boss destroying morale
December 13, 2012 8:24 AM   Subscribe

We like our jobs but toxic manager is gutting us. It feels awful because we can't perform to our full potential when she's around and feel like we have no career prospects. How can we help ourselves?

I work with a small team and we report to one manager. She is fairly new at managing and only moved up into the number one role in the division slightly over a year ago.

Her management style includes:

1. Consistently not giving clear instructions. Her sentences often beat around the bush and fail to include nouns/subjects, almost as though she expects us to read her mind.

2. A habit of talking over the ends of our sentences and trying to complete them for us. If I say, "I don't think this will work", she will say "work" a split second after I start saying the word. This is more like a personal tic rather than a management tactic, admittedly, but it suggests lack of listening.

3. Doesn't seem to be able to stand up to the other managers/bosses at the firm. They have a meeting every day. Prior to the meeting, she will give each of us (vague) instructions on what to do for the day. Typically, after the meetings, she often returns with a different set of objectives and instructions, based on the comments from the others. Again, she fails to communicate the new instructions clearly, which often results in last-minute changes.

4. Tends to overcommit my team, during these meetings. She will often promise things that we cannot reasonably deliver on deadline without superhuman amounts of effort. After we put in this amount of effort, the new project could still die because someone else makes another comment and she wavers again.

5. Gives us a lot of extra work to do, because she is paranoid about what might happen if some projects fall through. In comparison, managers of other similar units in the firm do not feel the need to do this. Often, the extra work gets done, but never actually used by her. So a lot of time and effort is wasted that we could have spent developing our own good projects.

6. Irrational fear of losing her job. This probably is one of the reasons for the overpromising and apparent spinelessness in the face of the other managers/bosses.

7. Tends to panic a lot and passes on the stress to us. When we are working on our individual projects, she will often come around and hover and micromanage. Close to the deadline, she will suddenly think up changes that many of us feel are unnecessary, and make us do them. Doesn't add that much to the overall quality of the project.

8. Because of the overcommitment and constant wavering on her part, it feels as though our tasks and timelines are always being changed. These changes happen with increasing frequency as the original deadline approaches, since she panics.

9. Uses emotional manipulation to make us do more work. For instance, she will say, "If you don't do X, then Bob will have to do it." Then the target employee, who is friends with Bob since we are a tight-knit team, will be guilt-tripped into taking on additional workload. Which may not even be necessary since she might not actually need the extra stuff. Again, it's a "cover my ass" thing for her, at our expense.

10. Tries to put on a sympathetic show whenever she gives us more things to do. For instance, she will come around to our tables, put on a sad face, then ramble on about nothing in particular until she finally comes to the point when she says, "Could you do something about XYZ". We would rather she go straight to the point and not make sad faces at us for several minutes prior.

As a result of the above, we do not feel that she is a manager who will stand up for us, or filter out the crap from the rest of the company. Her tactics are causing us significant amounts of stress, and burnout symptoms. We have lost respect for her as well.

In contrast, when she goes on leave and her deputy takes over, things get so much better for us because the deputy is more confident, calmer, clearer and sharper. We stop feeling miserable all the time and are more productive. However, there is no chance in the near future that she will leave and the deputy will take over.

She has an avoidant personality, which means that she's unlikely to have a chat with us anytime soon. Whether in a group, or one-on-one. She has said before that she feels uncomfortable in situations where she has to sit down and talk with employees. This means that if we want to raise any issues to her, we will have to specifically request a meeting with her, which will likely put her on the defensive.

We do want to have a talk with her on how we can change things, but how can we tell her about the things that are going wrong without making it seem like a personal criticism? (even though it kind of is...) We don't want to offend her or hurt her feelings or put her on the defensive.

However, if having a talk with her is something that we shouldn't presume to do, then what else can we do? Assume that none of us wants to quit purely because of her, and that transfer requests will be denied. So we're kind of stuck in this situation.

Would appreciate any advice you can give. Thanks!
posted by swimmingly to Work & Money (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
From your description it seems that, from her bosses' perspective, she's doing a great job. Promising a lot and generally delivering it. While her management style may be hell on morale, it seems to be great for productivity.

Even in cases of incompetence readily apparent to superiors, it often takes months if not years to shunt a manager/supervisor out of a position for poor performance, especially in a big organization (as yours is, as you mention divisions). But, it's not at all clear that she's actually incompetent -- if the work is getting done.

So, honestly and tragically, I don't think you have a snowball's chance in hell of effecting a personnel change. Anything you say will almost certainly come off as the grumbling of a malcontent, and if you organise your teammates to work together, the lot of you could be fired for insubordination.

This is the saddest situation in employment: a great job with great cow-orkers, but a terrible bad boss. Honestly, the only thing you can do is find another job.

I'm sorry. It sucks.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:40 AM on December 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

This sucks, and it's common. What I would do is look to transfer to another department within the firm, barring that, I'm looking for a new job elsewhere.

