Asking for direction at work
July 21, 2014 8:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm in an awkward position at work. Help?

I’m basically a case manager at the professional level in a new project at work. My boss, who is a delightful person, is not a clinician and does not have any expertise in the population I work with. She was chosen to supervise this project because she is an experienced supervisor, but offers very little direction in terms of how this project should be focused or how I should do my job.
While I enjoy the independence, I have almost no experience in this field either, and really am just guessing about how to choose clients and what I should do with them. Right now I have very little to do as we ramp up adding full staffing and as I flounder on how to recruit participants. I feel that I look bad to colleagues and I feel bad wasting organizational resources.
Meanwhile, there is a clinician who is loosely associated with my project, and would clearly like to see it go in the direction of working with the population he is already working with, in the style of the project he already works with. I could just do what he thinks I should do but I am concerned that my project will offer nothing new and will not meet unmet needs because I’ll just be duplicating what his project already does. Also, I don’t have to do what he suggests as he is not my boss.
So basically the person who is my boss is not providing direction. And the direction I could latch on to seems problematic to me. And I don’t have enough experience or power to take the project in the direction that feels most useful to me.

My feeling is I should talk directly to my boss about this, but how? I don’t want to seem dumb or unable to provide self direction. I want to show I have initiative and a positive attitude. So how should I frame this conversation with my boss, or should I take some other action besides asking my boss for more direction?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total)
I would approach my boss and lay the out the alternatives/scenarios - couched as "bouncing it off you". The intent is to let the boss know what's going on and soliciting an opinion (your boss may know something you don't).

Imo, you'll only "seem dumb" if you can't answer anticipated questions (or don't have an opinion) during the discussion. You're definitely showing initiative - I'd try not to overthink it too much or make a big deal, more a "hey, wondering..." type conversation.
posted by parki at 9:09 PM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your basic thought process here seems right (well, you have obviously termed it somewhat vaguely, as far as I can tell it seems good).

Here is what I would do:

Step 1. Approach the clinician with something like the following: As you know, I am working on new project x, and we are currently looking at some different possibilities for how we might focus our efforts. One idea that has come up is to focus on [the population he is already working with]. However, we do not want to duplicate what your project already does. If we do take this project in that direction, do you have any ideas for new areas or unmet needs we may look at with respect to [that population/subject]? I will be setting up a meeting with [your supervisor] in the near future, and would love any input you have about this.

Step 2. Write down some ideas for the direction you yourself would like to take this (that thing you think you don't have enough experience or power to do, because it is just possible that you do have enough power and you can certainly lean on your supervisor's experience as long as you are willing to do the heavy lifting in actually carrying out the task at hand). You don't have to know all the details. Write down the ideas you have for accomplishing it, as well as the questions you have that you don't know the answers to.

Step 3. Approach your supervisor and set up the meeting: Can I set up a meeting with you about project x? I'd like to go over the focus of the project; I have some different ideas and would like to run them past you as well as get your own input. I also have some general questions I'd like to run past you.

For what its worth, I supervise a team of case managers--and I'd be happy with this kind of approach. I'd want a summary of the different ideas and your questions prior to the meeting, if possible, so I can come prepared to the meeting myself.

Here are some questions you can ask when setting up or during the meeting: Is there anyone else I should get input from, or anything else you want me to research? Here are the basic steps I'm thinking for recruiting participants--is there anything else I'm missing? Are there any initial action steps I need to take that we haven't discussed yet? Am I covering everything you are expecting me to do, or are there any other tasks I should make a priority right now?

It's fine and not dumb to not know everything and to ask questions and ask for direction, especially when working with a new supervisor.
posted by freejinn at 10:03 PM on July 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I agree with the other comments, but have a few suggestions to add as I have been in a similar situation. I'm not in a clinical setting, but a couple years ago I was tasked with starting two programs at work that operate on a case management model (primarily focused on workforce development and housing). Like you, I was tossed into the deep end from the start. Great to have the flexibility and independence, but a lot of pressure too. With one of the programs we had a hard time recruiting clients at first. Here's what I tried and what I would suggest:

Do some research. I found it very helpful to read case studies on outreach for the specific populations I was working with. Try to figure out a couple of directions you think would be effective for the program and outline what your next steps would be.

Reach out to the other clinician and others at local agencies. Just ask them about what they have done and how it has worked. I would highly recommend talking with other agencies; they can offer population specific experience and potentially be a future source of referrals. Again, don't feel like you need to get very specific with what you are doing; treat it as a fact-finding mission.

Then I would sit down with your boss and go over what you view as the options and ask if they think one direction would be best.

You are going to come across as highly competent if you seek input regularly from the start. It is good to check in with some frequency to say 'here's what I've been doing, this part is working, this other part isn't, and I was thinking we could try xyz, do you have any thoughts or suggestions?'. It would be far worse to not seek input and wind up with an ineffective program.
posted by kardia at 6:25 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with the above approaches re the immediate situation. Over the longer term, though,are you part of any professional association or practitioners' organization? Are there other agencies doing similar work to yours? If so, maybe you could reach out to them and try to find some senior practitioners who could provide a little informal "mentoring" that is specifically related to your subject area.
posted by rpfields at 12:17 PM on July 22, 2014

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