better next time.

This also works in your favor, because you'll know if management is responsive to your needs. While the hierarchy is top-down, you as an employee need to make sure that management is doing its job.
posted by bosco_costanza at 1:00 PM on August 19, 2012


Since I am a manager, I will answer this from a management perspective. If an entry-level employee in a cut-throat competitive business were to complain to me about a project, I would think they were whiney. It would also cross my mind that it might be easier for me to find someone else who was less whiney next time. Sorry, but in this economy complainers are easily replaced.
posted by eleslie at 1:00 PM on August 19, 2012 [11 favorites]


she said that were she in my position, she would have told her manager that she was unhappy with the project and whatnot.

In general, in your workplace, it's best to take advice like this from people who have been in that workplace a long time and have had a great deal of success there. Is your co-worker in a position that you would like to find yourself in a few years from now?

Also, occasionally you will run into the sort of person who will give you bad advice on purpose in order to sabotage you. So just look at how helpful vs. competitive they are generally, and whether they actually do take their own advice.
posted by cairdeas at 1:01 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a manager, I feel that nothing is truly out of bounds (within reason), particularly if a) you already have a solution in mind, and/or b) there is something I can do about it. That said, in your shoes I would not talk to my manager about being unable to relate to people because they are older/married. I think that really is something you will need to learn how to handle. Good luck 6spd.
posted by thisclickableme at 1:03 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't have said anything to the manager because you're an entry level employee and easily replaceable.
posted by cyml at 1:07 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


In my experience I've found that talking to the manager about strictly project related work issues is helpful. Especially if you have helpful solutions. But, being open to projects and experiences are key especially in a competitive work environment. Talking about social issues like your personal social life or how you relate to team members outside of working relationships is totally unrelated to your manager/employee relationship. Unless your manager is receptive to that but even if that is the case I probably wouldn't talk about it with them. I think you handled it very well and exactly how it should be handled. The project would eventually end and you did your best with the work and staying positive throughout. I'm wondering if your coworker would have actually said something if the roles were reversed or if it were just the part in conversations where the other person says "I would have xyz".
posted by MyMind at 1:07 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


thisclickableme has it. When I'm managing people and projects, these types of discussions feel like complaints or whining when employees don't offer solutions/alternatives. Yes, bring up your concern, but also initiate/propose workable changes that could fix the issue.
posted by mochapickle at 1:09 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would not talk to my manager about feeling lonely or out of place. I would identify any business-related issues regarding the team, and discuss them with my manager. And, yes, running possible solutions by your manager is a good idea.

When it comes to work and personal issues: undersharing is better than oversharing, by a lot. You can easily undo undersharing.
posted by theora55 at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't share anything not directly work-related unless expressly asked and even then keep it vague, because I have always come to regret it when I was open and honest. As far as they need to be concerned, I am a mindlessly happy drone busily buzzing about the hive.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:19 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am a manager. Hang on, this may be a bit lengthy.

All of this is relative to factors like industry, personalities, and that type of thing but I can tell you that what I want to know from you is the aspects of the project that you felt like you had insight on, not your personal issues. The reason is because your inability to relate to your coworkers or your lack of social life, for example, are neither my problems nor things I can really resolve for you. This isn't meant to sound unsympathetic, because I can certainly relate to some of the bitching I hear, but there's generally nothing that I can do about it and eventually it does just sound whiny.

I think you also need to keep in mind that as an entry-level employee, your manager may not want your input but more importantly, if you leave, you may still be entry-level or junior to the people you work with at your next job. You need to find ways to get by and relate or accept not being "friendly" with your coworkers because those type of dynamics will follow you for quite a while.

There is a way to talk to your manager about being unhappy that is not complaining or having a bad attitude. You don't need to unload on your manager everything that you dislike about your job but you can say, "I don't feel particularly suited for x, perhaps I would be better utilized doing y?" or something.
posted by sm1tten at 1:25 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not clear what displeased you about the nature of the work, if it was something you were led to believe you would not be doing, you were not given proper training, etc. In that sort of context, I can see relating that you want to be as effective as possible, learn and develop to serve the best interests of all concerned, etc., etc., etc.

