can I signal to my employee that I realize our boss sucks?

A reader writes:

I’m wondering how to handle a situation as a relatively new manager. I currently have just one direct report, Charles.

About a year ago, we got a new president at our mid-size nonprofit. The new president, Sam, was apparently hired for his expertise in the field and definitely not in managing an organization. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s a widespread and not-well-hidden sentiment across the company that people are unhappy with his style and often odd ideas.

My question is how to convey to Charles that I realize Sam is often not making good decisions or even acting professionally, without undermining the organization’s leadership. For instance, Sam will want us to roll out a poorly thought-out communications plan (not his area of expertise and not expected to be) that doesn’t make sense to Charles and me, even after we’ve explained to Sam why it probably won’t work.

I’ve said things to Charles things in the past such as “this is what the president wants so we just have to do it.” But should I pretend I think it might work, even though I know and Charles knows it won’t, and then be seen as naive by my employee?

My previous boss actually retired rather than continue working with Sam, and my new boss is very hands-off, so I doubt she’d be much help. I also know that Charles hears others in the company express derision and disbelief toward Sam, so it’s not as if he won’t hear it if he doesn’t hear it from me.

Yeah, this is a very fine line to walk.

You shouldn’t pretend you think Sam’s ideas are great if they’re not, but you also shouldn’t trash-talk him to Charles or otherwise express contempt or derision. Part of that is because it’s just not professional or good for your own reputation to trash the head of your organization (even when others are doing it, unless it’s part of a constructive discussion to bring about change). And part of it is that particularly as a manager, you have an obligation to talk about management decisions with respect because (a) the managers above you are trusting you to do that, and it will destroy their trust in you if they find out that you’re not, and (b) it will create some pretty severe cynicism among the people you manage if you don’t, and that will harm your own effectiveness in the long run.

So where does that leave you? Ideally you’d stay matter-of-fact and focus on the pieces that you can control. For example, that might end up sounding like this:
* “It’s not what I would have recommended, but Sam likes it because of X. So let’s talk about how to make that work.”
* “I recommended we do Y, and he heard me out but he’s committed to X because of ____. So let’s talk about what kind of plan we can put together for X.”
* “I think your concerns are well taken and this wouldn’t be the decision that I would have made, but I wasn’t privy to all the considerations that have gone into it.”

Tone really, really matters here — “It’s not the path I would have chosen but let’s give it shot” can sound very different depending on whether it’s delivered in a calm, neutral tone (which is what you should be going for) or an annoyed, frustrated tone followed by a sign and an eye roll. Avoid the sighs and the eye rolls. You can disagree while still being respectful.

Also, depending on how things play out, at some point it might make sense to have a big-picture conversation with Charles about what’s going on. You could say something like, “You know, I think it’s probably clear to you that Sam and I don’t see eye-to-eye on communications strategy. To some extent, that’s okay — I don’t expect to always agree with the person in his role on everything. I want you to know, though, that I do push back on things that I feel are particularly important. I don’t always convince him, but I do try it when I think it matters.” You could even add, “It can be challenging to work with someone with a different perspective, and if you ever have questions about why we’re handling something a certain way or what the other options were, I hope you’ll come talk to me.”

And make sure that’s really true. If you’re high enough up on the organization, you should be pushing back with Sam. This will depend heavily on your role but if you’re, say, the head of communications, you actually have a professional obligation to speak up and advocate for more effective communications strategies. There’s certainly a point where you just need to take no for an answer, but don’t skip this step if you’re in a position to do it.

Also, don’t skip talking to your own manager. You say she’s hands-off and you doubt she’d be of much help, but “doubt” isn’t the same as “know.” Talk to her. Tell her your concerns, and ask if there’s a way to push back on some of the most egregious stuff coming from Sam. And while you’re at it, ask for her advice in navigating this with Charles, because if she hasn’t thought about how this is playing out with the people below her, she should.

And really, at some point (possibly right now) you’ll need to think about how this will affect you professionally. If this kind of thing is only happening occasionally, it may not matter at all. But if it’s regular, it’s going to impact the projects that you do and the successes you have (or don’t have) and in time will impact the reputation of your organization. That can affect your future job prospects, so there’s a limit to how long you should stay if this doesn’t improve.

