can I ask to change teams to get away from a bad manager?

A reader writes:

I used to do two kinds of work, in equal amounts, and received very positive feedback for both. It was decided that my team should be divided into two teams, with one kind of work being assigned to each team. I got put on Team 1 with a new manager because I was one of the few people who understood the tool we use to accomplish that kind of work. Unfortunately, the new manager is awful to work for (disorganized, constantly misses important meetings, and does not have the skills required for daily tasks), and a job I used to enjoy has become incredibly miserable. In addition, my long-term career goals involve pursuing the work done by Team 2, and not that of my current team.

Trying to be as professional as possible, I spoke of some of my struggles to my old manager, who is now in charge of both Team 1 and 2. She sympathized (and made it clear she’s not a fan of my new manager), and said she would talk to our director and get back with me. Once she did, she said that she would try to make things as easy as possible for me because they valued me highly, but that there was a need on Team 1 and they were trying to help my new manager improve.

Throughout this time, all of the managers above me have nothing but good things to say about my work, and keep telling me what a great job I’m doing. But I’m completely miserable under this new boss, and have been searching for a new job without much success (there aren’t a lot of industry opportunities in my current city). Is there any way I can leverage the fact that I seem to be highly valued by my organization and have done great work to motivate my director to let me switch teams? Would it be inappropriate to go directly to my director to discuss, as it would involve going over my managers’ heads? I’m scared to threaten to leave if I don’t get to trade teams, but I don’t understand how I can get nothing but frequent and highly positive feedback and yet no consideration be made for my desires.

Your advice would be greatly appreciated — I’m pretty miserable.

You can certainly ask outright to be put on to Team 2.

As for whether you should go over your manager’s head to your director, probably not. Without knowing more about the dynamics of your team and your culture, it’s hard to say for sure, but in general, if there’s a line of command, you’re expected to follow it — and going over your managers’ heads often isn’t received well. (Unless your managers are really more of team leads and not the people who truly manage you — meaning assessing your performance, giving you feedback, making decisions about raises and development, having firing authority, and so forth).

Go back to your old manager (who seems to be over your new manager in some way? I’m confused about the reporting structure), and explain that you love the company and want to stay with it, but that the work you really want to be doing is the work of Team 2, that you’re finding it difficult to work with the new manager, and ask if it’s possible to be moved to Team 2. Be direct — come out and say it, rather than hoping she’ll decide that on her own without you asking.

You don’t need to threaten to leave as part of this — just like with raise requests, it’s generally understood when people make requests like this that the unspoken subtext is “or I may leave to find a job that satisfies me somewhere else.” You don’t need to say it or even hint at it. A competent manager will understand that when someone says “I’d like X,” they risk losing them if they can’t provide X.

So talk to her and see what happens. If they’re not willing to move you, then you can continue looking for another job — and when you get one, you can be clear with your current employer about why you’re leaving.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Christine*

    I was in a similar situation – structural changes turned a job I loved into something I was miserably dissatisfied with, I spoke to my manager about it multiple times, and she always cited things that were going o that might ultimately make things better, but it never really got better. I finally applied for a position on another team, and explained that the issues I’d been talking to her about for *months* were the reason why. I was genuinely interested in the new position, but wouldn’t have been looking if I wasn’t so miserable. When I told her I was applying for the transfer, and then did it, she took me seriously and began making some changes. I would say things are 50% better now, and should be 100% by then end of the year, which is good because the transfer didn’t pan out. I’m still quietly looking; that whole situation was a real eye-opener.

    1. Jazzy Red*

      You’re right to keep on looking. Your manager obviously doesn’t make a move unless a bomb explodes under her butt. You deserve better than that.

  2. Allison (not AAM!)*

    I wonder if your old manager has other plans for you. She’s apparently very well aware of your new manager’s shortcomings and is fairly trying to give her a chance to straighten up and fly right. If she doesn’t, based on the feedback you’ve been receiving as well as your comprehensive knowledge, is there a possibility that she will want to move you into that management role? I’d probably try to hang in there a little while longer and see if new manager doesn’t just bury herself.

