how to tell your manager that your team’s work quality sucks

A reader writes:

I need advice on discussing work quality with my manager, but it’s our department’s collective work quality that I have a problem with.  After 20+ years as a software engineer in a large variety of industries and companies, I am now an IT business analyst on a team that does back-end software, not client facing.  I am very familiar with the business concept that quality only has to be good enough, not gold-plated, so that’s not my issue.  My issue is that my team has a very immature sense of what constitutes “good enough.” They use excuses for putting out poor quality:  it’s not client-facing so doesn’t have to be pretty, everybody here has a technical background so it doesn’t have to be easy to use, etc.

Over the year and a half that I’ve worked here, I’ve watched very carefully for indications of what the other departments think of us and our work. Everybody is diplomatic, but I clearly see that they think we’re “THAT team” — the team that’s hard to work with, that doesn’t document our systems, etc.  So I’m pretty sure my feelings about our work are justified — we could do better!  And as the person who gathers requirements and interfaces between my developers, the quality assurance folks, and the business folks, I feel this also reflects very poorly on me professionally.  I’m very embarrassed by our software.

How do I convince my manager that we need to improve?  I know I need to couch it in terms of how we could be better and be as positive as possible.  I’ve tried, but he keeps using those poor excuses.  I’ve tried using my work to improve things surreptitiously, for example by writing better documentation, but feel thwarted in that, too. They design the software for their own convenience, users be damned.

How do I discuss this with my manager without making him defensive?  So far, our 1-1 sessions have been entirely him coaching me on how to be a good business analyst as if I was fresh out of school.

You can try, but you should be prepared for the possibility that you might not be able to do anything about this.

The thing is, if your manager hasn’t seen this on his own or isn’t concerned about it, it’s likely that the problem lies more with him than with your team. Yes, your team are the ones actually producing the mediocre work that is concerning you, but your manager is the person presiding over all this and giving it his stamp of approval. In fact, the very nature of his job charges him with evaluating the team’s work and deciding whether it’s meeting a sufficiently high bar. And from what you’ve described here, it sounds like he thinks everything is just fine.

That said, you can certainly approach your manager and make a case for specific changes and improvements. When you do, don’t frame this as a general “we do middling work and need to do better” stance, since that’s likely to put your manager on the defensive. Instead, explain the feedback that you’ve heard about your team and make specific suggestions about what could be done differently.

Those specific suggestions are going to be key. Tell your manager exactly what you think could be done differently – and how and why – so that he has specifics to consider and react to. And even if you have a dozen things you’d like to change, you’ll probably have better success if you start with just a few key proposals. After all, implicit in this conversation will be the message that he’s not running things well enough, so you want to approach it with some emotional intelligence and give him some room to save face. (And while you may not want to do that on principle, it’s in your best interest – people often react by blaming the messenger when they’re not given the opportunity to save face.)

If you try that and it doesn’t get you the results you want, at that point you’ll face a choice: Accept that these issues are unlikely to get resolved under this particular manager, or decide that you’re willing to escalate your concerns. The latter can be full of land mines, but if you happen to have the ear of a higher-up who you know to be reasonable and likely to be concerned about this kind of thing, you could consider speaking discreetly with them about your observations. Proceed with caution, of course, because this option can backfire. You only want to do this if you’re confident the higher-up will handle it well and give you some cushion from any fall-out with your boss.

Good luck!

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. Lanya*

    Alison’s response to this question over at Intuit was spot-on. I am in a similar situation to you, OP, and I find that Alison is exactly right – my teammates may be producing the mediocre work, but it is the owner of the company who either doesn’t realize that he’s hired a bunch of mediocre designers, or he doesn’t care because our work is good enough to get repeat business. In my case, I don’t think bringing up my concerns would change anything. So I have two choices: stay and tolerate the mediocrity, or leave and go somewhere where my talents can be better-used. Best of luck to you.

  2. Neeta*

    You could suggest a code reviewing process, as well unit testing. Or, if it’s the case, point out that the current state of things is causing a lot of bugs. Also point out the complicated learning curve for newcomers on the project due to the lack of documentation.

    Then again, like Alison said, you have to be prepared that your boss is not going to want to invest any time/money into any of the above, because it can affect productivity (at first glance, at any rate). Just make sure you let your boss know (in writing if possible) that he risks having some very buggy code.

