when your manager won’t manage

A reader writes:

I work in a cultural/academic/non-profit institution, and am part of a professional community small enough that I don’t wish to identify it, lest one of my colleagues identify *me*.

I should say that I love what I do for a living. It’s a calling, I spent a lot of time in graduate school preparing for it. Some days, I really couldn’t be happier.

Those are the days when my boss and most of the other people who “work” with me are not here.

There are really more personnel problems than I can reasonably describe, but I’ll give you the Top 4:

1) My boss allows an unqualified volunteer to perform a skilled, essential function that he is profoundly unfit to perform. Said volunteer is also inappropriate, indecorous, insubordinate and all-around annoying. He argues with us when we assign him tasks, he comes in earlier and stays later than allowed, wanders the building bothering people, and generally behaves like an unsupervised child. I have repeatedly approached my boss about all of the above issues, and while he agrees with me, he WILL NOT discipline or replace this person. My attempts to correct his behavior are ignored.

2) Another volunteer (also profoundly unqualified for his duties) is incredibly rude to me, and has made sexist, racist, and all-around inappropriate statements to me, to my boss, and to coworkers. I have documented such statements, and have had 4 meetings will my boss about this individual. My boss even agreed with me that this person should be terminated’then I went on vacation. When I came back, he was here, and here he remains.

3) A member of the paraprofessional staff is insane. She does no work, and is so horrible that she actually drove away her gifted and qualified supervisor. Despite no specialized training in our field (and a part-time paraprofessional position), she feels she is entitled to order around/abuse the professional staff, and she refuses to learn simple tasks like changing toner in the photocopier (and I mean REFUSES. As in “I will not learn how to do that, so stop trying to teach me.”). She’s also a classic whiner who complains about problems, but refuses to do anything to solve them, even when given tools and support. She’s worked here over 20 years.

4) The boss will not deal with any of this. It’s almost like these people have something incriminating on him, the way he lets them get away with murder.

I love the people I serve, and the one employee I supervise. But I feel trapped. I can’t absorb Problem #1’s duties, since we’re already so understaffed. I feel I’ve done everything right with Problem #2, but to no avail. I wait anxiously for Problem #3 to retire. I pray Problem #4 wins the lottery and retires in Tahiti.

For my long-range career plans, this job is perfect, but the people are making me homicidal.

Thanks…just the venting feels good at this point. Keep up the good work!

You don’t have four problems. You have one big problem: your boss.

You can try to reason with him and plead and use logic, but ultimately there is only one thing that solves the problem of working under a boss who is afraid to take action. I’m sorry to say that it’s this: Leave, and go to work for a boss who is willing to do his or her job.

I know that’s not an easy solution. But in my experience, it is the only long-term solution.

Your manager is profoundly flawed, in a way that nothing you do can fix. He is allowing his desire to be nice and avoid unpopular/difficult decisions to trump his fundamental obligations as a manager — obligations like holding the bar high and expecting people to adhere to it, warning them when they’re falling short, and taking action when warnings don’t work.

And what is happening to you now is the irony that all such wimpy managers spawn: In their quest to be liked, the opposite happens. Because problems go unresolved, good employees get frustrated and end up hating them.

Are there short-term solutions? Maybe. Depending on your relationship with your boss, you may be able to badger or cajole him into taking action on some of this, or to give you the authority to handle it. Or you may be able to find discreet ways to go over his head to bring the problem to his boss — but if he’s being permitted to get away with this basic abdication of his duties, chances are good that the boss above him is the same flawed type.

But in the long-term, absent a boss who will make him do his job (likely having to push him through it every step of the way), this stuff isn’t going to change. You have a boss who isn’t interested in or willing to do his job. To have long-term happiness, you’re going to need to find one who is.

All that said, there is one good thing about a boss like this: They provide inspiration for the rest of us, as a model of what not to do. I worked for a boss like this early on in my career, and I ultimately quit over it. It’s no exaggeration to say that having worked under someone like that has formed the foundation of my own management philosophy and approach. Now that I manage other managers, I make sure none of them do this to their people — we say the hard things, have the uncomfortable conversations, and take the difficult actions. And I’m convinced everyone — even the people on the receiving end of those tough conversations — is better off for it.

So admittedly, your letter tapped into a major obsession for me. And perhaps others would tell you to stick it out, let it roll off your back, blah blah. And that’s certainly an option. But if you find yourself a manager willing to manage, the impact on your quality of life can’t be overstated.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Maven*

    A great example of how people accept positions for the work and leave because of the people/leadership.

    I agree 100% with AAM. I also think that this situation will only get worse, as your supervisor’s inaction will further irritate and annoy you.

