Why don't you set that to one side for now...
September 17, 2008 1:22 PM   Subscribe

How to convince my boss to let me do what I was hired to do?

Here's the situation. I was hired in the winter by an NGO to do research into policy matters, and to organize and execute special projects on issues of importance to said NGO. The NGO hasn't done any special projects in some time, and wants to take steps to correct this.

The problem?
1) I've been tasked with a range of largely administrative duties so far, like writing letters and helping out at events hosted by the NGO. I do little of the work I was actually hired to do.
2) Any special projects I have proposed thus far have been nixed by my boss.

As you can imagine, this is a bit nerve-wracking for me. I worry that come performance review time, my lack of projects in the pipeline will be held against me.

So, I'm about to try again tomorrow, by proposing a project I know is near and dear to the NGO's focus. On a joint coffee run this afternoon, my boss told me informally that she would love to conduct a project on that precise topic herself.

I can't help but come to the conclusion that my boss wants to head up all special projects the NGO undertakes, and has therefore pushed me to the side to prevent my stealing her thunder. She's sufficiently hands-on in her work methods that I suspect she won't be happy with a "figurehead" role where she gets the credit and I do the work. She has little free time right now to invest in a new project, so she is wary of taking anything else on, but, the NGO will look bad if we sit on our laurels too long. Although I still intend to propose this to her tomorrow, I worry that she'll tell me to "set it aside" as she has with anything else I've proposed.

Hivemind, what's the best way to pitch a special project to such a boss, so that I have the opportunity to run with the project with minimal interference? I really want to make this work. Anybody out there have any suggestions?
posted by LN to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't push it. You do the work your boss tells you to do, not what your personal preferences are. You have a legit grievance in that you are not being asked to do what you were hired for, but frankly it seems like they don't need to fill that role in the way that they thought they would... so, it seems to me like if you're unwilling to do anything other than the nonexistent work you were promised then you should seek employment elsewhere.

That said, I'd be upfront with your boss about it. I'd say, "Look, I like working here, your my boss, I do what you tell me, but just so were on the same page, I was hired to do X and I'd really like to do X, and if I can't do that I certainly don't want it reflecting poorly on me at my review. I trust you'll vouch for you me..."

That's about as far as I'd push it and then keep bringing it up as time goes on.

You should face the reality though that you may NEVER get to do what you were originally hired for and adjust your expectations accordingly...
posted by wfrgms at 1:31 PM on September 17, 2008

I couldn't disagree more with wfrgms. If you do have a problem with not doing what you were hired to do, you should speak up. Maybe your boss is afraid of what she perceives as "competition", maybe it's something else, but you should ask yourself if you still want the job if this is the way it's going to be. Not speaking to your boss about it directly is telling her it's ok to go on with business as usual and never mind you. So have a talk, a calm, polite, explicit talk about the situation. Your boss can only give you credit for going after what you want and not being afraid to put it out there.
posted by neblina_matinal at 1:39 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whatever you decide to do, make sure you have a concise, clinical annotated timeline of the proposals you've made and her reaction to them. No judgement, no emotion, just "I proposed this: (list of salient points) and she said this: (verbatim or paraphrased, be sure to note which.)"

This way, if this ever comes to a head (say at performance review, when you're told you haven't been trying to do enough, or with HR if you finally get fed up and take it to them directly) you'll have a record versus something that might sound like sour grapes or aimless complaining.

Oh, and keep this timeline AT HOME. Not on your computer, not on your desk, not in your drawer even if you lock it. No need for her to "find" it and have it cause animosity.
posted by davejay at 1:54 PM on September 17, 2008

If the reason your boss keeps turning your proposals down is because she wants to run all the cool projects herself, there could be any number of meta-reasons for that:

1) She's just a paranoid jerk who doesn't want anyone under her to succeed
2) She doesn't really want to be a boss, she prefers doing the hands-on work and is only doing the boss thing because her boss pressured her into it
3) She has been burned in the past supervising people who messed up similar projects and required her to come in and fix everything, taking longer than it would have to just do it all herself and leading to a suboptimal result
4) Etc.

If she really is just a jerk, you're probably S.O.L. Start looking for a better job. She might change someday, but certainly not under pressure from you.

If she's just unwilling to let go of the reins because she loves the non-boss work so much, maybe suggesting a project where she has a fun role to play and you have a fun role to play would work.

If she's wary for practical reasons based on past experience, your proposal should be very specific about what you're going to do and why you know you can do it, why she won't have to come clean up after you.

Most people in a supervisory role are very busy and welcome employees who come up with great ideas that they can just rubber-stamp. So if your boss is not rubber-stamping your ideas (I'm assuming for the purposes of this question that they are in fact great), there has to be a reason. If that reason is not just "she's a jerk", you should be able to convince her that she can trust you if you find the right way of putting things so that she sees the benefits and the lack of downside. Good luck!
posted by No-sword at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2008

I have to respectfully disagree with wfrgms. I've worked in the NGO sector my whole life. This is an endemic problem, and something you just have to learn how to deal with if you're going to be successful in working for NGOs. And by "learn to deal with it," I mean "learn how to get to do the job you were hired to do" rather than "learn to accept the dysfunction."

Based on my experience, there are two possible reasons you aren't getting to do program work: 1. your boss wants to "ease you in" to the organization or 2. your boss either doesn't think you can do the work or wants to keep the interesting work for herself. If it's #1, then you just need to go to her and let her know you're interested in stepping things up. This was the case with a boss I had, and all it took was me going to her and saying, "hey, i feel like I've mastered the responsibilities you've given me so far, let's talk about widening my responsibilities." It's good to frame it this way so that it sounds less like complaining and more like eager-beaver enthusiasm.

