update from the reader who wanted to tell her manager that their team’s work quality sucked

Remember the letter from the software engineer wondering how to tell her manager that their team’s work quality sucked? Here’s her update.

About the time this was being discussed on your forum, someone pinged me with a business analyst position at another local company. I applied for it, had several rounds of interviews that went well, and I start in two days. I’m very excited!

At the same time, I was exploring this new opportunity, I was honestly and diplomatically trying to discuss the situation with my supervisor to see if I could make improvements. He always just said that if I wanted to do something (like design the screens that were assigned to the offshore developer), I should speak up. When I commented that assignments should automaticaly go to the person with the best skills for that task, he got annoyed and insisted that he should not have to assign work, we should all just take tasks upon ourselves. I found it really fascinating that the was putting the onus on me to yell and demand that I be allowed to do my own job and also that he washed his hands of the management responsibility of seeing that the right people were doing the right tasks.

He insisted that he wanted all of his staff to do any and all work so that the team didn’t miss anything. I’ve worked on teams like that when we all had the same job title and no specialists like business analysts were on staff. If you don’t have BA’s, then yes, the developers do their own requirements. But if you do hire a business analyst, why in the world would you not use her? He just didn’t see it that way.

The best part is that about a month ago, he handed me a quality improvement checklist/plan — not as a performance improvement thing, just a general HR-says-everybody-should-do-this-to-make-sure-our-work-is-the-best thing. So I identified “helping the team put out better quality,” with the first action item being to level-set what my job was and formed a discussion with him around that. That didn’t work either, it just got us into a repeat argument of the things mentioned above and he would escalate into sort of browbeating me into agreeing with him. I was actually just agreeing that we disagree, because I knew I was working on my own solution and didn’t want to get into a shouting match with him.

The icing on the cake, which I find very funny? The job ad for my replacement has this added to it: “Must work well with ambiguity and take initiative.”

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    What kind of manager doesn’t want to assign work? If I didn’t do that, I’d get all kinds of volunteers for the most interesting tasks, and the tedious stuff would just sit. Not really — my direct reports are both superstars — but it’s still a manager’s job to see the big picture and who does what best, not the direct reports’!

    1. Jane*

      I chuckled to myself when I read your comment and noticed your user name. As a newbie to the agency world, I’ve run into many people who supervisors in name only. Been trying to determine if it’s in the industry itself or just my specific world.

    2. Jane Doe*

      Yeah, this sounds like a recipe for a situation where multiple people are claiming they’re best at X because X is held in high regard, and the one person who’s actually good at it doesn’t.

      My guess is that the manager in this situation doesn’t know which of his reports are good at what and are hoping they will tell him by volunteering.

  2. A Bug!*

    “Must work well with ambiguity and take initiative.”

    Well, you should feel good about yourself for bringing about that change. You’ve basically ensured that any attentive applicant is going to be immediately on alert for signs of disorganization and poor management.

    Also, congratulations!

    1. Meredith*

      I once worked somewhere that had major organizational and internal communication issues. After I left, all job postings had that exact line written in. I consider it a major red flag.

      Perhaps there are some industries where the nature of the work causes ambiguity to be unavoidable on a fairly regular basis. It doesn’t seem to be the case in most of the places I find, though.

  3. Anonymous*

    It sounds like that workplace just wasn’t your cup of tea. Congrats on the new job!

    I would love to work with a boss like that. I am stuck doing what I am best at and I would appreciate the opportunity to try something new. To each her own!

    1. Recent Diabetic*

      Well, that’s where the ability to take initiative can come in. You need to let your manager know that you’d like to try something and see how that plays. Helluva lot better than having a smorgasboard approach to doing your job, like OP’s situation here.

    2. RedStateBlues*

      I dunno, I don’t want to read into what OP said about her former boss, but “I don’t want to assign work” rings of “I don’t want to manage” which freakin’ sucks.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Agreed. When I read that, that is exactly the feeling I got as well. I thought part of a manager’s job is assigning work.

    1. Yup*

      I actually got cited for that in a performance review at ExJob. I agreed with them that dealing with ambiguity is an important job skill in particular roles. Where we disagreed was on the acceptable level of ambiguity. They felt that it was important for me to just accept a certain regular baseline level of “we don’t know”. Whereas I thought it was pretty batsh*t that people in charge of a project couldn’t give a coherent update or develop contingency plans.

    2. RedStateBlues*

      Agreed. Ambiguity is pretty much code for “we make it up as we go along” or as management around here likes to put it “We’ll decide on a case by case basis”.

