I wanted a demotion, but I guess I didn't?
December 21, 2017 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I was a junior employee with some frustratingly under-managed projects. Then the projects got a new manager. Yay! But this much-wanted transition feels like a demotion. Help?

I’m a pretty junior employee who has the privilege of working on a few different interesting but highly complex tasks. Previously, these tasks were supervised by the same manager (call him Manager A) and primarily being carried out by me (full-time) along with a few different more technical colleagues (part-time). Manager A is a smart, strategic, and capable person, but he was stretched paper-thin and often didn’t give these tasks the time, attention, and guidance they needed to succeed (I understand why; the other things that he supervised were significantly more central to our organization’s core functions than mine were). For that reason, the tasks weren’t as successful as they could have been – primarily because we struggled to navigate managerial politics and be as strategic as needed to be, given our limited skills and experience in that as a team. Even worse, several months ago, Manager A was given a large swath of additional responsibilities and essentially checked out of our team meetings/conversations altogether. It was a frustrating situation for everyone involved, especially me, and Manager A was very apologetic, but we did the best we could with the resources we had. We did complete everything that needed doing, but those tasks probably didn’t make the same impact as they could have.

Given that, I was pretty happy when Manager A brought a new team member (call her Manager B) on board to work for him. Manager B, who (unlike me) has significant project management experience, took over the slice of Manager A’s responsibilities that included all the non-core, neglected tasks like mine. She’s also smart, able, and well-intentioned. For the most part, it’s been fantastic to have someone providing additional hands-on guidance, strategy, structure, and management to tasks that were just limping along. It’s much-needed and I know it sets us up for success. I’m usually someone who does well under relatively heavy-handed management and clear expectations, so it should have been great for me.

And yet. A few weeks in to having this new manager, it’s really starting to chafe. Since she was brought on, I lost a lot of the autonomy I’d had (even though I didn’t necessarily want to be the decision-maker or leader on those things). I no longer lead meetings I used to lead (in some cases, I’m not even invited to them anymore), I no longer have the same level of knowledge or access, and I feel like what knowledge and experience I have gained in this (fairly specific) domain is no longer being heard. Even though I’m probably working at a more experience-appropriate level now - it feels like a demotion.

Because of that, I’ve become hypersensitive to what Manager B says and especially when Manager B is dismissive or condescending about my input. It’s frustrating to lose control, and it’s particularly frustrating when I hear her make the same mistakes or suggestions that I previously tried and could have provided additional insight on. I know I don’t know everything – she’s bringing a lot of expertise to this, particularly in project management techniques – but I do know a decent amount about the actual substance of the work. It’s turning into a situation where I internally chafe at everything she says and suggests, and it’s really getting to me. Plus, my poker face sucks, so it’s probably a little more visible than I intend it to be. I know the onus is on me to reframe things mentally, use this opportunity to learn more and skill up, etc. – but I’m struggling. How can I approach this in a healthier way? How can I change my thoughts and actions around my new responsibilities (and lack thereof)? I’m pretty sure this is my problem and mine alone to solve, but is it worth approaching this with Manager B at all?
posted by mosst to Human Relations (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience (which may or may not have anything to do with your's), many individual contributor type employees that end up in a scenario where they need to project/people management out of necessity rather than out of desire end up absolutely hating it. When a dedicated manager is brought aboard, those individual contributors tend to be quite happy to relieve those burdens to the new manager. I would suggest that Manager B may be implicitly assuming this is the case due to no evidence to the contrary by you. Now, I believe this is not great behavior by Manager B - ideally, Manager B would be asking you where they can be helpful, not making assumptions about their utility - but I would say it's common behavior.

I think this is a good place to plug the utility of managing up. You sound like you want to be in a position that is different than how your manager perceives your position to require. Although (again) I believe that managers should be constantly adapting position roles to the goals of their employees, it's quite common for that not to happen. Saying exactly what you want is the best way to get it. Managers are not telepathic - even the best ones are in the position where they are dividing their attention between multiple reports and their project work, whereas you are focusing 100% of your attention on your own career.
posted by saeculorum at 9:03 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Manager B, who (unlike me) has significant project management experience,

It would probably help you to get some specific training in project management. At least part of this is that you perceive she has skills you don't, and you seem to want those skills. Furthermore, they're powerful and transferable skills that tend to make or break organizations. So why not ask your boss to be sent for some good training or a course in project management?
posted by Miko at 9:12 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have been through a very similar experience and at one point could have written your OP almost word for word. I don't know if it was the best way to handle it but I tried to speak up when I had definite knowledge about something not being the right choice, having tried it before etc. but otherwise I tried to get on with, accept it as best as I could and unclench about no longer being "in charge of everything".

