Please just listen to me
June 15, 2021 6:28 PM   Subscribe

Is this a conversation I can/should have with my boss?

I started a new job 7 months ago that has been the source of a lot of frustration. I may or may not be here too much longer (I have a second interview coming up for another job).

A big part of my frustration is one of my managers, Ellen. Ellen is anxious and has a lot on her plate, and is sort of a classic micromanager who needs to be involved in everything down to the last detail and will constantly check up on little things but also isn't very good at sharing the big picture. I think that she means well.

One of the things that most frustrates me is that I feel like she doesn't listen to me when I say things. As an example, today we had this exchange:

Ellen: "Ambulance ambiance, have you sent out the emails to x group making sure they know about the application that was released yesterday?"
Me: "I haven't gotten to them yet but I'll send them out by the end of the week."
Ellen: "I'd like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away"
Me: "oh... okay, but the application deadline is July 23rd, right?"
Ellen: "The deadline is only 2 weeks away and I want them to have time to complete it"
Me: "okay, I just want to clarify though that we're talking about x application, we put the deadline as July 23"
Ellen: *blinks at me looking irritated* "can you send the emails tomorrow"
Me, probably sounding frustrated: "okay, will do"

This kind of thing happens *all the time* and it's really getting me down. I'm considering bringing up the above example in a check in on Thursday, outlining that:
- it feels disrespectful when she doesn't take the time to listen to the words coming out of my mouth
- often when I try to clarify to get important information she acts like I don't understand what she's saying-- but I'm just trying to get a full picture so that I can do my job better and more independently and take things off her plate
- it concerns me that she seems worried that I can't prioritize the projects that I'm working on, is there something that has made her concerned? If not, it would be helpful to me if she could allow me a little more space to decide what is urgent in my workload across projects since she is not my only manager. (I have been working in similar roles for 7 or 8 years, I'm not entry level).

Is this an okay approach? Is there another approach that would be better? Should I just skip the whole conversation? I'm just really frustrated, and I've never had this issue with any other boss. Ellen is in her late 60s, while I am in my early 30s, which I think may be part of the issue. She also has a reputation as a micromanager I think, though I'm not sure to what extent.
posted by ambulanceambiance to Work & Money (58 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Key question: What is the actual deadline? Two weeks or July 23rd? Because that is the communication gap that will cause you a giant problem if you send out emails with the wrong deadline. Maybe focus on that communication issue? As in, "I am always open to you reordering my priorities. I just need to know the critical information to include in the email. what is the actual deadline date?"

I consider these managing up issues beyond the power of most employees, so I focus on the management mistake that will cause the most trouble for the employee if it isn't corrected in time. YMMV.
posted by KayQuestions at 6:40 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]

Maybe there’s something I’m not picking up, but I don’t see how this would be a productive conversation at all. Your boss told you to do something, and instead of doing it, you quibbled with her about a fairly insignificant detail? I understand it’s frustrating to you that she’s not clarifying the deadline for you, but ultimately, the deadline doesn’t matter. She wanted the emails sent today. Who cares why? And yeah, it’s frustrating that she changed a priority, but that happens literally all the time in just about any job. To be completely frank, this is coming across to me as a bit whiny, which is not an impression you want to give at work.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:41 PM on June 15 [66 favorites]

The application was just released. Ellen thinks, "Excellent, this means we can send out emails about the application," while you think, "The deadline for the application is July 23, so I'll go ahead and get the emails out soon, by the end of the week, but it's not urgent to do it today." I don't think either of you is wrong; you just have different approaches.

Ellen is saying, "When we release an application, I would like the emails about the application to go out immediately." I don't think for Ellen it's about the deadline. I think for Ellen, it's more about the timing: you release the application and you send the email. It's part of the same thing.

I don't think Ellen isn't listening, not exactly. Because I don't think you're hearing her either. And I don't know that this is because she doesn't trust you. It sounds like you have a different approach. It's extra confusing because she's saying the deadline is in two weeks, and the deadline isn't in two weeks. I see why this is quite frustrating for you.

I know this is just one example, and you probably have others. I think you might be able to check in with her about her expectations, perhaps. I don't think this is about her listening so much as her having ideas of what things need to happen together.

Perhaps she would find it useful to have a list of tasks and when you expect to do them?
posted by bluedaisy at 6:43 PM on June 15 [23 favorites]

And having seen kevinbelt's comment... I think you are focusing on one part of this conversation, the dates and timing:
Ellen: "I'd like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away"
Me: "oh... okay, but the application deadline is July 23rd, right?"

But I think the part you should be paying attention to is this:
Ellen: "I'd like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away"
Me: "oh... okay, but the application deadline is July 23rd, right?"

posted by bluedaisy at 6:45 PM on June 15 [12 favorites]

What Ellen was saying: "I WANT YOU TO DO IT NOW."
It's not worth arguing with a supervisor. What kevinbelt said: the deadline doesn't matter, it's what she wants that matters.

Most likely there's been problems in the past with regards to people and the application, for whatever reason. Maybe people complained that it was too last minute, maybe they need 2 weeks of time, whatever. But in general, doing things at the last minute isn't great. What if you don't do it until the 22nd and then there's a technical failure and everything goes to hell?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:45 PM on June 15 [18 favorites]

I'm someone who has spent some time in nonprofit communities with complex applications that might take many weeks to gather the information for and complete, and where there may be situations where it's essential to get news that applications are being accepted out as soon as possible once the window has been opened.

That's not necessarily the case with your position... but maybe it is. This sounds to me like it might be that your boss expected you to start sending out emails as soon as the application opened up due to the difficult requirements of the application. Since that didn't happen, she's trying to be as nice as possible, but also firm, to get you to just get those out ASAP - and there may be a legitimate reason for her to try and do that.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 6:50 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Key question: What is the actual deadline? Two weeks or July 23rd?

