To get involved or not to get involved?
October 8, 2013 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Our new project leader is making my staff miserable and threatening the professionalism and success of the project itself. Both project and staff are dear to my heart, as well as my professional identity. No one wants to make waves while on the project; I've recently transferred to a different project. Is there anything I can do?

For about three years, I directed a particular project for my organization. Just under a year ago, I participated in a search for a new project leader who took over my administrative responsibilities, leaving me to focus on content creation. When hired, that leader promptly made me redundant, leaving my content-related responsibilities on the project uncovered. Because I care about the credibility of the project, I still do some content creation voluntarily, in addition to my full-time responsibilities on another project in the organization. It's complicated, but I love the project and although I would strongly have preferred to stay involved officially I am willing to work this way in order to keep the project viable.

To a certain extent, the new leader acknowledges that she needs me, but she has created a situation with my current supervisor that makes my participation increasingly difficult. By her own admission, she finds me intimidating and hard to work with (I have considerably more expertise than she does, and I do have strong opinions about this project) and that has added to our challenges. Finally, I have discovered that she exaggerated her level of experience, and that in reality she is plagued by self-doubt, smallness of vision, poor time management, and little ability to handle simultaneous deadlines. Moreover, she micromanages and is unwilling to delegate or allow others to make decisions, even though all of her staff members have more specialist expertise than she does.

Before her hire, I was essentially co-leader and originator of the project, and was directly responsible for building a team of 3 employees. They are fantastic, and we brought this project from nothing to being a major organizational player over the three years of my management. Since her hire, she has added another 3 to the team, all of whom are also excellent team players. Of the six total staff now on board, four have directly expressed their frustration with her leadership to me in the last six months, and there is a clear understanding that the other two share these feelings. My own experience, as I noted above, has been that the new team leader is incapable of performing effectively and is actively threatening the success of the project. I have recently learned that the staff are, individually, all actively searching for new positions because they are worried that staying on this project will taint their professional reputations as it devolves into incompetence. They are, moreover, very demoralized and a couple have admitted that they dread going to work. The most recent hire considered quitting after just three days because of the hostile work environment. They are all unwilling to complain to HR or to the project leader's supervisor for fear of repercussions. I strongly believe that the loss of the team would be a far greater tragedy than the loss of the project leader.

Because I've moved to a new team (albeit one that has to collaborate with the old one), I am to a certain extent insulated from any such repercussions. And the ship on my personal relationship with the new team leader has unfortunately sailed, I suspect, although I like her as a person. However, I'm well aware that anything I say about the sentiments of the staff in general will have a non-zero chance of getting back to her, which would expose them against their will. I'm also aware that because I was made redundant, any complaint coming from me will inevitably bring a flavor of sour grapes with it, regardless of how it is framed.

However, I have a strong desire to protect this project and to protect the staff. I freely admit that I think of both the project and the staff, especially the original 3, as "mine" -- and I feel directly responsible for contributing to a very poor hire in the new project leader (in actual fact, we only had one candidate by the end of the process; but we were offered the opportunity to reopen the search and turned it down). I would like to see her leave the project as soon as possible, but I have no idea how realistic that is. Mostly, I would like to find a way to communicate to the (non-specialist) upper management how incredibly unsuccessful the (specialist) staff is finding her as a leader -- ideally in time for it to impact her first annual review.

Complicating factors: her hire included a spousal placement so the upper management is likely to be reluctant to do anything dramatic; there's no reason to believe a second search would be more successful; I cannot take the responsibility back without permanently threatening my position at the organization (and anyway I'd be not-great at it; I only survived the three years because I was given an unusual level of admin support in recognition of my lack of experience on that front).

Finally, my continued involvement has allowed her to disguise my redundancy from the upper management -- some conversations last week led me to conclude that they think I am still on the project. Is the simplest-fastest course of action to tell them about my reassignment, and let the conversation follow naturally from there (without a content creator this project is, quite simply, screwed -- so it should raise some red flags about her decision-making)? Should I just be minding my own business and letting the project chips fall where they may?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Because I've moved to a new team

However, I have a strong desire to protect this project and to protect the staff

Devote yourself to your new team and stay out of your old project. Literally: Mind your own business.
posted by three blind mice at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nothing is going to happen if no one from the actual team says anything. If you are friends with anyone on the team I'd encourage them to step-up and go talk to HR. Management might start to figure it out when everyone leaves but rarely does everyone leave en masse so it will be difficult to attribute the turnover to anything in particular unless each person leaving says, "I'm leaving because leader is incompetent and horrible to work for." People are rarely that candid on the way out though because they no longer care.

On your end, I would just not let management continue to assume you are working on the project. If it comes up again flat out tell them that you no longer work on the project and haven't for some time.
posted by magnetsphere at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2013

You aren't going to like to hear what I'm going to say, but here it is. Butt out. ALL THE WAY OUT.

