update: my boss is unavailable and it’s driving us all mad

Remember the letter-writer whose boss was constantly unavailable? She was his assistant and could see it was driving his team mad. Here’s the update.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question on your website. Your feedback (and most of the commenters’) was extremely helpful in first easing my mind that I am not crazy in thinking this management style is awful, and second in providing some practical advice for dealing with that sort of behavior. I especially loved the motto I heard in several comments, “Not my monkeys, not my circus” — I try to think of that now on the most frustrating days.

Since the post, I’ve had my yearly performance review with Bob, during which he was very complimentary of my performance but confused why so many of his direct reports had complained in their evaluations about his lack of communication. I tried my hardest to be polite but up-front with him on the stress he’s causing our department and how that affects our productivity. He admitted he needs to be better at responding to emails, but expressed frustration that the team doesn’t just “stop by and chat” more often. I was floored when I heard this and quite honestly speechless. I didn’t recover in time to point out the glaringly obvious fact that HE IS NEVER HERE. But I’m satisfied that I have at least exhausted all avenues in this debacle, imperfectly as I may have done it.

Bob continues to skip his regular check-ins with staff (which he himself requested to schedule), continues to request items be emailed to him three or four times (only to continue to ignore them), and continues to bottleneck projects. My team has requested he hire a #2 to act as his deputy (another great suggestion from the website), but for now we are resigned to working around Bob where it’s possible, and letting the balls drop where it’s not. Hopefully his management style will eventually catch up to him and bring him back down to earth. But for now I will practice letting go.

{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. a1

    Letting it go is a great skill to have. It can hard to learn, but once you do life is so much easier. I’m glad to see the LW being able to do that, or at least practicing it.

    Reply
    1. Lance

      Yeah, this guy isn’t a functional manager at all, not least of all for the complete lack of self-awareness or reliability.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        I’d have more hope if he weren’t like, “Why don’t people just stop by?” The level of self-unawareness there is just boggling.

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          1. BadPlanning

            The evil part of me was wondering if OP had Bob’s home/cell phone and the OP could start calling him everyone time someone tried to stop by with a question.

            Reply
  2. Menacia

    Yes, “learning to let it go” is such good advice for so many situations. I’ve let things go that used to drive me nuts but have learned I a) have no control over them, and b) have to stop looking for problems when others don’t think they are.

    Reply
  3. ThisIsNotWhoYouThinkItIs

    That is a beautiful perspective. Very well-balanced. Congrats, OP, and keep on keeping on. I’m cheering for you.

    Reply
  4. Amber T

    Ugh. This sucks, OP. You’re absolutely right that the only thing you can do is let it go, because it’s so far out of your realm of responsibility, so I’m glad that’s the avenue you’re taking. I’m really curious to what the CEO thinks he’s doing, or if the CEO is at all aware of the issues your boss is causing. Again, not your circus, not your monkeys, but I’m curious nonetheless.

    Reply
    1. Antilles

      My guess is that the CEO doesn’t really see the magnitude of the issues. Since he’s higher on the food chain, he’s probably not really getting the full picture of just how awful it is for the staff and just how much is slipping through the cracks. The CEO might see a few balls get dropped here and there, but since he’s only getting a limited part of the picture, I’d guess he’s viewing it more along the lines of a minor flaw with Bob rather than a Major Critical Issue.

      Reply
      1. Narise

        Maybe their needs to be communication sent out that states ‘No update- waiting on Bob.’ week after week on projects that stall. That might get someone’s attention.

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        1. Evan Þ

          Yes. I regularly have projects that’re stalled for a few weeks (or longer) waiting to hear from external partners or other departments. (Often I wouldn’t blame them in the least – they’ve got different timeframes, or their part of the project turns out to be harder than we’d think from our perspective.) That status report’s been a lifesaver.

          Reply
        2. Artemesia

          This. Every time there is a logjam because Bob isn’t in, someone needs to send a note to the CEO or go see the CEO: ‘We are stuck on the Miller project which is due this Friday because Bob hasn’t been in all week and needs to sign off; what do you want us to do in his absence to get this done?’ EVERY SINGLE TIME.

          Reply
  5. Lil Fidget

    Oh dear, OP, I would be a little concerned that, since this seems to be coming up in your review, there’s a chance you could be hurt by his poor communication skills. That is very unfair, but might be something to watch. Honestly, whenever one is associated with an unsuccessful team long term, I think it can hurt both your external perception and possibly even your work habits / mental habits. If you see any opportunities for other roles, even internal transfers, I’d be keeping my eyes open …

    Reply
      1. Julia

        Document everything! Send emails and keep printouts where you can get them if you’re suddenly fired. Keep printouts or a flash drive of all your efforts to communicate. Keep the flash drive with you, not at work. (If your company is concerned about security you can password-protect or encrypt it)
        I wonder if there’s another manager or supervisor you can talk to about him saying why don’t people drop by when he’s never there. Also, is there a way to document and save that?

