how to tell a manager “I know what I’m doing”

by Ask a Manager on April 8, 2013

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A reader writes:

I have been at my position for over a year and a half. I work in a college administrative office. We offer small business counseling for free twice a month. And twice a month, the woman in charge of the program tells me how to process the clients needing counseling. It’s simple things — copy this, check off the list, etc. I feel like she is insulting my intelligence by constantly telling me how to do these simple tasks.

She is an older woman (60′s/70′s) and I’m young (25). How do I kindly say to her “I know what I’m doing”? I feel like I’m being treated like a child.

Say this: “I’ve noticed you go over this with me each time we do this, and it makes me wonder — am I making mistakes or otherwise not doing this correctly?” Don’t say this in a snotty tone — say it in a tone of genuine concern.

This might be enough to make the point to her that you’ve got it and don’t need it repeated each time. (Or alternately, you might find out that she has some concern that you didn’t realize and that she’s not addressing head-on.)

And in general, that’s always the right pose to take with this kind of thing — if someone is treating you in a way that seems condescending or untrusting or inappropriately micromanagey, express genuine concern about what might be causing it. It’s a reasonably direct but non-aggressive way into a conversation about what’s going on.

But if that doesn’t work with her, then you can try, “I really do know the process well at this point, and I hate to have you spend your time reviewing it with me so often. Could I take it from here and check in with you if I run into questions?”

And if that doesn’t work … well, at that point you accept that she’s oddly neurotic about this program and you’re going to be receiving very basic instructions about it twice a month.

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

DEJ April 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Something I might do in a situation like this is sort of get ahead of her – if she says ‘next you do this step’ I’d follow with ‘and then I do X step, followed by Y step and Z step, correct?’

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College Career Counselor April 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I’d be careful with that approach—you could run the risk of looking like you’re interrupting/not listening. Which is not the impression you want to give to someone who clearly has A Thing For Explanations.

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Elaine April 10, 2013 at 12:23 am

Yes. My current supervisor can’t stand it when I “interrupt” his (well-known-to-me) instructions by finishing the list/thought. CAN. NOT. STAND. IT. Trying my best to break this habit.

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Rob Bird April 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm

You don’t know unless you ask.

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Claire April 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm

You’re the only one who knows the tone, but does it feel like she’s telling you this bc she thinks you don’t know, or is it just a standard spiel? It can still be annoying to have to hear it again, but I know a lot of people (myself included!) end up going into “form letter” mode for repeated tasks by virtue of their repetition, e.g., “It’s time for X, please provide me with Y and Z by N. Make sure you L the Z. Thanks!” She may have found that it’s easier to give a basic reminder spiel to everyone if at one point there were people who made mistakes that were easily remedied with a run-through of the steps.

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Sydney Bristow April 8, 2013 at 3:26 pm

I’m guilty of doing this myself, normally through email though. I had one task that happened regularly and I’d always include the same instructions and point out if anything was different about this set than previous ones. In my case, it was with an outside vendor and I know he had a lot of other clients so I always hoped that he found it easiest to have everything he needed or might have questions about in one spot. I truly did it with good intentions and certainly wouldn’t be offended if he pointed out that he didn’t need the instructions every time. I think Alison’s advice is an excellent way to go about bringing it up.

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Chriama April 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm

As long as she’s not being derisive or actively condescending I don’t see much wrong here. If you feel your intelligence is being insulted by some little old lady compulsively checking in with you, you are giving other people too much power over your emotional well-being. Instead of feeling like she’s treating you like a child, start imagining that you are indulging her childish whims.

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-X- April 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Apart from any morale issues, what’s wrong is it’s a waste of staff time.

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Liz in the City April 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm

At OldJob, my manager was “oddly neurotic” about nearly everything, and I tried both responses AAM suggested multiple times. But it wasn’t just with me. The other person who shared my job function (and manager) also received these micromanage-y spiels about a few of our job functions every. single. time. Even after I’d been there 5 years. We accepted it was just part of her (many) neuroses. I tried to not let it bother me, but yeah, it does get super annoying.

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Anon April 8, 2013 at 1:36 pm

THIS

Instead of feeling like she’s treating you like a child, start imagining that you are indulging her childish whims.

No offense.

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PPK April 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm

I wonder if it’s possible that there’s some sort of requirement that the directions be reviewed every time this service is offered — even if there aren’t any changes? If that’s the case, it would have been nice to be warned, of course. Or maybe this person’s been burned in the past by particularly incompetent workers and now repeats to the new person just in case (new being relative, of course, in my job you are pretty much new until the next new person comes).