The problem is, she was hired by the 3rd tier managers, so they don't want to hear about it. They think she's awesome.

Now, as a group, you can choose to manage her back.

For example, when she tries to guilt someone into doing something

Her: Then Bob will have to do it.

Me: I guess so.

It's up to Bob to stand up for himself.

Also, when she gives instructions, feed them back to her.

Me: To be clear on what your expectation is here, you want me to juggle chainsaws with my left hand, and you want me to perform brain surgery with my right hand, is that correct?

If she's over committing your team, everyone needs to speak up.

Her: Great news, we get to work this weekend doing XYZ!

Me: I'm not able to do that.
Bob: I'm not able to do that.
Lisa: I'm not able to do that

Her: But I promised!

Me: Don't let your mouth write a check my ass can't cash.
Bob: Sucks to be you.
Lisa: Oh well, I guess you'll be working.

As for last minute changes:

Her: Oh! I meant that the number should be Gross, not Net! You'll have to stay and do it over.

Me: Can't. Have a commitment.
Bob: Can't. Have a commitment.
Lisa: Can't. Have a commitment.

If you all agree to manage her in the same way, at some point it will come to a head.

Don't be passive aggressive, don't be insubordinate, but respectfully refuse to participate in the fire drills.

If you all stay, and put up with this nonsense, then you're validating her. And it's helping no one.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:40 AM on December 13, 2012 [18 favorites]

This may sound a little hokey, but I find the Myers Briggs temperment evaluation very helpful for understanding confusing behavior in the workplace. She sounds like an INFP (Introverted - shy, or as you described it, avoidant, iNtuitive - which sometimes comes across as vague and rambely speech, Feeling - emotional, Perceiving - perceptive and often disorganized - the absent-minded-professor phenotype).

In a perfect world, your manager would learn to communicate with you in the way that helps you be more productive. Until then, you could try explaining to her that you would like to help her get projects done, and you find that you work best when you have clear goals. She'll probably appreciate your thoughtfulness. Then, when she gives you vague and confusing instructions, you can ask for clarification, and even ask her to break it down in steps for you. Basically, your goal is to get what you need (clear instructions), with the bonus that you may be able to help your boss look good to her bosses by showing that your team can do good work, which will have long term rewards.
posted by DaveZ at 8:43 AM on December 13, 2012

Sounds like you have a good read on your boss, and that she's still going through the learning curve of a new manager. A year may seem like enough time to get the hang of it, but it also sounds like she was thrown into the deep and and told to swim, without any swimming lessons. That would explain her state of anxiety and desire to look good to her bosses.

Start with the things you can control. If she gives you vague instructions, you need to pin her down. I had a boss who would tell the project team "such and such needs to be done." I had to specifically ask her "who is assigned to do this, and by when?" Sometimes she meant me, sometimes she intended to do it herself and was just keeping us in the loop. Don't let go until you have nailed down who, what, when, where and why. I had another boss who gave stream-of-consciousness instructions, even in writing. To her, what she wanted was intuitive and obvious. It sometimes took a lot of back and forth to get the written assignment to a place where we both agreed on what was to be done. This exasperated her, by the way, but that's better than working your butt off only to discover you didn't deliver what she thought she was asking for.

If she over-promises on your behalf, don't just tell her "I can't" and walk away. That will only amp up her anxiety. Lay out the tasks that you already have on your plate, and insist that she identify what you can push out to a later date in order to do the stuff that must be done first.

In other words, you have to manage her. That sucks, since she's supposed to be the manager. But you can't wait for her to get the hang of it on her own.

And keep your eyes out for a better job, in case nothing improves.
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:56 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

This might be drastic, but depending on how ornery you feel--when she over-promises, don't deliver. Get sick. Have your whole team get sick. This only works if you're all united. I'd also make sure that all of her directions are written down--emails only, no voice commands. And when she appears with a sad face and new tasks, write them down as she speaks. Make sure she sees you writing these down. I'm not sure that you can change her quickly, but I think that with careful training, you might be able to push her gently in the direction you want her to go. And start looking for a new job. As long as she's preforming for her bosses, she's not going to change very much. So, if you're willing to make her look bad......
posted by Ideefixe at 10:09 AM on December 13, 2012

I've had this type of manager. I feel for you. I tried a lot of things. Some worked, some didn't. Some outcomes were ultimately good, some weren't.

One of the things that really didn't work was trying to get the entire team to take a specific approach to the manager's inconsistencies. Never, ever, ever worked. Someone (usually more than one) always caved or even took the opportunity to seem like rockstars. It suuuuuuucked. Which is awful, because this is always one of the top pieces of advice you'll get in this situation.

One thing (which is really a group of things) that worked far more reliably was to follow the principles of Managing Up. The thing is, you're dealing with a Problem Boss, and that's not generally covered in readily-available Managing Up materials. You have to cobble it together from the various pieces out there. Here are a couple of things that discuss the general idea: 1, 2.

