a manager on another team criticized my work

A reader writes:

I work for a manufacturing company in a technical position. I met with the tech team recently to go over some issues that we were having with product launches. Along with my manager, I wrote up a proposal that would include manufacturing requirements earlier in the design process. I was told to present this to several people for comment and suggestion via email, and did so.

Most of the feedback I received was positive, but one person who is above me in another department disliked it strongly. I received a phone call demanding to know what prompted the proposal. I told this manager of the meeting our team had (which this manager was invited to but did not attend) and mentioned that I worked with my manager, who approved the proposal being sent out. The dissenting manager criticized me and my experience, and directly blamed me for problems in the design and development process, saying that I was not engaged enough during meetings. I kept trying to (politely) defer the conversation until my manager was present and could speak as well, but this was denied.

My manager is out of the office in the upcoming few workdays, but I feel a bit trapped in the meantime. I take a great deal of pride in my work and want my projects to be successful, but I don’t know how respond to this effectively. The proposal was straightforward and did not blame any person or project. I don’t want to feel like I should avoid making proposals, but I also do not want to get chewed out for making one that somebody dislikes — and I feel this is especially difficult in light of the request to be more engaged. I don’t really know how to diplomatically navigate this.

Thanks for any advice at all. I’m admittedly rather weak on skills like office politics (though your blog is a tremendous resource for navigating situations), and a wiser head than mine would be appreciated immensely.

I’d bet money that this guy feels like the proposal reflects poorly on areas he works in — and/or that it would require additional work from him or his team, which he either doesn’t want to deal with or is annoyed that he wasn’t consulted about first. (And yes, I know he was invited to the meeting and didn’t attend, but he might legitimately feel like you should have looped him in separately once it became clear that it was going to involve his team.)

It’s also possible that there are legitimate reasons why the proposal wouldn’t work well. It’s even possible that he’s right in saying that you don’t have sufficient experience to understand the issues involved in the proposal, and it’s also possible that he’s right that you haven’t been engaged enough during meetings that would have helped you approach this differently. I have no idea, obviously — but it’s worth pointing out that these could be real things, and if they are, he’s not out of line to point them out.

And of course, he could just be a jerk. There are plenty of them.

Regardless, as for where to go from here, I’d just sit tight and talk to your manager when she’s back. Explain what happened and see what her take is. But this is key: When you talk to her, don’t sound wounded or irked by this guy — sound like you’re genuinely giving his concerns a fair hearing, because that’s going to make you a lot more credible. (And it’s also going to make things less awkward if she realizes that the other manager had a point.)

Beyond that … Being excited about something you’ve put together and then have someone else crap all over it is indeed frustrating. But part of making proposals for change is dealing with this reaction. Sometimes it will be legitimate (and you want to be open to that, because you want your final plan to be as strong as possible, which means gathering as much data as you can, including critical input), and sometimes it won’t be legitimate at all (because some people are just curmudgeons and resist all change). Being okay with both of those things will make you better at what you do. So don’t take this as a sign to avoid proposals in the future — just take it as an education about what the next part of the process often looks like.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Matthew Soffen

    Its also quite possible that the other manager is directly responsible for the cause of the issues which your proposal addresses.

  2. Rich

    You are such a haloed devil’s advocate.lol

    When someone responds this strongly, it’s usually because it struck a chord or they’re going through things (stressful things) out of your control that you may not know about. I do agree on waiting until your manager gets back. It sounds like overall feedback was positive, so keep it moving on whatever else you’re working on in the mean time. If you see this manager, just be friendly and say “I appreciated your candid input” to diffuse any lingering awkwardness. If the person responds aggressively from there, it’s on them.

  3. fposte

    Repeat to yourself: “This is good experience.” Because it really is. You want to define success as something other than pleasing everybody or avoiding all criticism, and you want to be able to develop your ability to deal with negative feedback and contradictory input. And having a nay-sayer is pretty common, so it’s experience you’ll be able to put to use.

    None of this means that you blew it, or were unfair. It sounds like you wrote a really good proposal. Now you need to herd the cats :-).

  4. dustycrown

    You were at least engaged enough to (a) be at the meeting and (b) write the proposal, which by my count puts you two ahead of this guy. And congrats for being mature enough not to snark that back at him. :)

  5. Steve G

    Arrange a call when Mgr is back. If this guy has such a bad impression of your proposal, then he should have alot to contribute to it, and if you went through a whole proposal process that involves design (which I assume is detailed) and this other manager didn’t get involved at all, he is at fault.