The personal side of it, hard to see how anyone in your shoes could avoid working with older people, the reality of most jobs is that entry-level people pay dues and eight months of your social life suffering isn't that big a deal in a big-picture sense. Hard to see how anything good would come from addressing that with your boss.
posted by ambient2 at 1:28 PM on August 19, 2012


I make it a point to never complain to management unless I'm also bringing to the table a solution to whatever I'm whining about. And ideally, a couple of solutions.

For instance, I wouldn't say "Oh man, this project is a drag and is killing my social life." But I might say, "Can we talk about how to stage and schedule this project so that I am able to leave the office at a reasonable hour/not have to work on the weekend quite so much?" Or maybe, "I'm having to spend much more time on this project than I expected. Would it be possible to have person YYY help with the project part time?"
posted by browse at 1:33 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


(I was the only entry level employee on the project and everyone else was way older than me and married, etc, so I could never really relate to them and I just felt incredibly lonely and isolated)

I would never tell anyone at work anything like this in a million years. You're not at work to make lifetime besties, you're at work to work. That your colleagues are older, coupled, fatter, more ethnic, less ethnic, vegan, pro-choice, child free, cat-lovers has nothing to do, in most cases, with the work at hand. If you can only "relate" to people who are just like you, your career is going to be very difficult, not to mention boring. No manager wants to hear from an entry-level employee that he/she was lonely at work.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2012 [13 favorites]


My ex is a corporate recruiter, and I heard a ton about the new generation of workers who need more handholding, and as a result there's a lot more talk and worry and meetings in HR about work/life balance. So it's possible that you might get a better reception today than you might have five years ago should you decide to speak up.

I do think your industry matters, and you should keep in mind that your boss might listen, nod, not replace you. But you may not rise as fast, and you might have a boss who feels like he can't rely on you or who won't put you on big critical timesink-level projects that will ultimately help your career.
posted by nevercalm at 1:38 PM on August 19, 2012


in my example above, should I have told my manager about the aspects of that project that left me feeling unhappy?

Aspects that had to do with the job, the process, or anything else that interfered with your ability to do a fabulous job for the company, yes.

Aspects that had to do with you feeling lonely at work because you weren't working with your peer group, not in a million years.
posted by headnsouth at 1:43 PM on August 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, I think your workplace/industry/job/manager may impact the correct answer to this question, but I think, in general, two guidelines help here: 1) your office doesn't really care about your personal issues that it cannot/should not fix and 2) Complaints are just that, unless you have ideas for a solution, or are trying to argue for something that will better your work, or the company.

I have, in the past, straight-up told the owner of the company that I was unhappy with a task I was assigned to do. However, instead of just whining about it, I said:

A) I was unhappy with the current procedures for tracking contracts (what I was doing)...
B) Because there was a lot of inefficiency built in, where I had to hunt down recalcitrant coworkers down, in order to beg for information...
C) Only to be given incomplete, partial information the vast majority of the time, because that is what the procedure allowed for...
D) Which not only wasted my time and impacted my efficiency on my other projects...
E) But also put the company at risk for litigation, for reasons X, Y, and Z.
F) Thus, I proposed changed A, B, and C to the current procedures, and was open to suggestions on their end.
G) So...what did they think?

They were stoked I had caught on to some legal issues surrounding the current procedures, and implemented (with some tweaks) the changes I had proposed. We were both happy with outcome.

However, if I had just said, "I don't like this task, it takes up too much of my time, and it is getting in the way of my happy hour plans," I suspect they would wonder A) why I was whining at them and B) Why it was taking me so long - because I was being inefficient, perhaps...?

If complaining will make you or your company better, they might (and should) be all for it. If it's just whining...well...what's the point?
posted by vivid postcard at 1:52 PM on August 19, 2012


Your co-worker is giving you terrible, terrible advice.