        Reply
  6. Emily

    Ugh it makes me crazy that people like this end up in senior positions (with senior salaries to match we can assume) but are so clearly ineffective. I wonder if the consequences for this behavior would look different if Bob were a Barbara.

    Reply
    1. MassMatt

      The Peter Principle in action, perhaps? It drives me nuts also. So many organizations terrify their staff with layoffs, hobble them with ineffective processes or equipment, and seem determined to pay them as little as possible, yet ignore or even reward dysfunction at the highest levels.

      Reply
      1. Jennifer Thneed

        My wife likes to say that for most companies, their main product is “hierarchy”. Why else would so many really bad business decisions get made? Because they are supporting the real product, which is the hierarchy – even when it’s ultimately bad for the company’s survival.

        Reply
      2. Gazebo Slayer

        I think it’s because high-level decision makers see the Bobs of the world as people like them who deserve the benefit of the doubt beyond all reason, but see lower-level employees as expendable and as not really people the way they’re people.

        Reply
  7. Elle

    What if each person who “stopped by to chat” left a sticky note or some other physical thing on his desk. A pile of sticky notes might make a point about him being the one who’s never around.

    Reply
    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      Or get one of those “while you were out” pads and fill out a slip for every person who stops by when he’s not there.

      Reply
    2. Falling Diphthong

      This is a good point. He’s probably reasoning that if he can’t see people stopping by his desk, they weren’t there.

      Reply
    3. Interviewer

      Alternate idea: when he does show up, give the team a heads up. Then they can spend the entire duration of his visit taking turns with “stopping by.”

      Reply
      1. Blue_eyes

        Love this and the sticky notes idea. Each person to “stop by” should mention “Well, I stopped by every day last week but you were always out, glad I finally caught you”

        Reply
  8. Machiamellie

    Ugh, Bob sucks, I’m sorry.

    I’d encourage people to “stop by and chat” with him and sign a log. Then I’d regularly send him a screenshot of the log to let him know everyone who came by looking for him when he wasn’t there.

    Reply
      1. Wanna-Alp

        Yeah. This is why the post-its on his desk is a better idea: he personally has to clear them off into the bin.

        Reply
    1. Tuesday Next

      I think this would come across as passive aggressive, whereas the post-its should have a similar effect and are a more natural office behaviour

      Reply
  9. Say what, now?

    I’m so sorry that it didn’t change. I have a feeling that things will change. Once enough balls get dropped I’m thinking the CEO will step in and demand change or maybe something stronger (PIP and firing potentially). If that happens, though, don’t take it as you failed. You’ve tried to help him so, so much more than many other people have. He was given the feedback, acknowledged the feedback was valid and then failed to make changes. That’s no one’s fault but his if this goes sideways.

    Reply
    1. paul

      The worry there is collateral damage, i.e. other people’s jobs :/ but there isn’t much his direct reports can do at this point

      Reply
      1. Say what, now?

        Yes, there’s nothing that you can do about other people’s jobs so you’ll have to distance yourself from that thought too. You’re actually doing the best thing you can to protect yourself and them. Getting as much done as possible around the boss’s scant communications, creating a paper trail with your multiple emails (illustrating that you are persistently trying to get communication), and continuing to do your job as professionally as possible. Your work record will hopefully stand out if blame starts flying. But even so, I wouldn’t let that worry be at the forefront of your thoughts. C-suits very rarely get cut unless something very public goes down.

        Reply
  10. Cyrus

    “He admitted he needs to be better at responding to emails, but expressed frustration that the team doesn’t just “stop by and chat” more often. I was floored when I heard this and quite honestly speechless. I didn’t recover in time to point out the glaringly obvious fact that HE IS NEVER HERE.”

    Sorry if this sounds like nitpicking, and I agree that letting go and not worrying about it is good advice, but I want to point out that it’s not too late. You can still do this. At this point with everything else going on it probably won’t help, but you never know.

    Reply
  11. MassMatt

    I am in the “your boss sucks and isn’t going to change” camp. He’s already been presented with voluminous evidence that his staff is frustrated and unable to get work done and his responses have been obtuse. Leaving post-it notes, signing into a “while you were out” log, etc are not going to work. At some point people are going to start leaving (the first one who does is likely to cause an avalanche). Hopefully a higher-up will notice the turnover problem or important work remaining undone.