  6. Elizabeth West

    Being excited about something you’ve put together and then have someone else crap all over it is indeed frustrating.

    Yep. But on the off chance that some of his critiques have merit, it’s probably best to follow Alison’s other advice and talk it over with your manager when she returns. She might know something you don’t that could help you revamp the proposal to address Manager 2’s concerns. That’s what this is all about–the work. (Although I think M2 probably shouldn’t have flown off the handle. Poo on him.)

    1. Anna

      I kinda feel like the offended manager should have waited, too, especially if the OP stated she had been directed to send out the proposal by her manager. Offended manager’s feedback isn’t really valid to the OP because that other manager has no say in what her role is or what she does and doesn’t know, or if she’ll learn that or not. If there was a problem with the proposal and the offended manager saw issues in it, he should have first talked to OP’s manager and let OP’s manager talk to her.

      1. Daisy

        I agree. Obviously the manager has a right to disagree with the content of the proposal, since it involves him, but it seems really bad form to ‘demand’ of the OP ‘what prompted the proposal’. That seems like a thing he should clearly be taking up with the OP’s manager if he feels it’s stepping on his toes. The OP’s hardly going to have taken on and distributed a project like this with no say-so just for the hell of it.

    1. Fee

      Haha I read this post and then scrolled down, saw the Halloween one and thought: “498 comments?! Well this poor guy isn’t going to get much attention today.”

  7. AB

    From the way the OP described the situation, it feels to me that the OP’s manager is the one at fault here.

    He/she should know better than ask the OP “to present this to several people for comment and suggestion via email”, without “pre-wiring” the audience first.

    As a consultant, I’m often asked to present solutions to problems the client organization faces. But if it turns out that a solution requires changing a process in a different department, my first step is to go talk to the affected manager first, present my ideas in person, get some feedback, and if possible gain some buy-in before presenting the proposal to a larger group. The OP’s manager should have done the same here (so the conversation can be peer to peer) and then should have instructed the OP on how to present the proposal in a way that helps the affected manager “save face”. It’s less about the content of a proposal, and more about how you package your presentation in a way that preserves relationships.

    1. Kacie

      This. The manager should have been the one to present the proposal to peer groups, especially those who would be directly affected. If there are real issues or problems with the proposal, the managers could work it out at their level.

      Another thing to consider is that you sent this out for feedback, and you got it. Not all feedback is good, and not all feedback is used in the final project plan. Not everyone gets their way in business, and projects often move forward with dissenters.

      1. Mike B. (@epenthesis)

        “Not all feedback is good, and not all feedback is used in the final project plan.” And the brand of unhelpful, defensive name-calling employed by this clown is usually (though not always) in the reject category. This should be a lesson both in taking negative feedback gracefully and in GIVING it gracefully.

  8. Wilton Businessman

    Yeah, make sure your manager is informed so she doesn’t get blindsided my Mr. Irate.

    Personally, I’m the type of person that would want to find out what’s wrong with my proposal and then prepare my manager with a revision or at least options instead of just letting her deal with Mr. Irate.

  9. EngineerGirl

    Welcome to the world of engineering leadership! We wish that people would act like adults when we become change agents. That doen’t always happen. You need to get used to this if you are going to be an effective leader.

    I would wait until my manager got back and discuss it. Unfortunately, in the mean time the other manager may be going all over the place trying to block your proposal from going through.

    Part of selling change is to lay out the benefits it has to those participating. You also need to socialize things heavily before presenting them to others. And then you need to get everyone in the room and get them to agree with a path forward, and document it. And then you need to follow up. And one of the hardest things to change is placing extra work on one group to benefit the company as a whole.

    I am concerned at this managers tactics. The fact he went into a personal attack – questioning your experience – tells me that he isn’t an honest person.

  10. Not So NewReader

    The scope of the accusations bothers me. Not only was OPs proposal sucky, OP doesn’t even know how to attend meetings. You know, if you fire off numerous shots you’re bound to hit something.

    Does this guy hate your boss? Are they rivals in some way?

    Is it normal for managers to reprimand each others employees? In places where I have managed employees in another department were a no fly zone.

    I can just picture me in your situation- I probably would not even understand half of what the man said was wrong. So on top of reeling from getting a good speaking to, I would also be bewildered by how to fix this.

