new manager struggling to define role

A reader writes:

I’m a new manager in a very small team — my office is about 6 people, including my boss (the self-proclaimed CEO). There’s no HR, and generally we’re all on the same playing field.

Except, apparently, when it comes to me. I was unofficially promoted when my manager left — my official job description and pay has never changed. Directly underneath me, I have one person. He and I are quite close and generally work well together. However I’m having trouble being his manager. First, because while I’m expected to be accountable when something goes wrong, my boss refuses to make sure all tasks assigned to him go through me, meaning that quite often I don’t know he’s, say, missed a deadline until after he’s done it and I’m called on the carpet to explain why said task was unfinished. How can I help him manage his time and his tasks if I’m out of the loop on so many of them? Is it correct for my boss to assume that he must be responsible for telling me what other people in the company ask him to do? Or be responsible for setting up his own work plan, in a company extremely deadline-oriented, and where there are several other people who, while technically on the same management level as me, are paid more and are significantly more experienced and older than me?

Secondly, while I am newer to the company and paid far far less than the last person in my position or my direct colleagues, they still expect me be in charge. One man in particular, who’s been here three years longer than me and is in a position of authority himself, has over the last year taken to dumping administrative tasks on me, dumping responsibility for mistakes completely on my shoulders (including mistakes made by his team which I then have to clean up) and most important liaising with our mutual boss. Because I don’t actually have a job description, his go-to answer for months has been “that’s part of your job.” And in the beginning, when I was brand new and confused, I accepted that as sage and wise advise from a longtime employee. Now, however, it’s beginning to affect my own work — I’m having a hard time getting all of my own tasks completed, as well as managing the guy under me (who needs help as he also is very young and inexperienced), while completing admin tasks I’m starting to feel aren’t my own for other people. Recently other employees have also adopted these “that’s part of your job” techniques, so the problem is spreading. What can I do? I’ve spoken to my boss and been told I need to “step up,” but that was never made clear. I’ve requested terms of reference and they haven’t materialized because my boss is “so busy.”

How can I get the respect of my coworkers and people I’m supposed to manage, if they all treat me like the slightly-slow cousin at the family picnic, until they need someone to clean up their mistakes?

You have two different issues here: the guy you manage and the question of exactly what your job is (or isn’t).

Regarding the guy you manage, there are a lot of jobs where it would be reasonable for people to give him work directly, without routing it through you, but where you’re still responsible for his overall performance since you’re his manager. I’ll assume for the sake of ease that this is one of them. If you’re hearing complaints that he’s missing deadlines or otherwise not excelling, the answer doesn’t have to be that you have to force people to route his work through you (which, frankly, is likely to be inefficient hand-holding that you shouldn’t have to do). Rather, you need to address the problems with him directly. If he misses a deadline, talk to him and find out why. Push him to correct whatever it is in his systems or approach that caused it. If the problem has become a pattern, tell him it’s become a pattern. (You’d be amazed how often people need this pointed out.) Treat it as a performance issue, meaning that you (a) coach him and give him the chance to improve, (b) warn him if he continues falling short, and (c) replace him if the problems are serious and he continues not to meet the bar you need.

I’m assuming that you have the authority to do that. If you don’t, you need to get it, because it’s unreasonable to be accountable for someone’s performance if you don’t.

Which leads nicely into the next point you need to tackle: getting clarity on exactly what your role is, and where your energy should and should not be going. You say you’ve asked your boss for this and been told she’s too busy. So the next step is for you to take the initiative to make this happen. Create a proposed job description for yourself. Create a second list of things that people sometimes ask you to do now that don’t fall within the proposed job description, and a proposal for how those things should be handled instead. Take it to your boss and ask if you’re on the same page. She may disagree with parts — that’s fine. The whole point is to hash this out so that you two get aligned.

By the way, be prepared for the possibility that you’ll discover that your boss does want you doing everything on both lists, even the stuff that you thought wasn’t your job. Maybe it is your job. If you think it’s too much, ask her about how to handle that; for instance, is it okay for you to tell someone that you can’t help them with project A because you need to get project B done first? Or does she expect you to get it all done? If so, before you decide she’s being unreasonable, read this very old post about what to do when you feel your boss is being unrealistic.

The whole point of this process, though, is to get you both on the same page about what your role is.

Right now, it sounds like you’re struggling along in a role that has no real clarity to it, at least not on your side. Address that, and everything should get easier. Good luck.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. camorra*

    It sounds like you're in a terrible situation. Alison's right about managing the one person you've got under you, but the work-dumping by the rest of the office is sick. Getting a job description clarification would definitely help!

  2. Anonymous*

    I'd find a way to talk to your superior. She's got to find time to schedule meetings in with her employees. You need to find the boundaries to your job, and you have to do that quickly. If not, your desk is going to become the catch-all for the work the rest don't want to do. If you don't stand up for yourself now and let it continue without too much resistance and lousy excuses, when someone finally pays attention to your plight, they'll think you haven't said anything earlier and were okay with it.

    If your colleague is now below you in status at the company, you are going to have to find a balance in supervising him.

  3. Anonymous*

    I would take AAM's advice a step further and prioritize your responsibilities in order and run them by your boss. You want to make sure you're absolutely clear you know what should command your attention when you get overwhelmed. This is a good exercise if you're being pulled in different directions.

  4. Anonymous*

    There was no mention of the pay disparity in the response. This guy has been given a great deal of additional responsibility with no corresponding increase in remuneration. To an outsider such as myself, it looks like the company is taking advantage of him and the situation.

  5. Anonymous*

    Thanks- I'm the OP (and I'm female btw). I'm going to take the advice and try to speak with my boss.

    As for the pay, any advice on that? It's actually I think at the root of a lot of the other stuff- how are my coworkers supposed to respect or take me seriously when I'm paid as a junior person (very small office, everyone knows what everyone else makes)?

    How it all happened was this: when my manager left, I was put on 'probation' to see if I could do the job. I was promised that if I could for three months, they'd make the promotion official and I'd get a raise to bring me up to what my manager was previously making. Well, by the time the deadline appeared, the company was in some financial trouble- and I was told while they could change the title on my business cards, a raise right then wasn't feasible. At the same time, my boss took the raise she'd given my coworker back, bringing him down to the same pay level as me.

    That was around 5 months ago. Now, the finances are better, and my coworker has his raise back, but I'm still being paid at the level I was hired. I have a suspicion (if I'm being paranoid) it's also why my contract and official job description has never been changed- on the books I'm still junior.

    Any advice on getting that sorted out? Bringing it up always ends in my boss yelling and accusing me of being uncommitted to her/the office/ the team and sarcastic comments about where did I think the money would come from. If I can't get the raise, any advice on how to make my coworker respect me a bit more?

  6. Anonymous*

    To the OP: Actually, your follow-up comment makes me think the boss might be the problem. Your boss' accusations & sarcastic comments were unprofessional and disrespectful. And if this is how he/she treats you normally, your co-workers may be picking up on that attitude.

    Could you push for the title change? Even if there's no raise to go with it, having your promotion made official could be useful if you ever decide to leave the company.

  7. Anonymous*

    If your boss resorts to yelling and questioning your loyalty when you ask for a pay raise/promotion as per a promise you were given months ago, then it is time to jump ship.

    Keep the job if you need it to pay your bills, but get out as soon as possible.

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