I'm a new manager and I'm very stressed. Give me your best hacks.
February 8, 2023 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I work in tech, benefitted from a few years of good culture and good pay, and like everyone else in tech, I'm now staring down at a frozen job market and increasing demands by my current employer because they know I don't have leverage. I feel like a wound up spring from mounting stress. Help me get through!

I'm not laid off, but my employer is firing a person in my department every week and moving roles to low cost countries.

I'm a newly minted manager with an impossible workload, including the expectation to continue the same -- or more -- individual contributor work from my pre-managerial days. I have 25 hours of meetings a week, and a preschooler to take care off when she's not in school. There's only so much I can work late at night to stay on top of things.

My manager has no kids and my skip has older kids and a stay at home wife, so there's not much understanding there. My manager is not a bad person, but his work is his life, and he has no other responsibilities, so I don't think he gets my time constraints.

I'm currently letting low priority deadlines go whoosh because there isn't time. And I'm sadly, I think, letting down my reports.

If this was 2021, I'd have no qualms marching up to my managers and telling them it's impossible because I could always find a new role. If I do that now, I'm pretty sure I'll be locked out of my computer an hour later with a months-long job search ahead.

I'm doing my best to prioritize but being a first time manager combined with the fear of being fired is not helping, because I don't know which "no" I say will get me or my team into trouble. I'm still learning how to advocate for myself and my team, and not having much success getting others to take tasks off our plate, for example.

The management books and articles I read, especially in tech, are assuming a more 2021-like environment, I think. So -- I'm looking for resources, ideas, etc. on how I can handle my increasingly impossible situation.
posted by redlines to Work & Money (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You can’t do something impossible, and it’s not at all your fault that you can’t. It is very much ok to do a full-court beg to your friends and family to help you get more childcare for a few weeks, to cover you while you get another job while you’ve still got this one. If there is a really strong reason to stay, some interim extra childcare can help you catch up, at least. Your kid, you, your spouse, your reports, and even your boss, skip and company will be better off if you leave and they are led, by this impossible job that people keep quitting, to have a think and either spend more on headcount, redraw the role, or fail gracefully. You deserve so much better!
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 12:59 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

I was in a similar situation and my main advice is that I hear a lot of fear in your question - fear of not doing a good job, looking bad, letting people down, getting fired etc. that is extra exhausting. Ditch the fear. Do what you know is a reasonable good job and don’t beat yourself up for missed deadlines (how real are these deadlines? I can guarantee your superiors don’t beat themselves up for the same).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:04 PM on February 8 [15 favorites]

I love giving new tech managers advice, but this isn't a question of how to do management better. This is a how do I find the energy to find a new job question. This is not a positive environment to be in and no amount of managerial skill is going to get you out of it. Hopefully, you aren't stuck for visa issues and you are just looking at a market where a lot of layoffs were just dropped so balance sheets and Wall Street would approve.
posted by advicepig at 1:21 PM on February 8 [12 favorites]

Your primary focus should be taking care of yourself and your family, which means finding a new job. Secondary is to shield your team from impossible demands (not by personally taking on the impossible!). Third is to do just enough to survive your current employment.

Don't spend a single bit of your emotional energy caring about the business' success or what the business thinks of you. Their failure to have a sustainable plan is not your problem.
posted by Diddly at 1:26 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]

This sounds like an unsustainable situation to me. I would start looking for a new job.
In the meantime, prioritize and delegate. Get the most important stuff done first, and be sure to know what your manager deems is important.
posted by storybored at 1:37 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

It is 100% looking for new job time
posted by Kwine at 1:44 PM on February 8

Anne Helen Petersen describes several types of "Layoff brain" including a form of worker layoff brain as the ripple effect on those who remain after layoffs. These are described as
a curious mix of guilt, relief, trepidation, and anger. Are you supposed to be grateful to the company whose primary leadership strategy seems to be keeping its workers trapped in fear? How do you trust your manager’s assurances of security further than the end of the next pay period?
Petersen draws from various experts to argue that layoffs are basically a terrible solution. First, layoffs don't address issues with the business strategy, loss of market share or revenue. Second, layoffs don't cut costs, or increase productivity especially as post layoff underperformance is a thing.

Her argument that layoffs are mostly irrational and just a business fashion helps me understand the power dynamic and what the work contract actually means. I don't need to internalize and rationalize my own precarity or just capitulate to unrealistic expectations.

