How do I deal with this work situation?
October 20, 2013 8:34 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with someone who spends all their time "managing" what doesn't need to be managed?

Recently a person in my company joined my very small project team, ostensibly with the idea of helping us. They are not my manager technically, and we are both mid-level, but they are one rung above me on the totem pole in terms of position and time here and my manager recruited them because they are too swamped to deal with our project.

Most of this person's "work" so far consists of "managing" us when we really didn't need it. And by manage I mean delegate out pieces of work and then sit back and bother us constantly about whether this or that has gotten done and what we have been working on that day. I get dozens of e-mails, phone calls, and in-person check-ins throughout the day. It is to the point where I cannot actually get any work done because I am so busy updating them about my work. The frequent interruptions wreck havoc on my productivity as well. In the meantime, the actual work this person is supposed to do to help us lies untouched because they are "too busy." I have more work than ever before. My team did not need this. We know what needs to be done, and we do it, and our project has so far been successful in the eyes of superiors.

The other couple people on my team are part-time on this project, so I bear the brunt of this and can't really do the united front thing with my teammates. New person has risen within the company, so this is reinforcement for their behavior and I'm not sure that sitting back and watching them self-destruct will happen since there seems to be institutional support for what they're doing.

My own manager is so far not very sympathetic, and tells me if new person is e-mailing me twenty times a day, then that's just part of my job now. It is simply a terrible way to work.

I loved my job until this began, so looking for a new job is the nuclear option. How do I handle this without going crazy? I want to tear out my hair already. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Research project management tools and then, well-armed with suggestions, suggest a meeting with this person to discuss "strategy" for "better process" that will "maximize impactfulness."
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:46 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you actually talked to this person and explained how much of your workday goes into responding to them? What would happen if you ignored the emails till the last hour of the workday and then responded?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:57 AM on October 20, 2013

Can you set up a 15 minute daily checkpoint (either a call or in person) with the understanding that this will replace the constant check-ins?
posted by valeries at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

My own manager is so far not very sympathetic, and tells me if new person is e-mailing me twenty times a day, then that's just part of my job now.

Have you clarified that the endless emails/phone calls/demands for updates are in fact directly undermining your ability to do your job? You put it pretty perfectly here when you say "It is to the point where I cannot actually get any work done because I am so busy updating them about my work." In other words, this "new part" of the job has sabotaged the rest of your job.
posted by scody at 9:24 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'd try to negotiate with your new semi manager, and work out something more sane, where you summarize once a day. You could also just start doing it--ignoring emails and voicemail until the end of the day--and see what happens. I'd probably try talking first.

If that doesn't work, you can try going back to your real manager again, or maaaaybe his higher ups. Repeated efforts may get your point across. Don't do this at first, but it's OK to drop hints about leaving if things don't change, because that really is where this will end up.

> How do I handle this without going crazy? I want to tear out my hair already.

Anybody would. This kind of shit happens from time to time and it is always crazy making.

Hang in there for a while, and keep trying to work toward something saner. Push back harder. Sometimes these things settle down after a bit on their own, too.

However, I will affirm that being pestered 20 times a day in the way you describe is unacceptable. If despite all your best efforts, this appears to be the new status quo, you're going to have to leave. Emotionally disinvest yourself from your managers and the company's projects, work to rule, and find someplace better. Take a lot of time off sick. I've seen people wrecked by struggling heroically against a pathological work environment, don't let it happen to you.
posted by mattu at 9:35 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

First off, start keeping track of the time spent responding to these emails and calls. Do this for a few days and in the mean time set up a meeting with your coworkers and this manager. Whether you like the new way things are going or not is immaterial. You want to try and work with this person to improve workflow and efficiency so that things continue to get done, that his/her needs are met, and that everyone is happy. You may not need this manager but you can most likely all work together to get your tasks done. Most likely they were given this task and they need to follow their orders. It doesn't help anyone for you to stand in their way. Find a way to work together and don't take it personally or be combative.
posted by JJ86 at 9:48 AM on October 20, 2013

Would you get a lot of flak from higher up by just... ignoring this person altogether? Or would that still be too disruptive?

That would be after the serious talk with this person and/or your manager about the interference directly impeding getting your work done, I suppose.
posted by supercres at 9:53 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

My own manager is so far not very sympathetic, and tells me if new person is e-mailing me twenty times a day, then that's just part of my job now.

