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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

irritated by manager

A reader writes:

I'm working at my first full-time job, and I've been here for just over a year. The company is pretty small, only about 20 people, but still much larger than my last job where there was about six of us. We were all very close, and any issues were usually dealt with quickly and in a friendly manner. Smaller things were ignored - we figured that everybody did something that irritated other people, and we all learned to let the small things go.

At my new job, I'm having some issues with my manager and I don't know what to do. I feel like they are small things, but there are so many of them that I find I am stewing over them constantly when I am at work, making me snap at others, and I am brooding over them at home, making me a bore to my family and friends. Things like:

* He constantly checks his email when he and I have meetings in his office.

* He often talks for 20 minutes about his personal life in meetings and then wants to race through the work issues I need to discuss because he has another meeting to get to.

* Not giving me enough information about tasks, and ignoring requests from me for the missing information, which results in me stuck halfway through a project.

* A lack of energy in projects not his own - anything he wants has to happen immediately, anything I request happens when he feels like it, after two or three reminders, or when the General Manager asks for an update.

* A lack of willingness to understand what other people do, and very bad listening skills; he constantly cuts people off and interrupts them.

* Not keeping any company stationary in his own office and when he wants an envelope, etc. he walks over to my desk and goes through my pile of envelopes without even asking me, while I'm sitting at the desk (rather than go to the stationary cupboard).

* Having a "sense of fun" and a "relaxed atmosphere in the office" which equates to him doing and saying things I dislike and find completely inappropriate for a work environment. On one memorable occasion, I returned from two weeks away to find a colleague who sits right outside his door would flinch every time I screwed up a piece of paper. When I asked what was going on, she said the manager was now in the habit of screwing up paper and throwing it at her. This has now stopped, but I am stunned that he thought it was acceptable in the first place!

My problem is that I don't know what to do about this. Other people in the office have approached me about these issues and feel the same way. The manager is a nice guy and I'm sure would feel awful that we feel this way about him, but it is really affecting my enjoyment at work and my ability to do my work in some cases. There are no performance reviews where I can anonymously let him know how I feel, and I know it would be excruciating to say this to his face, so what should I do? The work is actually very boring, and there is no possibility of advancement, so I'm looking for another job anyway. Should I just deal with it until I can go?

Sometimes when you're frustrated at work about legitimate issues, smaller things start to take on a life of their own and irritate you in a way that they wouldn't in a different context. I think that might be going on here.

You have a job you're bored in and a manager you don't like or find supportive. You're looking for another job, but meanwhile, you're letting yourself get upset about some things that are the sort of thing you're likely to find in any job. My advice is to step back and separate the substantive issues from the ones that are just irritating you because, well, you're irritated.

Let's take these one by one:

He constantly checks his email when he and I have meetings in his office. This is annoying, I agree. But he's also your boss and -- I hate to say it -- it's his prerogative to do it. The most you can do is to say something like, "Should I come back at another time?" But in the end, this is one you should just try to ignore; you're going to encounter it from many future bosses, I'm sorry to say. (For the record, I don't advocate it, but I do know there have been times when I have a million things going on and I need to glance at my email in a meeting. I would never do it in, say, someone's performance review meeting or just to distract myself, but there are certain times when I think the boss is entitled to do it.)

He often talks for 20 minutes about his personal life in meetings and then wants to race through the work issues I need to discuss because he has another meeting to get to. Talking about his personal life when you need to be talking about work is not good. Try to head this off as soon as you sit down for the meeting, by announcing at the outset that you have a long list of issues to get through. If that doesn't work, respond politely to whatever off-topic remark he makes and then bring it right back to what you need to talk about. For example: "That sounds like you had a great weekend. Well, what I wanted to ask you about was ...." Approach it as if the onus is on you to get the time you need from him. Not necessarily fair, but it'll be more effective.

Not giving me enough information about tasks, and ignoring requests from me for the missing information, which results in me stuck halfway through a project. Be aggressive here too. Do what it takes to get the info you need from him, or find other ways of getting it. Sometimes it can work to be very specific about your need, saying something like, "I need to talk with you about this by tomorrow afternoon or I won't be able to complete it by the deadline." If this doesn't work, consider having a big-picture conversation with him, asking him how he would prefer you handle such situations.

Sometimes people, particularly people early in their careers, assume that the responsibility for making sure they have what they need to do the job is their boss's. But in fact, it's yours. A good boss will check in with you and proactively ask what you might need to move things along, but you can't let your own success rely on having a good boss; they are few and far between.

A lack of energy in projects not his own - anything he wants has to happen immediately, anything I request happens when he feels like it, after two or three reminders, or when the General Manager asks for an update. I don't know enough details here, but you're going to have a lot of bosses who want their requests dealt with immediately, while yours have to wait. It's the nature of hierarchy. It's not necessarily evidence of unfairness or bad work habits -- some bosses genuinely are always triaging work, and other projects may rightfully take priority. As the boss, they're obligated to make those calls, so this is one of those things to try to accustom yourself to. (I feel like I'm killing your spirit here with all this "get used to it" advice. Sorry!) That said, it's entirely possible he's disorganized and unmotivated; I just don't know enough to say. So keep in mind that this is legitimate in some cases and evaluate his behavior against that backdrop.

A lack of willingness to understand what other people do and he constantly cuts people off and interrupts them. Some managers interrupt because they just need the upshot and not all the details they're being given. Some managers interrupt because they're rude and self-important. I don't know which yours is, but either way, the best way to handle this is going to be to "manage up" -- consider it your job to find a way to get across to him the info he needs to know in order for you to do your job effectively.