    1. Jessa*

      If there are plans however, good morale boosting technique says you might want to let people know there are some sort of plans afoot. Letting someone think you’re stranding them in a horrid place you know they don’t want to be is just asking for them to walk and go elsewhere.

    2. Original poster*

      I’m the reader that asked the question-I’m not sure that they’re looking to move me into her role. I think they’re more hesitant to fire her because in general my company has culture issues, and it’s very difficult to fire someone once hired (HR is concerned it will lower morale). I think they’re just trying to make it work for now, even though it obviously is not.

      1. Enid*

        Because obviously it’s good for morale to be working for an incompetent manager whom everyone knows should be fired.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s exactly what it was — thanks for telling me about it; I’ve removed it.

        How annoying that I cannot seem to post at this frequency without random little errors.

        1. Chris80*

          Don’t let it keep you from posting as much! I’d rather see lots of new posts with random errors than perfect posts only once a day!

        2. Elizabeth West*

          It’s okay; we don’t mind and we’ll help you find them. It’s very hard to edit so much so fast. :)

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Anyone who has not had an error in any of their posts, please raise your hand. (Definitely not me!)
          I’d rather hear what you have to say than worry about little typos here and there.

          1. Jessa*

            And the more you are talking IN your post about accuracy or spelling or grammar or what have you, the more likely you are going to have errors of precisely the kind you’re talking about.

  3. Anon for Now*

    The other piece to take a hard look at is where your “value” lies. Are you still one of the only people competent on Team 1’s tool? What kind of feedback have you gotten, over time, on the different responsibilities now held by two teams? And, how is Team 2 doing?

    If your “value” is seen predominantly in the work of Team 1, & Team 2 doesn’t have a clear need for your skill set, your managers are likely to want to keep you where you are.

    Therefore, if you ask & are turned down again the next question is how to deal with your new boss & the current situation. What would they like you to do under circumstances A, B, C, etc? What can they do to help you & the situation? They obviously cannot say what they’re doing with your new boss, but they should be able to find ways to help you. If they want you in that team, how can they make it better?

    Hope that your management team comes through for you.

  4. clobbered*

    >they were trying to help my new manager improve.

    So I guess the question is – how invested are they in this new manager and why? Does she have other qualities that make her valuable (aside from making a hash of managing Team 1)?

    If the answer is yes, I bet they will want to keep you in Team 1 as part of the process of supporting this manager. If no, they will want to keep you in Team 1 because they will need you to transition in a new manager. So either way your path out of this is nothing to do with this manager and everything to do with pitching about how you love Team 2 work, you used to do Team 2 work, and now that it is either Team 1 or Team 2 work only, you absolutely want to build a career in Team 2 (and as AaM said, let the subtext take care of itself).

    Assuming, of course, that Team 2 can take you on….

    1. Original poster*

      Hi all, I’m the reader who originally asked this question. To give some more background, my former boss now supervises my new manager, in addition to Team 2. I do have the skillsets of both teams, and am regularly approached by members on both teams for direction on projects. Also, when I spoke to my former boss, I asked straight out to switch teams like recommended above, but basically got the response “Hang in there” with no hope for a different outcome in the future.

  5. Another Anon*

    Have you considered training another member of Team 1 intensively? If there’s someone else who can step up, they might be more likely to let you switch.

    1. AB*

      That was precisely what I wrote (and was supposed to be the second comment but somehow got eaten by the Internet).

      This is the best way to convince management to let you move, and it worked for me in the past: create a plan to train someone (maybe a more junior employee who is eager to develop new skills) so you can at some point leave the team, after solving the problem of lack of substitute.

  6. Elizabeth West*

    I’d emphasize doing the work of Team 2 rather than escaping the bad manager. You can certainly train someone on the tool for Team 1 if needed–there has to be someone who can take it over. But your career track is geared toward Team 2’s work and that’s the main reason you should give for a switch. Since you’ve already talked to the boss about the bad manager, you probably don’t need to bring it up again. Better to use positive reasons than negative ones. Anyway, it’s not your responsibility to make this manager better—managing him is up to his boss.