The deadline is July 23rd. Unless of course, there *is* a key misunderstanding... which I don't have any way of knowing.

On preview: It's not a complex application, at all.
posted by ambulanceambiance at 6:50 PM on June 15

You're planning to move on, it sounds like. It may just be easier to keep your head down and tune out a bit. In other words, go with the flow. She wants it out sooner, just go ahead and don't figure out why.

If you were going to be there longer, I'd probably still start by acknowledging her request and agreeing to it first. Actually say, "Yes, I can send out sooner. How about tomorrow?" Then move on to clarifying details.

And I'd disagree that this is an insignificant detail: if she's saying the deadline is two weeks away, does this mean you guys need to change it? Or if it's an external deadline, but needs internal checks, does she want drafts in two weeks? Not clarifying means you've either got the wrong info or there's a method that you have no hope of picking up because your boss can't bother to explain. Long term it's good to get that info.
posted by ghost phoneme at 6:57 PM on June 15 [14 favorites]

When you’re having a meeting with her, would it help to have some note taking happening on a screen?

I think what might have gone better is to say, “July 23rd is 6 weeks away, not 2 weeks away.” If she’s not listening, or she’s distracted, or she is misspeaking, and you want clarification, you need to say your piece directly or let it go.

I am not sure if having a conversation about this will help that much. It’s hard to turn a micromanager into someone who is not and it sounds like you haven’t earned her trust.
posted by vunder at 6:59 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]

Me: "I haven't gotten to them yet but I'll send them out by the end of the week."
Ellen: "I'd like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away"

AA: No, the deadline is July 23rd and I have more urgent things to do. I will send them next week as planned. Any other topics or may I get back to work?

Can't say it will go well and you better be right, but I've said similar to bosses that aren't usually micromanagers and they have realized they're being obnoxious.
posted by flimflam at 7:06 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]

Your boss wants you to do the work now. Do the work. It sounds like you're trying to take control of the timeline when you point her to the other deadline. That is not the deadline. The deadline she set is the deadline.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:19 PM on June 15 [17 favorites]

My suspicion, because you say this happens all the time, is that this is a communication issue for which you bear some responsibility. Actually, a lot of responsibility, because it’s not an equal relationship: this person is your boss and your job is to do what they ask of you.

My guess is that when you “try to clarify to get important information,” it’s coming across like you’re debating, nitpicking, or getting hung up on irrelevant details, only to push back on your assignments. I’m NOT saying this is what you’re doing, but it’s easy to come across that way unintentionally.

No point in having the conversation, because you want to leave anyway. And because if you bring this up you have to be prepared for the possibility that improving will be on you, not your boss. I imagine that would be a frustrating result!
posted by kapers at 7:19 PM on June 15 [15 favorites]

The complexity of the application and the actual deadline doesn't matter. This is a situation where you felt the emails could go out at one time and she thought it should go out at a different time. In that situation you defer to her because she is your boss. I know that may not feel satisfying but that is the nature of the supervisor-employee relationship. There are times when it's OK to push back, like if you have a lot on your plate you can say "How would you like me to reprioritize X and Y and Z", but fundamentally she is the final decision maker here. If you are having a lot of conflicts with her like this one it's worth considering if this is a communication issue or if you're just trying to get her to do things your way instead of hers.
posted by schroedinger at 7:21 PM on June 15 [17 favorites]

You're getting good advice here.

It sounds like you're planning to move on -- a fresh start is good! One way to head off this sort of thing at your next gig is to have a ginormous calendar (or an online calendar if you're in different locations) that notes the due date of each of your deliverables. For every new assignment, discuss a clear deadline and then post that task and date in the calendar, so you'll have a conversation like:

Ellen: "Ambulance ambiance, have you sent out the emails to x group making sure they know about the application that was released yesterday?"
Me: "I have that task down for July 9, two weeks before deadline on July 23."

And then Ellen will say, "Oh, can you make that sooner?" which yes, of course you can, because she's asking. Or she might say, "Oh, that's July? Okay, just wanted to be sure that was scheduled."

From this example, I don't see Ellen as a micromanager. Managers simply want to know that you're on task and will get stuff done without a reminder, so it's one less thing off their list. When you say "I haven't gotten to it yet," the manager might understandably fear that you've forgotten it. But if you say "I have that scheduled for X date," then it's clear it's on your radar and you're taking care of it.
posted by mochapickle at 7:43 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: So I totally acknowledge that I could have phrased my piece better and can work on repeating back what she said to make sure she feels heard. If I'd had time to carefully compose a response, sure I would have said "of course, I'll get that out tomorrow, but I just want to double check that we don't have a misunderstanding because the application deadline we put down was July 23rd, which is 6 weeks away." But I'm sitting there saying to myself '2 weeks?? Did I put the wrong deadline on the application?!'

The issue is twofold:

1-- Yes, you all have picked up on this-- this is one of multiple projects I work on. I would like to have the space to say to myself "I can send that handful of targetted emails on Thursday, given the nature of the application and the context of the emails, five weeks of notice is plenty of time and I have x, y and z things to do for my other managers on Tues and Wed." Of course I don't mind when urgent things come up. But so often the things that come up with her as Very Urgent are just a function of anxiety. I had told her the day before that I would send the emails out this week. I truly don't think I have a track record of dropping balls at this organization.

2- I do need to know when the application deadline is! I need to be able to ask and make sure I didn't misunderstand her process. If I did misunderstand-- it's a problem! In general, if I can't ask clarifying questions without her just repeating what she said originally, it's a problem.
posted by ambulanceambiance at 7:49 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]

One of the things that most frustrates me is that I feel like she doesn't listen to me when I say things

I think she does, but has a different (perhaps ask vs guess) communication style to you. In many parts of the world, July is a shit-show for people being away on vacations. She's (obliquely) telling you to make this a priority.

Also, for some managers, repeating back is considered insubordination.
posted by scruss at 7:51 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]

I’ve had bosses like this, and for me what they were looking for was a clear “Yes, I will do the thing.”