Complaining is for situations where there is something within the manager's power to fix that doesn't hurt you. For example, "this project is turning out to be bigger than we thought when we staffed it. Can we have Bob or Jane contribute some hours on this so we have enough hands on deck?"

Complaining that you can't get along with your co-workers who were there before you, is within your manager's power to fix but in a way you don't want, viz., by firing you. (Or more likely, noting you as someone she doesn't want on the team, and next time there are layoffs you are first on the list.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:59 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a manager. Absolutely it can be appropriate to share frustrations with a project with your manager.

I was dissatisfied with the project in terms of the nature of the work: Need more information about this. What do you mean by "the nature of the work?" Did your colleagues have low work standards? Were they delivering late? Or were you just bored with your part? I have managed a few folks straight out of undergrad, and I'm sad to say nearly all of them weren't mentally prepared to have to pay their dues. I'm not saying this is you--we don't have enough info--but this is a real workplace issue.

and the people I was working with (I was the only entry level employee on the project and everyone else was way older than me and married, etc, so I could never really relate to them and I just felt incredibly lonely and isolated).
This, you should keep to yourself: in work, we cannot choose our colleagues. Older colleagues can be incredibly valuable, though--please don't automatically write them off unless they're incompetent or mean. Some of my best "work friends" are 15+ years older than I; we have little socially in common, but we're all very interested in the work we do, which gives us something to bond over. Also consider that in general, higher levels in organizations tend to skew older. If you're hoping to advance your career, you NEED to learn how to feel comfortable with the older marrieds.

I'm in management consulting so it's a very competitive, cut-throat atmosphere: I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but I think your first step is to learn to manage yourself. Put yourself in your manager's place: how would YOU handle the situation were the tables turned?
posted by smirkette at 2:01 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


eleslie is right if you want the conservative approach. However, consider that working in a company run like eleslie's company is a living hell (I've done it a couple of times--one of the times I was ready to move on to welfare before looking for another job as the current job had sapped all the will out of me, but managed to fall into a great job at the last minute). If the company you work for is this bad, keep your mouth shut and look for another job.

The economy is nowhere near as bad as anyone thinks. It's only as bad as your (lack of) ability to move is. Leave and go where the good work is, and leave the crap employees where you were to fight over the scraps. :^)
posted by shepd at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


When your boss would ask how you were doing, they meant how you were doing with the project, not how your social life was; they would only want to know about your interactions with your coworkers (the 'lonely and isolated' part of your question) if that was negatively affecting your ability to work with those other people.

As for that coworker who said to tell your boss that the project was putting a damper on your social life: take a good look at her, and her position within the company. How long has she been there or is she a relative newcomer too; does she have a good, solid upward progression within the company, or is she on a stalled career path? Whiny types who do the bare minimum don't get as far as those who are willing to go the extra step. Alternatively, would she have any reason to block or even sabotage you, or make you look bad to management? All in all, I'd watch sharing info with her!

And one more thing about that 'lonely and isolated' bit: these are your coworkers, not your friends --- and there's a difference between 'friendly' and 'friends'.
posted by easily confused at 2:41 PM on August 19, 2012


Thanks for the responses all. Glad to hear that my approach was the right one!

I'm still trying to reconcile all the corporate talk about how they care about our work life balance and making sure we get staffed on the projects we want, etc. But deep down I know that work is work and that things like work-life balance don't stand at the forefront of managements' concerns.

This coworker is a new hire and she's been at the firm for less than a year. I doubt she's trying to sabotage me or anything; she's probably just a bit more clueless than I am about being successful at work.

I've been pretty good at having a good attitude with paying my dues, if you will. For example, I'm always taking lunch orders for my superiors and picking up lunch for them, doing all the printing, setting up logistics for meetings, etc.

One anecdote relating to the project I was on: one of my coworkers in my cohort (started when I did) was on the project for a couple months, but she expressed dissatisfaction with it and that she was unhappy. They subsequently pulled her off the project. Whether that was good or bad for her career, I'm not sure. I did hear she was struggling on the project, though..
posted by 6spd at 3:00 PM on August 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


'Hi boss. You know working on that project was really satisfying because of a, b and c, but I was actually quite challenged by x and y. Next time I'm wondering if action 1 and 2 wouldn't help improve the process. What do you think?'

