Should I critique my boss to their boss?
September 1, 2016 3:51 PM   Subscribe

My boss has been promoted to incompetence. How can I and the others in our (very small) group help our boss be a better leader without risking our own careers?

My boss (we'll call this person Pat) is very good at many things, but managing a group is not one of them. Pat can build community, rally others around a cause, and generate lots of excitement for ideas and vision. But Pat seems to be more concerned with hype than content, and there is a history of people who have left groups Pat has led because they took issue with the management style.

The particular problems are not the issue at hand. What I want to know is this:
Given the following:
1) Pat has extremely high IQ, but low EQ
2) Pat says that criticism is welcome, but is actually very sensitive
3) The group under Pat's leadership is just a few people, and so any complaints made above Pat's head will be instantly traced back to the particular person who made them (or ver close)
4) Pat's superiors seem very happy with Pat's performance, and do not seem to notice that Pat makes BIG TALK promises that have very little follow-through.
5) Pat's is a terrible, terrible listener, and impatience may be at the root of the problem.

Should the people in Pat's group complain? If so, how should we go about it? How do you complain professionally when the problem is personality (communication style, impatience, etc.)?
Up to this point, we have generally decided that it is not worth the risk of making our working relationship with Pat more difficult, but if we could think of a way to approach Pat (or Pat's boss) about the personality issues that make them a hard leader to follow, the team would be much happier and more efficient.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No, nobody in Pat's group should complain. The higher-ups like him, as you've said, and it's also evidenced by the fact that he got a promotion. The people in Pat's group should smile and look for other jobs immediately.
posted by destructive cactus at 4:40 PM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nothing you can say will fix this.

Polish your resume. Find a new job. Do not, under any circumstances, do any talking among your team that might look, sound, of smell like gossiping or complaining. Do not ever mention the boss' weak points in the context of any interview unless you are part of a team that is considering hiring Pat.

Pat may cross your professional path again. You do not want to be on Pat's hit list.
posted by bilabial at 4:49 PM on September 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

A friend worked with a Pat-but-worse. In friend's exit interview, friend said frankly that friend was leaving because of Pat. Every bridge at that company was permanently burned for friend. It fucked up friend's references in a very big way. Note that friend thought they were doing the honest, forthright, helpful thing by sharing just how many people Pat-but-worse had driven away, etc. Friend did not think that everyone would suddenly hate them forever.

Do not do this. If you ever develop good, informal, close relations with someone higher up to whom it makes sense to say these things, you can drop a few very polite hints if you do it totally informally and discreetly and you know that you've judged the person correctly. Never, never make a formal complaint about your boss in a corporate environment unless they are breaking the law, etc.
posted by Frowner at 5:57 PM on September 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yeah, listen to destructive cactus, bilabial, and Frowner. I know people who have tried this; a couple of different times. It did not work out well. Bosses are still around to this day, and the underlings who tried this either had to leave or retired.
posted by gudrun at 6:01 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've done this once when I didn't know better and it actually worked out - but only because this particular Pat was so difficult to work with that management had received complaints from people all over the company at varying levels. I was jus lucky.

I've also complained to HR when a boss violated company policy. That did not end well for me.

What has worked well for me, at least some of the time, is putting a LOT of thought and patience into managing up. No idea if that might be useful here.
posted by bunderful at 6:09 PM on September 1, 2016

Say nothing and hope Pat gets promoted yet again, away from managing your team.
posted by salvia at 6:22 PM on September 1, 2016

New job time.
posted by so fucking future at 6:36 PM on September 1, 2016

So... I've been Pat. At least, that's what my deputy manager thought when I was the manager. She presented my boss with a long, detailed list of all the things I'd done wrong (honestly, some were fair points). My boss listened to her complaints, nodded soberly, and said something to the effect of, "If you think it's you or [Etrigan], I pick [Etrigan]. Do you want me to tell him we had this conversation, or do you want to do it?" She did not want to tell me, so my boss told me. He assumed I would fire her immediately. I didn't (she was very good at her job other than the trying-to-take-my-job part), and was perfectly willing to work with her, but she couldn't deal with it and left soon after.

That's my long way of agreeing with everyone else. Doing this is much, much more likely to make things worse for you, not better.
posted by Etrigan at 6:52 PM on September 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

What has worked well for me, at least some of the time, is putting a LOT of thought and patience into managing up. No idea if that might be useful here.

I'm familiar with a team that is managed by someone who, according to a lot of the people who've been on this team for a while, is a lot like Pat. When I spent some time watching these people in action, it didn't take me long to notice that they mostly did a poor job of managing up, and a good 75% of went wrong is something that could have been taken care of by managing up. I don't mean to victim-blame, but there were two things at play here:

(1) These people were so afraid of dealing with Pat's potential impatience that they didn't do a great job of managing Pat's expectations, which were often...well, off-base. This led to a vicious cycle of a team that produced work that was okay but never really met Pat's vision, which led to Pat getting too flustered and angry to operationalize Pat's vision for the next project, and so on.
(2) A number of them were decent at their jobs but frankly didn't display the sorts of problem-solving skills to really fix the things that Pat easily got stressed out over.

If these people led from a place of professionalism, I don't think anything bad would have happened. It turns out that Pat has a good relationship with the new people who can provide new and efficient ways of doing things without calling Pat's bluff.

All this is to say, if this description describes much of your team, then there's probably a lot more you can do to effectively shape your relationship with Pat. There's only so much you get to complain about your boss if your offensive game is weak.
posted by blerghamot at 7:01 PM on September 1, 2016

I have been you. I have been Pat's boss. I have been Pat. Apologies for length.