“I’d like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away.”
“Sure, I can send them out tomorrow morning.”
Pause, wait for reply
“One thing, though: I have July 23rd for the deadline. Did it get moved up? Should I (change the form, mention that in the email, etc)?”

Once it’s clear that you’ve heard and understood, and she can set aside the anxiety of when the emails will go out, she may be able to focus on your actual question.
posted by pocams at 7:54 PM on June 15 [83 favorites]

But so often the things that come up with her as Very Urgent are just a function of anxiety.
I have a coworker like this and very little good advice for managing this, except that I think it's really great that you are seeing this as not about you.

A friend of mine used to tell me that his boss always wanted things earlier than the official deadline, and if he didn't have them done early, she felt like they would be late, even if he was going to meet the deadline. And she'd be stressed and pestering him. So, to deal with this, he basically decided that the effective deadline was a few days earlier, and he'd get things done by then.

I will note that you keep saying that you want to make sure you know the deadline. The two weeks thing is definitely confusing. But, I suspect your attempt for clarification on that issue went right over her head. She was focused on the timing of the emails, not the deadline. Your request for clarification of the date could be seen as a way of pointing out that she was wrong, when the issue is more than she wants you to do something sooner.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:58 PM on June 15 [15 favorites]

You do need to know when the actual deadline is, but you can find that out by sending her a draft of the email you plan to send asking her to sign off on the deadline. The way you handled it in the example you gave will be interpreted by many bosses as you questioning the urgency of what she wants you to do.
posted by cakelite at 8:03 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]

I am a manager in IT and over the years I have managed a lot of people who have a huge amount of technical and specific knowledge which makes a lot of their self-worth invested in the fact they know things and can "win" arguments.

So a lot of time they think something is a discussion or an argument when it is just an instruction.

This is how I explain it to new members of my team. Most people work in a hierarchical structure and my job as their boss is to be the interface or conduit between them and the people who pay us. Sometimes the people who pay us want things done in a certain way or sometimes there is information which affects a task which it would be better that they not know. Sometimes the people who have a lot of self-worth invested in being "right" about something are frustrated about this because they feel their self-worth is being attacked. It takes a while for them to trust that I have their best interests at heart.

Eventually trust is built and they know that if I ask them to do something seemingly nonsensical it's because either I don't have time to explain why or it is better for them that they don't know why. They get glimpses of the stupid shit I have to deal with and that I shield them from so they can do their jobs without going insane. Eventually they profess admiration for how I deal with "the politics" so they don't have to.

Before that trust is built I have some of these types of conversations which are pointless and stupid, but hey, that's capitalism.

So when people join the team I remind them that they are working in this hierarchical structure and I am their boss so sometimes they should just grow the fuck up and do as they're told.
posted by fullerine at 8:16 PM on June 15 [39 favorites]

Oh you’ve got my boss I see. Mine’s skill is to also confuse my many projects, so she’ll tell me to do X on project Y when X on project Y has been done for weeks, I think she means project Z but she gets flustered when I ask her and just repeats herself while I try to get her to clarify because if she really does need me to redo something I need a lot more information.

What has helped is this. Whatever things she’s asking me to do I agree too. That calms her down. Then after she thinks the conversation is over I send an email that asks for the information I need. I have an amazing amount of emails from her that say “Oops, yes I meant project Z not X, good catch!”. I think of it as managing the behavior instead of the problem, I can’t make her a more thoughtful calm person but I can handle how her nervousness manifests.

It is really stressful not being able to have a conversation about what work needs to be done, good luck finding a better position!
posted by lepus at 8:17 PM on June 15 [24 favorites]

If I were Ellen, your response would feel like you were not listening to *me.* And I'm your boss. It's your job to listen to me. She said she wanted the emails sent now. The only thing to say back is, I'll do that now. Anything else feels like you're wasting time arguing with your boss when she's just asked you to do something.
posted by shadygrove at 8:30 PM on June 15 [7 favorites]

I'm a bit surprised by the responses so far. I don't think it's a given that any time your boss issues an instruction, especially one that doesn't totally make sense, you just do it the moment they say it with no questions asked.

From my perspective it sounds similar to a boss I used to have. He would ask me to do something and the request seemed to be based on faulty information. I was pretty sure if I did what he asked it would be an issue with our parent company. Any attempt at clarification was viewed as insubordination, when I was just trying to make sure we both had the facts straight.

Anyway, in my case he already hated me for some reason so there was no fixing the issue and I moved on. In your case it sounds to me like it could be worth a conversation. I would try to take an angle of "what are you seeing in my work that concerns you, Ellen?" rather than "here's what you're doing that bothers me" to make more headway. You might get feedback about your work and style that will be useful whether or not you move on from this position. Another way you might get this information is to ask your other managers for input, but that would depend on the office set up and politics.

I also just want to acknowledge that it is reasonable to be frustrated when your manager just gives orders, but doesn't give context (or changes it on you), and your work becomes a series of tasks over which you have no ownership/agency but are still somehow responsible for doing right.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:48 PM on June 15 [18 favorites]

one of my managers, Ellen
I have x, y and z things to do for my other managers on Tues and Wed

Multiple managers who are (presumably) not that flash at coordinating between themselves about the demands they put on you, and at least one of whom is a chronic micromanager?

Fuck that noise. Two weeks vs six weeks or June vs July is only the surface problem here, and dealing with that isn't going to fix the structural problem. Finding a better organized workplace is definitely the correct call here.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 PM on June 15 [10 favorites]

Were you hired to make decisions or execute decisions others make? It sounds like the latter if you have 3 Supervisors to whom you report. Unless they are making an egregious mistake, when they ask you to do something, do it. What if Supervisor Ellen just said, "I need those application emails to go out tomorrow" with no mention of a deadline? I hope you would have said, "Ok, I am on it." The mistake was in her rationalizing her reason for asking you to get it out tomorrow, not in the request itself.