One litmus test: If you get to the point where you can’t avoid talking about Sam in a frustrated tone or find yourself furious or disgusted more than occasionally, it’s time to move on. When you get to that point, you’re doing professional damage to yourself by staying.

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Sharon

    In the scripts that say “Sam likes it because of X”, what if the LW doesn’t know why he likes it? What if despite all rational thinking, Sam told them to do it? Is it acceptable to just say Sam wants it that way, period?

    Reply
    1. Ell

      I would probably just cop to not knowing, in the same neutral tone AAM suggests. Something like “I’m not totally sure what factors went into deciding this and I’m not privy to all the details but we’re going to try it.

      Reply
    2. anonderella

      Someone on here once pointed out the ‘zoom level’ analogy for the disparity in knowledge of a company issue that often occurs between higher-ups and less-highs (you might be zoomed in quite far, so the details you see are somewhat different than those seen by your boss, who is ‘zoomed out’ slightly from your level, and very different from those seen by your boss’ boss, who might be zoomed out to the furthest level).
      Maybe I’m just susceptible to catchphrases, but I actually really like stuff like this, and how it helps me accept orders handed down when I can’t get a clear read on their provenance or purpose from my boss.
      If the situation is too frustrating to deal with it so simply, maybe OP could advise Charles something similar to this : “I understand that you’re frustrated/confused [by Sam’s orders], and I am working toward better understanding them, myself. Here are the steps I’m taking [x,y,z], and here’s what you could do to help [a,b,c]. What do you think works and doesn’t work about that?”

      (I only put that last sentence in there because I personally think open communication between levels is really important, so I understand it may not work for all relationships/industries) I really enjoy thinking about that relationship (between levels) in different perspectives and look forward to reading the comments!

      Reply
        1. anonderella

          If you can’t zoom out – zone out

          Ok, not really ever good to do at work, but in the sense of letting a problem go, I’d repeat it under breath or in head : )

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      1. anonderella

        Boo! computer ate my comment. I’ll try to remember it :

        Right, but how does that help Charles? I thought the point of the post was to offer something to Charles so that he can go on until (hopefully) the situation becomes more understandable? That line seems like the professional equivalent to shrugging your shoulders.

        If there truly is nothing to offer, I can understand that. It just feels icky to leave ‘Charles’ out on a limb that he doesn’t understand and can’t navigate without help from a liaison to ‘Sam’.
        Saying “I wasn’t privy to all the considerations that have gone into it” may be true, but it may ring to Charles as “I wasn’t privy…. And you [as you are below me on the reporting chain] definitely don’t need to know.” If Charles is being unreasonable in regards to wanting to know more, then it makes sense to give this kind of pushback. But if Charles is genuinely encumbered and unable to succeed at work, then his points should at least be considered, if possible.

        This may be the best option, and I may be totally off-base. But something about that wording rubs me the wrong way and seems snobby and strangely distancing, for no good reason.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Adapt the wording to fit your style — “I don’t know what all the considerations were that went into it” is just fine.

          The reality is, Charles is working somewhere led by an incompetent leader. The best his own boss can do is to model professionalism, note when she might have done it differently, push back to the extent she’s able, and not get so sucked into the dysfunction that she doesn’t spot when it’s time to leave.

          Reply
          1. anonderella

            hmm, maybe that could be better for some people/situations. and you’re right; if there’s no fix to be offered, to what extent do the words that explain that really matter?
            hear, hear, to your advice.

            Reply
    3. esra

      Oh, you mean like a director I had who said he knew what he was asking us to do was wrong, but felt it was right?

      Reply
      1. DoDah

        “I know it’s the wrong thing to do–but we are going to do it anyway because it’s my company!” Former CEO

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        1. F.

          “My name is on the building” What our company owner told my boss recently to justify a very questionable business decision.

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  2. Irishgal

    I agree about the big picture and tone. I worked for a national private healthcare provider and we had a very unpopular work rate around how many assessments we had to do each day (and unsustainable if you wanted to do a good job). We were managed overall by a non clinical team who had clinical leads report to them. My clinical lead attended our team meetings quarterly and was very honest with us that she could not get the work rate reduced but did push for an investment in IT to make our work easier. We felt heard when we talked to her and she would be honest about what she could and couldn’t achieve. Once she left (ironically through ill-health aggravated by all the hours and travel she had to do) we realised just how much she had been pushing back to senior management. Say her replacement wasn’t so effective and the poor people management got worse and they have a rotten reputation; people join for a year or two to enhance specific skills and then leave.

