Manager is micromanaging me on a project they aren’t leading/involved in
July 31, 2020 12:32 PM   Subscribe

The short of it is I was pulled into a project by my manager’s boss (boss boss) that manager is not involved in. Manager is expecting me to now report to them on everything I am doing for the project daily because I haven’t been able to work on manager’s projects that are not top priority. This seems like a political battle between manager and boss boss and an overstep, not to mention micromanagement, but I’m not sure what to do about it. Advice?

The long of it is manager is increasingly trying to convince me how I should be working on this project, my role, and the most recent talk was that I should be convincing boss boss and the project team that this project is not top priority and/or I’m being given too much work (even though that’s really not their call). I don’t think that is the case personally, and I’m not about to challenge my boss boss, so it feels like manipulation in a political battle that I’m honestly not keen on being involved in. I want to basically listen to boss boss and do the work they ask at the pace I’ve been given (which is the work gets done when it gets done, although we do meet weekly to discuss the project and collaborate). Manager is essentially now trying to boil my work down to tasks that they are monitoring in terms of time it takes for me to complete so that I guess I can rush through that work for the week and focus on their project (which I was originally told to work on when I have the time). It’s honestly not my manager’s business but for some reason they won’t talk to boss boss about it when I suggest that we meet with boss boss to discuss divvying up my time between projects. Boss boss leaves me alone to do my work.

Not sure what my course of action is here, because I don’t want to tell my manager to butt out and I don’t want to talk to boss boss about all this (in the end I’ll be the one to suffer regardless), but I’m being openly made to feel that I am impeding progress on manager’s project in front of that team and client when really it’s not my call where my priorities lay. I also don’t like the idea of being rushed through my work and micromanaged by someone who isn’t the project lead just on principle.

Anyway, advice is appreciated as usual.
posted by Young Kullervo to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't suppose your company uses formal project management metrics? That is, if I am assigned 2 tasks by my long-standing manager, and 3 sub-tasks of a project owned by manager's manager, then when I do my weekly time accounting I can make notations on what my activities are for each task/sub-task to defend myself in case of situations like this. E.g., "Called into 2 brain-storming sessions this week, then performed activities assigned to me during them 6.5 hours".

By the time I go through the administrative stuff all employees have to do each week, handling client calls, responding to another team having a problem, etc. it adds up to the number of hours worked. I just shrug and point to the numbers. But I realize my company may be the exception.
posted by forthright at 1:00 PM on July 31

Individual project managers determine how they manage projects so, no, nothing that structured. I suggested we discuss such a structure with boss boss but for some reason that isn’t going to happen.
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:04 PM on July 31

Here's what I'd do, but my job environment is likely very different from yours. In my job, it'd be considered responsible for me to push back and set boundaries, even at the risk of creating some friction. Explicitly tell your manager that you didn't want to be caught between them, and acknowledge that boss' boss has put your manager in a difficult spot by leaving you as a "when you have time" resource. I'd offer your manager a promise of a number of hours you're likely to be able to spend on their projects, and just commit to that, even if it requires putting off boss' boss' requests occasionally.
Then you can tell manager "I've got 28 hours a week left for you after boss' boss project; how do you want me to allocate that". Then be assertive about not discussing the other project without bringing boss's boss into the loop.

(This really might not be appropriate in every workplace, so ymmv. But it seems to me that if you have two forces pulling at you, and you don't want to address either of them, that the only alternative is more and more tension until something snaps)
posted by xris at 1:13 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

Is your boss's boss truly aware of the impact putting you on this different project is having on the other projects your team manages? I think understanding this is key to deciding what to do next. If yes, it's not inappropriate to professionally ask your boss to table this with you and push it up the chain. I'd recommend you acknowledge the situation your boss is in, but signal that this project seems at least equally important as the other projects your team handles given how it was tee'd up to you, and you feel like you are in an uncomfortable position that your boss needs to solve for you. Something like, "I hear you and I sympathize with the impact my limited availability is having on our other timelines, but this is what I've been told is the priority by big boss and I think it's important that we respect their decision."

If the big boss doesn't know how this work is impacting other projects, it actually becomes a liability to not surface that to them and ensure they are ok with shifting your focus. Leaders operating further from the front lines usually have less visibility into details than middle managers do, and they often assign tasks under the assumption that it can be absorbed without affecting the the rest of the duties a team manages. If a conflict exists and never gets escalated to the big boss for them to evaluate against the new tasks added to the pile, it can backfire for you because you essentially made the call on what was important and what wasn't without mapping out the implications and letting them be the final decider. If you're in that boat, you and your direct boss should work together to contextualize the situation for big boss and get a clear directive about how to proceed.
posted by amycup at 1:26 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

For clarification: The department has a project priority system in place with all clients, and boss boss made it clear to them all that I was being pulled off manager’s project to work on their project. The only reason I have worked on manager’s project since then is because there was a lull in boss boss’s project due someone else dropping the ball for a few days and I had time to work on it a bit. Now the expectation that I’ll work on it when there is a lull, but manager is pushing to basically make my time more available by discussing the boss boss’s project with me as if they are leading it. Manager is also convinced that boss boss’s project is not actually top priority but that’s not their call. It’s bizarre.
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:33 PM on July 31

Sounds to me like you have a manager that you call your “boss’s boss”, and some rando with no power you mistakenly call your manager.
posted by sideshow at 5:14 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

You should escalate to your boss' boss. Not sure why you don't want to do that but in my job it would be both the responsible/professional thing to do and the politically smart thing to do.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:38 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]

I am annoyed at all of you, just reading this. (Sorry! But I am!)

