my boss seems to want my job at her salary.
August 22, 2011 2:37 PM   Subscribe

My boss's work-related (lack of) boundaries is really getting on my nerves. Help me figure out how to deal?

I have a relatively new direct boss (under a year, in a company where my previous bosses have been founders or at least came up over a period of several years). She is not a very good boss for a number of reasons, most of which I think have to do with the facts that 1) she's never managed a large group of people before, and doesn't seem to really know how to handle it; 2) she's VERY indirect/awkward about expectations and what she wants; 3) she micromanages like crazy. There are some assorted other issues, like taking credit for the work of others without realizing, not having a great deal of tact, making decisions without considering the full picture, stuff like that, but we've mostly figured out workarounds for that stuff.

So 3 is the biggest problem. Say we make widgets at our company. I'm a widget maker overseeing a small team to help me. There are three or four other related widget-making teams in our market group. The new boss manages our group of widget makers, but makes no widgets herself; her job is a political and managerial one. However, she wants to be involved in the widget-making whenever possible, from planning to creating to late-stage changes as the widgets are getting ready to roll out the door. This is disruptive to our processes, frustrating because it sucks to not be left to do your work, and counterproductive because the stuff we *really* need her for—advocating for us to the execs, liasing with other departments, managing personalities and workflow—suffers.

Complicating factors: She is a former widget-maker herself, though not with our company. She has stated on a number of occasions that the job was misrepresented to her as a high-level widget making job, not a managerial job (and I believe her; our company was desperate to hire someone when my old boss left). Possibly super-duper complicating factor: She interviewed for the job I have now years ago; I got it and she didn't.

I'm well-respected in my small industry, and my team makes the widgets that are the bread and butter of our mid-sized company. There's a lot of industry prestige associated with our particular widget. My boss does seem to be singling out me and my team in particular for involvement. Her involvement and feedback tends to be of the non-specific and vague type—"I don't like this," or "Do something different here" without a specific suggestion or more information as to what she doesn't like. She does not tend to have ideas or pet projects of her own that can be worked with. She also tends to run with other people's suggestions as if she came up with them.

All this is frustrating and demoralizing. I've tried meeting her halfway about stuff, involving her in early planning stages and when it won't impact what's already happening. I've tried drawing her out about being more specific. On a couple of occasions we've come to not-quite-blows when her involvement became actual workflow-obvlivious interference that ended up hurting the product.

I've checked myself over here to see if I'm just protective of my work and don't want someone coming in on it—but I don't think that's the case. I would welcome with open arms a collaborator who can help and challenge me and contribute fresh ideas—I've definitely enjoyed that kind of relationship with bosses and coworkers before. My current boss and I do have a cordial relationship, though I feel like it covers up an armed neutrality. I do think she is a very nice person, and if she weren't my boss, I could see us being friends.

Too long, didn't read: My boss seems to want to do the fun parts of my job for me and not do the not-fun parts of her job.

So, here are my questions: Can you give tips for communicating clearly and laying out boundaries in this kind of situation? How do I word our need for her to do her actual job in a way that is friendly but will be heard? Advice for keeping detached and not get emotional with a constant onslaught of this kind of undermining "collaboration"? Anecdotes about what really helped when you had a boss like this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I had a boss that sounds very much like your first paragraph description (except for item 1), and my anecdote pretty much goes..."It was horrible. I tried every communication strategy I could come up with and some other people suggested and nothing worked. I left, and my current boss is awesome and I am so much happier." So that's not really helpful if you want to stay where you are. (I also went from quite happy to bursting into tears at work constantly, which I'd never done before, so I obviously did not manage the "non-emotional" aspect, either.)

The combination of unclear expectations coupled with micromanagement was a killer. I actually tried to explain that to my old boss several times, almost word for word, and he firmly believed that he was being reasonable, and it was my failure to figure out what he wanted rather than what he *said* he wanted that was the problem, even after being given clear instances of poor communication in writing. Even if he had to admit he was being irrational, the irrationality only held for that one specific instance and was a divergence from the norm. It's also very hard to demonstrate to someone that their micromanagement is interfering and not "helping" or "guiding." I never figured it out. Had there been a higher-level supervisor to go to, I would have. If that's an option in your situation, it's the only thing I can think of to do if communication changes don't work any better for you than they did for me.