For these reasons at my last meeting I asked about what resources, in terms of hours per week, should be made available when a set of new work obligations were planned. And then what priority it would need to be relative to my other projects. And then I emailed a written confirmation of my understanding of the new arraignment. The price of not having a fixed contract of what my job actually is, well, I just take the time to re-write it.
posted by zenon at 2:03 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: (For all the good advice about looking for a new job, it’s just not the time in tech now, with tens of thousands of very qualified workers on the market. There are few to no roles in my somewhat niche area, given that most hiring is frozen, and looking for jobs now means accepting a big downlevel or otherwise compromising a lot. It’s doable but far from ideal.)
posted by redlines at 2:40 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]

As someone who has been in bad situations outside of tech, I think the advice applies. Sit down with your manager and tell them your triage criteria. Critically, don't ask them to prioritize your work, do it for them, because your manager is probably also buried and doesn't know your work area as well as you do. Make changes during the meeting based on their feedback. Send them an email with said triage criteria after the meeting.

Tell people yes or no for your team based on their abilities. If someone is upset at a dropped ball, ask your manager if you should re-open your triage criteria. If the answer is "you should be getting more done", you can argue until you're blue in the face as to why it's not getting done, or you can go back to your triage list and talk about the good work your team is doing on priority #1. Maybe priority one should have been done already, maybe priority 4 needs to move up, but as long as you can point to good work being done on your team you're ahead of half the managers out there.

You might get fired or laid off anyway, but you can't truly prevent that.
posted by Narrow Harbor at 3:01 PM on February 8 [3 favorites]

I skimmed through your old questions...it sounds like you've been at this job for about a year and a half, and for a while when you started there wasn't much to do?

I'm in HR at a tech company, and this is a story I'm hearing over and over. Poorly managed companies started hire hoarding during the 21 boom, overspent and overanticipated their sales abiliy, and are now hemorrhaging staff as a way to stop their bleeding. It sounds to me like you're one of these hires. I'm sorry.

But, at least you can feel pretty confident that your leadership is a bunch of fucking idiots who can't responsibly manage their EBITDA, and you should feel minimal responsibility for cleaning up their mess. Know, deeply, that you cannot prevent them from laying you off. That path was set in motion by your company's choices two years ago. You cannot win here.

So, what can you do? Your job, during work hours. WORK. HOURS. You sign off when the workday is finished. Spend the time with your family, spend the time shopping your resume out to specialized recruiters, peep the talent leads at your company's competitors and shoot them some LinkedIn messages. Let them know you're out here, interested, when the right opportunity arises. You're not hungry yet, you're just, you know, interested.

Don't expend your energy on these idiots you work for who have already made stupid choices to doom you.
posted by phunniemee at 3:21 PM on February 8 [15 favorites]

Narrow Harbor and zenon are correct about how to manage the overload, assuming you have reasonable management above and next to you. It sounds like you do not, though.

Listen to us experienced managers - start your job search in earnest. You didn't get to choose the poor market timing, but you'll be looking for a job soon, willingly or unwillingly. No sense completely burning yourself out THEN starting an unwilling job hunt.

I knew that my company was heading toward the same fate. I volunteered to be laid off for when the time comes, and they took me up on the offer quickly, then laid off 1/3rd of the staff 2 months later. It's been wonderful. I'm relaxed, don't have to deal with any business drama and am 100% focused on finding my next job. My former remaining coworkers are stressing out trying to do the work of multiple people, and my fellow unemployed workers are shocked and starting their search from 0 - and I am thankful that I am in a spot to help them start that search!
posted by Diddly at 3:33 PM on February 8 [6 favorites]

Yeah, start hunting anyway. Just because a bunch of tech giants colluded to try to create the environment you think you're facing, to keep us from thinking we have any power, doesn't mean it's true or that they're not going to quietly rehire them all.

And then if you DO get laid off or fired, you'll already have your irons in the fire.

But also, you might be surprised what you find.