The first time I tried to talk to a big boss about my boss I was straight out of school and it was a non-profit. (That boss' name was actually Pat, and although she is long since dead or retired, your question gave me the chills.) Her boss barely listened to me, I was swiftly let go and I experienced the "everyone turned against me" thing mentioned above. So that was a big success.

The second time was when I was a consultant, and I had a boss who was genuinely abusive and who told me she was trying to fire me, so I had very little to lose. That was an awful mess, since she was the hand-picked successor of her boss and had come with him from another company. Fortunately for me, she had been doing things like showing up drunk to client events and trash talking me to another old client of the firm with whom I had been working for five years and who both trusted and liked me. The client saw the situation and asked me to whom he should complain to make her go away, and I directed him to the managing partner who was overall responsible for our group. Bad Boss was gone within a week. I learned something important that time-- lateral complaints work, while complaints from below don't work.

And now as a manager I understand why. When you hire someone to manage a team, you are making an investment. You know they won't be perfect at it, and you expect mistakes to happen. Having made a decision to invest in that person, you will not be willing to change your mind without evidence that this person cannot improve. I have managed managers who made terrible mistakes at the beginning, but later went on to be really good people managers. Some of their teams quit along the way as a result of those mistakes, and I let them go. People management is difficult and it isn't fair to expect more junior managers to be good at it overnight. Too much of this is an example of sunk cost fallacy, but many senior managers will still think this way.

So-- feedback. The absolute best way is to use company surveys (VOICE, etc.) if such a thing exists in your organization and if it is taken seriously. If everyone gives clear feedback on her leadership, she will need to listen. I know this doesn't exist in many (most?) places, but I'm always surprised how little it is used where it is relevant. The company I work for now evaluates your potential as a manager in part on your leadership survey results. And if our scores in any metrics drop below a certain level, we are required to sit with our teams with HR to talk about why. And since you are measured not only by your direct team but also by their teams, there is a fair amount of anonymity.

Your second option is to be the person who organizes her vision into something which delivers value. This is not at all a quick fix, but it works well with managers who are long on vision and short on people skills. I honestly work well with those kind of bosses since I am perfectly happy to let someone else do the handshaking and I get a lot of satisfaction from just getting on with it-- something that is very challenging for me to do if I'm in the spotlight. Consider, if the company like's Pat's vision, they may see the non-delivery and blame your team for it and not her. How are you organizing to deliver?

Finally, if you really want complaints to reach her boss, you need to secure that it comes from multiple sources and ideally her peers, and you need to make sure you are nothing but respectful and helpful in public. Manage up to other key stakeholders where you can. If she's really not delivering, this is doable. But dangerous.

When I was Pat, and a junior executive guy complained about me (he thought he should have gotten my promotion), it burned his career down and not mine. Be mindful about that extremely real possibility.
posted by frumiousb at 7:57 PM on September 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Probably the most important thing you can learn about workplace relationships is this: is it factual? Does it have a direct (emphasis: not indirect) impact on work? These questions are meant to be very easy to answer. If it takes talk about EQ, communication style, personality, etc. and the effect on work is mainly how people react to that (i.e. it's indirect), well, the problem is very fuzzy. There's not really a clear solution. As a result, higher-ups are going to do what others have mentioned: bridges will be burned, whoever has more responsibility is likely to stay, etc.

I've been through actual bad management. When you apply the "is it factual? does it have a direct impact?" approach, it's a resounding "yes". Examples from both sides for comparison:
- Example 1: Boss is sensitive to criticism. They've suggested you develop new management indicators for your team's productivity, but haven't given guidelines, and have given a team speech about how "challenging and motivating meeting this high-impact goal will be, woohoo, we're awesome, go get 'em team". Instead of criticizing along the lines of "ugh, what does that even mean," try proposing stuff. "Great idea for indicators, Boss. We've been thinking about it: if we build queries that measure correction ticket status by creation date, we'll see which severities and priorities are created, then if we compare it to a measure by status on closing date, we'll be able to see the gap between them as well as time to closure by status. What do you think?" If Boss comes back with even something like, "yeah but how are you going to do the query on status by creation date for tickets that were created well before the query?" you have a good boss who knows their stuff and have just discovered how to be an awesome employee, because you'll be able to talk through possibilities with them.
- Example 2: Same exact thing. You've made your proposal like above. Boss responds with: "Are you trying to steal my job?? Don't ever do that again!!" Boom: factual, which you know because you offered a solution (not criticism), direct impact (you've been told not to bring value to your employer). And yeah, I have witnessed this.

So indeed, there's a step missing in your question: the one where you mention solutions you've suggested/implemented and how Boss handled them.
posted by fraula at 1:39 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

New job time. If you managers above Pat like her a lot, some things tend to fall on deaf ears. Since she is very sensitive and your team is small, likely it will make the working relationship harder for you.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2016

Managing up has worked best for me when I had a good relationship with the manager and was honest but thoughtful in how I framed things. Rather than "your idea won't work" I'd say something like "I've put some thought into what you said about [project]. I think it could be helpful because X and Y. However it would take us [time] and [budget] to make it happen. We could also [alternative] which would have [benefit] and save us [time], [budget]. Here's a chart where I broke down our options."

It works best when I don't judge the boss but keep their personality quirks in mind when presenting information, assume good intentions, and prioritize what is best for the team / company.

If I need to "give them feedback" I frame it in terms of what I need to do a good job rather than what they are doing wrong. And aim for a slight improvement rather than starting with the expectation that the boss make a complete personality change or it's all pointless.
posted by bunderful at 6:13 AM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do your best with the boss you have, not the boss you wish you had.

Or start looking elsewhere.
posted by metaseeker at 5:02 AM on March 21, 2017

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