Either case, if OP brings it up as suggested, the OP will hopefully get an answer or make the boss realize she doesn’t need to do it with her competent employee.

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ZombiesRPeopleToo April 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm

I second the possibility that the manager was burned by employees in the past. Or maybe this is a role/office that has relatively high turnover, and there’s always somebody being trained?

I’m in the opposite situation to the OP. I’m younger (28), and when I was promoted I trained an retired lady to work our front desk part time. She constantly forgets procedures, even things she’s done right for months. Even with notes. It’s extremely frustrating to still be training on basic tasks 9 months later. Unfortunately, it’s up to my boss to review/fire employees, and she’s not doing it.

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Liza April 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm

A very similar approach worked well for me in a non-work situation several years ago:

There was someone I used to date who would always tell me where to turn when I was driving, even on the way to places I knew very well. Eventually I asked her if there was someone else she usually rode with who needed to be told where to turn–and she said yes, her other sweetie always needed to be told where to turn when he was driving, and she’d gotten into the habit. After that she tried to break the habit when she was around me, and I was less irritated when it happened because I knew it wasn’t about me.

I hope you can have a similarly good outcome, LW!

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Sascha April 8, 2013 at 2:26 pm

I’m in the habit of doing something similar when people ask me technical questions, because I’ve worked in tech support for the last six years. So I always start with, did you try another browser? even if I know the person has. It just tumbles out of my mouth.

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Liza April 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Ohh, yes, I do that too! But I generally apologize and say “I’d rather ask *all* the questions than overlook something.” Yeah, years of tech support will do that to a person. :-)

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Anonymous April 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm

+1

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Laurie April 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm

+1

I was thinking the same too. This lady may have had other employees of the OP’s age group who didn’t remember the instructions or were lazy about following them, so she may have taken to reminding each employee as a standard practice.

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B April 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I have also been in this situation. The person has a child close to your age so they automatically treat you like that. It is very frustrating but that is on them, not on you. Sometimes, it helps to repeat (in your head of course) that it is their issue, not yours. Hopefully, just talking to her like AAM suggested will help.

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Your Mileage May Vary April 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Sometimes, it helps to repeat (in your head of course) that it is their issue, not yours.

Unless, it actually is the OP’s problem that they may be leaving out an important step and not realize it. If this is the only micro-managing thing the woman in charge is doing, it may well be that the OP needs to be micro-managed through this task. Using Alison’s question should clear that up nicely.

I do think, however, that age is a red herring in this situation. There are a lot of possible reasons that this woman is micro-managing this task and the vast majority of them don’t reference the age of either participant.

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Maire April 8, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Well, if the manager has repeated the instructions so many times, I’m sure the OP would have picked up by now if she’s doing something wrong, unless she’s completely obtuse.
Also, I really think that age is probably a factor here. I wouldn’t have thought so until I worked with several older people and they do seem to get more stressed, take longer to pick things up and just take minor things very seriously. Obviously that is a generalisation; not all older people will do so but I have found it to be true in a lot of circumstances.

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Jessa April 11, 2013 at 3:19 am

Also, if I was the OP and I was missing a step, repeating the entire process to me would not necessarily point up that fact. If the problem with my work is “Hey you always miss X” then darn it TELL ME THAT so I can make a note about it and not do it again. Don’t be completely passive aggressive about it.

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Mike C. April 8, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Don’t sound like this guy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKgJCz2klxU

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Lyda Rose April 8, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I could see this stemming from two things: either she found/finds the procedure difficult and is really trying to make it easier for you, or she’s under a lot of pressure to make this program run flawlessly and needs to reassure herself that you’re up to speed. Either way, Alison’s suggestion is a good place to start.

There is also the possibility that her age is factor; older folks do tend to repeat themselves, especially when stressed. In that case, the only answer may be patience.

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Lynn April 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Good advice, Lyda. Good advice.

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Maire April 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Yes, this is very true.
Also, I think as people get older they aren’t able to pick things up as quickly themselves. They forget that generally younger people can learn and remember new things more quickly which is also probably a factor.

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the gold digger April 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I worked as a temp secretary once. The head secretary wanted me to send a fax. She held back the papers as she explained to me, very slowly, that I had to wait for the FAX CONFIRMATION NOTICE.

OK, OK, I said, reaching for the papers.