You actually report to your manager, right? You do not report to "boss boss"?

If that's right, then you're wrong to say your manager is micro-managing you and "it's not [their] business" what you're working on. If they are your manager, it's their job to set your priorities and know how you're spending your time. They will also be the person evaluating your performance, and so you should care what they think.

The original sin here is your boss's boss. That person should either be working through your manager (rather than directly with you), and/or they should be making sure your manager has whatever backfill they need to get their department's work done in your absence. It sounds like that's not happening. It also sounds like your manager, for whatever reason, doesn't have a relationship with their boss where they can broach the problem directly. That sucks.

You need to treat your manager like they're your manager, and ask them to set your priorities. If they want you half-time on your boss's boss's project and half-time on theirs, then it's your job to do exactly that. If you don't like it, it would be appropriate to tell your boss's boss that, at your manager's request, you are only going to have 50% time on their project going forward. If they don't like it, they will talk to your manager.

But you can't ignore your actual manager. That is just super dysfunctional and could end up with you getting fired. (In which case, PS, boss's boss is unlikely to protect you.)
posted by Susan PG at 7:10 PM on July 31 [10 favorites]

At some point your boss is going to need to fill out an annual review of you and you need that to look good, so you can't blow him off. Because your boss doesn't view this project as important, your boss's boss has put you in a bad situation and he/she needs to fix it. If they fail to make it right (they could convince boss, they could make you their direct report, etc.) then you need to tell him/her "respectfully, I must stop working on this project because the person I report to has directed me to discontinue."
On preview, what Susan PG said.
posted by flimflam at 7:42 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]

Call a meeting with your boss and your boss boss and ask them what you should be spending time on.

The worst thing you can do is not to clarify this with all the managers.
posted by monotreme at 11:00 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I agree that it is all completely dysfunctional and I am not typically one to defy my direct report manager on principle, I just hate that nothing about this situation and protocol makes sense to me. Also manager tends to be a bit controlling anyway (wants everything done their way to the point where they will just tell me how to do it) so this just adds a bit of extra friction. Compounded by the fact that everyone else on my main team only has one main client and project while I have two despite not getting paid more irks me, so I’m not about to rush around making more work for myself.

I would 100% love to sit down and discuss this with both of them but manager doesn’t want to.
posted by Young Kullervo at 8:47 AM on August 1

I would tell your boss' boss informally -- not in a "meeting" -- something like "hey, Manager has been asking me to do a lot for him and I feel like it's making it harder for me to do this project. Can you help me prioritize?" Then, every time your boss' boss asks you for something, mention with an offhanded tone that Manager has been asking about it or that Manager will be wanting you to do the other project.

Basically, you complain but with enough of a casual tone that you avoid seeming like you're snitching/complaining. But if boss' boss is smart at all they will get what you're putting down and tell your Manager to cut it out.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:11 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]

Like the problem is that you're trying to "meet" and people hate that, and besides it's not a negotiation between the Manager and the Manager's boss -- the Manager's boss is their BOSS, and will tell them to cut it out. Which they know. So they don't want to meet. So you have to get this issue in front of the person with the authority and will to fix it, boss' boss.

My work involves several teams with personnel overlap and a number of incredibly tight and crucial deadlines. So, I have been involved in this kind of dynamic literally a dozen times. The answer really is that you flag the issue up and you do so until it gets fixed. The Manager won't like it but your job is not "obey direct supervisor" it's "do your job for the organization" so you should stop worrying about pleasing someone who it's not your job to please.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:14 AM on August 1

This kind of thing happened every day in the big bureaucracy I used to work in and it's one of the reasons I left. The only way to solve it is for you to speak to your boss's boss and explain that you're getting pushback on your other responsibilities from your direct manager and need to know how many hours per week they expect you to put in on their project. Agree on a reasonable number and then communicate it in writing to your manager and copy their boss (for clarity and in recognition of the fact that they are your supervisor for that particular project). At that point, if your manager disagrees, they will have to talk to their own manager. At least your butt will be covered.

I'd also be very careful about giving the impression to your immediate manager that you don't think they have the right to know what you're doing or to direct your activities. Their boss--your project supervisor--is no doubt still expecting the team to fulfill its responsibilities and will probably also hold them at least partially accountable for your performance on this project. Manager's own project has no doubt been approved by the big boss and needs to get done. You don't want to give the impression that you are taking advantage of the situation by using the big boss's project to get out of doing your fair share on the team. As others have noted above, your direct manager is still the one who will have the most influence over your work going forward, and alienating them will not help you.
posted by rpfields at 9:47 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]

Which one of them is in charge of your performance reviews, raises, etc.? Do what that one wants.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:55 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]

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