Help me stay sane and professional in dealing with my crazy boss
May 2, 2014 4:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm a middle manager in a branch of an international organization, and its head, my boss, is nuts. Really. She seems gripped by wild ambition and self-importance one minute, and extreme, childlike helplessness the next. She refuses to manage anything, at all, and can't stay on topic during a three-minute conversation, let alone set any kind of priorities for the organization. She never refuses a request from higher management and is constantly pushing us all to work longer and more unpaid hours. Sometimes I think she is addicted to stress, since she always chooses the most difficult, time-consuming, complicated path. Every. Single. Time.

This is taking a toll on everyone. Morale is in the toilet. Her 3 assistants have given up on keeping her organized, which is leading to chaos. Senior management just doesn't want to know. But, I love the substance of my work, and feel a strong commitment to the mission of my organization. Plus, there are real career benefits to me leaving this assignment before it is scheduled to end. My frustration is starting to show, though, and even worse, it's beginning to affect my overall mood, sleep, and health, and it's tougher to keep my game face on everyday.

I'm a twenty-plus year professional with a very strong track record in my organization, and very good job security, so I'm not worried about getting fired. But, there must be ways of making the situation better, for her and for me. Have you ever been in a situation like this that you managed to improve, and if so, how? What concrete things can I do to improve my attitude, minimize the damage, and make life bearable for the next 2 years?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Either get promoted over her, transfer laterally to another department, or get the hell out of that organization. This cannot go on indefinitely without taking a serious toll on your health and burning out your enthusiasm for work. Even if you can't implement it immediately, just putting together an exit plan will help you ride it out in the interim because you know it's not permanent.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:27 PM on May 2, 2014 [10 favorites]

Have you done the thing where you lay out, by pictures if you have to or a graph or some such, the time/money/steps wasted doing it her way and this "NEW AND IMPROVED WAY WHICH IS TOTALLY (with some subtext) HER IDEA" ? Because you may have to sacrifice some self credit to get her to come around.

As a smart lower employee of sorts with 2 disorganized managers who falsely claim to know much of anything about my job, it's a fine art I haven't quite mastered but I know the above should be one of your first steps to attempt. Good luck!
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:31 PM on May 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and only you know her and your ability to pull this off, but the example thing: try coming at it in a sideways-direct way first.
"Susan, I was thinking about our deadline and I think I know a way to make us look like superheroes to Senior Boss. Would you mind looking at these reports/analysis charts with me for a moment?"

Make sure to use "our" and "we". It's not "I'm fixing you", it's "we're in this together", eh?
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:39 PM on May 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't make your boss look good but don't make your boss look bad either.

Someone in a management position above both you and your boss either hired or promoted your boss to the position she is in and they will take a dim view of you if you appear to question their judgement by objecting to the management abilities of your direct boss.

If it is an organization you want to continue working for hunker down and take it - it typically takes a bit of time for incompetence to be exposed. If it's an organization that doesn't seem to be meeting your needs then bail.

/middle management for eight years
posted by vapidave at 4:57 PM on May 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does this essay ring true?
posted by wnissen at 6:48 PM on May 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

To what extent can you operate independently of her? E.g., could you set it up so that your job is some aspect of the department's work that you can do well and that she finds kinda boring, such that she leaves you alone as long as you hit whatever target you're shooting for? Stress cases like her need to have one or two parts of their job that they pay less attention to. This is especially true if her micromanagement is anxiety driven.
posted by salvia at 7:12 PM on May 2, 2014

If you absolutely must stay within the organization, you need to find a way to have a different manager. Up, down, or sideways, you need to move.

This sort of situation isn't just professional poison, it will leak into your personal life.

posted by grudgebgon at 7:24 PM on May 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My frustration is starting to show, though, and even worse, it's beginning to affect my overall mood, sleep, and health, and it's tougher to keep my game face on everyday.