    Reply
  3. iliadawry

    How does this play out with an upper-level that’s laughably wrong (scolding your only cashier for staying at the cashwrap when there’s a line rather than going out to help customers on the floor) or abusive? Can you reassure your direct reports that it’s really not okay (while you look for your new job)?

    Reply
  4. Kate the Little Teapot

    My manager used a lovely script recently about a project manager when a coworker was getting emotional in a meeting about the difficulties she was creating for us.

    “Yes, I’ve formed my own conclusions about X’s skills and position in the organization.”

    I was so impressed.

    Reply
  5. animaniactoo

    Honestly, I really appreciate that my boss doesn’t keep quiet over the stupid decisions. Seriously stupid. Annoying. Make extra work (and confusion*) for us.

    The ability to roll our eyes and then get on with the business of doing it acts as a form of stress relief.

    On the other hand, I also work in a seriously dysfunctional workplace. My work PTSD is only alleviated by the fact that the place I worked at before this one was even worse on that level. It is what it is.

    *Okay! We’re going to do a basic teapot with a +1 of 2 cup and sugarbowl set for Megastore (domestic). Okay, we’re going to take away one of the cups in order to meet a price point for International sales. But sell them both under the same style #, we’ll just keep it separated by shipment. Now we’re going to do another version for International with just 1 cup and no sugarbowl. New set of packaging. That will get a different style #. Wait, domestically, Megastore and Megamart can’t have the same style #, so we’re going to do 2 different style #s. But Megastore is only selling on dot.com, so we’ll do brown box packaging for them and a full-color box for Megamart. Whoops! This was sold to FamilyMart under Megastore’s number, and they want a full-color box so now we have to do that version too. As a rush! SuperRush! No, it’s too far along in the order process to just change the style # for FamilyMart to Megamart’s #. Oh, and because all of this has licensed artwork on it, you have to coordinate back to the licensors on each version/brand and get their approval. This is a real situation.

    Reply
      1. animaniactoo

        lol. tyvm. There’s actually some pushback against it going on now in terms of decision making, but it’s going to be awhile before the dust settles out. The main problem is that it’s actually a cyclical issue that keeps coming back (we set up bad situation based on cost-cutting, then repeatedly have to react with each new cost-cutting addendum/change at retailer request – which of course means we end up saving little to nothing than if we’d just been consistent and done it in a way that anticipated all these changes that happen almost every time). It’s a mindset issue and we can keep solving each iteration, but solving the mindset isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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        1. anonderella

          (don’t mean to do any book promoting, so apologies) Marie Kondo writes a few books about revolutionizing your life (mostly through cleaning) by advocating a major-overhaul-type approach. I read through one and was blown away by the perspective. When I started a new job that revolved a good deal around organizing old methods and items, I thought it would be a perfect time to put those skills into action. I was quickly told, in different ways, that I didn’t have all the information (yet) needed to make these changes, which I understood. I was told (such & such person) will get back with me eventually. Five months ago. I was told when hired that change would be coming quickly, so we would be hitting the ground running. Well, I have learned that major-overhauls are terrifying to those who stand to lose the most (usually the boss.. god, hopefully the boss and not the employees), maybe because their outcomes are so unknown and there is little substantial data that says they will absolutely work.
          I know its a little obvious, but I guess that’s part of what drives that mentality.

          Hope you get to a place where you can be proactive!

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    1. animaniactoo

      Btw, if you’ve lost track there, we now have 3 style #s, and 3 versions of this *extremely basic* item. But not coordinated so that each style number denotes a distinct version.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        I see your style numbers and raise you a court decision.

        Small Company had made boxes anticipating an annual order from MegaHuge Store. The boxes were made, done. MegaHuge decided “We don’t like those boxes, we want these totally different boxes instead.” Small Company pushed back at MegaHuge. The argument ended up in court. The court ruled in favor of MegaHuge. Tractor trailer loads of NEW boxes went to the dump.

        Yeah, I know exactly what you are talking about. I have seen it first hand. It was the same thing for MegaHuge, they had to have a style/model number that was uniquely theirs. To this day, MegaHuge is the last place I will go to buy anything.