In my case the chafing didn't last more than a few months. I did have to keep reminding myself to let new boss take charge and eventually I started to enjoy the feeling of being able to refer up issues and not having to worry about *everything* myself. Also, importantly as new boss got to know me and my work she was more willing to trust and listen to my views so I did eventually feel valued in my own role. New boss and I built up a great working relationship and I was genuinely sad when she moved on to another job.
posted by *becca* at 9:24 AM on December 21, 2017

I have been in both situations, and feel your pain. From manager b's perspective, I would feel awful to know you were struggling with this, but I'd also feel lost at how to help you. Being a manager requires making the way forward easy and clear to see, rather than relying on others to pick it up from context or to figure it out through trial and error. So to that end, what do you want? Are there specific responsibilities you miss? Is there information you don't have any more that you'd like? I'd take the time to ask for it and see if she can make it happen.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:56 AM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I FEEL THESE FEELS. I'm kind of where you were before Manager B started, and I get these contradictory feelings of desperately wanting more oversight, structure, and deadlines while also resenting getting TOO much oversight from higher ups after months of benign neglect because it's like "Oh, now that it's a PRIORITY for y'all, you don't trust me to just do it, is that it?" But then I also tend to get projects done faster and more effectively because it's also like, "Oh thank fuck, finally, a hard deadline and some direct support." It is an interesting cocktail of emotions.

But I do not like the taste of this cocktail so this is my plan for the new year: make a list of the things I want to accomplish at my job (skills I want to develop, experience I want to get, projects I want to be involved with, etc.), make those my chief priorities, and just try to mentally unmoor from any other non-essential projects or responsibilities as much as possible.

The benefit to this is two-fold: first, once you have your list, I expect it would be easier to meet with your manager to talk about the specific things that you want to make sure you're kept in the loop on or tasks you would like to retain responsibility for either because you've already been working on it or because it is a project that you find particularly interesting. If she's as capable and not-intentionally-shitty as you say, she will probably be delighted with your proactive approach and hopefully do what she can to support you on these tasks and make sure you have what you need to succeed.

(If you like, you can also take this opportunity to gently remind her that you are a resource to be tapped on some of the projects she's in charge of now and you're happy to share what you've learned so far to avoid any retread of things that didn't work in the past. But honestly, most folks just need to encounter those dead ends themselves to fully grok that they don't go anywhere, you know?)

Secondly, it'll hopefully be much easier to let any perceived slights regarding the tasks you used to have to do out of sheer necessity roll off your back because they are officially Not Your Problem™ anymore. Thinking or worrying about those things no longer benefit your or your career; you've got your plan, and you're sticking to it as long as it makes sense to do so.

Good luck! Reframing is tough, but it can be sooooo beneficial, so I hope this helps.
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:34 AM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, take a deep breath, take a step back, and remind yourself not to take this personally. It feels like Manager B is in Your World, but, according to the org chart, you are in hers, and it can take some time to shift perspective. Take a few days of only doing what is specifically on your plate and observe how the team is working now, rather than how you remember it working/wish it was working.

After you have a new definition of the shape of your responsibilities and workload, set new goals, both for your own career and for the team. Some problems for your projects have been solved, but that just moves the goalposts and opens up new, higher-level challenges. How can you help Manager B tackle the new challenges? Can you train up experience in a niche skill? Can you devote extra time to being a subject matter expert and knowing picky details? Think about where you want to be a year from now, and find the first steps to that situation.

Next, ask for what you want. Sit down with Manager B and pitch the next step or two of your career development in a way that supports her goals of getting the projects done. Try to do it in a way that acknowledges her role in leading the projects and spins your requests as making life easier for her, rather than being extra things that need extra oversight.
posted by itesser at 3:38 PM on December 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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