Sink or swim taken a bit too literally in the workplace
December 19, 2011 5:45 PM   Subscribe

Senior managers are asking a coworker of mine to take on new responsibilities. The catch: they won't tell her exactly what those responsibilities are, or how to complete them. Is this as unreasonable as I think it is, and what can I do to help? Obviously, more inside.

I have a coworker I'll call Sarah. I used to directly supervise Sarah until I moved across the country and into a new role. Now, Sarah and I are working together on a new project, that Sarah is being asked to project manage it. The catch: she's never done project management before.

She's struggling, and I spoke to our mutual boss, who explained that this is a "test" for Sarah...can she show the initiative to figure out how to be a project manager on her own? Sarah is a very capable employee who is excellent within her assigned responsibilities, but isn't the sort of curious, self-directed person who would just go teach herself project management.

I care for two reasons: first, because the more I think about it, the more I feel uncomfortable with the situation Sarah has been put in. I have trouble believing this is really best practices for nurturing employee growth. Second, I care because I seem to be expected to pick up the pieces when Sarah runs into difficulty in her new role. I haven't been trained in project management either, but I am the sort of person who went and learned the rudiments on my own when the assigned manager on a previous project quit and wasn't replaced.

Escalating to my boss' boss is an option, but while this woman respects the quality of Sarah's work, she has never particularly liked her on a personal level. I also spoke to the person in charge of the project management team within our company - it seems that basically his team is overworked, he expressed that, and anything else that happens isn't his problem, in his view of the world.

My instinct at this point is to start kicking up a fuss on Sarah's behalf. I'm not worried about the costs to my own position to doing may irritate people, but my role is pretty critical and lasting repercussions are unlikely.

Is this a good idea? Am I being overprotective of Sarah? Should I let her navigate this situation on her own? And what can I do that would potentially help Sarah get more formal training in her new role?
posted by psycheslamp to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Does she at least know what's going on, that she's being "tested" by her bosses? If not, I would at the very least tell her what's happening. Could you mentor her with what you've learned in your experiences?
posted by McPuppington the Third at 5:50 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why isn't Sarah speaking to the boss? Why aren't you speaking to Sarah about it?
posted by desjardins at 5:51 PM on December 19, 2011

It sounds like one of two things are happening: either they've been so impressed with Sara that they're trying to develop her outside of her normal comfort zone, or they're trying to set her up to be fired as incompetent.

but isn't the sort of curious, self-directed person who would just go teach herself project management.

This bit makes me think it's the latter. If so, you should stay out of it, because anything more than you've done will make them associate them with your failure.
posted by winna at 5:53 PM on December 19, 2011

Her failure, rather.
posted by winna at 5:53 PM on December 19, 2011

Why don't you found The Sarah's New Role Weekly Email Meeting Team, and send weekly emails to Sarah, her boss, the project management team leader and whoever else is around? That way you're kicking up a fuss but from the opposite manner. It'll irritate people but it'll show you're a team player, responsible, that you look out for others and that you want what's best for everyone (and the firm). That way everyone can help Sarah set new goals in her role and meet them.

Plus: it's on the record, and if she goes down in flames, it's either DEFINITELY her fault or it's the fault of her/your supervisors for not... supervising.

Obvs: talk to Sarah first.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:08 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had a similar situation recently arise, only the stakes are a little more dire for my "Sarah." In this case, she almost certainly will be fired because, in my view, they don't appreciate her strengths and she costs more than a junior replacement. They are setting her up for failure with too many tasks on too tight a timeline.

The way I handled it, so that I feel I'd done my honest best to stick up for a good person in bad circumstances was to mention to each of my bosses on different, appropriate occasions, how much help my "Sarah" had been in the tasks she'd performed on my projects, and to mention ways she had added to the team that they may otherwise have overlooked. We all know she's on the chopping block but I wanted to at least make them think twice so at least when it happens I'll know I did everything I could. It's not just on a personal level, because while I do like this coworker I also think she brings a lot to the team that would be lost if she's replaced with a junior.

Maybe you could do the same with your superiors. I don't think it will drag you down to point out where they may be misdirected. Even bosses are wrong sometimes, and the smart ones appreciate it when you (diplomatically) point that out.
posted by Pomo at 6:24 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Unless Sarah really is not capable of turning this round (i.e. definitely being set up to fail) I don't understand why you don't just tell Sarah to get a grip and learn about project management, that you're happy to give her pointers but that she'll just have to get on with it? This is what is generally called an 'opportunity' where I work. And the expectation is that people go and learn what they don't know - my whole job is about project management in various forms and nobody has ever given me any formal training in sounds as if she's probably reached a level where she either has to learn it and show she can do it to a degree or she'll have to re-consider her role in the long-run, even if she doesn't get pushed.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:30 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

You owe Sarah a heads up regarding her Trial By Fire. Of course, now that you've gone to your mutual boss, you need to decide how closely you are tied with her. If you care about the project, you might want to signal that you're able to step in in a Guardian Angel role should things go south.