    I agree with everyone else who said to just approach your boss with the attitude of “I want to do a good job and I want to do things the right way.” Nothing wrong with wanting to fix things. I usually like to point out that I would rather take the time to fix it correctly and build a plan so that this never happens again. Two goals there.

    Just because this guy uses words like machine gun bullets does not mean you have to get upset. Don’t feed into his upset. Be thoughtful and be purposeful.

    You may find out that he treats everyone this way and you just got indoctrinated into a secret club of people who have been reamed by this guy.

  11. Anonymous

    This. Too bad the other manager didn’t email his tirade – but then these types never do (accountably or the lack thereof)

    I would email your own manager requesting guidance on a path forward (put this as the email title). I would the say something like:
    Hi boss, I’d like some guidance for the path forward on this project. On (date) angry manager contacted me via phone call.

    Next describe phone call with just the facts. Angry stated that … And also stated that… He stated that …

    End the email with “how would you like me to handle this?”

    By keeping to just the facts your own manager an draw his own conclusions. By quoting angry manager you make it harder for him to claim it was “all a misunderstanding” or you are “too sensitive”
    To be truly effective you can’t act hurt (it weakens your position). Instead be a problem solver.

    This manager sounds like a bully and is definitely using bully tactics on you. He’s questioning your abilities and your work ethic. Don’t give him extra ammo by getting upset. Be the cool competent expert.

    And google Dunning-Kruger

    1. SC in SC

      Although I agree with your sentiment, I would strongly recommend that the OP not email this to their manager. Wait a few days until she is back in the office so that they can have a conversation about the situation. The problem with emailing the manager is that it will be very difficult to really capture the conversation and there is a definite possibility that the manager will email the angry manager which could easily spiral into a heated disagreement. I’ve seen it happen over and over again between people where a simple conversation would have been much better. Wait until she’s back, talk to her and then figure out how to address angry manager. A few days to cool off is not a bad thing in this case.

      1. Mike B. (@epenthesis)

        I’m not sure I agree (most people aren’t clueless enough to forward messages like that), but whether to use email to contact the manager is perhaps a secondary question. It’s critical that the OP document what happened while it’s still fresh in mind so the situation can be revisited if necessary.

        I would describe the conversation in an email and then send it to myself. Detailed, date-stamped notes will reliably save your bacon.

  12. OP

    Hi all, I’m the letter writer.

    Thanks so much for your answer and comments, a lot of them make a lot of sense, particularly EngineerGirl’s comment about “socializing” the idea. Looking at it from the other manager’s perspective, it could be easy for that manager to have been blindsided. The project developed quickly, in fact literally overnight, and I can understand the sudden appearance of a fleshed out proposal being frustrating, even if it was still in the draft stages.

    I am hardly a stranger to blunt criticism or failure (engineering is actually the ancient greek word for “well, try it again, we’ll get there”), but I think I found the direct phone call more intimidating than I should have- I vastly prefer email since I am generally poor at reacting off the cuff – and I probably took the criticisms of me (as opposed to the project) more personally than I should have. Thinking on it, the criticisms are either fair, in which case I can’t really be upset, or unfair, in which case I don’t really have to worry too much about it.

    Thank you all so much for your comments! I’ve learned a lot from reading this blog, I appreciate the help!

  13. Brton3

    When I was brand new in my former job, I got in a really awkward situation where another manager totally lit into me over a simple misunderstanding. I had taken a step on a project that required approval from someone in his department, which I got; but when he saw what I had done, he didn’t bother asking his staff if I had followed procedure, but instead sent me a really shocking email impugning my abilities and qualifications, and he cc’d it to my boss, his boss, and their boss’s boss. This all happened on the heels of him taking me to task for fielding a phone call and taking a message for someone, which evidently I shouldn’t have done (this one never got explained to me). Basically, this guy was a jerk.

    My melodramatic boss (who at least had my back) then insisted that all communication with this guy’s department would have to go through him, creating a bottleneck in my work.

    Years later, a job came open that would have a dotted line kind of reporting relationship to this other manager. I was very qualified and the job’s direct manager asked me to apply, and even followed up with me several times. So I applied. I had a courtesy interview with the jerk manager where he gave me a lot of polite but utterly BS reasons why I wouldn’t be considered (such as claiming I didn’t have enough experience, even though he had recently given an equivalent job to another internal candidate with multiple years less experience than me). That very day I applied for a new position outside this dysfunctional organization, and that’s where I (happily) am today.

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