That's not whining, it's being a team player. If the response if 'I'll think about' (i.e. no) or 'that's just not the way we do things here', you thank them for their time and get back to it with no further complaints (and decide whether it is the place for you).
posted by scrute at 3:11 PM on August 19, 2012


I should clarify, where x&y do not equal anything to do with an emotional/personal issue that indicates you're unfit for your job.
posted by scrute at 3:13 PM on August 19, 2012


I get the feeling - and it's only a feeling! - that you're approaching an appropriate issue from a potentially inappropriate angle.


really put a damper on my social life .... (I was the only entry level employee on the project and everyone else was way older than me and married, etc, so I could never really relate to them and I just felt incredibly lonely and isolated).

How did it put a damper on your social life?

Is this a 40 hour-a-week job and the project suddenly brought you up to 80 hours-a-week? I would not make an appt. to see your boss to talk about this now, but before the next project begins, you can discuss with the boss that the last project was requiring 80 hours a week. Is that normal, or are you doing something wrong? Ask for assistance and guidance as to how to make yourself more efficient (or to learn what kind of hours the job really entails)- don't "complain". If it was just that you worked harder during your 40 hours than before, don't bring it up. One of my workers is constantly taking personal phone calls (her office is right next to mine) during work and it infuriates me. If she ever complained that a project meant she missed non-emergency personal phone calls during the day I would have a serious discussion about what a job entails, and still consider letting her go.

I don't understand how your coworkers being married has any bearing on this. I'm in the same boat - all my coworkers are older, married, with kids - I can't relate to them personally on a lot of things. But guess what? I'm not there to relate with them personally about these things. We're supposed to be working on projects.

Unless your coworkers were always inviting their spouses to the project meetings you have no grounds for a professional issue with their personal marital status (would you be upset if most your coworker were a different sexual orientation? or a different religion? or a different sex? or of a different ethnic background? Marital status is similar - you may feel uncomfortable with the people you're surrounded with, but it's a personal issue you need to work out, not a professional one you can take to your boss). If they were bringing their spouses, you can bring it up to your boss, or if they were taking up project time talking about their kids, interrupt and say, "gosh, I can't get over part B's problem" or "did we want to take a break for a bit?" and then you can go make phone calls.

(I don't want to be harsh - I'm just not understanding how this affected your social life in a way the project is to blame. My second post-college job drastically affected my social life, but that was because my first post-college job was not very intensive and I was able to g-chat with my friends almost the entire work day, and was never tired from work and could go out every night. With the second job I was working almost constantly all work hours and then tired at the end of the day. It was simply an, in my mind, "adult" job.)

she would have told her manager that she was unhappy with the project....I was dissatisfied with the project in terms of the nature of the work

Were you actually "unhappy" or just "dissatisfied"? If so, think about why (again, no details, so it leaves me guessing!).

Were you unhappy because it was unfamiliar work, so you needed to do a lot of background work, which added so much time to your end of the project? If so, you can definitely bring this up to your boss the next time they bring up a project, like, (making shit up, of course) "I've never dyed silks before - I've always worked with linen. I just want to let you know that, since it might increase the timeframe for the project since I'd have to learn the basics first before I could even get started on the actual project."

If, though, you didn't like it because you felt the work was "beneath you" or "too simple", do NOT complain - especially if you are new. It's been stated again and again on Ask that newbies are given, essentially, grunt work. We want to see how you handle the basics - something that we can identify the errors in - before we give you a project that's new and exciting (and since it's new, we may not be able to spot the mistakes until later on). I have taken steps to dismiss someone for complaining about not wanting to do work that was part of his job description, but always attempting to do work that wasn't asked for, at a higher level. If you can't clean the test tubes properly, I'm not trusting you with the tissue cultures, you know?