      1. Anonymous*

        I like to call it “flying the plane as we build it,” which is a recipe for disaster in most contexts…

    3. Kelly*

      My current job manager asked a lot of questions about my ability to “handle ambiguity” when I interviewed. It’s my second job, and the first job I had was at a very well-run organization, so I didn’t realize that “ambiguity” was hiring code for “chaotic shitshow”.

      Now I’m super frustrated at work, because anytime I call attention to things we haven’t planned for, or contradictions in our plans, I get shut down. When I express that I think resolving the details would make things run more smoothly, I’m told that I just need to learn to “handle ambiguity”.

      Prior to this job, I always thought “handling ambiguity” meant resolving it so that things were clear and well ordered. Apparently at my job it means tolerating disorder without question.

      1. AB*

        Yeah. I don’t blame you for making the wrong assumption, because the very same thing happened to you.

        When I came to interview to my previous job, the interviewers said “we wanted you because from your resume you know you are good at handling ambiguity”.

        And then, in practice, what they meant is precisely what you described: in their context, “tolerating disorder without question”. I’m glad I was recruited out of that job because the chaos was driving everybody crazy.

      2. TootsNYC*

        “I didn’t realize that “ambiguity” was hiring code for “chaotic shitshow”.”

        Where I work, the code line is “manage in complexity.”

  4. Anonymous*

    Congrats on the new job! I personally don’t deal well with ambiguity so that line in a job ad would almost certainly be a ‘pass’ for me. I certainly understand your frustration with this boss, as I see similar traits in my current manager. Argh!

  5. The Other Dawn*

    “Must work well with ambiguity and take initiative.”

    Wow, this would have been the perfect line to describe my current job 10 years ago.

    I don’t think I would ever answer a job ad with this line. Although, I guess I should applaud their honesty.

    1. Sascha*

      I recently saw a job posting at my organization that included “can work in volatile situations.” I had been thinking about applying for it…not anymore…

  6. Liz in the City*

    Congrats on your new job! I hope it’s a better fit for you!

    At OldJob, “ambiguity” meant “read the director’s mind and woe unto you if you can’t.” SO happy when I left.

  7. Malissa*

    Wow! Getting out of that situation was good for you. At least there is truth in advertising for your replacement. ;)

  8. Anonymous for this*

    Wanting everyone to be able to do any and all work sounds like an experiment going on in my department right now. The director of my area decided to try this. The problem is that the work we do is pretty highly specialized and it takes years to develop expertise. I’m very knowledgable in one area, but not in others because I haven’t had any experience on the business side to be able to provide the necessary IT support. I did spend a year on a project in an area completely outside my comfort zone, and now I can support that function pretty well. But that’s because I was totally immersed in it and able to ask questions to learn how that part of the business works.

    My director thinks that we should all be able to support any area regardless of our exposure to it. He is a truly brilliant person, but in this case I disagree with his reasoning. I’ve been fortunate to be working on a special project all year but my co workers are very frustrated.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I hate this because I think people need & want ownership in their jobs.

      A lot of my department’s work is supporting ad-hoc requests, which can go to me or my coworker independently from several different managers, with no discussion of who is going to do what. If we get something, we do it, even if the other person would be better-suited. We’re completely dysfunctional and don’t get along, which is why we operate that way, but I know I get frustrated when I find out Coworker did something that very clearly was in my wheelhouse.

    2. Anonymous*

      Cross-training to support areas outside of your normal duties can be a good idea, but “everyone do any and all work because I don’t want to manage” is definitely a cluster…

      1. Ruffingit*

        Yes and it leaves you open to shoddy results. Cross-training is a great concept, but doesn’t work in every job or profession. Some jobs require expertise that is built on years of classes, mentoring from higher-ups, and experience. You can’t just toss unqualified people in those jobs and call it cross-training.

  9. The IT Manager*

    :( I am disappointed to hear that the LW didn’t succeed in making her old workplace better. It is great for her that it is her old job, though. It seems like more than a fair number of updates go something like this … “I didn’t manage to fix the problem, but I got a new job and left the problem workplace/boss/co-worker behind.”

    1. Windchime*

      Some workplaces are unfixable. I left a place like that two years ago. Suggestions for change were met with blank stares, or (worse yet) agreement but no acutal change. There was no chance for advancement; in fact, one of my old co-workers is in the process of transferring here as a supervisor because he was told, point-blank, that there was no way he would be considered for advancement. So there is really no way to fix stuff like that.