Then she said that if the FAX CONFIRMATION NOTICE was NO, I had to RE-SEND THE FAX.

I know, I know, I said, as I reached for the papers.

If you re-send the fax, she said, then you have to wait for the FAX CONFRMATION NOTICE AGAIN.

I finally took a deep breath, rolled my eyes, and said, “You must be used to working with really stupid people.”

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-X- April 8, 2013 at 4:58 pm

““You must be used to working with really stupid people.””

Hahaha. Thought it’s not a bad idea to be overly careful the first time to explain something.

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-X- April 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I meant, “though it’s not a bad idea…”

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OneoftheMichelles April 8, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Heh!
What was her response?

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The gold digger April 9, 2013 at 8:02 am

I don’t remember what she said, but they called me six months later – actually, they called my mom and dad trying to track me down – to offer me a FT job as an executive secretary. At the time, I was not interested, but now I think, “FT secretary at the World Bank with their pay and benefits? That would not be too bad!” I for sure would be making more than I’m making now.

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Chloe April 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm

I’d also bear in mind that she might not necessarily remember that she has told you this a million times before. My parents are now in that age bracket and seriously, they repeat stuff ALL the time. It used to drive me crazy but now I just nod and agree wait for the speech to be over. I think they genuinely don’t remember they’ve told me the story/information before, as unbelieveable as that seems.

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Juni April 8, 2013 at 5:44 pm

I hate to ask, but is it possible that she is suffering from dementia? If you think that might be the case, just put on your compassion pants and listen each week. Think of it as a kindness you can offer her.

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littlemoose April 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Compassion pants. I like it.

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LSmith April 8, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Had this at my first job out of college. Similar situation, my indirect supervisor was in her 50′s. Each time we had to add up spreadsheets (her and her co-worker insisted that I do this by hand (it was a daily task), without a calculator…or EXCEL), she would remind me “this is the numerator, and this is the denominator.” As someone who took quite advanced math in college I was really, truly insulted. It was completely the wrong environment for me. I repeatedly asked her what I could do better, and her and her co-worker said, “Nothing” and talked behind my back instead. I took to keeping my mouth shut for about 8 months. Finally told her “I feel like you’re telling me how to count, and it’s really insulting!” in private, and she got me fired over it. Hope your situation turns out better! I’m sure it will.

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Lynn April 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm

As an older person, just to chime in that my experience managing younger people is they sometimes tend to casually leave out a step here and there because it seems like an unimportant detail, not realizing the problems it may cause down the road. I can see their eyes glaze over because they think I’m just repeating myself, but the fact is they aren’t actually listening and they often repeatedly make the same foolish mistake I’m trying to alert them to. The manager may actually be the patient one here. So regardless, AAM’s advice is exactly right.

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Not So NewReader April 8, 2013 at 8:28 pm

I am an older person, too. I have found that just asking “oh have you found a lot of mistakes with my work?” can be jarring enough to set the questioner back into reality. “UH no, I don’t. I guess I don’t need to say that so much…” Yes, I have had to say that to YOUNGER bosses.

Reality is though that “over-explaining” does not just belong to the older crowd, it’s a habit for people of all ages. Once you open the topic, OP, try to show her how it would make her day so much easier not to have to explain every.darn.detail. This gives you the opportunity to cheerfully say “I am here to help you and to make things easier for you!” (or something like that). Show how it is to her benefit to explain less. This puts you in a good place of being a happy employee that is willing to help.

Personally, sometimes I have a hard time guessing how much slack to grant. I usually end up saying “Check with me when you reach step 4.” I chose an intervention point where I will catch most mistakes before those mistakes go “colossal”. But I only do this for the first few times. After that, I encourage the person to go as far as they can on their own, coming to me with specific questions. This is how I prefer to be treated, too.

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Lynn April 9, 2013 at 9:32 am

“Check with me when you reach step 4″ sounds like an very good strategy. As a manager, I want to get the job at hand done and done right the first time. I want to be assured the employee understands the entire workflow. I want the employee to do it herself, so I can do other things. I also want to know the employee gets the details right on the less important, routine jobs so I can trust her to take on more important, less routine jobs without constant supervision. This is the part younger people sometimes don’t get when they’re complaining about being micromanaged.

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Lynn April 9, 2013 at 9:36 am

On second thought, I’d like to take back that “younger” in the last sentence. Because I honestly don’t want to be an ageist here!

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Lily April 9, 2013 at 12:01 pm

+1000. Careless employees need micromanagers.