        Reply
        1. animaniactoo

          I can see that to some extent though. MegaHuge hadn’t actually placed the order yet, so Small Company was assuming some risk regardless – that MegaHuge would place an order at all again. It’s not something you can ever count on, you always have to be chasing it. However, if MegaHuge had been reasonable, they’d have said “Alright, we’ll take them for this year, but let’s get started on redesigning them for next year/any replenishment orders this year”, or “We’ll pay additional because we recognize you did this in order to give us the quick turnaround that we want and it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

          I know what my company has done in that situation is to say “Okay, we’re going to release this style# to everyone then so we can sell-off this stock, and we’ll assign a new style# for this packaging”. I wonder if MegaHuge wasn’t willing to go that route? We have some pull because our items are licensed items, and due to the agreements, we’re the only ones who make those particular ones, so it’s not like they can go to somebody else to get them. The most they can do is indicate to the licensor that they’re not happy with how we’re doing business and attempt to get the licensor not to renew our contract.

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    2. LBK

      Your situation definitely sounds frustrating, don’t get me wrong. But I do think sympathizing together over management incompetence feels good in the moment but can make things feel worse overall. It creates a negative environment where you’re almost pre-emptively angry or annoyed by everything – it encourages the “bitch eating crackers” attitude where you lose the ability to ever look at your boss’s decisions objectively, and that sends you down a spiral where every single thing you see feeds the perception that your workplace is terrible and makes you more and more unhappy.

      I dealt with this for 2 years and ultimately it wasn’t my manager’s incompetence that made me quit, it was my coworker’s constant hour-long whining sessions about it. His attitude was far more intolerable than anything our boss ever cooked up. This doesn’t mean just shutting up and taking it any time a bad decision is made, but I do think recognizing that certain bad management behaviors will never go away and committing to not bringing up every single instance of them will make you happier in the long run. There’s something almost freeing about no getting fired up again each time something stupid happens; retaking control of your emotions and saying “I’m going to be happy and positive no matter how much everything sucks” can be very empowering.

      Reply
      1. animaniactoo

        True, and it sometimes does slide into that. But on average it’s the ability to roll eyes at it and be over it in a minute or two and just get on to working on it. And that does help more than it hurts imo.

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        1. LBK

          That’s fair, and I certainly can’t say that I don’t roll my eyes at some of the things that happen at my office. I do think that particularly if you’re in a toxic environment, the ability to truly get over it and move on gets compromised because there’s something new to get over every 5 minutes. I also think that people are generally really bad at being self-aware about whether venting is actually helping them or not; almost everyone who does it regularly thinks it helps, but from an outside perspective I’ve never actually seen it improve anything. Most people seem angrier after they vent than before, and they rarely channel that frustration into productivity.

          Personally speaking, I also know that I am an emotional sponge for my surroundings – it’s very easy for me to soak up and hold in negative energy from people around me, so I have to be very careful how much I let myself indulge.

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        2. Jennifer

          I agree with that. My supervisor does an excellent job of conveying “this decision was made arbitrarily above me and we just have to put up with it and there’s nothing we can do” while still technically sticking to what she is supposed to say politically. It really helps to have that crazy acknowledged instead of being fed a line of bull I’m genuinely supposed to buy, like “Sam has our best interests at heart, really.”

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      2. Not So NewReader

        You know, it’s funny you should mention this. What got me out the door of toxic job was my whiny coworker telling me, “You are a lifer here. You are going to be here the rest of your life.”
        That was a huge wake up call. I realized complacency had set in for me. I was sick of all the whining that made the work load feel like it was triple what it actually was. I wanted to work where people understood that the way out of a huge task was to focus on the task and not waste hours whining about it.
        The moment my coworker made that comment I said “I am out in x time frame.” I was out well before the deadline I had set for myself.
        Is management lousy because everyone whines or is everyone whining because management is lousy? In the end it does not matter, because the answer is still the same: the problem, whatever it is, is epidemic. It permeates all levels of the company.

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        1. Windchime

          Awesome post, particularly your last paragraph. I’m currently working on a toxic team, and I’ve become part of the toxicity. I can feel it but it almost has a life of its own now and the negativity is like an out-of-control toboggan; we are all just on it for the ride. I cry every day and but I’m too paralyzed to leave.