      Some managers seem to prefer a chaotic environment, so I think it’s a good thing that the OP found something else with a better culteral fit.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “Some managers seem to prefer a chaotic environment”…

        And I often wonder “Why is that?”

        1. SJ*

          That describes my manager’s manager to a t! She believes in “shaking things up” which basically means no policies, procedures, standards for behavior, etc. Since she’s not my direct supervisor it doesn’t affect me as much as her direct reports but what a nightmare…

        2. LJL*

          I often think it’s so that manager can swoop in and save the day. Often people get accolades more for getting out of a bad situation rather than avoiding it.

          1. AF*

            Exactly – or other people (who are willing because they need the job) come in and rescue the project/manager at the last minute. Everything “always works out,” so there’s no need to change it, especially if it’s not causing the manager any stress.

          2. Leslie Yep*

            True. I’ve also found (even in my own management when I’m not operating effectively) that chaos is a really good excuse for failing to set priorities and make plans.

            That is, if you’re “crazy busy!!” all the time, you can actually do a lot of *work* without ever really getting anything done, and you always have an excuse for why X project didn’t make it to completion. Chaos makes the more complex must-haves seem like nice-to-haves because they require stepping away from the noise to clarify objectives and process.

      2. The IT Manager*

        Oh, I agree. A lot of letter writers ask are how can I fix my crazy boss, office, co-worker. I think it’s rare you’re able to fix crazy. It just somehow disappoints me that the world isn’t right or fair. It may be my own form of crazy for hoping for that.

  10. Denise*

    I have to wonder if the OP was working in software development in an agile environment? Everyone implements it a little differently, but usually you have tasks on a board and whenever you finish one task, you go up to the board and pick whatever is next to do. In the ideal agile environment, everyone on the team can do every conceivable task and there are no specialists. Just curious!!

    1. KC*

      That was my thought as well. I work in an agile software environment, and that’s how this sounded to me. Personally, I like the flexibility agile offers. Our approach to agile doesn’t deny the value of specialists, but we do expect them to be able to jump in and work on anything that gets thrown at them, regardless of their specialty. And the agile concept includes a belief in “self organizing” teams, so the teams take the larger chunk of work and decide among themselves who’s doing what. It doesn’t indicate a lack of management or process in our case, it’s just how we approach software development (which, admittedly, is NOT for everyone).

      1. squirrel*

        There’s a difference between having the back end service framework specialist help out with the JavaScript and with making the ui artist do it. You really want to lose your specialists?

  11. Sharon-op*

    The title of the post has a mistake that I think may confuse the readers. I was a business analyst in that job. The only BA on the team, which is why it was outrageous to have me sitting around while my tasks were assigned to someone unqualified. I do have an extensive background in software engineering, though, which is probably where Alison’s confusion came from.

    And yes, the new gig is awesome!

  12. Therapist*

    Yeah, I had a practicum supervisor put in my final evaluation that I didn’t deal well with ambiguity. Actually, what I didn’t deal well with was her total lack of planning and inability to get anything done at all to the point where I had to switch practicum sites after she wasted two months of my time with promises she never fulfilled. I almost didn’t graduate on time because of her and she has since done the same thing to two other people from my school.

    Now, when I see job ads talking about dealing with ambiguity, I believe what they mean is being able to deal with a total lack of planning on the part of management and the inability to be organized at all, forcing the employee to “take initiative,” which is really just code for managing yourself because your manager won’t do it.

  13. BCranston*

    Ahhh ambiguity. I have to deal with this on a regular basis in my job, which is essentially holding senior exec’s hands and help them put structure around their thoughts/planning/half-baked ideas etc. and completing the work to find them an answer or plan it out for them. Attempting to do that internally in a highly matrixed environment where reorgs happen quite frequently is a recipe for continual disaster and lack of moving the business forward, to the point where I have seen the same project done every summer for the last 3 years and there still isn’t an agreed upon answer. Its exhausting. Some days I figure I could get more feedback out of banging my head against a wall.

    The ability to manage a little bit of ambiguity can be a helpful skill, but when it is a major part of the job, then I agree that is a major red flag. To me it means “tell me what to do” from contributor to manager, rather than the other way around. And that attitude will extend into professional development (or lack thereof) and advancement potential as well to the detriment of the contributor.

    The super cool thing about current company is that they are now writing this requirement for everyone to be able to deal and manage with ambiguity across all job types, as part of a new initiative. I suspect there will be a lot of frustration coming in the near future. Needless to say I am looking to join the current exodus out the door.

    OP was wise to get out. You can’t fix a manager who won’t manage but thinks they are!

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