    Congrats to the OP for letting go of feeling responsible for fixing your boss’s dysfunction, you’ve done all you can, frankly though I would look for another job, the current situation is not sustainable.

    Reply
  12. Narise

    Ultimately it will take an important project failing for someone to recognize the issue and force a change. Whether the failure happens because his staff stops trying to cover everything for him or it happens because its unavoidable doesn’t really matter. All staff members that have meetings with the boss should track how often he doesn’t show up or cancels the meeting and provide him or his boss or HR the list.

    Reply
    1. Say what, now?

      I think there’s a difference between covering up for the boss and doing your job to the utmost of your capability despite bad management. The first might be seen as insubordination so I wouldn’t recommend it (and I don’t think Narise is either). On the other hand, I think it’s safe to do your best with what you’ve been handed because it shows professionalism where it’s lacking in the management you have. The CEO is unlikely to accuse you of hiding performance issues from him simply for doing your job.

      Reply
  13. Kuznetsov

    It seems to me that basic problem here is not that Bob is bad manager but that he does not like to use email. It may be that Bob is doing a lot for the company but this is not visible to office support staff. I think that solution is for staf to use email less and phones more.

    Reply
    1. hbc

      I think you’re right that he could be doing a lot, but I don’t think email is the problem. I recall he was sketchy on the phone at best, and in this update OP says that he’s cancelling meetings. If phone, email, and in-person don’t work, what will?

      If we give Bob the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just working too much (and laughably blind about his availability), the only possibility to get things moving is to remove him as a bottleneck.

      Reply
    2. MassMatt

      But he’s rarely in the office and doesn’t return phone calls. “Doesn’t like to use email” is a pretty bizarre attitude for anyone working a corporate job of any type, let alone a c-suite executive, but it’s not an explanation. “Doesn’t know how to manage” seems more likely.

      Reply
      1. PM Jesper Berg

        If you’ve ever been sued, or a corporate lawyer/litigator advising clients, “doesn’t like to use e-mail” is a pretty normal attitude.

        Reply
    3. Blue_eyes

      From the original letter it seems like he’s traveling a lot, possibly to other time zones, so calling may not work well a lot of the time.

      Reply
  14. AKchic

    Get a log sheet/book so people can track when they’ve stopped in to see Bob and he wasn’t there.
    Continue to work around Bob.
    Continue advocating for a Deputy Bob who will be in the office. Someone who can eventually REPLACE Bob, because at some point, Bob will be gone. Whether the PTB finally realize that Bob is just ghosting his actual job, or that the number 2 and the team is really doing all of the work and they don’t NEED Bob.

    Bob will shoot himself in the foot, figuratively, of course.

    Reply
      1. AKchic

        I actually had a manager who was like that. He was an HR manager (of all things!) for a catering company. His “side business” was running his own restaurant, plus he had just bought his first rental property. Y’know, diversify your money, early 00’s mentality before the housing/banking bubble completely burst?
        It was a mess.

        Reply
  15. mf

    Document all the times you try to contact him about problems/resolutions that need his sign-off. When one of them falls through because he was around to give approval, you need to be sure you won’t be blamed.

    Reply
  16. Amazed

    He doesn’t understand why his staff gets frustrated about not being able to contact him, and he’s forthright that he doesn’t stay on top of emails, but he still complains about nobody in the team making the effort to get in touch with him? Seriously? “I’m not failing to respond, everyone else is”?

    Seconding all the calls to get yourself out from under Bob as soon as you safely can. I smell gaslighting.

    Reply
  17. Mrs. Fenris

    I used to work for somebody just like Bob. Her intentions were really not bad, but she had bought a little too much into the idea of “hire good people and delegate.” She was out of the office, well, most of the time. She absolutely would not answer phone calls, would answer texts some of the time and usually hours later, and might check email a couple of times a week. I’ll never forget the time I, a pretty unflappable sort who could handle almost any sort of management emergency, texted her, “Please call us IMMEDIATELY. We have a major situation with X Project and its crazy client. He is making threats.” She texted me three hours later and just asked if we had handled it. Well, yes, actually we had, but we shouldn’t have had to and everybody was still pretty stressed.

    Reply
  18. Kickin' Crab

    My current manager is a Bob. She was offered a C-suite job through connections last year and took it “as a 3 month trial” while supposedly maintaining all her privileges in our department, including managing me and a couple other people. Needless to say it has not worked well. She extended her trial period multiple times, such that in the last 12 months, she has spent exactly one week actually doing manager duties. It’s a big problem because one of our employees is really struggling, and no one wants to, or has the authority to, put on their Big Girl Pants and sit down with the struggling person to come up with a PIP or other rubric for improvement. Ugh.

    Reply

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