There's not a lot you can do at work about all this, unfortunately. Pushing back some might get you let go faster, or might resonate with someone and cause a change. Not saying anything might just get you let go, or let you coast unnoticed a while longer until they either decide they need to change things or they let you go. Or run themselves out of business because they're not paying attention (or they're deliberately not paying attention because they're trying to get bought and your group isn't important on the balance sheet).
posted by Lyn Never at 7:03 PM on February 8

I think prioritize and delegate are the right approaches, as stated above, but to expand on those:

25 hours of meetings is unsustainable, is that the actual number? If you want to do any IC work, you need to get yourself down to at least one meeting-free day a week and no more than 10 hours of meetings a week.
* 1:1 meetings are the most valuable, but keep them at 30 minutes. Do them weekly only for people who are one step up or down in seniority from you. For everyone else (people at your level and people more than one step away) do them biweekly or monthly.
* Don't go to any meetings where your manager is there, unless your manager is the most senior person in the meeting or you specifically need to say something. Similarly, don't go to any meetings where your subordinates are there unless you're the most senior person in the meeting or you specifically need to say something. Catch up on what happened in the meeting at your 1:1.
* Don't have daily standups for your team - make people do it async over Slack or whatever instead. In fact, don't have any daily meeting at all unless there is an emergency issue that everyone is 100% focused on fixing and the meeting will be ended once the issue is fixed.
* If you have any "fun" or "informative" meetings, make one of your direct reports run them instead.

You also need to make sure you're not managing more than six people (again, if you're going to do IC work).
* If you have more, only have the most senior people report to you directly. Pick someone on your team and have the most junior people report to them. Presumably you can't actually make them a manager, but you can make them delegate and track work (and give a summarized status report to you).

If you were previously a senior, you may have the notion that you need to do all the busywork to keep your team focused on the important stuff, and/or you may have the notion that you have to do all the complicated stuff because the rest of the team can't handle it. These are both bad habits and you need to focus on training your senior reports to the point where they can take over both these kinds of work.

Your time is limited, valuable, and constantly in demand, and you need to be extremely cold-blooded in evaluating how to spend it.
posted by inkyz at 7:13 PM on February 8 [7 favorites]

Well it's tough as a new manager, because you don't have the skills or experience required to handle difficult situations like this.

The mindset you should have is that you're not buying or selling - you're the expert consultant they bring in for advice.

You lay out all the tasks your team has been asked to deliver.

You lay out your plan which gets your team to the completion of the most important tasks, within the constraints of time and manpower you have.

You know they want those other tasks achieved. So you lay out a different plan that gets them done. Different prioritization of tasks? Reduction in scope? Defer completion date? Additional resources?

In my case, if the organization gives my team 10 days to complete a task, it gets done with great quality. If the organization gives us 2 days, it will be done with poor quality. If the organization gives us 1 hour, it will be done with shocking quality. But it can ALWAYS be done, and I'm valuable to the organization because they know that if they give me a task I can get it done no matter the conditions, utilizing my resourcefulness and experience to get what is a 10 day job done in 1 hour in an workable fashion. In an ideal world, you would find it exciting and interesting rather than stressful.

If the quality of the outcome is poor it's because the organization consciously did not devote enough resources to it, it's nothing to do with my team's performance. We see this all the time, the bigwigs up there in the executive suite deliberately starve teams if they need to cut costs or redirect resources somewhere else.

Being a manager is about managing a tripod:
- Executing the work you commit to
- Communicating effectively to management on progress, gap to target, resources needed
- Managing your direct reports - their stress levels, motivation, what they're working on, their training and development

You can excel at all 3 even in an environment where your team is given 2 days to do a job that ordinarily takes 10 days to do, because those are how you execute and manage. Do them well and the end result will be better, but if you have no resources then the end result sucks and it's not on you. Remember it's not about being faster than the bear, it's about being faster than the slowest person in your group.

If your question is about "why would the company continue hiring me, who can only work 40 hours a week, compared to someone else who is willing to work 60 hours a week" then the answer to that is again, the manager tripod - someone who burns 60 hours a week on executing but is a poor communicator and manages their team badly is going to be a distant second in line for retention or promotion compared to someone who does 40 hours but excels at all 3 skill sets.
posted by xdvesper at 12:35 AM on February 9 [4 favorites]

When you said that you worked "in tech" I assumed that you were recently a senior software developer who is now managing developers. If that's true you can definitely find another job very easily. If that's not true then it's not super relevant that you work at a tech company and you should say more about what your role is in order to get better advice.
posted by Kwine at 4:00 AM on February 9

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