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        2. LBK

          I don’t think we’re necessarily disagreeing; I hope that I’m not coming across as advocating for complacency. You can do what I suggested while still actively looking for a new job or otherwise addressing real problems – and I think it’s actually necessary to solving problems, because you need to be able to look at things through clear eyes and genuinely sort out “this is something I can fix, this is something I can live with, this is something I can’t fix and can’t live with so I need to leave”.

          This is less about acceptance of someone treating you poorly and more about managing your sanity, which I think is easier if you don’t get wrapped up in negativity. A terrible job will do enough to drive you crazy all on its own, you don’t need to add your own negative energy on top of that.

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          1. LBK

            To speak a little more to the problem solving aspect – I saw this in action at the position I described above that I ultimately left due to my coworker’s negativity. Our manager wasn’t the best but in the 3 years I worked for him, I saw him make huge strides. He became much more flexible and open to feedback, was willing to discuss changing elements of our roles that weren’t working, shifted our goals and increased our comp plans to align with the amount of work we were doing, etc. He put in genuine work to address the issues my coworker had with him, and my coworker just refused to ever see it or give him credit in any way.

            It actually came to a head at a meeting where my coworker was *screaming* at our boss and I had to cut in and basically put him in his place. Once you’ve become that wrapped up in negativity, you become just as much of the problem because you don’t ever want to fix anything, you just want to see every possible issue and error that will feed your locked-in mindset that everything sucks.

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        3. animaniactoo

          That’s actually exactly what prompted me to leave my last place, the one even more dysfunctional than this one – a similar statement and the same jolt and planning. I gave them 6 weeks notice, they hired 2 people to replace me and I found out I was doing the hiring when the resumes started coming addressed to me.

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      3. Grapey

        I agree 1000%. I do reporting/systems type stuff, and the amount of changes that certain teams ask for is astounding – most of the changes aren’t even used (leave it to the reporting guru to measure how often her reports are looked at lol). But I suck it up and look at it as a chance to increase my skills in the technology that I use to produce those reports.

        Reply
    3. Grapey

      I do system design stuff and feel bad for the software engineers that need to convert that business logic into a usable product. (At which point the non-software staff just uses 13 excel spreadsheets to deal with it all.) Lack of complexity management truly kills productivity. Humans can’t task switch well at all.

      Reply
  6. SophieChotek

    This is a good post for me to read. I sometimes feel frustrated like I feel like the upper-level management makes some poor decisions, but it’s a good reminder that I may not have the full picture and even if I’m right (and they’re wrong), it is my managers job to keep things going, while pushing back when he can. (And I think he does push back to the extent he can, but also does a reasonably good job of commiserating with me a little, but also sometimes telling me to just “do it this way”…).

    Not quite sure where I was going with this comment. When I started I thought I had some sort of “ah ha” moment…sadly, now I’ve lost it.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      There were many times I never told my people that I pushed back. For one thing, there was no time to explain all the conversations that took place. And there was no point to burdening them with how hopeless arguing was.
      The way I framed this was I felt I had a duty to help everyone stay employed for as long as they wished to work there. If they could not change, or lessen the impact of Stupid Policy or Thoughtless Rule, I did not get bogged down in conversation about it. It was what it was.

      Reply
  7. Feo Takahari

    I’m not sure how workable (or healthy) this is, but my boss tries to take the brunt of management’s bad decisions rather than dropping them down to us. For instance, management has a strict limit on how many hours employees can work in a week, but it also has high expectations for how many tasks we can accomplish each week. Whenever we can’t finish the tasks in the time alotted, he sends us all home and does the unpaid overtime himself. (He once worked an eight-hour shift until closing, then worked overnight until we opened the next morning, which is where “possibly unhealthy” comes in. I get the feeling upper management wouldn’t give us such strict deadlines if he didn’t always find a way to meet them.)

    Reply
    1. De Minimis

      We had a supervisor like that once–it was a work environment where we had a key deadline to meet each day. Upper management was attempting to create all these performance metrics for us to worry about, and he told us the only metric he cared about was if we met the deadline at the end of each day–he said he would take the heat for all the other stuff.