If this is a test of Sarah where she's not been told, it seems like you may also have your own hidden test as potential Project Manager trainer that they have not told you about either.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:38 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Of course no healthy work environment would do this. Does she even know that her title will be "project manager"?

At my workplace, when you sign up to be a project manager, you get enrolled in training classes and get a big book on the ins and outs of project management.

Since your workplace isn't doing this, here's what I would do: as a friend, talk to Sarah (on the phone!) and explain to her what's going on, so she can decide whether this workplace environment is right for her or whether she needs to bail out. Next, I would send her books and other training material that your workplace or other workplaces use to teach people project management, so at least she has a fighting chance of surviving.
posted by deanc at 7:18 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I had something similar happen to me and from my sources of intel, there were two potential outcomes for me. 1. I somehow learn this second job through osmosis, in which case I have new responsibilities they don't have to pay me for because it wasn't written in my job description. Or 2. I fail at the new responsibilities I don't know about, in which case, they get rid of me. Not sure how the politics at your place are, but as a paranoid who's usually right, were you my friend, I'd tell Sarah to start looking for a new job because she's being set up.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:18 PM on December 19, 2011

First off, kudos to you for stepping up for a peer. Second, whatever you do, talk to Sarah about it first. She may want the help, or she may see you trying to be a white knight and resent you for not letting her show her own horns (to mix metaphors). If you are committed to this, the most productive thing is for you to be one of the tools Sarah uses to prove her PM capabilities. If you go off on your own "protecting" her you'll only reinforce any notions that may exist out there that she needs protection. This is a lesson I've had to re-learn the hard way more than once.

Next, I can relate that when I first started project management it was with a boss who had a similar attitude of 'prove you can do it by doing it', and for whom the advice on being told of something I knew was a problem but didn't know how to resolve was 'fix it, and keep trying until you do'. It didn't take long for me to quit. Turns out he'd been right to put me in project management, but I needed training too.

So, I think you are right to be concerned, but you should start with approaching Sarah to see if she sees the same concerns you do, and then talk together about what to do about it. Is it possible she can succeed with the right peer mentoring and learning how to ask for the clarified direction she'll need for each step as she goes along? Does she need broader PM training? Does she just need to learn to say "I'm sure I can deliver a high quality product, but I need a bit more clarity on exactly what you are looking for" with the conviction to decline to make promises for a team to deliver on vague or impossible goals?
posted by meinvt at 8:34 PM on December 19, 2011

Thanks for your responses so far. To offer a couple of clarifications, I'm virtually certain that this decision was genuinely made in the belief it would help Sarah grow. I know the people involved, and setting employees up to fail is not the style. I've also seen a number of people pushed out the door in my time here, and the approach is quite different.

I'm also not worried about the possibility of being aligned with Sarah's failure - I've survived much, much worse.

Sarah is annoyed that she wasn't given any choice in her new responsibilities, and hurt that she's not being given direction. She asked our mutual boss if she could get formal training, and was told "maybe later." I talked to her about the benefits of adding project management to her skillset, which seemed to help, and tried to give her an outline of what responsibilities she'd need to master, which only seemed to leave her feeling more overwhelmed. It doesn't help that our office switched project management platforms since the last time I'd been stuck doing this, so my knowledge is somewhat outdated.

I didn't tell her explicitly about the test yet, but I did point out that mastering the function without formal training would be extra points in her favor, and she said she'd rather have the training. I think it's pretty clear that if she were offered the choice, she'd say "no thanks" to this test.

Absent the secret test aspect, this would be a good opportunity for Sarah. My biggest worry is that if I kick up a fuss, the responsibilities will be assigned to someone else, and Sarah won't be given another opportunity for a good long time. I think Sarah would prefer this outcome, but I also think she underestimates her own abilities.
posted by psycheslamp at 9:13 PM on December 19, 2011

I think Sarah would prefer this outcome, but I also think she underestimates her own abilities.

It sounds to me like you're in a great position to give her some mentorship. Make it about her, not her bosses, and encourage her to step up to the plate by pointing out the positive benefits of this opportunity.
posted by desuetude at 9:43 PM on December 19, 2011

Sarah is annoyed that she wasn't given any choice in her new responsibilities,

I did point out that mastering the function without formal training would be extra points in her favor, and she said she'd rather have the training. I think it's pretty clear that if she were offered the choice, she'd say "no thanks" to this test.

In that case you are being overprotective, to answer your earlier question. Sarah is good in her role and presumably a valid contributor to the team. But I am not convinced that there would be a problem in her not being given another opportunity for a long time because she doesn't seem to want those kinds of challenges. She sounds as if she values stability and knowing what she's doing more than her own progression. And she is by no means unsupported as she has people like you pointing her in the right direction - she just doesn't get to go on a course...
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:01 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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