If you are going to have a conversation with Ellen, I don't think it should be about her listening to you, but rather about you listening to her. Or, rather, maybe the conversation should be with all three supervisors at the same time to discuss coordinating deadlines.
posted by AugustWest at 9:06 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]

I agree with flabdablet that the root problem is you having multiple bosses/managers. I reported to three people once and ... whew, would not do that again if I could avoid it.

One strategy that worked for me was making my managers sort out my priorities, as in “I would love to get to that today, Ellen, but Helen already loaded my schedule for the next few days. Can you please coordinate with her on whether your tasks or hers should take priority in my schedule and get back to me?” Your managers’ jobs (among other things) are literally to manage you, including your priorities and your time spent on various projects. It is not insubordinate or otherwise out of line to make this their problem. Just be polite and not sarcastic about how you phrase it.
posted by bananacabana at 9:18 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]

I found some of these responses puzzling and disappointing.

Nevertheless, it sounds like you do know what a better (or at least, less circular/frustrating conversation inspiring) response would be, so perhaps just work on having that in your pocket, especially if the new request means that something else has to be re-prioritized.

Based on your previous question, I'm not optimistic that there is anything you can say here that will make this role more satisfying for you. Micromanagers are not known for their ability to nurture autonomy and self-direction so much as inspiring people to leave for managers and workplaces that do.
posted by sm1tten at 9:20 PM on June 15 [9 favorites]

Your boss sounds awful. It feels like micromanagement to me. Being the boss is not really a good excuse for make illogical decisions. It's arbitrary and capricious and it makes it hard to manage your own time and use your own common sense.

There seems to be a lot of support for "just shut up and do what I say." I think people who behave like this are unlikely to change. Glad you're interviewing.
posted by shoesietart at 9:27 PM on June 15 [12 favorites]

I think you were both talking past each other. She asked you a question (can you send the emails ASAP?) and you answered her with a question on a different topic (when is the app deadline?).

Next time, answer her question before asking yours. It doesn't even need to be in the same interaction.

Ellen: can you send the emails ASAP?
You: sure!

... later...

You: Ellen, I'm sending out those emails -- the app deadline is July 23rd, correct?
Ellen: Yup!

I completely understand why this dynamic is annoying, but because she is difficult to communicate with, keep every interaction as simple as possible.

I don't think this is something you should have a discussion with her about. It's hard enough to have factual discussions with her, so I doubt anything more emotional or personal or about your meta-communication is going to go well. Just try to keep things moving at work, and good luck on your interviews!
posted by nowadays at 9:32 PM on June 15 [16 favorites]

she wants you to do it now, not only because of whatever the deadline is (2 weeks, July 23, whatever), but so she can stop worrying NOW over whether the thing is done.

a really useful thing to do at work is to position yourself as someone who makes your boss's life easier, not harder.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:33 PM on June 15 [18 favorites]

People think you're quibbling unnecessarily, and you shouldn't do that, but I don't think that's what you're describing. Either you or she is wrong about the deadline, and you should probably both know what the correct deadline is. Heck, maybe you two aren't even talking about the same application! In any job where accuracy is very important, you have to follow up on these discrepancies, because someone's wrong about something. This was a huge part of my job when I was a Biglaw junior, and it wasn't that my bosses were eager to hear me question them, but they grasped that it was vital that we were always on the same page about everything in a project.

It sounds like your boss is not hearing that in the moment, though. I would address her concern first ("okay, I'll send the emails") and only once that's off her mind would I shift to "Quick follow-up question--I thought the project deadline was [x], not [y]."
posted by praemunire at 9:36 PM on June 15 [23 favorites]

Is it possible she may have had June and July mixed up, thinking that we're in July now? (My sense is that people who rarely mix up dates sometimes underestimate how often it happens to others.) So when you kept repeating July 23rd, she maybe kept, erroneously, thinking "yes, two weeks from now let's go" instead of realizing the issue, because the two of you weren't communicating successfully.

this is one of multiple projects I work on. I would like to have the space to say to myself "I can send that handful of targetted emails on Thursday, given the nature of the application and the context of the emails, five weeks of notice is plenty of time and I have x, y and z things to do for my other managers on Tues and Wed."

The multiple managers bit seems like a core problem here, and rarely works well or at all. You have several managers and they're all trying to manage your priorities (which is an important part of what managers do) without any of you having the context to do that successfully. She's frustrated because she wants this task prioritized (maybe as a "function of anxiety," maybe because she or you got confused about the deadline, or maybe because of some decent reason you're not aware of, but setting priorities is her job whether or not her reasons are solid) and you're just kind of vaguely pushing back without any real explanation for why you don't want to honor her prioritization. You're frustrated because you're working for multiple people, each with their own priorities, and Ellen has no idea that, or doesn't care if, prioritizing the x group emails means you won't, say, have the weekly report ready for the committee, which one of your other managers relies on you to have ready every week.

If you're staying in this job, it seems you and all of your managers need a better system of communication around tasks and priorities. Ideally, that means you have one actual manager with this authority (even more ideally, that is not the micromanaging Ellen), and other people go through that one person if there are concerns about your priorities. Failing that, could you at least have a system that makes all this visible, such as a white board in the office or simple project management software, so everyone can see the competing demands on your time. That could turn the conversation into something more like:
Ellen: "Ambulance ambiance, have you sent out the emails to x group making sure they know about the application that was released yesterday?"
You: "I haven't been able to yet because...let's pull up my project board...I've got the emails on my list here, and they're currently set to go out by the end of the week, since I need to get the weekly report done first. Is that ok?"
Ellen: "I'd like them to go out sooner because the deadline is 2 weeks away"
You: "Sure. I'm happy to do it right away, but I already promised to have these tasks [points to board] done first. Let's talk to [relevant other managers] to decide how to prioritize these tasks. Also [or have this conversation entirely separately later], I just wanted to check that deadline since I had it down as July 23, 6 weeks away. Did I get it wrong?"
Which communicates that her desire to change a priority is reasonable (even if you think it isn't, it's still her job to decide) but that it comes with context she might not be aware of and has to be coordinated with your other managers. This is even more true if you're working remotely and this is not an organization that was particularly adept at remote work before the pandemic.