#2 is a lot harder, but you need to find out if it's the case. If it is, you need to either try to prove yourself or move on. If you think it might be #2 (and it sounds like you do) I would go to your boss and propose that project. Figure out a tentative budget, timeline, everything. Explain what your role would be. Do this with confidence. Not like you're asking permission to do something you want to do, but like you're proposing a project she wants to have happen, and you're the one to make it happen.

If this doesn't work, you might need to try a more bare-knuckle version of the approach for #1. Sit down with your boss and your job description. Tell her you would like to set up a workplan going forward, using your job description as a guide. Again, be non-confrontational but confident. If she doesn't want to do a workplan, explain to her that it will make you a more efficient worker by helping you plan better. If she tries to put all administrative stuff in your plan, keep suggesting program stuff you can do.

If you're not quite ready for something like this, I would suggest just constantly volunteering for things that seem interesting. If there's a project she's working on, offer to help with specific, substantive (not administrative) chunks of it. You might just need to earn her trust.

Also, how much experience do you have? If this is an entry-level job, then you may indeed have to suck it up for a while. NGOs often make entry-level jobs sound more substantive than they are, and we all have to pay our dues with lots of grunt work before we get to do the cool stuff. But you can still keep volunteering for stuff that seems interesting.

Best of luck! I've been there, feel free to MetafilterMail me with any further questions.
posted by lunasol at 2:17 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, in saying "I've worked in the NGO sector my whole life," I of course mean my whole adult life. I was not making fundraising calls when I was in diapers. :)
posted by lunasol at 2:18 PM on September 17, 2008

i'm unsure how to comment on this because it doesn't say that you have years of experience you have or if you come from another organization where you were doing similar work. if you do then clearly you've accepted the wrong position and should move on or speak directly to your boss about her intentions about your future in a calm, direct and *positive* way. the yearly review seems an opportune time to do so and let your ambitions known. people with years of experience in their realm are better informed to know what they’ve accepted and how valuable they are on the market they participate in. i know full well that positions often migrate from their supposed course, and it’s easy to lose confidence in this difficult economy, but if you’re uncomfortable and unhappy in job and have the skills to do better, that can’t be a situation many can live with for long. however, one of the best things i've ever learned from working with difficult bosses is to be consistently helpful, mad about detail, consistently pitching and consistently vocal in speaking with other employees about possibilities that i may consider opportunities – you don’t have to speak to your boss only but be sure that you also don’t anger anyone by jumping ranks.

however another possibility may be read into your question and it is one where you may lack experience and be new in being an employee. it has been my experience that some recent graduates enter the workforce with an unclear and incorrect vision of how most businesses are run and actually eschew the idea that they too must start from the bottom the way we all do. they read ‘aid supervisor’ as being the point person for major departmental items instead of being their aid.

if i spent my first formative cooperate years photocopying, organizing calendars and schedules to learn the business of business, why is it that so many enter the workforce unwilling to understanding that there is a necessity for basic administrative support in both business and individual development? there are valuable lessons to be learned from what information you are requested to pay attention to. i’ve seen interns and assistants come in to my place of business - indeed interviewed a few of them - who believed that they would right off be contracting talent and running projects where valuable dollars are at stake outside of their time tested experience. schooling does not equate to being ready to handle something that could very well lose the corporation tens of hundreds or even millions of dollars and it certainly does not qualify anyone to supervise others in the business landscape. even photocopying reports and manuscripts are needed projects and help newly minted employees understand process and protocol of an industry. attention to detail and a willingness to learn from even the most basic of scheduling – knowing how and what meetings are for are an essential part of moving up the cooperate ladder. taking notes in meetings helps inform what valuable discourse is. if this is where you sit then i suggest you sit tight, be self motivating with what you have been given, ask meaningful questions, and learn everything you can from the environment and projects around you. your boss and coworkers will notice and you’ll more quickly move into the position you earned and can handle.
posted by eatdonuts at 5:24 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, we need to know how old you are and how much prior job experience you have in order to answer this question. I've worked at nonprofs my entire career too, and I've seen both situations in which employees are over- or mis-managed by overzealous bosses and situations in which employees have unrealistic expectations that bosses then have to tamp down in order to get any work done. It's impossible without more information to tell which this is.
posted by decathecting at 7:26 PM on September 17, 2008

Eatdonuts and decathecting, for information purposes:

I'm 34, with eight years of experience in government under my belt, doing everything from administrative work to event planning, policy and research. I have also been an officer for a granting program, with projects in the millions of dollars each (I had to oversee the budgets for those projects and ensure that the costs were reasonable before getting a cheque cut for the recipient). Prior to all that, I got a PhD in Ethnomusicology.

Given that my current title is Research and Policy Officer, I don't consider myself a newbie fresh out of school with unrealistic expectations, or some bull in a china shop about to waste good money after bad.

I'm more than willing to do the administrative work, and I've stepped into the breach a couple of times already to demonstrate my willingness to get involved and work for the good of the organization. My employer knows this, and has acknowledged it in the past. Just now I got out of a meeting wherein they intimated that they thought of me at the manager level (my boss is the executive director).

With regards to special projects, my job description specifically says that it would be my responsibility to write grant proposals, seek funding, set up a working group, and generally push the project forward to completion.

Sorry for sounding snippy, guys, this situation is just making me really frustrated.
posted by LN at 6:57 AM on September 18, 2008

Huh, it's interesting that your boss is the ED, from what you wrote I had been assuming she was a department head. This makes me wonder if other people are having the same problem. But really, if she's the head honcho and can't delegate program work, that seems like a huge problem (been there, done that, got out as quickly as I could).
posted by lunasol at 11:27 AM on September 18, 2008

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