Whatever management says trumps everything else. You can be 100% correct (and I'm sure you are) that the new situation is detrimental to the work of your team, and yet whatever management says trumps everything else. Why has new person risen within the company? Because management likes them, and their assessment is all that counts: not that person's competence, ability to work with others, skill set, etc. And whatever management says trumps everything else. Of course you should talk to your manager, but at a certain point, pushing back will damage your reputation and your job security. Being seen as someone who is not a team player is the kiss of death. At some point, someone in this thread may suggest you go to HR with documentation of what is happening. Do not do this, unless your goal is to collect unemployment. I'm sorry this is happening. I hope you start looking for a new job soon, because being in this kind of situation will wreak havoc with your emotional and physical health. (Ask me how I know this.)
posted by Wordwoman at 10:00 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Part of work is training your management.

You are thick on generalities here, and thin on specifics.

Might be time for some introspection. If you know what's needed, and you are doing it, and it is getting done, and it is on time/quality, why is 'management' "helping"?

Adding full time manhours to a project that is on schedule and OK is kind of odd. If you have two interns familiar with their part and you need more effort, they seem in a better position to supply it than an unfamiliar new guy. Again, thin on specifics doesn't help my understanding o what you are facing.

NewGuy may have been tasked to tweak your ass with higher oversight. Your manager's response seems consistent with that.

Also, regarding NewGuy's progress in the organization? Get used to it. Unfairness is the rule in work. In war, too. The place isn't there to make you happy. It's there to optimize your misery (in other words... to stress you to the point that you are just about overworked, at 100%-110% of perfect load (to make sure you self-screen crap that isn't important)). It's my guitar string theory. Too loose and it makes bad music; too tight and it breaks; just the right tension and you've got it.

When it gets too shitty to stay, you leave. Then, some prick like NewGuy hires another workbot.

Forward thinking outfits don't do this as much, but work is not a democracy, and employee happiness is sometimes irrelevant to the short term motivations of an organization.

I know it sucks. How stuff REALLY works is different than how it SHOULD or COULD.

My response to crap like that WAS brutal honesty. (I work for myself now.) I used to smile and say things like "I'm glad you came in! I was getting a lot done and needed someone to destroy my concentration and keep me from completing this job. Thanks. Have a seat and stay an hour. Want some coffee?" Or... "I LOVE making progress reports. Beats the hell out of making progress". Or... " (big smile!) ..... "NewGuy, you can probably do a much better job of this than I can. Why don't you take over this part and leave me out of it. I can find something else to do. You seem to be really interested in it, and I'm doing the best I can and maybe you will move it along faster?")

"Turn it around" works sometimes. Find out what NewGuy is supposed to deliver, make it a show stopper in your work, and start complaining to management that he's not getting the job done. Get loud. Not always effective. Depends. Again, thin on specifics here.

Of course, it helps to have balls like grapefruit and no fear of being fired. My philosophy is "better to rule in hell than serve in heaven." And more than once, I've asked "What are you going to do, fire me? "

Do the right thing, don't ask permission to do the right thing, be willing to leave if doing the right thing gets you fired, and always be looking for a better job or slot in the outfit. The Right Thing, incidentally, is optimizing quality to schedule, foreseeing what's important and working on that, pouring in extra effort to meet a personal deadline that you KNOW is best for your organization, moving things forward. (Overlaid, of course with ethical and safety considerations, which must NEVER be circumvented or bypassed.)
posted by FauxScot at 10:00 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

First, explain to the new manager that you're very sorry, but you don't deal well with interruptions when you're "in the zone" and you think you could improve efficiency by limiting the number of check-ins per day. Perhaps you could cut back to hourly check-ins, or check-ins over just one form of communication (such as IM).

Second, start initiating some of the check-ins yourself. When you're done with a portion of a task, let the new manager know. This will make them feel more confident that you are managing your time well and they do not need to check.

Third, have you though about delegating up? Say "I could really use a fresh pair of eyes on this" or ask for another type of input. Maybe the problem will go away if they have more real work to do. I know that as a manager, I get much more impatient with items that I've delegated when I'm not actually working on anything else.
posted by acidic at 10:40 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you actually have two problems: this micromanaging new guy and your manager's attitude. Your manager recruited the new guy and s/he doesn't want to hear any criticism that suggests new guy is actually making things worse. Whether this is because your manager has worked with new guy before, doesn't like having their decisions criticized, or is just plain stubborn, I don't know. It is possible this goes even deeper (like manager would prefer new guy was doing your job!) but your manager not having your back is a real issue, too.