On the other hand, she may just feel insecure in this job, and rather than dwell on what you want her to stop doing, maybe mention a couple of those things that are very obviously her job that aren't getting done (the parts of her job that she's neglecting). Maybe if she sees that those things are necessary to do, she would be too busy actually doing her job to mess with yours, and you wouldn't even have to get into the micromanaging thing.
posted by wending my way at 2:55 PM on August 22, 2011

This is a toughie.

I've noticed in the past that micro-managing bosses tend to be super-self conscious about their own abilities to manage, hence the need to be all up in your grill about everything. In the case of my own boss, he's not a micromanager, but a meddler and will butt into projects here and there if he feels that he's not in the know. I've learned that just keeping him informed of everything has drastically helped reduce the amount of meddling. Can you copy your boss on everything? I know this sounds lame and ridiculous, but it's helped me drastically. What about a weekly 1:1 meeting with her to discuss different activities? I tend to take it an extra step further and actually have a 10 minute conversation with my boss every morning just to go over what I'm up to casually before the rigors of the day set in. Other things too, like sharing your outlook calendar will help her to be in the know as well.

This is all part of managing up. It's a pain, but it's a necessary evil sometimes.

Finally - document, document, document, especially your ideas and emails. They could be helpful later, or not, but if you need them for any reason, you will have them.
posted by floweredfish at 2:55 PM on August 22, 2011

. I would welcome with open arms a collaborator who can help and challenge me and contribute fresh ideas—I've definitely enjoyed that kind of relationship with bosses and coworkers before.

How can you encourage her to be this collaborator?
posted by bq at 3:08 PM on August 22, 2011

Completely different area of work from you--so might not apply--as a nanny I dealt with parents who were sometimes insecure and a bit jealous that I got to spend all my time with their kid and generally had everything under control. They wanted to feel needed and useful.* The best way to deal with it was to proactively seek them out them for help or guidance, especially in areas where they were more skilled and experienced. That way, everyone benefited instead of wasting time discussing the best way to hold a washcloth or whatever.

So, if you think this stems from a desire to be more involved, perhaps you could make sure that you're proactively asking for advice and decision-making from her in areas where it would be helpful and appropriate, so that she won't feel the need to meddle in things that you have under control.

*of course, parents are ALWAYS needed and useful. Bosses, not so much! :)
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:21 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure this will be helpful, but rather than asking her questions to elicit more detail from her about what she wants, try following up, from an almost innocent place, reiterating what it is she's asking for/creating.

For example, " so what you'd like me to do is to go back about 5 steps and reassess blah blah blah, moving the deadline ahead 6 weeks..that's how long it took us to do those steps the first time...I'm pretty sure, to do the kind of thorough reassessment that you've suggested will take us that long again.." you can even throw in "I'd love to do that kind of reassessment, but I want to make sure we'll be able to deliver on any kind of changes we'd make."

It's really tricky, because you really can't be sarcastic about it. But you want her to say, out loud, the stupid thing she's asking you to do. Even better if there are witnesses or if it's in writing through email. Then, when it goes to shit, it's clear that it was her call.

Mr. Vitabellosi is a master at this. I'm still practicing.

He also uses the three things rule: you want it cheap, well-done, and on time. I can give you two of those, but no one can deliver all three. All three is the Holy Grail. Which two do you want?

That's a good one to bring up, because she'll love it and start telling it to other people like she made it up herself. And then you've got her "it's like you always say--we can deliver two but not three--amirite?" even you can pretend she made it up, and that you learned it from her.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:21 PM on August 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

This book on "toxic personalities" in the workplace has been highly recommended to me in the past at some really great workshops. It might be helpful here in terms of giving you strategies to address her behaviors that are getting in your and your team's way.
posted by goggie at 4:11 PM on August 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is a very common issue when people are promoted from the frontline production to management. All the production skills they were previously good at are no longer part of their job and they aren't taught anything about the management skills that are now critical to their success. It's like promoting the best baseball player on the team to general manager - just because he can hit a ball doesn't mean he can run the team! It sounds like it's been an especially difficult transition for your boss because she didn't expect or possibly even want to manage when applying for the position.