      Of course, he was planning on leaving so that was probably why he did that, but we really appreciated him for it.

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  8. AF

    OP, I am so so so glad you wrote in!! I am a “Charles” in this situation, and I’ve worked under a lot of Sams. Sometimes, I was in the OP’s position, but now I have two managers who are kind of a buffer (sort of) against our Sam. I work in an academic hospital, and it is very frowned upon to use a venting tone towards the doctors we work with, or even disagreeing with them without coming up with an alternative solution (which our Sam rarely listens to). Because the “lower level” staff don’t have an MD or PhD, our opinions don’t count as much.

    That said, I totally agree with what Alison said that if you have any power to push back against Sam, you should. Especially the long-term ramifications of working for someone who sucks. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to vent to a manager (both of my encourage open, honest communications), knowing that they agree with me (complete with sighs and eye rolls of their own), AND knowing that they won’t do anything about it. In fact, our Sam has stated that he knows he has annoying habits, and he STILL doesn’t care enough to change.

    Of course, I know that not every situation is fixable, and you have to pick your battles, but not even being allowed to bring up concerns in a constructive way is awful on morale. I think having a manager who took a more neutral approach would be helpful. Good luck, and please keep us updated!!

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  9. Mando Diao

    I think it all depends on whether Sam’s leadership and terrible ideas are likely to sink the company. Should Charles start looking for another job? Are other people talking about leaving? Perhaps more importantly, exactly how “unprofessional” is Sam’s behavior?

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  10. Tacocat

    This is the sentence that stuck out most to me, “poorly thought-out communications plan (not his area of expertise and not expected to be) that doesn’t make sense to Charles and me, even after we’ve explained to Sam why it probably won’t work.” My question to this sentence, is how did you work with Sam to try to iron out some of the details? Maybe Sam is totally bonkers, or maybe he is giving more big picture elements. If you are the communications subject matter expert, maybe you can work with Sam to translate his big picture idea into an actionable, effective communication plan. Maybe that big picture idea isn’t the one you would have personally chosen, but still a viable option with your refinement. You can also be the example/train Charles on this skill of taking vague requirements and translating it into an effective project plan. I come at this from the perspective of someone who does this all the time, in a role where almost no one in my organization understands how to actually execute their request. Subsequently, my boss trained me on the skill set (and it is a skill) of working with our executives to gather requirements and refine their requests. This approach may help with the frustration and give you a better business outcome!

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  11. bopper

    Of course I have had the situation where i said this project would not be successful because they were not really understanding what the customer wanted…but after a while I went with the flow….3 years later it was thrown out and then we did what the customer really wanted.

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  12. nameless

    Question – when does mistrust in management and a realization that the way the company is managed is going to damage your career outweigh job hopping? I have a year at my current position but it is clear that management doesn’t support my role and there is no room for growth or lateral movement. I was hoping to stay at least 2 years in this job. Is the benefit of staying longer more than the benefit of leaving?

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    1. Not So NewReader

      I’d start looking now and assume it will take a bit to find something. If you start now, you might end up close to the two year mark (depending on many factors, obviously) when you leave anyway.

      My thought is that you don’t want “bad habits” to grow to seem normal to you. And you don’t want to wait until your self-confidence is totally shot before you start job hunting.

      Reply
  13. burnout

    “One litmus test: If you get to the point where you can’t avoid talking about Sam in a frustrated tone or find yourself furious or disgusted more than occasionally, it’s time to move on. When you get to that point, you’re doing professional damage to yourself by staying.”

    Wow. Lately I am thinking this more and more about my own situation. I keep finding myself enforcing policies and such and saying things to unhappy employees like, “I understand your frustration. I fought hard against this but I lost and now this is what we have to do.”

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    1. Lily Rowan

      Yeah, same. I’ve been “keeping my eyes open,” but I think it’s time to really start looking to move on.

      Reply
  14. Chameleon

    Regarding pushback: Remember that when you look for other jobs, you may not be able to explain bad results as “poor management.” If you are head of online communications and you have a terrible website, you can’t really say “well, Sam wanted the font to be yellow Comic Sans”–you will ultimately be held responsible. So for your own sake, not just Charlie’s, make sure to push back on bad decisions.