You should meet privately in person with new guy. What you want to convey is that YOU are the team player here. You are earnestly working with the whole team to meet project goals and want to be proactive because you have noted some recent communication issues are directly affecting team productivity. As the resident full-time team guy you felt the need to take ownership of this issue out of concern that the team is not going to be able to meet those goals, which is what we already all working together to accomplish in the first place, right?

So, in an effort to optimize everyone's efficiency, including yours and new guy's, you are going to add scheduled update communications with him to the team's schedule. Since obviously this can not be going on all them time or you and the team will not be able to actually get any work done, when should you schedule these update reports? Every afternoon, every other afternoon? Every week? Who needs to be present, you or the whole team? And then document that, cc it to manager, and stick to that schedule. New guy calls, wants an update? You will add that item to your list for the next scheduled update report, thanks! Done.

Sounds like you are bearing the brunt of this because the part-time guys are not around enough for new guy to be pestering them, too. Are there project team meetings? New guy should be going to those! Do you run these meetings? Does he? That's where he should be getting his updates from. You ought to have minutes and action items and when action items get closed, that is recorded in the minutes. Generally, that would be a weekly deal (don't know what the duration of your project is, though).

This--minutes, action items, etc.--should all be documented and cc'ed to your actual manager, too. In fact, every correspondence between you and new guy should be cc'ed to your manager from now on. Try to stick to email with new guy, and ignore other stuff if you can. If he gets you on the phone, email him with a summary of the call, (per our phone conversation, this this and this are done, etc.) and make sure manager gets that summary too.

Document, document, document! If your manager complains, that's good for you. It bolsters your argument that these updates are ruining productivity. If your manager is already feeling swamped, and gets overwhelmed with this correspondence, now it becomes his problem, too. That means he is now motivated to cut down on this crap as well.
posted by misha at 10:55 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your manager might think you are exaggerating so have a sheet of paper beside you and record every single interruption by the micro manager - time, length of interruption, subject of interruption. Don't skimp on the details and bring it to your manager.

This means your real work will fall even further behind but that is okay because you don't want to give the impression that you can do both jobs at once, and missing deadlines when you have never missed them before is an excellent metric of the micro manager's performance. As mentioned above, work to rule because your micromanager will be happy to burn you out.

You may have loved your job before, but like a boyfriend that suddenly starts punching you, sometimes change in a relationship means the relationship is over. Put out feelers for other positions.
posted by saucysault at 10:55 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a couple of higher-ups that do this to me too. After a few months of their relentless "checking in" with emails, Instant Messages, texts, calls and in-person visits, I decided to establish give-and-take relationships with them. They no longer get to take and take; they now have to give something in return. The trick is to not let them know that's what's happening.

So here's how I do it. I keep a list of tasks and decisions that they have been dragging their feet on but that I need to make progress on something I am doing for them. When they stop by to ask me the progress on something, I respond with the status (this is their reward) and then I remind them of a deliverable or decision I need from them (this is the price they pay for interrupting me).

I deliver these reminders in a friendly, collaborative tone like, "Yes, the redesign of the TPS report is almost done. I just need the column labels from you and we'll be ready to go. Here's a printout that I thought might make it easier for you to decide on the labels." And they shuffle off with the printout in their hand.

They definitely interrupt me less than they used to but they are still a nuisance.
posted by Soda-Da at 12:38 PM on October 20, 2013 [12 favorites]

I see this all the time. You've got one of two problems, and I think I know which one it is.

The first possibility is that your new supervisor doesn't have enough supervisor-level work to do. They aren't giving him* enough bullshit planning meetings to attend and reports to write. Of course, this person wants to feel useful and not sit on their ass all day. So, they're getting involved.

The second, more likely possibility is that your original manager is not that confident that your project is going to be ok. Maybe it's fine now, but for some reason he thinks someone needs to be all over you like a wet blanket and doesn't have the time to do that. Have you, in the past, not promptly notified management of problems, or failed to predict events such that major management acrobatics were required on short notice? Maybe you just have a personality or philosophical "how things should be done" difference with your manager? For some reason, your normal manager doesn't feel like this project can run "in automatic" with you acting as him. Find out why.

I guess there's also a third possibility, that this new manager is going places, and needs some resume padding to justify it. So they put him on a project that he can hardly derail. That leads to problem #1.

