How do I constructively refuse to become a people manager?
January 29, 2014 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I am a senior technical specialist in my company, and I've been asked to manage a small team. This is being sold to me as a great development opportunity, lots of prestige, greater authority and decision-making power, etc. etc.. While that all sounds great, it's a line management role. It's not that I'm not a people person, but I feel that it's not the right time in my life to be taking on a major new responsibility. How do I politely and constructively turn down the "opportunity"?

This new role is the path to longer hours in the office, which will absolutely tip my work-life balance, at the expense of my wife and 6 month old daughter, who need a lot of support from me.

Additionally, while I enjoy my technical work, I feel my department, company (and perhaps industry) is run on a culture of fear and blame. Entering the management structure makes me part of that. Perhaps I could be part of the solution. But I perceive other people managers as unhappy, stressed and overworked - and the ones I've consulted largely admit to feeling this way.

I should mention that this "promotion" will not attract any additional money or grade.

Refusing the role will cause my own managers a headache as they will have to rethink their proposed team structure. So I want to refuse this in a way that makes it clear I'm not lazy, ungrateful, or unmotivated. I was going to add unambitious to that list, but in fact I probably am unambitious, in the sense that I don't have any desire to climb the ladder!

How do I do it?
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Work & Money (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Good for you for knowing what you want. I've seen too many technical people go that route and it is very taxing indeed.

Your daughter is a good out: "Thank you so much for this opportunity and I would gladly accept it if not for my new family. When I take on additional management responsibilities I want to be able to commit to making the best impact on the team and for the company. I can't do it justice at this moment. But I will absolutely support whomever you hire as manager and make their on-boarding process as seamless as possible."

But you want to word it just so, don't want them thinking you can't do your current job because of your daughter!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:52 PM on January 29, 2014 [13 favorites]

When I refused such "promotions" in the past, I've just said like working on code and don't want to take a job that takes away from that. Of course I really meant it, and I really don't want to be a manager - ever. YMMV if you don't actually feel that way - but hey, this place sounds kind of screwed up anyway - if you want to be a manager in the future, a better opportunity would probably lie elsewhere.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 12:52 PM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

This might be a bit too direct, but I've always told my bosses that I don't want any "headcount" (people that report to me), because I think everybody else does crappy work and I wouldn't want anyone to have me as a boss!
posted by intermod at 1:01 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

this "promotion" will not attract any additional money or grade.

This isn't a promotion then. The way to turn this down is to say that you would like a raise and a new title to go along with the new responsibilities. If they say "we can't do that" you politely say that you feel your current level of responsibility is reflected in your pay and that you aren't comfortable taking on a new role without some consideration of this. Managers get paid more to work harder and be in charge of dumb shit. That's how it works.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:02 PM on January 29, 2014 [31 favorites]

I am a techie and I've always gotten pressure to move into management so I've had a lot of practice saying "No". My technique is to phrase my "No" as a question about promotion paths that currently exist within the company, e.g., does [your company] have a technical path in addition to the management path? Followed by a discussion on how they should really have one because... [excitement about technology, talent shortage, etc]. Make it all about your enthusiasm for the technical path, as opposed to your disdain for the management path. "It is so rare to truly love what you do, I am so lucky to have found that here, I really don't want to do anything that will jeopardize that".

Re. Potomac's comment, I wouldn't talk about a raise, personally. In my experience, they will offer you $5k-$10k extra, which you will then have a hard time refusing graciously (i.e. without essentially telling a colleague/manager who is in a project management position that you think their job/career sucks).

By the way, it's not just the hours and the added responsibility. You will slowly but surely lose your technical edge and the associated earning ability as well. Just something to think about vis-a-vis any potential raise.
posted by rada at 1:17 PM on January 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Oh, and use the words Peter Principle.
posted by rada at 1:28 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been in that boat more than a few times myself, and my tactic is to focus on the Peter principle. I can work with people very well, but I'm really only effective in small doses, and my technical skills are far more valuable to the companies I've worked for. The more I have to deal with people, the more flustered and incompetent I become. It's just not my strong suit, and at least some of my employers have been able to understand that when I've explained it to them. Just make sure to infuse it with your enthusiasm for the technical end, and it'll be more likely to come off as honest and pragmatic as opposed to lazy or unmotivated.

If it's a small company, and/or if they're having resource problems, there's a pretty good chance that they are explicitly trying to get you to put in more hours by adding responsibilities. In cases like that, maybe you can steer them more toward project management tasks as opposed to people management. You'll get a little scope creep dealing with people in cases like that, but at least you probably wouldn't end up dealing with HR stuff directly.