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    1. Not So NewReader

      In severe situations, I have said to my own version of Sam, “I want to be on the record as saying Comic Sans in yellow font is not a good idea.” I save that for situations that are so horrible I do not want to be associated with the set up and predictable fallout from the situation.

      The few times I have used this, (SPARINGLY!) the boss has either slowed down or stopped entirely. I use it for situations where I know we are coloring outside the legal lines or I see a very high probability of someone getting injured. The key words that worked for me, “I want to be on the record as….”

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  15. Not So NewReader

    OP, if you are worried about your employee quitting on you, he may not for awhile if he knows you are reality based. You are wise not to pretend everything is all rosy.

    I have said things like, “Well, anywhere we work there are bound to be disagreements, bumps in the road and so on. No workplace is perfect.”

    One place I could not hide all that was wrong, it was obvious to people who were just in the building for a short bit. So I said things like, “Our job is to do what management requests. The good news in the rules apply to everyone, not just you, not just me. So everyone is working under the same constraints. This is what we have until something better comes along.”

    I did encourage people when they said they were looking for something else. Added irony, my encouragement seemed to help them to stay longer. People are funny/odd in how they respond.

    Reply
  16. New Reader

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    Where do all these people work who have only one or two direct reports? I have 16. It’s recognized that I have too many & we’re splitting my team up with another leader soon, but even then it’ll be 10 on one and 6 in the other. Still big compared to most if there teams I read about here.

    Not really sure I need advice here. Just making an observation and wondering if I work for a horrible company who expects too much from its leaders.

    Reply
    1. Sarahnova

      16 DRs is more than any one person can effectively manage, I think, unless your people are VERY autonomous and need minimal suppprt. I would try to rework the structure so that you manage, say, five of those directly, and those 5 take some leadership responsibility for the remaining 11 between them (each supports 2 or 3 with day-to-day issues).

      If you can’t do that, for whatever reason, could you at least take your 2 or 3 most experienced/senior people and get them to start supporting some of your most junior people on an informal basis?

      Reply
      1. New Reader

        My industry is construction & my team is divided into two groups who do different things for different projects. I set the schedule for their work and project managers make sure day to day things get done. Unfortunately, our pool of pms is lacking in skill and more than half of my team has less than six months of experience. And our corporation has an outdated training system. The end result is I spend more time than necessary helping new people understand what it is they need to do, how to do it and trying to keep huge mistakes from happening that will cost the company money and waste time.

        I am loyal and optimistic though. I keep telling myself that if we can get this new batch of people up and running the future will be better.

        Reply
  17. Jack K

    I’ve had conversations a few times to get buy-in for strange decisions from above. I can’t use the “I didn’t know all the concerns” line because I’m pretty in-the-loop, so my general technique is to model confidence in the company’s future:

    “Maybe Sam is mistaken on this. Maybe we’re mistaken. We have different perspectives and even the best people make mistakes. Sam’s aware of (the objections you raised) and made his final decision, so it’s our duty to (this company) to uphold that decision. If this plan works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, Sam/we will have learned (x,y,z) and can re-evaluate. Upper management are all competent folks who care about this business, so in the end, it’ll work out.”

    It works because I can say it happily, confidently, and sincerely. If there’s actual dysfunction at the top levels, I’d be using Alison’s script even if it was a lie and actively job-hunting.

    Reply
  18. Sarah

    “One litmus test: If you get to the point where you can’t avoid talking about Sam in a frustrated tone or find yourself furious or disgusted more than occasionally, it’s time to move on. When you get to that point, you’re doing professional damage to yourself by staying.”

    What if you’ve only been at the job 6 months? And the person is someone you had no idea would be your manager – or this insufferable – when you accepted the job? Serious question.

    Reply
    1. burnout

      Why stay if you are miserable? No matter how short or long of a time you’ve been there. Doesn’t matter. Life is way too short to dread going to work every day.

      That’s JMHO.

      Reply
    2. Lily Rowan

      I’ve started looking six months into a job, and the question of why I was leaving so soon did come up in several interviews. I had a decent answer, but still didn’t get an offer until much closer to a year. Which, all things considered, does make my resume look at least a little better going forward.

      Reply
  19. Veronica

    I can totally relate to this, but thankfully my manager’s in-competencies are completely obvious to everyone already. When a direct report brings it up, I just nod my head and move the conversation along.

    Reply

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