The short-term way to fix the new manager is to realize that your boss works for you just as much as you work for him. He was supposed to do something for you? Every time he calls you for an update, ask him about that as if you were his boss. He will either stop calling you because you make him feel bad, or start doing what you need him to do, which is good either way. Bonus: if he actually starts doing it, you can then delegate all your communication with and research in other parts of the company to him. Send him on a lot of field trips.

Long term, though, you need to know why your normal manager doesn't feel like you can go without someone hovering over you for a while. That's bad. Very bad.

*or her, everywhere
posted by ctmf at 1:12 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

And always keep a task for the new manager on the back-burner. That way every time he calls, you can say brightly, "Oh, I'm glad you called. I need you to..."

He'll stop calling.
posted by ctmf at 1:13 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

People don't come in and micromanage others by accident. In my line of work, only newbies/newcomers and people on thin ice are "handled" to this degree. How confident are you in your work performance?

One time when I was rock certain that my work was of the highest quality, I went three links up the chain and laid out full documentation of the nonsense. Heads rolled. The "New Guy" was out on his ass and within a month I had the permanent promotion. I finished the project strong and then did a lateral move away from the political nightmare I had created. That was a huge gamble, but I wanted to risk it before the New Guy had a chance to ruin my track record of strong performance reviews.

If you're lukewarm about the quality of your output, then most of these answers about "coping with the interruptions" and "managing the manager" probably apply.

If you're a bit unsure about your output, they might be washing you off the team and I'd suggest you possibly start looking for a new job. If someone told me timewasting activities were now part of my job, I might take that to mean that my spot was becoming expendable.

Good luck!
posted by 99percentfake at 5:24 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this happened to my team at work recently. We were a successful
team but our manager left and the new manager, who had risen quickly inside the ranks of the firm, wanted to establish an insane amount of micromanaging, check-ins, etc., while she was "too busy" to do her own work, upon which our work was dependent. I tried talking to her about it and drew up some schedules so she didn't have to check in on all of us as often, and in response was told I was being inflexible, "which is strange because you're usually such a team player."

As soon as the words "team player" came out of my manager's mouth, I knew I was doomed. Word spread that I was difficult, and within months of going from a universally praised model employee with near-perfect reviews to a problem worker, I was let go. The lesson I learned is that you never, ever do anything to suggest you disagree with a rising star in any company, and never overstep your bounds by bringing it to a higher manager or HR because they will consider you the problem, not your manager, no matter how politely or professionally you go about it. If management supports this person to the point that your job description has changed, you need to start looking for a new job. Sucks but them's the breaks.
posted by pineappleheart at 7:17 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Respond to the emails 2, at most 3, time a day, and take the time to put all the little bits of questions, comments, etc., into 1 email. To aggregate them, choose reply, and copy the timestamp and question. Reply inline:

>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 8:50 AM >>>
today's priority is blah blah. I need you to blah blah blah

I'm working on Component X, which must be completed before blah. Jay is working on Component Y, but has appts all morning, so it may not be done until this afternoon or tomorrow.

>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 9:21 AM >>>
Sr. VP Anderson is looking for the metrics on blah blah. Need this stat.

Pat does the metrics; Pat - are those available?

>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 9:21 AM >>>
Have you called the vendor regarding the shipping date for Thing?


>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 9:26 AM >>>
I have the vendor's contact info if you need it.

I have that info. As we discussed last week, vendor was waiting on PO number. Is that available yet?

>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 10:45 AM >>>
There's a Product Meeting this afternoon, I need blah blah blah by 1.

>>> Chris Lee 10/18/2013 11:49 AM >>>
still haven't seen that Product info - need it by 1.

I'll have it for you shortly, then will be out to grab some lunch.

Turn off IM if you can. By organizing all the details into 2 emails a day, you'll be more organized and less interrupted. If you really have to respond in real time, bcc: it to yourself and keep it in a folder. Use the flurry of email when you meet with manager.

Be your own project manager. Break the project into components, prioritize the tasks, and put them in a timeline. Use that to make a rough outline, and put it on paper on your wall, or on a whiteboard, or something. Meet with this manager once a week to review the big picture, and to show what's been accomplished, what needs to be accomplished, snags, etc. That will help put some focus on what this manager needs to get done. If Manager needs to be more involved, have a 10 minute meeting every day.

Read the Shamu article. Try to encourage more of the behavior that works, and extinguish the behavior that doesn't.
posted by theora55 at 11:04 PM on October 20, 2013

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