Leave it behind and yes, let the chips fall where they may.

You have your own project, focus on that.

If any of your old team come to bend your ear, shut it down. Help them get placements elsewhere if that's what they want, but don't let them bitch to you.

Send an email to the new PM and copy upper management:

Since I have been reassigned to the XYZ project, I wanted to transition my responsibilities for content creation for the ABC project. Please let me know who will be doing content creation so I can bring that person up to speed and give them all of my documentation.

Although you may feel like you're the only one holding the project together, that's not really the case.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:40 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're only asking half the question here: It's not "Should I do something?", it's "What should I do, if anything?" Can you answer that question? Sure, mention to upper management in a natural way, "No, I'm not on that project anymore," but that's about it. Anything else is not going to go well for you or your former team.
posted by Etrigan at 11:42 AM on October 8, 2013

I think you need to accept you are no longer part of the project and concentrate on your new team.
What does your current supervisor feel about you working on two projects versus concentrating on what is your new job?

I would definitely let upper management know you no longer work on this project at the next opportunity. You can't really let chips fall where they may since it's going to look like you share responsibility, especially since it seems you have already had the chance to clarify your new position in the company.

Short answer: work at your new job and MYOB
posted by Snazzy67 at 11:44 AM on October 8, 2013

Have you ever heard someone say to a divorced parent, "the best thing you can do for your kids is do right by their other parent"? The same principle applies here. The best thing you can do for your beloved former project is to fully support its new project manager.
posted by headnsouth at 11:46 AM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you're actively stirring the pot with the old team. If you can't go back and do that job yourself, or help find someone better than this new leader, then either direct your efforts towards supporting her and helping the project succeed or keep out of it.
posted by mrs. taters at 11:48 AM on October 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

The question is not "to get involved or not to get involved," because you are already involved. You never stopped being involved in the first place. And you should.

My impression is that the project manager is not the sole threat to this project's professionalism, not at all.
posted by sm1tten at 11:51 AM on October 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

I disagree with the consensus here. You clearly like the old project better and are more passionate about it. If management think that you are still working on it, that might be the reason why -- they know your passion and are glad to have your input.

If your company has a friendly, collaborative culture, I would take someone you trust in management aside and tell them that you were removed from the project by this new person but you really enjoy working on it and are passionate about its success so you've been spending a bit of time on it. Ask if that's all right with them -- would they prefer you not split your time? Or perhaps some new arrangement can be made? You might also want to go in with documentation about what you've been doing, the positive effect it has had, special qualifications you have to help the project along, etc. Don't be negative about the new person, but make clear that you have a lot to offer.

In the right company culture, you could come up with a win-win solution where you take on some official responsibilities (and decision-making power) on this project, or some other creative solution (a new position overseeing both? a consulting position for similar projects throughout the company?).
posted by carolinaherrera at 12:03 PM on October 8, 2013

You sound over-invested here, which leads me to suspect you're not capable of being objective about the situation. The first big red flag in your post is when you describe the team as "my staff." They're not your staff -- they're her staff, as the rest of your post makes clear. The fact that you are so flatly wrong about that leads me to suspect your judgement may be way off here.

If your judgement seemed better I might advise you to carefully weigh in and try to steer what happens. But under these circumstances I'd agree with the others here advising you to mind your own business. Particularly, when your former staff confide in you about how awful their boss is, shut it down. Do not let then vent to you. It could be extremely damaging to the organization for you to amplify and encourage any negative emotions they may be experiencing. Don't let that happen.
posted by Susan PG at 1:04 PM on October 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

So, it sounds to me like you helped hire your replacement, and you either declined a promotion or had responsibilities removed because you weren't handling them after three years. Perhaps also consider that "redundant" doesn't actually mean they're leaving your content responsibilities uncovered, but something else.

It's always bad to personalize your job, unless you actually own the company/org or whatever. She may in fact need you and your expertise, but it could also be that your approach to the project and group does more harm than good. Volunteering content? Let the PM worry about content, because it's their project now.

Complicating factors: her hire included a spousal placement so the upper management is likely to be reluctant to do anything dramatic; there's no reason to believe a second search would be more successful;

A second search? For who? Are you actually suggesting that this new person be fired and the organization go through all that hiring stuff again? Let me just say that reading between the lines you kind of sound on thin ice there, so I'm not sure that second search would be for the position you predict.