Especially looking at your previous question, a setup where you have 4-5 managers (and an actual manager who you report to on paper yet doesn't manage you in reality) all dumping admin tasks on you with little autonomy and not so much of the work you expected to be doing doesn't seem at all like a recipe for your success or happiness. It sounds like you have the less than fun part of having a supervisor 4-5 times over—someone telling you what to do—and basically none of the useful part of having a manager—someone who coordinates competing demands for your time, addresses impediments to your work, and is a single point of contact related to your success and happiness as an employee. It sounds like you have a plethora of people telling you what to do, but no actual manager responsible to you, someone you have regular one-on-one conversations with to discuss things like "different people are placing conflicting demands on my time and there's no coordination of that" or "would it be possible for me to own creating the XYZ training now as colleague moves into her new role?"
posted by zachlipton at 9:54 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]

I found some of these responses puzzling and disappointing.

I’m guessing many of us have been in the position of getting that late email and thinking “why the hell wasn’t this sent a week ago when the application was released?” As a thank-god-former grant writer, the whole “eh they should still have plenty of time if I tell them next week” thing made my tummy hurt. Regardless of when the deadline actually is.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:03 PM on June 15 [17 favorites]

If your boss' behaviour is a function of her anxiety, try soothing the anxiety by showing JUST HOW ON TOP OF IT you are.

Instead of “I haven't gotten to them yet but I'll send them out by the end of the week.”

Try: “I have 45 minutes blocked in my calendar on Friday morning to send the emails. I will let you know the moment they’re out.”

And as others have suggested, ask the clarifying question AFTER your commitment is established.

I have had success with this method but it is exhausting. There’s no real, satisfying, tolerable, permanent cure for a micromanager — except to leave them.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:44 PM on June 15 [10 favorites]

Your boss’s behavior might be fixed but it’s also indefensible. Many people in your situation are going to be 100% fine with sending the email earlier than planned, but highly confused by a boss who is constantly incorrect about what is going on and won’t listen or clarify. It’s just straight up bullheaded stupidity. If she doesn’t care about the deadline and just wants the emails out, she should have the spine to say “hey, could you send the email out tomorrow? I want to be sure it’s out early.” Voila, no idiotic power play required.

That being said, this boss sounds like a sloppy fool and like most bosses, will not change, so I second praemunire’s advice to dumb everything down to the most binary coins possible when communicating with them.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:45 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]

Even if you want to argue about how to prioritize all your tasks, you would probably still be better off doing it in the way suggested above:

- first agree to send the email out tomorrow, letting her know you understand her and that she can count on you
- then clarify the date
- then say "you know, I'm a bit stressed about getting everything done on time for [other projects]. Would it be okay for me to prioritize them right now and then send the email on [other day]?"

(To be honest though, this email sounds like such a small task that I'd wonder why it would take more than a few minutes and why you preferred to let it sit around as a task instead of just doing it right away, getting it off your plate, and not holding up the recipients' work. It sounds like she might like a more "inbox zero" type of approach, and your approach, while not necessarily less valid, is stressing her out.)

At your meeting, you could try to have a general chat with her about how you prioritize and balance tasks for your different projects. Without mentioning things like disrespect.
posted by trig at 12:25 AM on June 16

I sometimes have this conversation with people who work for me, and sometime with people I work for. I'm also a person who does things by the deadline, so I can appreciate why you might feel sending the email later would be fine. However, the best answer in the conversation always seems to be to agree to do the task now/sooner. Then ask why (or in the example, clarify the date that needs to be written in the email).
posted by plonkee at 2:04 AM on June 16

Your title says it all, really.

You're both wanting to be listened to first. In an employment situation, it usually works best if the manager gets that. Employee addresses manager's want/need, then (somewhat anxious) manager relaxes, then employee asks their clarifying, follow-up questions.

That you're interviewing seems a clear indication that you've already determined there isn't a good be enough fit. Given the other factors it seems you've instinctively understand that being successful at that job would ask you to flex more than is comfortable or sustainable long-term. Best wishes with your search for a better fit!
posted by dancing leaves at 4:15 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing...You're being told to send out the application now. It isn't your job to quibble about the deadline or timing. I don't see what she's doing as micromanaging at all. I do see your response as trying to somewhat micromanaging her.

Just send it out and be done. This is not a hill worth dying on.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]

It’s funny - her vagueness about the deadline actually reads to me as if she’s not micromanaging. The micro managers I’ve worked with would have been more like: did the email go out? No? Did you have the deadline? Did you bold the important dates? Is the logo the new file?

To me she’s in her lane here if she’s checking up on whether the application launch included communication to the applicants.

Agreed that reconfirming the deadline is a good move anyway but as a separate conversation.

One way to avoid this is for you to communicate a bit more proactively like when you get the final link/date/whatever, email your manager(s) with: Thanks! The email to applicants will go out: date at time. I think the project board as described above is also a great strategy.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:45 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I think some people may be misunderstanding /reading into the situation.

For one, this "application" is not a grant app, it's more of a short registration form.

It has already been announced several different ways, this is just a follow up courtesy "in case you didn't see it" email to a few people who have expressed interest in the program in the past. I have a meeting with Ellen on Thursday to think about other additional ways to promote the opportunity, so I thought that once I had a list I could more efficiently send out any additional communication.

To be honest though, this email sounds like such a small task that I'd wonder why it would take more than a few minutes and why you preferred to let it sit around as a task instead of just doing it right away, getting it off your plate, and not holding up the recipients' work.