Not keeping any company stationary in his own office and when he wants an envelope, etc. he walks over to my desk and goes through my pile of envelopes without even asking me, while I'm sitting at the desk (rather than go to the stationary cupboard). This is one of those that I think wouldn't much bother you if you weren't already aggravated. Try to ignore this ... or give him his own personal supply of stationary and envelopes to use.

Having a "sense of fun" and a "relaxed atmosphere in the office" which equates to him doing things like throwing crumpled paper at people. This is weird, without question, but it sounds like your manager is more socially awkward than anything else. (This made me think of Michael from "The Office," in fact.) This is another one where I'd advise just seeing it as a quirk but not letting yourself take it too seriously.

Ugh, now I've completely crushed your spirit and told you to suck it up and deal. But here's the silver lining: If you can figure out how to work around whatever issues this manager may have and get what you need to do well, you're going to have set yourself up with a really valuable skill that will serve you well in future jobs. Plus you'll have learned it way earlier than most people. So for the remainder of your time there, see this as an awesome opportunity to hone some very useful professional skills. (And suddenly your job isn't boring but rather a fascinating course in managing your manager!) Really, in a lot of ways, first jobs are more about learning these kinds of workplace survival skills than they are about anything else.

I hope this wasn't too discouraging. Let us know how it goes. (And others, please chime in with your own thoughts!)

7 comments:

"A Reader" said...

You haven't crushed my spirit! I think I really did need an outside perspective on what is 'normal management behaviour' and what is just him. Now I know what to ignore, what to confront and what to get over.

I'm also going to take up your suggestion to see my job as about learning to manage my manager. I'll get a few other disgruntled colleagues to join in, and who knows what we'll achieve?!

Thanks for the advice, I'm looking forward to the opinions of others too.

The Career Encourager said...

"If you can figure out how to work around whatever issues this manager may have and get what you need to do well, you're going to have set yourself up with a really valuable skill that will serve you well in future jobs."

Great answer and SO true! Years ago I worked for a terrible boss. He was rude, erratic, sometimes volatile and even untruthful at times. Basic business protocols simply couldn't help improve the relationship with him because he was not a very reflective person and could never see that he needed to change. A good mentor at the time told me to suck it up and deal with it saying "If you can learn to work with him, you will be able to work with anybody!" She was right. I worked hard to learn to work him, and those skills have served me very well. As tough as it was at the time, it really gave me confidence in the long run.

Founder: Lea Setegn said...

It took me many years as an employee to realize that I needed to manage my managers. Now some managers really do defy being managed, but for the most part, you can head off their behaviors and/or make them work for you.

For a humorous yet informative take on managing your manager, I recommend Stanley Bing's book, Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up. I read this while facing my toughest manager management challenge, and it helped me through.

Wally Bock said...

I want to highlight one part of Ask a Manager's great response because if you were my coaching client I'd add some specific things there.

As has been said, it is absolutely essential that you know what expectations are. That means you need to push your manager on "not giving me any information about tasks" and on rushing through the work items at the end of a meeting. I suggest the magic of email as part of your strategy.

If you don't get satisfaction in your meetings send a follow-up email asking for clarification. When your manager responds, share your understanding of what's expected and ask for feedback.

Why do this? It can be a gentle way of letting the boss know that you're not getting your work needs met without you having to say, "Damn it! Tell me what you want!" or "Damn it! I don't care about the Yankees, when do you need my report?" Your manager may use that as a guide to behavior change without having to admit he's wrong and without having to deal with the issues in public.

The other reason is that it gives you a written record to deal with. You may find that it gives you support for your position and your feelings. You may also find that you're misreading the situation. Either way, you're better off.

Nanook said...

In terms of the little things piling up (such as the envelopes)... I went through this phase, too, with a previous manager. She would constantly come into my office and dictate emails over my shoulder or use my stapler (when she had 3 empty ones in her office). It drove me insane!!! But there was nothing I could do, really, because oftentimes these habits that managers have are ingrained by the time they end up being your manager.

DementedM said...

I think it's rude and inefficient for the manager to check emails during staff meetings. Their work is important to the bottom line too and it shows a weakness in the manager, that s/he can't think beyond their own contribution to the bottom line.

That said, I, myself, can be preoccupied by urgent business issues, and I can have a hard time focusing on the employee in front of me. I do tend to space out, but that doesn't make it acceptable just because I'm busy and am one up in the power hierarchy.

My role as manager is not just to use staff to get _my_ stuff done, but to help the team achieve their goals. The whole reason I have a staff is because the work is bigger than any one person so I ignore them at my own peril. Good managers, I think, know this.

I've asked my staff to call me on it when I do it and it's a habit I'm trying to break. I don't think employees should have to tolerate poor behavior from anyone and I, personally, would be a bit assertive in the same situation.

When I've had less-than-stellar managers who did similar things, I would confront the issue by saying, I have a lot of work to do, is there something you need? Or I might say, if I don't get X done by Y time, this urgent thing that maybe the manager does care about won't get done. It might take years (ego driven personalities are very change resistant), but eventually they clue in to the fact that you need to get things done on a faster timeline.

I too would start utilizing email to document the poor management. Worst case scenario, you'll use it to escalate change. Best case, they'll finally get a clue.

If you stay there long enough, what goes around comes around. My former bad boss (at the same employer) and all their games are finally coming back to bit them. As a group, when we couldn't modify the manager's behavior into something livable, we acted to remove the manager from our environment (with the help of a great manager)--they are now in a different office and completely flummoxed by the move.

M

Tricia said...

As soon as I left one job because of a particularly bad boss - he was let go. I had to laugh - karma is a bitch!