    If you work in academia/non-profit, there are other places who will love your gifts. I would recommend that you put together a plan and start your search. And in the meantime, quit keeping score of everything that isn’t getting done. It’s crazy making. You can’t fix it so focus on what you can change.

    Get out there. Good luck!

  2. Anonymous*

    The feedback AAM gave is so accurate and true. You are battling a huge hurdle with your boss and I would think emotionally – although you are enjoying your work as a calling – these situations are taking their toll on you. I recently left a similar situation (after 15+ years with the company) because I simply could not work in such an environment anymore. It is amazing how my health – emotional and physical – has improved. Take care of you pls.

  3. Anonymous*

    I’ve worked in a few non-profit cultural organizations too, and I’ve seen this before. For some reason bad management tends to thrive in non-profits and the arts. It’s so frustrating to see executives appointed who aren’t right for the job, but get it anyway. I agree that it’s best to leave–and when you do, ask for an exit interview with your boss and a board member present.

  4. AAM fan*

    As she does so consistently, AAM gives absolutely brilliant advice here.

    I also like the advice from anonymous about having a board member present. That advice got me visualizing that maybe you could come back to this organization later on at a higher level.

    And that got me wondering something that I wonder if AAM could address. When this letter writer interviews for new positions, (1) how can she ask interview questions to give her a feel for whether the new manager does their job (2) what should she say about why she’s leaving the current position?

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Aw, thank you! You’re right that it’s so important to probe around for evidence of this in the interview, before you accept the job. In fact, I’m going to do a separate post on this right now! Should be up shortly.On the issue of how to explain why you left in interviews, there’s some advice in this post, and I think in this specific situation, it’s also okay to say, “To be honest, my manager had trouble taking action when it came to low performers, and it impacted our ability to get things done.” I’d be thrilled if someone said that.

  6. Anonymous*

    Thank you for this post. It was concise, informative and it just completely answered my question.

  7. Anonymous*

    What do you do when the manager knows there's a problem – acknowledges that you are picking up the slack for another employee in a crucial area and thanks you for this…but despite frequent promises about correcting the situation it remains unchanged.

    It's been almost a year. It's not a question of bringing it to their attention, they know. At times they seem more irritated about it than I am, yet nothing changes.

    Otherwise a great job and other than this one inexplicable issue, great management. I won't leave over it, but there are times the resentment builds to the point that I wish I could.

    I can't force change, but how do I change my reaction to it so it doesn't affect me so much?

  8. Glenn | Customer Service Training Advocate*

    On point. Exactly on point. Too many managers don't really do anything at all — which devalues the perception of "management" across the board.

    Great blog. Hope to find some more great leadership and HR content here, and sure I will!


  9. Anon*

    Yeah, I know, I’m late, but in case anyone else is looking at this, I just want to say some things. Sometimes you don’t know as much as you think you do.

    Don’t assume because your boss won’t address problem employees its because they aren’t aware of it or don’t care. Right or wrong, they may feel as if its beyond their ability to do anything about it.

    I have a very similar problem with my employer. My manager talks a great game but does nothing. I was just certain she was just a full blown coward. After about the 1000th time complaining about a particular individual, she (my manager) had told me about how around a year before I was hired, she had all her ducks in a row to have him terminated. HR was on board with the termination, the department head was on board with the termination, so on so forth. It had worked its way all the way through the approriate channels to the one person who could overrule it; sure enough, for whatever reason, this individual went to bat for the problem employee and quashed it.

    While I don’t agree with her giving up so easily I know all too well that feeling of having your legs cut out from under you so I’ve been a little more sympathetic. Now that I know the whole story, I’ve backed off of my stance that its sheer cowardice on her part (I’m not saying she doesn’t have any culpability, as there is plenty of middle ground between termination and doing nothing), it doesn’t change the fact that it makes for a generally unplesant environment. On the other hand, its been made perfectly clear to me (probably not her intention) that this is not going to get fixed by her, so I know what I need to do…

  10. Rafael*

    There are alot of different behaviors going on which could be symptoms of the real issue.

    Here is what I recommend:
    There are two ways I recommend to approach this situation. You can manage information up or it can be manage it down. I will help you manage it up.

    Create a Weekly Review Meeting for your team. Provide a specific agenda which details the plan for the week and the actuals. This can be team based or individual based. Let your team members determine their plan and their goals or let your boss determine this.

    Now, what do you think is going to happen at that meeting? You have to know the answer before you go into the meeting. They will probably not have met their plan for the week. Your boss will have no choice but to make the right decision for the organization. If your boss does not make a decision based on the data, then it is time to get someone that will.

    This tactic does not go directly to their behavior, it goes to the data which is a result of their behavior.

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