  3. Sharon - OP*

    Hey, thanks for answering my question, Allison!

    To answer Neeta’s suggestion with a little more detail, the quality problem doesn’t result in bugs, just usability. The software looks horrible and you have to know how to do things because the UI does nothing to guide you or give any hints. I started trying to train our business users how to use it, but it’s just so much trouble for them that they don’t. So I’m really the only user for it now. I even wrote a user manual for it, but I strongly believe you should NOT have to read a manual in order to use this simple software. (It’s proprietary even though it’s internal, so I can’t describe it. It’s basically a web portal that allows you to configure something.)

    My documentation efforts ran into a snag also: I went as far as I could with them, but I don’t have access to the code-base so need the dev lead to add the technical details (these are API documents, not the user guide I mentioned before). He always says he will, I have tickets in the system for him to do the work, he never gets around to it.

    And Allison is right: our manager just doesn’t care. He is a former developer himself, promoted to supervisor and I think he’s never himself learned about the concepts of usability. He’s also always worked on internal systems so never learned the value of professional-grade software. I suspect that as Allison says, there’s not much I can do here.

    1. Neeta*

      Oh I see. When it’s about usability issues it’s much harder to make a point. Perhaps you can point out something along the lines of “Look how many complaints we get from our clients. If keep going on like this, we’ll be losing serious business.”

      In any case, you should probably start thinking if you want to continue working in such an environment, and act accordingly. Good luck!

      1. Anonymous*

        Since the users refuse to use the portal system and I’m now the only one who uses it… well, they don’t seem to care what *I* think. When I do try to suggest improvements, they always ask what the business wants. Sometimes I lie and say that business wants it this way. I know that’s not good, but it’s the only way I’ve found so far to get improvements.

        Let me illustrate the current attitude with this example: last summer we decided we needed to add a new feature to the portal. It required a few new screens. Instead of asking the business analyst (me) to get requirements and design the screens, do you know what they did? They assigned an OFFSHORE DEVELOPER to design the screens. That totally made me feel like “why am I even here?”

          1. Anonymous*

            OP, not to alarm you but are you concerned about the off-shoring? How much of your job could they conceivably off-shore?

        1. Eric*

          If you are the only one that uses it, is it critical to the company?

          They might not want to devote any resources to a utility that isn’t critical.

          I’m not trying to dismiss your concerns, just trying to see the other side of the issue.

    2. Runon*

      How about simply sharing things like documents, blogs, webinars, etc about usability with your team. I came across this and thought it was interesting. Not you should do this. But hey I saw this yay! (Excitement on your part can either really help get it going, or make it seem silly so use wisely.)

      Alternately how about suggesting user testing as a part of the next project. Can you build it into the process?

    3. the gold digger*

      I strongly believe you should NOT have to read a manual in order to use this simple software

      Yes! Software designed for non-expert users should be intuitive! My brother and my mom used to tell me that DOS was so easy once you learned it! I told them I didn’t want to learn it. I just wanted to be able to do what I needed to do.

      1. Ash*

        Personally to me that is a really lazy way of thinking with regards to a lot of things. Sorry but sometimes there is going to be a time when you have to learn how to do things, the program won’t magically do it for you. I don’t mean to sound harsh but, I think appealing to the lowest common denominator all the time is one of the things that is affecting our society currently. We have to dumb everything down so people don’t have to think, instead of trying to say, “Hey, I know it’s difficult, but you will have to use your brain a little bit for this situation.”

        1. -X-*

          There are two different kinds of software (or really poles on a continuum). One is that which will be used frequently and repeatedly by the same people. In such a case, a manual is not unreasonable if the task the software helps with is complex. We shouldn’t use a manual to make up for poor usability, but the interface may not be able to expose all options in the software clearly. So a manual is needed.

          The other is something used rarely by people (or at least rarely by many or most users) – say an online banking system. That has to stand alone.

        2. Neeta*

          It really depends on the type of tasks that the software in question accomplishes.

          In any case, in my experience of 6 years of programming, creating software for over 20 different clients, no one’s ever asked for a user guide. If something was unclear, then that issue was considered confusing and I had to change it to make it easier for the user.

          I’m going to assume that since this software is built in-house, it’s not something so complex as say Excel, where you need to use the software to build your own little “script”.