Of your three issues, #2 and #3 both derive from #1, and are pretty closely related. The main issue she is struggling with is "How much hands-on direction vs. hands-off support does my staff need from me?" The best approach when you've got a highly competent team like yours is to set very clear expectations of what needs to be done, then back off and let them use their expertise to decide how to do it. Unfortunately, many new managers, especially ones that have strong production skills like your boss, get this exactly backwards. They tend to be pretty vague in their expectations, thinking "My team is experienced, they don't need me to tell them what to do." But once the ball gets rolling, they want to jump in with their own expertise and "help," which often results in getting the way and demoralizing the staff.

What can you do as the employee to help her understand how to lead you better? Ask for what you need (clear expectations, hands-off support) and redirect her behavior when she gives you what you don't need (hands-on direction). It's important to do this in a way that both demonstrates your competence and shows that you're on her side. Here's one way you might approach it.

Clarifying expectations - "Hey boss, before we get started on this new widget project, I want to make sure we're clear on your expectations. We need to accomplish A and B by date C. Is that right? Are there any other priorities, risks or resource issues we should know about before we get started? Let's make sure we have everything out on the table and documented before we jump in. Once we have a solid understanding of the project, I'd like to check in on a weekly basis so I can let you know how things are going and what you can do to help us. How does that sound for you?"

Redirect hands-on direction to hands-off support - "Yes, I see where you're coming from. We considered that option too, but due to constraints x and y, we decided to go with action z instead. Changing that now would impact our deliverable in the following ways.... We're confident that our current approach will meet the goals and expectations we agreed on at the start of the project. But you know what I really could use your help with is getting feedback from department A. It's holding us back and we could use some extra pull from you. Could you follow up with Sally and let her know how important it is that we get her input by the deadline? That would help us tremendously."

If training funds are available and she's open to learning, I highly recommend Ken Blanchard's Situational Leadership II for all new managers. At the very least, there are some very good leadership books and blogs out there that she could read to help her adjust to her new role.
posted by platinum at 5:19 PM on August 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've, ahem, been on both sides of this. Here are things that have helped me.

- I found "I want to respect your time" to be a nice way to introduce comments about things they don't have to do, "we can handle ABC, and where we really need help is on XYZ."
- I've found it helpful to have a meeting every six months or so where you determine whose responsibility it is to do various tasks or domains. Just list out all the major activities ("draft widget specs") and put a name next to them (or define roles: "Jan gives input, Robin decides").
- Thinking of a situation where I knew I was perceived as micromanaging but couldn't figure out how to stop, first of all, it's essential that she be able to trust you. I don't mean to be insulting (you sound much better at your job than she is). It could be something subtle: some aspect of how she wants it done that you're missing because she's not being clear, or different tolerances for risk or just-in-time delivery. I found myself micromanaging most when I got the "OMG they haven't started that yet??" willies, or when the tone of a document was very emphatically not what I wanted in some way I couldn't put into words.
- What was most helpful to me in quitting the micromanaging was that my boss occasionally joined my meetings with my direct reports. I could see the way he trusted them and supported them in following their instincts. He never said anything direct like "you're micromanaging," (I was the one who said "I get the feelingvthey think I'm micromanaging but can't quite figure out how else to ensure the results I know we need"). Watching him, I could grasp the difference between what he was doing and what I was doing. I also felt less pressure to ensure a perfect outcome from that group, because he knew as much as I did and had breezily agreed to some risky (in my mind) judgment calls. This let me practice being more hands off. I'm not sure if you could be explicit with your boss's supervisor and discreetly seek his help.
- In general, maybe you can figure out other strategies by putting yourself in her shoes. She wants a good outcome from this very essential widget. She's new and insecure. She doesn't know what all she should be doing beyond just making sure that you're doing a great job at yours. So anything that helps her explain to herself and others what you are doing, a track record of performance, and efforts to suggest what she might do instead could all help.

Good luck. This sounds incredibly frustrating.
posted by salvia at 5:53 PM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a strategy, can you keep complimenting her for things only she can do? Instead of communicating, "please don't do my job," what if you keep telling her how much you appreciate that she is running interference with the brass -- even if she's not?

Help her see her job the way you do, by giving her positive reinforcement when she does it.

She may feel she's being helpful. She probably feels more comfortable doing your job -- which she knows how to do -- than her job. The more you communicate how valuable she is doing her job, the more she may work at it.
posted by musofire at 7:51 AM on August 23, 2011

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