Is it just communication problems or does my boss think I'm incompetent?
September 23, 2011 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Do I have a chip on my shoulder or is my boss underestimating me? Or maybe it's both?

I have been in my position for nearly six months. My boss was promoted from my position to manager when I was hired. We work very closely together, often working side by side most of the day. He is from another country and I often wonder if we are having cultural/language communication problems. I've figured out that he has a bad memory and that is why he often tells me the same thing repeatedly which is something I initially found off putting. I feel that he is often criticizing my work so vaguely that we have to have several back and forths before I can even figure out what he's trying to tell me. I would rather just be told directly what he thinks.

Sorry for the awkwardness of general terms, this is anonymous for a reason, but it does make the stories a bit clumsy.

Here are some recent examples of incidents:

-I loaned a piece of equipment to one of our coworkers. Later my boss asked me which one I loaned out. There are two types of the same equipment, one of which would have potentially been a disaster had it been used for that purpose. They are clearly marked with large labels. I told him which one I had leant the coworker. He basically kept asking me in a way that forced me to go get it and physically show him that I had leant out the correct item- on which the type is clearly labeled. I was mystified that he could even think I would confuse them. After I showed him he was like well you have to be careful, it could have been really bad etc.

-Another example: I completed a fairly large task on my own. Later that day, he came by and said 'you know you have to be careful,' and I was kind of irritated and tried to get him to articulate exactly what he was concerned about, because he clearly seemed to think I had done something questionable, but I couldn't discern what. (This is something that happens regularly, I suspect he is trying to be nice by being vague, but I find it very unhelfpul). So I took him to look at what I had done and it turned out that of the approx. 50 that I had done he thought one had been handled questionably, and I explained why it was necessary to do that one that way and he seemed satisfied. But I was just left with this feeling that he doesn't really think I'm competent.

-Additionally, sometimes at department meetings he will basically take credit for something I did on my own, so far it has been really small things, so it's not like it makes him look great, it more just seems strange that he would even bother to claim he was responsable for it- or that he literally sees me/my work as an extension of himself?

So, is it just me or is he being disrespectful? What is the best way to approach my boss? How can I change my behavior?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think he's underestimating you (based on the evidence you gave) so much as terrified that someone he's managing is going to do something that will cause him to get in trouble. His need for constant reassurance, the repeated "You have to be careful" statements and the fact that he's not pointing out anything wrong, but what could go wrong makes me think he's worried that his bosses are going to think he's not competent.
posted by xingcat at 7:39 AM on September 23, 2011 [9 favorites]

I can't pinpoint precisely where this hunch is coming from, but I'm wondering if maybe his own nerves or his own experience may be fueling this, and it's not about you at all?

You say that he was promoted FROM your position. Maybe he's treating you the way the previous manager treated him, and that's just what he thinks he has to do. Or maybe he's just nervous about his new responsibility and he's dealing with his nerves by deflecting it onto you.

Not that either one is fair. But at least it is an alternative to him being "disrespectful". I'd stick with polite-but-firm as an approach to the vague stuff -- just requesting again and again that "I'm afraid that I'm not understanding what you're concerned about, can you be more specific? I'd like to resolve this for you, but I'm not clear precisely what your concerns are." If it persists, wait until the next annual review and then bring it up as a concern: "One thing I've noticed is that I tend to need a clearer understanding of what your concerns are when you come to me with a question. I've noticed this happen a couple times, and I'm just concerned that YOU'RE unnecessarily concerned because we have a disconnect about what the problem IS. If I hear more concrete details about the questions you'd like resolved, I can resolve them much, much faster."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:40 AM on September 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your boss sounds very insecure. When a person moves into a management position for the first time, it often takes a while to learn to trust your subordinates to get the details right, especially if you spent a long time handling those details yourself. I know it's taken me years, and a couple different teams, to get it right (I think).

This is something that could correct itself over time - as he sees (through specific examples like you provided) that you are handling things right, he may start to back off a bit. Also, as he feels more secure in his new position he might feel less inclined to micromanage and hover on top of you.

Unfortunately, it's going to be very difficult for you to influence this process from your end, other than by doing a stellar job at everything, and in general making problems go away for him (i.e. helping him feel more secure). What he really needs is good mentoring from his own boss or peers on how to manage well. In the meantime, don't take it personally - it's really his problem and not yours.
posted by Zippity Goombah at 7:41 AM on September 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Adding -- a good way to handle it with this type of manager might be to obsessively over-document everything. When you lend out equipment, tell him exactly what piece, with the piece number, in writing, etc. When you perform a task, over-document what it is you did. Ask for regular meetings to go over the things you did for him, so he knows you take his worries seriously and that you're there to make him look good.
posted by xingcat at 7:42 AM on September 23, 2011 [12 favorites]

From his point of view, if you screw up, he gets the heat from his bosses. So he's just double-checking things to make his life more smooth.

As time goes on I'm sure he'll get a better feel for how much trust he can put in you, but until that time, it's much better for him to be pessimistic with regards to your performance, because it makes his life (potentially) less stressful.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:44 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like he's new to personnel management, for sure. Hopefully, he'll gain trust in your work. Taking credit is not-nice, but seems to happen with alarming regularity in the world - so much so that it's doubtful you'll find a manager anywhere that doesn't do that to some extent.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:46 AM on September 23, 2011

Yep. Another vote for insecure. He's probably harder on you than on others because he's been in your shoes. You also might be better or quicker at your position than he was, making him feel threatened.