So where do you draw the line with being open and telling your manager how you truly feel about things at the workplace and what are some things you should hide? Obviously you don't want to say bad things about other people, or that you're looking to jump ship to a different job, but in my example above, should I have told my manager about the aspects of that project that left me feeling unhappy?

Well ... I hate "feelings" - at least if I'm needed in problem-solving. I can't change someone's feelings. I would want someone to tell me something as objective as possible. I don't want to hear, "I felt stifled by the last project" I'd rather hear, "the last project had me work with bacteria, but I'm more of a fungus person. My lack of bacterial background hampered me a bit." With the second, maybe I can explain there aren't any fungal projects available and I'd rather train them for bacteria than let them go.... There's nothing I can say about "feelings", though.

Your boss might be different (my boss LOVES feelings - to the exclusion of facts....so frustrating!) but if you're in a cut-throat field, I doubt it.

.... I do understand about not wanting to say bad things about people. All I would say is do so judiciously. Don't complain your coworkers are married and that makes you feel alone. But it is fine to state calmly, simple, and matter-of-factly that joe brought his kids to every single project meeting, which was very distracting. Oh the kids are nice enough, but they did get underfoot. I hate talking bad about people to my boss, but what I've learned is that if you don't say it early, if it becomes an issue later on, people will wonder why you didn't mention it earlier.

Are you thinking about leaving the job? If so, I really would make sure you check that these issues (older co-workers, entry-level/grunt work, etc.) wouldn't just be present at a new place (along with a potential reputation as a ship-jumper...)
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:20 PM on August 19, 2012


I've been pretty good at having a good attitude with paying my dues, if you will. For example, I'm always taking lunch orders for my superiors and picking up lunch for them, doing all the printing, setting up logistics for meetings, etc.

Huh. I don't know about your field, but is this normal? Is this part of your job description? If you're supposed to be an equally contributing member of the project and you're doing that AND running gopher, no wonder you're dissatisfied. Again, this might be completely normal in your field, I dunno, but in my area, contributing group members do not do all the copying, orders, etc. If there's not a secretary (who is not a contributing part of the project), then it's shared. Maybe try to get out of things next time? "Okay, I'm going to talk to Marge to reserve the room next week - Greg can you make sure today's ideas are copied out?" or, if things are assigned, "If I'm running out for lunch, someone else will have to make the copies. Which would you rather I do?"

she expressed dissatisfaction with it ....I did hear she was struggling on the project, though.

Having difficulty presenting a good product to your boss is not a bad reason to ask to be excused from a project. If she simply could not make it work in the time frame, I would rather know as soon as possible than have nothing/something really crappy presented to me at the end. However, the more you do this the more your boss will think, "huh, this person I hired seems to have insurmountable difficulty with everything I give them. Time to look for someone new"
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:38 PM on August 19, 2012


Rule 1: Never talk about something that's wrong without having a thoroughly thought-out solution. Make it a simple choice, not a hot potato you throw in his/her lap.

Rule 2: Don't gas generally about how things aren't what they used to be or ought to be -- for example, that your job or your industry is going down the tubes. Be a helper, not a complainer or a doomsayer.
posted by KRS at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2012


I would take what your co-worker says with a grain of salt. A lot of people dispense advice by saying "I would have done XYZ thing." when really they would have done exactly what you did. Not that your co-worker is trying to sabotage you or anything; just bear in mind that what people say they would do and what they would really do is often vastly different.

That said, if you were feeling unhappy with the project, it may have been a good idea to discuss it with your boss. My suggestion would be to go to your manager only with problems that have solutions, and being prepared with potential solutions. If there doesn't seem to be a solution (feeling isolated from your peers, for example, unless there is a solution I'm not thinking of off the top of my head) it may be best not to mention it, lest you be encouraged to leave the project entirely.

So, in summary, depending on your boss and your issue, it's fine to express dissatisfaction. Sometimes it's not. Only you know all the particulars of your situation and can accurately determine what is best for you and your career.
posted by Urban Winter at 8:51 AM on August 20, 2012


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