I've never been in a situation like this that improved. You should definitely be planning on finding a new job, inside your company or out. In the mean time, just show up every day and do the job that's in front of you, and don't stress out about what the outcome is going to be. It's amazing how much stress falls away when you have an out in front of you.
posted by empath at 3:18 AM on May 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am confused, you are a middle manager and you also are working unpaid hours. Are you on a set hours contract based on a grant of some kind, where the next batch of funding will also come from winning a grant?

If that, I can't help but think you're being selfish. Grant admin is a very time consuming process and it might be the case that your organization, like 99% of charities who win project grants, did not budget for a separate grant administrator in the proposal and so have to make do with an existing employee needing to step up to managing the process of data collection. She is probably as cause-committed as you but faces the major burden of not just collation of data but also editing documents to the standard of the grantor.

I know from past experience that almost no one will have grant administration experience except for those who might have worked for a government, hospital, or university. This sounds no different. The preamble that all these new demands make you want to move back to simple mission delivery because it is more simple is common.

It will be a huge benefit to your cause to administer this grant correctly and for all of the employees to take up grant administration as a part of mission progression. The cause will benefit from more people knowing how to log events and budget by the raft of grant applications that will be launched from grants one learns to carry out.

Consider inviting a speaker to talk to your team ( invite everyone) about their experience of needing to embrace data collection for a grant and who ultimately forged a path for themselves. I sure there are authors in your area who would do it for nothing.
posted by parmanparman at 5:20 AM on May 3, 2014

All the failings you catalog in this person (disorganized, inconsistent, capricious, poor focus, emotionally unstable) are failings that would disqualify someone for middle management. But she's not a middle manager.

For most of their corporate lives, workers expect their managers to be a higher-powered version of them. Because that's what promotion (ideally) is about....elevating the best of the pack. It doesn't always work as it should, but, generally, as you look upward, you see a version of YOU, only with more experience and time.

Then you reach a position where you report to the boss of bosses, and if that person is a founder rather than a worker who's moved up through the ranks, they will seem like a complete alien - someone who walked in from another movie set entirely. They have none of the skills you have (and value), none of the steadiness, none of the organization and corporate aptitudes. What the heck is going on? How did that person get there? They're supposed to be like ME, only BETTER!

No, they're not. Successful founders, unlike workers and managers, are creative. They are rewarded not for steadiness, organization, and focus (qualities that help people persevere in institutions) but for vision and eurekas (qualities that create something out of nothing in the real world). They're another form of life. You look at them and feel disgust, but this person isn't trying to be a better version of you. It is not her job to encompass your strengths and abilities, to be like a super-middle manager. She's paying people like you to be steady, organized, focused, and efficacious. It's for her to dream and plot and create, and for you guys to clean up her wake like grown-ups.

Those three assistants who gave up trying to keep her organized? They SUCK. They are bad at their job. She hired THREE of them? Smart! And they couldn't find a way? And don't realize it's their failing? Really??

Apparently her dreaming and plotting and creating has been pretty spot-on. This is an operation you like and respect, and it's working toward a mission you find meaningful. And it's doing well enough to afford the likes of you, and to keep you interested in the mission. So she's done her job. YOUR job is to translate her dreamy caprice into efficacious and efficient action.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:17 AM on May 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Followup from the OP:
thanks to all who have answered so far. Your comments have been really helpful, but I realize from the way the answers are going that I could have been clearer about a couple of things:
1. We are not a grant-dependent organization, we get our finding mostly from government contributions. Neither me nor my boss are engaged in grant-seeking or fundraising in any way.
2. My boss is the head of the branch, not the whole organization. We are huge (not the UN, but think of other big international organizations.
3. I realize that getting another job, or at least changing assignments, would solve the problem. However, since there are many benefits to me NOT leaving before the end (typo in the original posting) I want to make sure I have exhausted all other strategies.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 AM on May 3, 2014

Is it possible your boss has ADHD? Maybe reading about working with personnel with ADHD might help.
posted by mitschlag at 10:31 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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