    1. Jessa*

      I agree with this also. Because if they are trying to groom you to take over managing team one are you going to be happy when team two is what you want to DO there? You need to let them know that task two is where you want to be independent of whether task one manager is bad or wonderful.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wish every cover letter was written like that.

      By the way, there’s an open thread coming tomorrow — I’m trying out Mike C.’s suggestion to do them every other Friday.

      1. Chinook*

        When you say you wish every cover letter was written like that, do you mean that you wish to all cover letters to address you as an “illustrious lady”? Or would you prefer them all to include plans on how to attack the opposition stealthly?

          1. Catbertismyhero*

            It seems that much of the pushback comes from candidates, and not from the people who have to plow through the stacks of resumes and cover letters.

        1. Kou*

          The senior thesis one– does that still look wonky if you did a project as senior that’s actually applicable to what you do?

          I did a year-long public health research project as a senior in college, but my university didn’t require them. I just wanted to do it, and since I’m now in medical research and only a few years and two jobs out of school, it seems kind of relevant still.

          1. KellyK*

            I don’t think so. I would keep it short and focus on how it’s relevant to the job you’re applying for.

        2. AG*

          I just saw this, and I was going to email it to you!

          I just hired for an entry-level position, and honestly the only thing I cared about in terms of where they went to school and what they studied was just as a conversation-starter. I was more interested in hearing *why* someone chose their school and/or major than *what* they studied. I had one applicant who went to a school of “integrative studies” where you make your own major, and she couldn’t talk intelligently about it, which was pretty frustrating. If you’re going to go to an unusual school or pick an unusual major, at least have a boilerplate response when people ask you about it!

    2. Jazzy Red*

      Leonardo probably wouldn’t have had that typo in # 8 though (“I short,” should read “in short,”).

  7. Zahra*

    You say that
    “Once she did, she said that she would try to make things as easy as possible for me because they valued me highly, but that there was a need on Team 1 and they were trying to help my new manager improve.”

    What’s that need on Team 1? Is it that knowledge you refer to at the beginning of your letter? If so, is there a way to transfer this knowledge and/or groom someone to be your replacement should you transfer to another team? You could present it as training a back-up for the ever-popular “hit-by-a-bus” scenario (also, replacements for PTO or vacations).

    If clobbered is right and they are grooming you for a management position, is your old manager in a position to talk to you about your career progression within the organisation?

  8. tangoecho5*

    I think your old manager answered your question at least for right now: “they value you highly, but that there is a need on Team 1”. You are one of the few who know how to do the job and they have an inadequate manager over that team. To let you move over to Team 2 means even less people on Team 1 who can do the work let alone make sure it’s done right. Really, now, can you see why the Director is not pushing your old manager to allow you to move? Just start looking for other work. I doubt you will be able to transfer anytime soon since they need you a hell of a lot more on Team 1 than they do on Team 2 and from that standpoint, they can’t justify letting you change teams.

  9. Not So NewReader*

    Have you considered asking for a trade off where you work with Team 1 for x amount of time. Allowing them to make some necessary adjustments, etc. After that period of time, as your reward for helping them you can move to Team 2. They seem VERY interested in accommodating you.
    Not sure if you would think this is a good idea- am just throwing it out there.

  10. Seal*

    Are you sure your director doesn’t have some sort of hidden agenda in leaving you in what sounds like an incredibly dysfunctional situation? It sounds like enough time has passed since the new teams were formed for a reasonable director to realize that the new structure isn’t working and that changes need to be made.

    Years ago I found myself in a similar situation after a reorganization. Despite ample evidence that a hostile work environment had been created and that productivity had decreased to the point that less than nothing was getting done, our manager refused to acknowledge there were now major problems where none had previously existed. Many formerly stellar employees quickly burned out and left. Turned out that this manager had lied through her teeth to force a reorganization her colleagues and employees were very much against. In her mind, making any changes to her idiotic “vision” would be admitting that she failed; everyone else had to suffer so she could save face.

    1. JM in England*

      Sounds very much like a manager in one of my former jobs. Like you mention, Seal, many formerly stellar employees burned out and left (myself included!). He too saw any changes to his vision as failure and was willing to throw people under the bus to see his plans come to fruition!

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