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Lily April 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

As a manager, I agree that people will decide to omit or forget steps, but I think it depends more on personality than age.

I will quickly decide who is careful and who is careless. If I keep on reminding someone, then it is because they need it!

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Jessa April 11, 2013 at 3:22 am

The problem with this is that if they’re leaving out a step, the way to deal with that is “Whoa, don’t forget step c.” Not “here is step a, b, c, d, etc.” Because anyone who thinks they’re doing it right is going to tune it out the 2nd or 3d time they’re being told. If there’s an error. Point it out.

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Andrew April 8, 2013 at 9:39 pm

I think Alison is right. It won’t do any good to sit there feeling insulted and resentful. Just be prepared to be told that maybe, just maybe, you don’t know as much as you think to do.

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Andrew April 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

“As you think YOU DO”. Sorry!

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Vicki April 8, 2013 at 10:02 pm

This reminded me of every time I go to the store and use a credit card.
And every time, the clerk hands me the receipt and says “sign here”.
And every time I think “Is there anyone anywhere who uses a credit card who needs to be told to sign and were?”

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Vicki April 8, 2013 at 10:02 pm

“where”
I hate not being able to edit typos I see just as I click “submit”.

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Cassie April 8, 2013 at 10:18 pm

My dad needs reading glasses but usually doesn’t bring them with him into stores. So yeah, having the clerk point to the specific spot to sign is a big help for him.

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The gold digger April 9, 2013 at 8:05 am

1. How to fasten a seatbelt. You know it makes the flight attendants nuts to have to explain that.
2. “Leave a message after the tone.” Because nobody knows how to use an answering machine.

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Marie April 9, 2013 at 11:37 am

A lot of people actually….

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Jane April 9, 2013 at 4:10 pm

It may make you feel better if next time, a few hours before she goes into her spiel about counseling program, you march to her and ask to verify whether you are doing this counseling exactly as she likes it. Be precise about what you are about to say during counseling, make jokes, tell her stories that you no doubt have collected from talking to small businesses over the last year and a half. Let her tell you her stories, even if you’ve heard them already a dozen times. Have a nice long conversation, and be in charge of it.

The following time it’s about counseling program time, initiate the conversation again. Be in charge, but let her speak, even if she repeats herself. Chances are, it’ll be very brief conversation.

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Caryn April 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I am the OP. First I would like to say thank you to AAM for answering my question. Since I’ve gotten a second job, I no longer work on the counselling days so I no longer have to deal with the brain numbing instructions. If the other student worker is having these same issues, I will pass along the information to him. Second I would like to clarify some things.

For this specific “activity” there are only 5 steps: check in, fill out paperwork, copy paperwork, hand over copy, alert counsellers of next client. That’s it. I wish it were more complicated than that but it’s not. She hands me the sign in sheet reminding me that we have counselling today (I only receive a sign in sheet when there is counselling), and then she goes through the explanation of the steps.

As I’ve said, I’ve been at this position for over a year and a half, simple copying and hand off isn’t rocket science. I am considered a “student worker” so maybe my title has something to do with her micromanaging tendencies.

There just so happens to be a very incompetent worker in our office that takes over for me in the afternoon. Lets call her Sara, Sara has been working at the college for over 30 years and is part of the support staff Union. She is constantly late, throws hissy fits and storms out of the office, cannot do simple Word or PowerPoint formatting (Format Painter, copy, paste, cut, type over hi lighted items), and dresses VERY unprofessionally. The only reasons I can comprehend that she still has her job is, a) she’s in the Union, and b) our director is horrible at managing her employees. I really wish they could just fire her and hire me in her place but if wishes were horses we’d be knee deep in manure. Sorry, end vent.

I would like to thank you all for your comments, they have been very helpful and enlightening.

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MMC April 22, 2013 at 3:44 am

I have a similar issue with a supervisor at my job, only he does it to everybody. There are too many people working the shift for him to walk through step-by-step with each, but if he comes around to check on someone’s progress, he will inevitably tell that person what the next thing is that they need to do. He does this even with the most experienced and reliable employees. But there’s a reason for it. He has had to deal with more than his fair share of people that just don’t care enough about their job to get it right, and his butt is the one in the sling if anything goes wrong. So constantly repeating the most basic stuff every time he talks to ANYONE has been permanently ingrained into his habits. It is a little annoying, but those of us who have witnessed the sheer volume of nitwits that have been assigned to his section know we can relax, say “Understood,” and continue working without making any big deal out of it.

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