It is not uncommon at all for people working in tech to explicitly stay on a technical track rather than be promoted into personnel management. A lot of the bigger tech companies even have defined career paths that branch off into technical vs. management at the senior levels, so it's not unheard of by any means.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:30 PM on January 29, 2014

Best answer: In my experience, appeals to "work-life balance" are effective. Don't be specific, at least not at first, but yeah, arguments based on your devotion to your FAMILY and CHILD and WIFE and DAUGHTER and BABY are hard to rebut.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:35 PM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If these guys value you as an individual contributor, you should be able to say "I'll be happier and more productive as an IC than as a manager" and leave it at that. If it makes sense to do so, you could offer to take on some technical leadership tasks without line responsibility. If they won't buy these arguments (which are presented in terms of their interests, not yours), then they won't be likely to buy arguments based on YOUR interests, such as work-life balance. Worst case, you end up saying "I just don't think I'd be a good manager" and then I suggest you start looking for another job, at a place that DOES value what you have to contribute. But that is only going to happen if they have their heads up their butts.

Good luck!
posted by mr vino at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

This isn't a great opportunity, you recognize it, and you're acting on it.

There's a sucker out there who will LOVE this "opportunity" and will jump ALL over it.

As for you, good on 'ya mate, something amazing will pop up when the time is right.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:12 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a technical person who is also currently manager of a bunch of technical people. Here is what I think is going on: because your managers need to either backfill a manager or create a new team, promoting from within is the cleanest/easiest way to do that. The fact that they picked you means they think well of you and probably think they are doing you a favor. For this reason, I wouldn't over think turning them down; I don't think it will have any negative effects on your career. You don't want to try and soft pedal the refusal too much, or you'll just get another one of these offers the next time they have to backfill or expand.

Also as an FYI, whether you get a salary bump with the "promotion" isn't the only money factor; if you were thinking about taking it, you would want to understand if there is a different salary range for the line manager from whatever band you are in now. In my organization, the high end for a manager is lower than a senior technical person. So even if you get a bump, you can end up limiting your future earning potential by hitting the top of the salary range earlier. It might be the other way around in your org, just something to be aware of.
posted by kovacs at 2:53 PM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've seen a man successfully use the "my wife just had a baby" excuse to duck out of a promotion that he didn't want but was under a lot of pressure to accept. As far as I could tell, he didn't suffer any consequences for staying in his position after using that excuse.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:04 PM on January 29, 2014

I would probably lean on how much you love your current tech job; you don't want to move off that track.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:12 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Up front warning: I do not work in the IT field, as will be clearly evidenced by an upcoming AskMeFi question of my own. Nonetheless, it seems to me that managing people has a lot in common regardless of the focus.

I don't know if this is practical to actually discuss with your boss, but if you can, I'd explain that I'll only accept a higher position of authority if I have the power to use the people under me AS I SEE FIT in order to accomplish the tasks set before me and/or in order to improve the company within my area. Basically, as ernielundquist said above, you would be asking for your boss's full support in allowing you to be a PROJECT manager, not a PEOPLE manager. That includes the ability to NOT use people if you don't feel they'll actually help. Following that line of thinking, it should include the power to directly fire or let go of people or your boss's commitment to do it based on your recommendation.

I'm pretty sure I'm not a manager type, but at least once a year I get offered the position of managing my company's projects because I just flat out am the only one that can see all the details of them and figure out how to get stuff done right. I just got that same "offer," really half-assed assignment to do it and "we'll talk more about it later", within the past week. This time around, however, I'm NOT going to foolishly move right ahead into this; I'm going to tell me dad/boss that I'm not jumping into it unless I have the power to pursue the project MY WAY. In all the previous times I've tried this, I have spent more time trying to figure out what to have people do to keep them busy than actually working on planning the project.

That's the absolute worst: having to find ways to keep people busy, and it will ruin any chance you have at getting ANYTHING done. If you don't trust your subordinates to do something right (and I'm not implying that you do or do not), don't feel obligated to use them anyways or rack your brain trying to find tasks for them when you could be working directly on something more important. Get rid of them or just don't use them and let the company pay for dead weight or decide let them go. Find better people that DO take a load off of you. Make sure you have your management's full support for this approach.

Both you and I would deserve more money for taking on a managerial role, but in my case, I'm going to try to get my boss's approval for my no-nonsense system, show improvement by getting projects done instead of keeping people busy, and then I'll hit him up for the raise based on my accomplishments. Asking for both at the same time might be too much, and having control is, in my opinion, the more important of the two if you actually want to be successful in the new position. No control and no power...don't do it.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 11:13 AM on January 30, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for all these responses. I seem to have succeeded. I said something along the lines of "thank you for offering me this position; I am happy and grateful that you would entrust this to me. However, this is not the right time in my life to be taking on additional responsibility for people. I have a wife and daughter who need a lot of support from me, and I know that doing a good job of managing this team would undoubtedly mean more time in the office, and less time with them. There are things I can do working from home on the laptop, but I don't think line management is one of them. I would of course be happy to re-evaluate in a couple of years' time."

My current manager came back and said "we hear what you're saying, but we're going to go ahead with the new structure anyway." I took the same statement to his line manager, who was much more understanding. Fortunately I get on well with my manager so no harm done going over his head.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 7:23 AM on March 2, 2014

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