It *is* a small task. But there are a lot of small tasks that she asks me to do. I had told her the day before that I would send out the emails that week. She caught me before a different meeting on a different topic to say "have the emails gone out?"

If I tried to constantly do everything the minute someone asked me to do it because it's 'just a small thing' I'd be rushing back and forth getting much less done. Trying to prioritize everything for her because she is worried I'll forget is just going to stress me out.
posted by ambulanceambiance at 4:49 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]

Confirming a deadline for an application - which is probably listed on the application itself and would obviously be a detail included in an email about said application - is not "quibbling"! It's making sure critical information is correct. And the idea that sending out an announcement to a targeted audience (likely through an email blast or marketing automation platform) "only takes a few minutes" - this is so illuminating as to why jobs in communications are so miserable and thankless.

"Sending an email" means drafting the copy, editing the copy, probably getting that copy approved, laying it out in the correct email template, reviewing a test of the templated email and making sure all the links are working etc., possibly pulling the targeted list from the database, etc. etc. It is not a 5 minute job. On top of that, when you are managing marketing for an organization you also have to manage priorities from an audience perspective, because if people get 5 emails in one day because all 5 of your managers want their email to go out NOW, they unsubscribe and then no one can reach them.

To answer your actual question, OP, I don't think you can bring this up as a big picture issue for your boss to address, unfortunately. She's likely too set in her ways and doesn't seem open to even the gentlest correction. I think there are good ideas in some of the less condescending responses above - namely, ways that you have to adjust your own communication style to prioritize reassurance to her so she knows you understand and will do what she is asking, and finding a different way or time to clarify what needs clarifying.

I'm glad you're looking for a new job, having multiple managers sucks, but is also only part of the problem. In marketing/communications you're always going to have competing priorities even when you only have a single direct supervisor on the org chart, and I hope you find one where managers have more of a whole organization perspective and less of a "but MY particular program/project/application needs your full attention to the exclusion of all else" attitude. In some ways, being a person in a marketing/comms role means advocating for the customer/audience/donor and trying to bring their perspective and experience to the decision making processes. Especially in non-profits, that isn't always happening; program managers are thinking about what THEY want/need.
posted by misskaz at 4:57 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]

Ellen does not worry that you can't manage your workload, she thinks that you do not prioritize her work correctly (even when she comes to pester you about it). You don't mention it, but how Ellen ranks in comparison to your other managers, and how much power she has over you, is critical context. Much more important than whether her priorities are anxiety-driven.

Juggling multiple managers is an art, and you're not always going to prioritize perfectly and keep everyone happy. Make your best guesses about what is important, and also who is important. Check those guesses with your bosses - a group email will give everyone a heads-up when you're busy, and let them hash out whose work gets done first.

Otherwise, my approach to anxious bosses is to match or exceed their anxiety. Start their tasks well in advance, check in with them more, double-check work before they see it, and cite to sources when my info doesn't match theirs. The anxiousness may be a natural tendency, but it is also a strategy in the workplace. In my experience, I get more breathing room and more benefit of the doubt when I roll with it.
posted by mersen at 5:27 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]

Count me as one who is surprised at how many comments say you are screwing something up in this interaction. It's not you at all, IMO. If you both have previously agreed that you are to send that email at the end of the week, it's unprofessional of her to nag you about it at random times and change up your schedule willy nilly. Especially since this isn't a one-time thing but rather she is a constant source of chaos for your schedule and priorities. No. You did nothing wrong. She is being unprofessional.

Having said that, my substantive advice is somewhat similar to everyone else's. This isn't something you can talk to her about. She's your boss, that's now how it works.

I would instead second the advice given by cranberrymonger and bananacabana: if she wants to dictate sudden changes to your previously agreed schedule, then she becomes responsible for the ramifications of that sudden change. I would strongly advise you to say something like, "I'm happy to move that task over to today from next week. I'll need to shift some other priorities around to fit this in today, does that sound ok? OK! I'm just going to send The Other Manager a quick email to let them know. Thanks!"

And then you cc Ellen in the email you write to The Other Manager. You make sure you document every single instance of her impromptu changes to agreed-upon schedules. Cover your ass, expose her ridiculous whirling dervish act to the other managers. My bet is that when she knows her antics are going to be visible to other managers, she's going to magically find a way to control her anxiety without demanding that you jump when she says jump.
posted by MiraK at 6:19 AM on June 16 [11 favorites]

OK, so; "It *is* a small task. But there are a lot of small tasks that she asks me to do. I had told her the day before that I would send out the emails that week. She caught me before a different meeting on a different topic to say "have the emails gone out?""

And your response was "I'll get to it when I get to it this week some time."

No, that's not what you said. BUT..

- you've been there only 7 months
- you have a problem with Ellen. This impacts how you respond to her, and it quite likely it comes out in your tone or phrasing.
- Even though you *think* your phrasing was innocuous, it likely comes off dismissive and argumentative.

I can understand where you are coming from. You have many conflicting small, seemingly unimportant tasks you have to manage from multiple managers. You don't see the value in most of them. And don't know why your managers bother you about getting them done with variable priority.

But, they are also likely managing multiple other small and larger tasks, and don't want to worry about the smaller tasks. But your self prioritization says that you don't appear to value their direction.

OR, when they check up on something for a status, you say you'll get to it when you get to it (not your words, or even likely your intent, but from your post, and also your responses, I can tell you that is what is coming across.)

Going somewhere else isn't going to necessarily fix this. You also need to be more self aware of how you may be escalating or complicating what should be a simple exchange.

It's understanding the manager. Like in school, when you had to write something, and understand what the teacher was looking for. You might write something brilliant, but get a crappy grade because it wasn't how the teacher wanted it. Is that wrong? Well, likely, but we learn to write for the audience.