Your experiences sound really frustrating and I don't think you have a chip on your shoulder. Having an insecure boss really does suck that much.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:33 AM on September 23, 2011

He is a boss, that means that if your team succeeds it is because he lead you to victory, but if your team fails it is because he failed you.

It does not matter if you agree with the above statement or not, that is how upper management sees it. If there are any screw ups, he will have to answer for it.

I am a team manager and I repeat things often to people who have been working with us less then a year. You may be annoyed at his reiteration, but I bet you don't forget the information that he reminded you of three times do you?

You have only been there for six moths, you are new at your job. Whether or not you are good, it is not unheard of for people to still be watchful of you after such a short period of time. You have not been there long enough to build up a reputation as a person who is highly competent and extremely self sufficient.

Now, if he is still doing this after a year or so then you may just have a really insecure boss. In that case, my heart goes out to you.
posted by Shouraku at 8:40 AM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, this is your boss, right? You don't want an adversarial relationship with your boss, even if the boss is wrong or even if you don't understand why the boss is asking. If the boss asks which thing you lent out, leap to your feet and say "yes, it's really important, so let me verify it with you" as you walk over and show him. As he cautions you, you reply "I totally agree; it's really important." You act as if the boss' concerns are reasonable, and you show the boss that you understand and follow the rules. This isn't sucking up, it's facilitating communication. Sucking up is telling the boss his new tie looks good, even if it's hideous. Don't do that. But do find ways to find common ground with the boss.
posted by theora55 at 9:04 AM on September 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have a supervisor worse than him. It's nothing personal against you, however, his management style is terribly condescending. It's possible, in his personal life, he doesn't feel important so he overcompensates as a boss. You could do one of these things:
1. Gain his trust by performing perfectly the simplest of tasks (he'll still find a reason to nitpick though)
2. Kindly tell him in order to be at your best, for him to get off your back. (he'll stop for a while then draw into old habits again.)
3. Complain to higher ups if his concescending attitude is affecting your productivity.
4. Or take two in the morning, one at night and call it a day. (whatever drug of your choice)

He's not going to change but your reaction to him will.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 9:16 AM on September 23, 2011

He just sounds like an anxious guy. I don't think it's about you. Be glad you're not him and humor him -you'll be doing both of you a favor.

And heck, he's got nothing on my mom.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:46 AM on September 23, 2011

Seconding the power of overdocumenting. He just wants to be assured that no screwups are happening. And if he does have a bad memory, emailing him is a favor to both of you. You won't have to re-explain things, and he'll be more certain that things you wrote were actually done.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:22 AM on September 23, 2011

He sounds like a worry wart. It will probably take a very long time for him to trust you, but that doesn't mean you should take it personally. He would likely be like this with anyone. He also used to do your job so he's used to knowing everything and having total control. It's hard to let that go overnight.
posted by whoaali at 2:54 PM on September 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

When you have managers like this, document document document. Good practice is to cc or bcc them on emails, or build a week-in-progress document that outlines what tasks you are currently working on, what you have done in these tasks, and what remains to be done.

Managers like this worry that they don't have enough visibility of your work and that you may not execute properly. The best way to combat those perceptions is to give them tonnes of visibility and let them know when you execute everything. Eventually, they will either start to trust your judgment OR become satisfied with the WIP document and what they get from meetings OR get sick of the torrent of emails coming from you for minor things. Either way, the outcome is good.

For minor projects, there's no point in fighting about who did what. For major projects, upon completion I like to write up a little executive summary, CC manager and second-line manager where appropriate, and for major-major projects, I like to present to other teams and senior staff about it, if the outcomes are interesting and/or valuable to them. Your manager will still get a lot of credit when this happens, so they are generally happy to go along with it. (Dunno if that will be applicable in your job) :)
posted by smoke at 5:56 PM on September 23, 2011

I just moved into a position with a boss who sounds very similar to yours, especially the underestimating part. The other day he said something to me like, "Were you just going to deploy that change without checking with me?," and all I had been doing was trying to avoid bothering him with something I could easily handle on my own. On the surface it seemed insulting, but what he was *trying* to say was that he wanted to be involved in changes like this that I needed to make.

I think there were a couple different reasons for his behavior. The most crucial one was that I didn't have many clearly spelled-out guidelines for what I should and shouldn't be doing. We finally sat down for thirty minutes and I asked him specific questions about what was expected of me and what my priorities were. Once we cleared those things up (including detailed questions about what I could and couldn't deploy on my own), things got better. We reaffirmed that we were on the same page about my role and that things were going well so far.

The other thing is his style of communication. He's often abrupt and brusque with people in a way that can feel really insulting and I have to remind myself to not take it personally. I think it's partially cultural, partially stress level and partially just him. I can take it or leave it but I always have to ask myself before I get offended if it's not me, it's him.

Finally, I've been keeping track of my accomplishments each week and emailing him a weekly update. I see it as a tracking thing, but as a cover-my-ass thing at the same time. If things get worse between us somehow, I'll have documentation about what I've been doing.

My best suggestion to you is to meet with him one-on-one and talk - in detail - about your role in the organization and exactly what are your responsibilities. Get some clarity on what he thinks you should be doing and use it to your advantage. Once he starts talking about what he'd like you to do, you'll probably hear some ideas about what he'd *like like* you to do - these are your keys to success.
posted by bendy at 10:12 PM on September 23, 2011

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