          1. -X-*

            I’m in help, or reading a book, about software I use, at least every other week. Or googling “hot to.”

            This is particularly for design software, but also recently for some web-based mapping stuff. Also for content management systems.

            Perhaps that’s not typical.

            1. Neeta*

              It’s not necessarily wrong. I do that often when working with Photoshop. But the thing is, Photoshop was not developed so it could solve a very specific set of tasks particular to my needs…

              On the other hand, my company has an internal software for requesting time off (and keeping track of it). It doesn’t have a help section, and IMO it shouldn’t. Taking time off should be really straightforward (start date, end date, reason, days left to take off). If such a software needed extra explanations, it means that it’s a confusing one.

              Of course, my example is a very simplistic one. But if the software is doing something very specific to that company, then it shouldn’t need to have tonnes and tonnes of pages of how to.

    4. Becky*

      Is not having your business users using the interface costing your company time or money? Because that is the approach I would take. “We are spending time and money to develop this, but no one uses it because it is so complicated, and so not only are we wasting the time/money upfront, but also it is costing us time/money on the back end because someone from our company needs to do it for them.” Obviously rephrased, but that’s the general gist. I think you need to show the bosses where this is costing the company.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        And if it really isn’t costing them any time or money, then perhaps, ugly as it is, it really is good enough.

    5. BeenThere*

      I would start looking for a new position. You are clear passionate about user centred design (as am I) I think staying in this place would be demoralising. I’ve never seen a culture like this change, particularly in IT, without a massive push from all management IT and business side.

      If you are good at politics I would try to get the business leaders on board, surely they would be aware of how much their staff suffer from the crappy design or they will be when you show them. Assuming your team is paid for by the business this can sometimes work however you usually need some sort of credibility with the business managers, which is difficult when you are new.

      This sounds like the code my old team used to produce, the culture had be ingrained for 10 years and the code showed it. Newcomers struggled to figure how everything works, business users hated it. I tried every imaginable diplomatic effort to fix it however we weren’t resourced well enough and when layoffs come along I was let go. I’m sure because I was perceived as the difficult programmer who refused to release crap into a production banking environment.

  4. EngineerGirl*

    Get out . They are incompetent and don’t understand how they interact with the rest of the system. This is classic Dunning-Kruger and your efforts will be met with resentment.

    If you really want to fight this you can do a survey of the users and show your manager that the product stinks. But here’s the problem – your manager knows there are problems and keeps offering excuses. That means he really isn’t interested in change. Inless you can find a way to incentivize him (cost savings etc) he just won’t do it.

    1. Dana*

      Agreed. It’s difficult when you work with people who set the bar low, if you work harder they perceive it as a threat to the comfortable system they’ve set up. If you push to make improvements you will likeley be managed out, unless as Allison suggests you have the ear of someone in upper management. The good news is you have a job, and if you work at the level of those around you there will be plenty of time to focus on a job search.

    2. Jen in RO*

      OP, I’m sorry to say, but I agree with EngineerGirl. I don’t know if you should *quit*, but I feel exhausted just reading what you’re up against. I’m in a similar situation and I gave up – the company offers my department minimal support, so I stopped trying to make things work perfectly. I like my job, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a company out there that would actually value the kind of work I do.

      EngineerGirl, I didn’t know what Dunning-Kruger was, so I read the wikipedia article. It’s like they’re describing one of my coworkers… the one who needs constant supervision even after 3 years and who just got the same promotion as the people who *do* their jobs properly. Way to demotivate most of your team, boss!

      Sorry for the offtopic, I’m not a very happy camper right now and I feel the need to vent.

    3. DA*

      This exactly. At a minimum, see what you can do to move to a different team. You’ve been there 18 months, so that is not an unreasonable length of time to look at changing teams.

      If there are roadblocks to doing that, look to change jobs all together. Your manager likely isn’t smart enough to figure any of this out, and will probably get all defensive with you. Get out while you can!

  5. YALM*

    This is all about making the business case that what your team is doing is wasting the organization’s time and money, but they could be saving the organization time and money if they did their jobs with some reasonable level of quality.

    Who is the highest ranking person in your customer’s organization? Is this person annoyed by this problem? Is this person willing to be vocal about this problem? Is this person high enough on the food chain that anyone with any decision-making authority (and ability) will care? If not, I think you’re sunk. I have little hope that talking with your team’s manager will change anything for you.