Timeline matters, too. I'll presume "told her the day before you'd send them out that week" means that was the first time it was discussed. In that case, her asking you the next day (if it was a Tuesday), a better response would be less detail and a more 'positive' spin like "Queued up on the list, and will be going out soon."

But, as I mentioned, your response was more detailed, and tended towards saying that it wasn't a priority for you, even though she obviously thinks it is.

Now, if it wasn't a Tuesday, and it was a Wednesday.. she's going to have more urgency about it.

And if "the day before" was a second or third time it was mentioned, then everything just gets more heightened - the impression that you're taking over and making your own decisions about what is important or not becomes worse.

I don't know how long you've been in the work environment (7 months or 7 years), if this is your first job or 3rd. I feel like you may still be relatively newish, though.. 1-3 years in. I encounter frustrated younger employees all the time.. where they feel all their training and knowledge is being wasted on menial stupid things and they want to DO something.

This only breeds unhappiness. You are doing something.. but someone has to do the busy silly work. Getting a handle on that work, and organizing yourself such that you have free time to actually take on other things that matter.. that's a skill, and it is a pain in the ass.

Everyone thinks they can do their boss' job better, but rarely self reflect on how they might tweak themselves to improve their own situation and interactions.
posted by rich at 7:01 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]

Wow, there's a thread of "shut up and do what you're told" here that's really depressing.

In my world, I'm the expert on the problems I'm trying to solve, I'm the one with my hands on the actual important work, and my manager's job is to help me get that work done. The day they start treating me as a machine that follows orders without question, to the point of not making the minimal effort to answer clarifying questions, is the day I go find a better manager. Most of them are better! (As the OP knows: "I've never had this issue with any other boss.")

If the OP is totally stuck here for some reason, that's one thing. But they're not; they're already interviewing, and they've been in "similar roles for 7 to 8 years", so they know their best alternative is probably already better than the current situation, and they risk little by trying to resolve the problem here before giving up.

Complain early, complain often; maybe you can get a problem fixed and save your employer the trouble of starting over with someone new. Worst case you don't, and you get to move on and leave this as somebody else's problem.
posted by floppyroofing at 8:12 AM on June 16 [14 favorites]

For those making assumptions about OP’s age or level of experience, note that their post mentions they are in their 30s and have been “working in similar roles for 7 or 8 years”.
posted by chaiyai at 10:24 AM on June 16 [7 favorites]

Just want to validate your frustration, OP. Maybe Ellen has a history of her projects being pushed to the side, but she still needs to engage you when you ask clarifying questions.

It honestly sounds like you are able to take in multiple projects from multiple bosses and manage that workflow. Ellen seems to want to have someone to complete her tasks as directed on her personal schedule. That's perhaps not an unreasonable desire, but that is a different role than what you have. If you're meant to be an automaton, then there needs to be someone who's managing your workflow. This is what I do for our part-time workers. Otherwise the Ellens of the world suck up all their time, and inefficiently at that. They aren't being malicious, but they have their priorities and aren't always in the position to be aware of others.

This would definitely be something to work out if you were going to be long term. But addressing mismatched expectations can be stressful depending on office politics. I don't blame you if you're just over it. I'd probably mention something about mismatched expectations in the exit interview so they can try to set the next person up for success.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:27 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]

You did nothing wrong. Please ignore the authoritarian "the boss is always right, even if they're technically wrong" type answers in this thread, there were more than I'd expect from Metafilter. I find it telling that many of them ignored pertinent details from your post, and made incorrect assumptions about the situation :)
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 10:29 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]

Wow, there's a thread of "shut up and do what you're told" here that's really depressing.

More accurately, the takeaway from most of these responses is "pick your battles."

With OP's experience level, there's no doubt they're tasked with other work that fully depends on their 7-8 years of hard-earned expertise and insight, where questions and clarifications would be key to the success of their output and the organization as a whole.

This particular task is to send a link, by email, to a group of people that has been designated in advance, who are already aware of the topic. There's no art to this. In rearranging the send date, it's annoying, but OP isn't losing an ounce of humanity, their flesh inevitably yielding into metal and mainframe. It's just a five-minute thing that needs to be done by someone, anyone.

The second takeaway is that OP is smart to look for other work. A very real failure here lies in having multiple managers and none of them managing OP's objectives and workload.
posted by mochapickle at 10:38 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]

I interpret it more as ask vs. guess. Ellen is not directly saying, please do it now, but that is what she meant. OP is supposed to take the hint, translate it in their brain to, "Ellen wants it done now," and do it now so Ellen will stop freaking out. It's not 100% open, honest and direct communication at work, but who does that anyway. Anyway, still not worth the argument to me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:49 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]

It *is* a small task. But there are a lot of small tasks that she asks me to do. I had told her the day before that I would send out the emails that week. She caught me before a different meeting on a different topic to say "have the emails gone out?"

I have worked with a couple people that I have this pattern with, and it is definitely a frustrating dynamic.

-for anxious managers, "this week" is not specific enough and they will often assume that means "Monday/asap, Friday is too late." You are both frustrated because to you, Friday is this week! But not to them. You may get along better if you can try to adjust your style to saying and doing "I will do that on the 15th or 16th, does that work?" And then you have more leverage if she starts bugging you on the 12th to say "we had agreed on the 15th, I can't do it earlier OR I can do it this time but let's remember to pad this by a few days next time."

-if you are not doing a written debrief/log of your upcoming deadlines with this boss, that might help alleviate anxiety. Can you picture the scenario going better if you had had a physical list to look at and say "oh yep, I have that scheduled for the 15th?" Some anxious bosses assume that they have to keep asking about That Thing or else you/they might forget and then the anxiety turns into "just do the thing so I don't have to worry about it anymore" and it can help cut that if you can show that yes, The Thing is on your list.

-it might help to think about 'splitting up' your requests for context. It's clear to you, but not to her, why you are asking about the July deadline. So even "sure, I can probably move up that task... *medium pause while Ellen thinks "great, The Thing is done"*.... "is that thing still due in mid-July? I ask because..."