Sorry for the harshness!
posted by rhizome at 3:01 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

To frame this in a slightly different way, it seems like one of your new team members could easily write a question like this:

"I accepted a position on a team assigned to a major project with my company. After the project was underway, another person was transferred to our team from within the company, and she's just not meshing well. It's clear that she's still heavily invested in her previous project despite the fact that the project has a new supervisor and working on it is no longer part of her official job duties at all. Her lack of contribution is to the detriment of our entire team's productivity, morale, and workflow. Other colleagues have noted that she's difficult to work with, and this is compounded by the fact that she clearly would prefer that she were still working with her old team. I know our supervisor has noticed, and resentment is building on all sides. Should I say something?"
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:06 PM on October 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Chiming in to recommend staying out of it. You say that the members of your old team are afraid to speak up because of repercussions, but there could be repercussions for you, too, if senior management sees you as trying to undermine your replacement and meddle in a situation that is no longer your business. If your old team wants to leave, you can help them with new assignments, references, etc.. But don't fall into the trap of fighting battles for people who are not willing to fight for themselves.

For your own sanity, I suggest speaking to your boss and clarifying your new roles and responsibilities, and divesting yourself of the old ones, not least because it sounds like you are partially propping up your replacement. It would also be worth thinking about what, exactly made you so passionate about your old project. Perhaps you and your boss can think of other areas where you can do work that might engage you the same way. If you can't, it might be time to look for other opportunities.
posted by rpfields at 3:19 PM on October 8, 2013

Well, it might be my personal experience speaking, but the "mind your own business" approach doesn't convince me at all. You know, for certain, that ALL of the six (!) staff on the project have an issue with the project leader, to the extent they are looking for new jobs. AND, given your professional expertise, you suspect the future of the project itself is in danger. I would vote for bringing it up to the management - if you are wrong, let them decide it, but I wouldn't want such a failure on my conscience just because I was "minding my own business".
posted by Ender's Friend at 5:12 PM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just under a year ago, I participated in a search for a new project leader who took over my administrative responsibilities, leaving me to focus on content creation. When hired, that leader promptly made me redundant, leaving my content-related responsibilities on the project uncovered.

This doesn't make sense to me. Does this mean that she told you, essentially, "I got it, this is my project, back off anonymous"? If your skills were still needed, you aren't redundant. It sounds like what you are really saying is that she told you to step off, but you feel she isn't getting all the pieces done.

Also this: I only survived the three years because I was given an unusual level of admin support in recognition of my lack of experience on that front
Needing support for 6 months or a year in an area where you lack experience is reasonable. Three years is more than enough time to figure out whatever admin tasks were needed. It sounds like you weren't able to deliver what management felt was needed for the project to grow, and you were replaced.

In any case, I have been in one of these situations where EVERYONE on a team I was involved with is unhappy and they are coming to me with it. I was certain that the leader was incapable, ineffective, inexperienced, disliked and generally terrible. I left the organization shortly after that, and everything was... fine. In retrospect, I think I gave people an excuse or focal point for being dramatic about the situation, and once I was gone everyone was able to settle down, focus on work and find ways to work together.

So I want to second Ruthless Bunny. Be clear with upper management about what you ARE working on, and don't participate in any more gossip about the new leader. Butt out, then kick butt on your new project. Work on those administrative skills so that next time you don't require an unusual level of support to lead a project and you don't have to turn something you love over to someone else who has what you don't.
posted by jeoc at 6:22 PM on October 8, 2013

I've been through this from both ends. You must act quickly and decisively to protect your people and the company. Get together with the person who has the power to fire the new leader, call her in and say something like the following:

___ and I have been talking this over, and it's just not working out. We'll give you X amount of severance and we have a counselor waiting in the next room to help you get unemployment benefits and plan your job search.

Then give her the severance check and bundle her into the next room.

You may have to go back to your old job for a while until the search for a new employee is done.
posted by KRS at 7:39 PM on October 8, 2013

Is the simplest-fastest course of action to tell them about my reassignment, and let the conversation follow naturally from there (without a content creator this project is, quite simply, screwed -- so it should raise some red flags about her decision-making)?

Yes, absolutely. Your continued involvement with this project is preventing upper management from having a clear view of what's going on in their company. You may care strongly about the project, but ultimately, it's up to upper management to determine if they want this project to continue and, if they do, to allocate resources to ensure that it happens.

Where is your direct line manager in this? Does he or she know that you're still doing your old job on top of your new job? Sorry, but if I were your manager and I didn't know this stuff was going on, I would not be happy. That's a recipe for your new work to suffer, for you to be in a position where you're undermining the new project leader, and for you to burn out.

You need to get yourself, your manager, and upper management on the same page regarding your role and responsibilities. Then management needs to tell the project leader that that's the deal. She got rid of the content creator (you)? It's her job to get a new one. If you continue to do clandestine work to ensure that her project succeeds, then management won't have any incentive to do anything about her.
posted by neushoorn at 3:19 AM on October 9, 2013

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