    Bummer. You strike me as an awesome person to work with.

  6. Flynn*

    Minor thing (it’s 5am and it’s bugging me more than it probably should)

    Shouldn’t “How to Raise Work Quality Issues to Your Manager” be “with your Manager”?

  7. Looking forward*

    Is there no internal user testing or approval? Even with that, I’ve often seen testers simply answer a yes/no question – does it do (this)? and the answer is yes…but it is (difficult, not intuitive, time consuming). Start advising your internal questions to answer the unwritten question: Does it meet your needs? I may technically do something, but not very well. And often just some simple text with instructions is extremely helpful.

  8. Sharon-OP*

    Just googled Dunning-Kruger. EngineerGirl did nail the situation, I think. I did have thoughts that I know more than my manager about how to design software, having worked many years on both internal and commercial software, but I was hesitant to say it out loud for fear I’d sound egotistical.

    Something else occurred to me just today that helps point me to the “transfer or go elsewhere” solution. Some months ago, he made a decision for how to configure something that was flawed reasoning in my opinion but he’s the boss. We had a meeting today where the 3rd party vendor recommended to change the configuration to make it work better. He got a stony “I don’t want to talk about this” look on his face. I didn’t say anything, but thought that was very telling!

    1. DA*

      Dunning-Kruger is practically at an epidemic level in the professional world, yet you almost never hear about this.

      Unfortunately there is almost no way to deal with people who suffer from it, other than moving on. They almost always have protection from above and you just waste time and effort when trying to make changes on your own.

      1. Cassie*

        I just looked up Dunning-Kruger – this is rampant in my office! There are a few people who are competent and self-aware (I’d like to think of myself in this category, but maybe I’m suffering the same cognitive bias!), and there are some that are just clueless about their abilities. There really is nothing you can do about it, unless you are the boss and have the authority to enforce change.

        I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about a coworker of mine who seems to constantly make typos. I can, and have occasionally, pointed out the typos to our boss so he can tell her but she only corrects what he pointed out and doesn’t double-check to make sure everything else is correct. Because I’m not her superior (just equals), I don’t feel I should/can correct/critique her work.

        And then I realized that I CAN offer a general suggestion (like getting someone to proofread). She can take my suggestion or completely disregard it – it’s up to her. But I’ve done my friendly coworker duty now and can just let it go. I wouldn’t continuously point out her typos or try to “offer” more suggestions/advice – that would just be obnoxious on my part.

        1. Jamie*

          I find this fascinating as well – but how do you know if you are being affected by it?

          Sometimes I feel like I bounce between Imposter Syndrome and Dunning Kruger and I like to consider myself pretty self-aware. It’s scary to think that self-assessments can be so skewed.

    2. Lynn*

      I’m a software engineer too, and I used to work in an environment like this. Your co-workers and manager are either bad programmers and/or goldbricking. Any pushes in the direction of “let’s try to be awesome instead of mediocre” are going to be very unwelcome, because they threaten to expose the others’ incompetence/laziness.

      Surreptitious improvements are not a good solution, although I understand why you want to do them. By definition, you can’t get credit for them. You make yourself a target for blame, because anything that gets broken can be pinned on “oh, Sharon was fooling around in there again”, whether you had anything to do with it or not. And if the problems are UI-related, you’re pretty limited in what you can do “under the radar” because any changes are literally visible.

      Working in a place like this can be a real resume stain if you stay there too long (ask me how I know). You won’t have as much to say for yourself as you should, since you’re not *allowed* to do anything good. Your only good courses of action are either working for a non-sucky software group at your company (if there is one), or looking for a new job elsewhere. Sorry.

  9. annalee*

    So far, our 1-1 sessions have been entirely him coaching me on how to be a good business analyst as if I was fresh out of school.

    Others have already flagged the Dunning-Kruger/goldbricking side of things, but it also sounds like you’ve got a mansplainer on your hands.

    Even if he’s not actively misogynistic, he wouldn’t be the first guy in tech with unexamined biases/hangups regarding women in the industry, and ‘splaining things that you clearly already know is a pretty reliable sign that he has some kind of problem recognizing/respecting your knowledge and experience. That could be part of why he’s so dismissive of your feedback.

    Which is just one more reason to get out. Sorry you have to put up with this mess–it sounds really unpleasant.

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