I believe you that this is a pattern of deadlines being rewritten in a hasty drive-by manner, which is super frustrating to feel like you're not "meeting deadlines" that were not made clear to you!! I do think that you can hopefully address this in a productive way with your boss. Something like "I feel like we have different levels of preferred check-in on tasks sometimes, can we talk about that? I want us to both feel confident that we have set up timelines that work for both of us."
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:13 PM on June 16

This sounds a lot like check-ins with my boss. In my case, he is very hung up hierarchy and authority and yes, he often perceives clarification or discussion as "arguing" with him. He appears to believe that his job as director of this department is "assign tasks and make sure they're getting completed by his internal due date" without any real thinking or responsibility about what will actually get us to the big-picture outcome. Often these tasks are redundant, superficial, or based on a significant misunderstanding about an issue. This is a particularly bizarre dynamic for me to navigate because I am quite senior in my field, and our office culture is otherwise highly collaborative between staff at all levels, all the way up to the top.

- it feels disrespectful when she doesn't take the time to listen to the words coming out of my mouth

I tried something like this, using the most respectful, appropriate, "I" statement, professional language approach, and WHOA IT DID NOT GO WELL. I would NOT recommend talking about your feelings or about respect. At all.

Advice using a few tactics that did work for me:
1) Repeat her words back to her before asking for more information, so that she sees that you were "listening."

2) For the project prioritization situation, you want her to feel like she's getting something, not giving something up. So, don't ask her to give you space so that you can set task urgency, frame it as a logistics issue and talk about how you can communicate your schedule/to-do list so that she can see that you're on top of her stuff.

P.S. Yes, of course you deserve respectful behavior from your boss. I'm dismayed by the "shut up and obey" sentiments, and I find it infuriating when employees that I've supervised did this.)
posted by desuetude at 2:54 PM on June 16 [8 favorites]

Another aspect of the problem is that when someone claims to be worried about something due in two weeks that is actually due in six weeks, you have no way of knowing if they’re telling you to do something other than what they actually want you to do. If my boss says “be sure to send email for project A before the meeting next week!” but the meeting next week is on Project B, my assumption is that she is confused and is setting priorities based on incorrect info, which is not only annoying but could have ramifications for either project further down the road. If you have any degree of professional ownership at work, this is going to bug you.

If you’re expecting employees to do what they’re told, even when you’re wrong, without clarifying info, you are a bad boss. I think the best way to deal with it is to agree to do the thing, then clarify— but there’s always a chance that once boss wakes up to their error they now think you’re a braindead toadie because they’re just that unconscious of how their own behavior is impacting everyone else. So that’s great fun too.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:22 PM on June 16 [4 favorites]

It *is* a small task. But there are a lot of small tasks that she asks me to do. I had told her the day before that I would send out the emails that week. She caught me before a different meeting on a different topic to say "have the emails gone out?"

Right, which is why you have to talk with her. Not about her being "disrespectful" or not hearing you correctly, but about how to get to a situation where she trusts how you prioritize, and you understand her priorities.

Some people like to cross things off their list as early as possible. Maybe the same kind of people who'll wash a dish the moment they're done with it and never let clutter build up. Other people like to do things according to priority; they'll do all the day's dishes at night and clear up clutter when they're done with other things. Both approaches are legitimate. Roommates or colleagues with different styles, though, tend to really stress each other out.

I think you might have very different working styles and mutually get stressed by each other's approach, and understanding where she's coming from might help you help her to understand you.
posted by trig at 4:00 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]

Wow, add me to the (smaller) chorus of people who are bewildered and disappointed by the answers you're getting! Your part of that conversation seems totally reasonable to me, while her's is unnecessarily confusing and, at the end, fairly rude! Even my most micromanaging former boss would've at least acknowledged mixing up the dates. zachlipton's theory about mixing up June and July is the only one that makes it a bit less nonsensical, and then I can see how she might think you were the rude one (but obviously she would still be wrong). Also, I've worked with plenty of antagonistic or argumentative nitpickers like fullerine mentions and you don't sound like that at all.

Do the other managers expect you to operate more autonomously? Does she know that or could it help to share that with her? Do you think she'd be open to suggestions that would hopefully at least decrease her interruptions, but presented as ways to make sure you're on the same page and staying on top of things? Like a shared google doc or regular check-in meetings. The other advice about reassuring her on whatever ask she has before pointing out errors are asking for clarifications seems good too. Really other people have already shared better advice, just don't want you to think you're crazy for finding this interaction maddening.
posted by Gravel at 4:57 PM on June 16 [6 favorites]

Some of the "but your supervisor is always right" responses in here are frankly bewildering, and I'm guessing are the result of most of the respondents living in a country where they can be fired at will.

Your supervisor made it clear that their reason for wanting the emails to go out now was a mistaken belief that the deadline was 2 weeks away, rather than at the end of the following month. Once the error was drawn to their attention, they should have reviewed their decision. If there was some other valid reason for sending them out, then say that.

They didn't. They were wrong, and you (rightly) called them out, and they were flustered and embarrassed, and they did what all stupid defensive wrong flustered embarrassed people do: double the fuck down, and make out it's your fault.

Micromanagers are the second worst. Micromanagers micromanaging people to achieve outcomes and meet deadlines they don't even fucking understand themselves are the worst. You've got one of those, and you should run.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 10:25 PM on June 16 [3 favorites]

Late to the party, but I just wanted to say that I'm glad you're looking for something new, and I hope you're applying for the next level up. I would want you to clarify something for me if I thought a deadline was in two weeks and it turned out to be six. Maybe the trick is to agree and then clarify - but there is nothing wrong with clarifying. Managers make mistakes all of the time.

Also, the emotional labor needed to manage a manager is exhausting and reminds me why I became a contractor.
posted by dancing_angel at 2:24 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

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