The communication issue is one of the first things you could start getting a handle on, and it could actually help your manager start formulating their thoughts more quickly, because we get trained to respond to certain types of interaction more efficiently, no matter our level. The process described here in "Understand the Assignment" is a pretty good one that stays respectful but gets you what you need without seeming like a nitpicky work-avoider. There are other good ideas in that article (tweaked for a non-PR setting, obviously), but that one is probably going to be the most immediately useful.

An insecure boss can be soothed. As counterintuitive as it may seem, reinforce her. Show appreciation for the successes, commiserate on the hard things. This article does a pithy job of summarising some ways to do that with various personality types - you probably need a mix.

Otherwise, this HR Daily two-column series does well at describing a systematic approach - HR approved, even! - for getting through this situation with less stress and more success.

I would try a blend of the above techniques before going so far as confrontation, which can backfire horribly (oh, how I wish I did not know this), but if it seems far too daunting or even a couple of months of it aren't making any inroads, it may well be time to look for something else.

I wish you luck. And patience. Lots of patience.
posted by batmonkey at 11:27 AM on December 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

Sounds like you need to do some managing up. I think these issues are not uncommon for a new manager, especially someone who is not confident in her position or is unsure about what can reasonably be asked of the people she supervises. But it sounds like she is generally well-meaning, so maybe if you reconceptualize this from "my manager sucks and doesn't advocate for us" to "The team and the manager are not communicating well about priorities and timelines" it would help.

1) You all need to ask for more specific instructions. "Okay, I just want to be clear that you want me to stupefy the widget projections and then produce the erg report." "Okay, my to-do list for today includes X, Y, and Z. Anything else?"

2) This is a verbal tic. By anticipating the end of the sentence she's probably trying to indicate that she hears and understands you, and you are interpreting it the exact opposite way. You will probably just have to get used to this.

3-8) Again, you need to pin her down on exactly what she wants and give her clear feedback when she is asking you for more than you can reasonably deliver. Don't tell her "you're asking me for too much," which sounds like whining, but say something like "OK, I don't think I'll be able to fafnod the gerbils, write the easy chair report, and do the Jones projection by Friday. Can you help me prioritize these?" Right now she is overpromising and then coming to you and you grumble but deliver, which just reinforces these tendencies. If you start being clear with her about what you can reasonably accomplish, she'll have a better idea about what she can promise to get done.

9) If she tries to guilt-trip you by saying "If you don't do it, Bob will have to", you can say "OK, I'll do it, but then I won't be able to get to this other thing. Is that OK?" This needs to be a technique the whole group uses because it runs the risk of having one or two people get dumped on if they don't gently push back.

10) With the "sympathetic show," it sounds like a communications style difference--she is trying to form social bonds with you and you would prefer a more straightforward approach. She's probably not trying to be two-faced, she just views her work interactions in more of a social light than you do. Just chalk it up to a style preference.

This sounds frustrating but it also sounds like a situation that's more born of experience and insecurity than malignancy or real dysfunction. If you 4 can find ways to work with her, it will make everyone much happier and give her a lot more confidence in her position, which should make her more comfortable saying "no".
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 11:45 AM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a couple of comments that I hope are helpful, although they are non-specific.

You can't control other people - that includes not just your manager but also your co-workers. Although this question is written in the first person plural, you, the individual, need to look at personal coping/response methods. That can include stress reduction and learning to care less about your job or about the guilt trips that the manager is trying to impose.

When you're dealing with reasonable people, saying 'You want me to do a, b, and c - I can only do a and b, and I will not be able to do e, is that OK?' is not a winning strategy. Because they will perceive the question mark as an opening wedge. Don't ask. Just tell them. She comes over and talks to you - Nod and say 'ok'. Then send her an email saying 'OK, I will work on a and b and put e on hold'. If she starts coming back with 'I need you to do a, b, c, d, and e', then stop checking your workflow in with her at all. Smile and nod. Say 'OK'. Then keep working on what actually needs to get done. This is where her vagueness comes in handy. If she is upset that you have not redirected your workflow, play innocent and say you must have misunderstood. If, as you state, she is adding extraneous tasks to projects that are not really adding value, then it doesn't matter if it doesn't actually get done. Focus on tasks that will actually matter.
posted by bq at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would it be possible to communicate with her via email?

I ask because email gives your team a chance to ask for more specifics and record both what she does and how you respond. It also begins to create a trail of the changes being put into place, and allows for referring back. In addition, given how you mentioned she seems stressed in face-to-face encounters, it may lower her stress level.

Finally, you start developing documentation which, if things don't improve, you could produce for her superiors (but don't CC off that bat as that can be seen as very aggressive).

One way of transitioning could be saying something like, "I want to make sure I get this right, so can we discuss it over email so I have it written down and I don't forget anything?" Make it your 'fault' to smooth over the shift.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:04 PM on December 13, 2012

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