8 workplace dilemmas you might face — and how to overcome them

We hear a lot of bizarre workplace stories here – from the boss who kept stealing people’s lunches to the receptionist who wouldn’t stop hugging people. But these are outliers; chances are good that you’re going to go your whole career without encountering them. What you almost certainly will encounter are the more typical obstacles that people hit in their work lives, like having the boss who always championed you resign, or receiving a bad performance review, or being overworked to the point of burn-out. And those are the issues you need to know how to tackle – probably more than you need to know how to hide your lunch from a hungry boss.

Here’s a look at eight of the most common problems people face at work and what you can do about them.

1. You’re overwhelmed with work. If it seems like you’re always stretched too thin and never have enough time to complete your work before three new projects are assigned to you, you probably need to talk with your manager about your workload.

What to do: Pick a time when your manager isn’t rushed and ask to talk about your workload. Explain that it’s become chronically unmanageable and why — for instance, that a particular account has doubled in size in the last year or that you’ve taken on the responsibilities of someone who left without anything being removed from your plate). Explaining what’s behind the workload increase is helpful because your manager may not be attuned to the context as you. Then, suggest some options. For instance, you might say, “I can do A and B, but not C. Or if C is really crucial, I’d want to move A off my plate to make room for it. Alternately, I can act as an adviser to Jenna on C, but I can’t do C myself if I’m also doing A and B.”

And if your manager won’t help you prioritize, then come up with your own proposal for what you will and won’t prioritize and ask her to tweak it or okay it.

2. Your boss quits or is fired. Things were going great and your boss thought highly of you, but now you’re not sure where you’ll stand with her replacement.

What to do: Stay calm! The new boss could be just as good as your old boss, or even better. Or, yes, it might turn out that you don’t enjoy working with her – but you can’t know until get to know her. So while there’s nothing wrong with polishing up your resume and putting out feelers to your network, wait and see how things shake out before making any drastic moves.

In the interim, the best thing you can do is to pitch in to help keep your department running smoothly, which can position you well in your organization and act as a reputation-enhancer. Also try acting as a helpful resource to the new manager when she starts – and try to reserve judgment on her style and competence until she’s had a chance to settle in. After all, few of us would like to be permanently judged based on our first few weeks in a job.

3. Your job turns out to be different than what you thought it would be when you were hired. It might not have been a deliberate bait-and-switch, but the work sure isn’t what you were told in the interview.

What to do: Start by talking to your boss, saying something like, “When I was hired for this job, we talked about it being most client work, with some admin duties. But in my first three months, the job has been about 90% admin work without much client interaction. Can we talk about what changed, and whether there’s a way to reshape my work to look more like what we initially talked about?”

Make sure that your tone is calm and collaborative, not frustrated or angry. You’ll get better results if you make it clear that you’re in problem-solving mode, not complaint mode.

You might hear that the job has simply changed and there’s nothing that can be done, but you also might nudge your manager into realizing that she needs to adjust your work. Either way, you’ll leave this conversation with a better idea of what to expect from this job in the future and can make decisions accordingly.

4. You keep running into conflict with a difficult coworker. You’ve tried to be nice, but every conversation with her devolves into disagreement and strife.

What to do: First, remove your ego from the equation. You don’t have to like your coworker, and you certainly don’t have to “win” every interaction with her; you just need to work together.

Being nice even when you don’t feel like it can thaw relations, so ask yourself: Is there anything your coworker does that you genuinely admire and can compliment her on? Something you can seek her advice on (painful as it might be to do)? A month or so of concerted effort in this direction can sometimes make a difference.

But if not … well, sometimes simply realizing that difficult people’s behavior is about them, not you, can make them easier to deal with. And since you’re never going to be able to eliminate difficult people from your work life entirely, figuring out how to remain unflappable in the face of crazy-making personalities can be surprisingly satisfying.

5. Your boss doesn’t notice the work you do. You’re churning out reams of work, winning over clients, and generally being an all-around bad-ass, but none of it has registered on your manager’s radar.

What to do: It’s natural to want your boss to recognize your achievements on her own, but the reality is that few managers will be as attuned to your work than you are, and most will count on you to keep them up-to-date. So don’t sit around waiting for your work to be noticed – become your own advocate! You might feel awkward tooting your own horn, but your boss wantsto know about what you’re doing well. Start highlighting key victories when you talk, and don’t be shy about passing along praise. It’s not unseemly bragging to mention things like, “The client was really happy with the work we sent over last week, and said that the designs I showed them clinched their contract renewal for next year.” That’s just keeping your boss in the loop about what’s getting done and how it’s being received.

6. You’ve made a major mistake that truly harmed your team. You’re human and you’ll make mistakes now and then – but when it’s high-profile or high-price-tag, it can be hard to know how to face your boss.

What to do: The worst thing you can do here is to duck responsibility. Your boss will be far more alarmed that you’re not owning your actions than if you face up to it directly. So tell your boss what happened, quickly. And make it clear that you understand what a big deal the mistake was – because if you proactively show that you get that, there’s no need for your manager to underscore it for you. Try words like, “I realize how serious this is” and “I understand the impact this has.”

Then, explain how you’re planning to fix what happened and – crucially – how you’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. And if there are larger lessons here, address those too. (For instance, “This has made me realize that I need to do site visits more frequently so that I can spot problems before they take root.”) That will help your boss evaluate how well you learn from experience and how much trust she should put in you in the future.

7. Your coworker takes credit for your work. You don’t know if she’s deceptive or just oblivious, but either way she’s hogging the limelight for work youdid.

What to do: Speak up! Be more proactive about claiming credit before she gets a chance to steal it, which means keeping your boss in the loop about what you’re working on, as well as your ideas and achievements. And then, if your coworker takes credit anyway, be forthright about correcting the record. For instance, if you wrote most of a report while your coworker just contributed a page or two, but you hear her presenting it as her work, speak up and say, “To be clear, I wrote the majority of it, but Sue was a great help with the conclusion.”

8. You get a bad performance review. You thought things were going okay, but now you’re staring at an evaluation that says “doesn’t meet expectations.”

What to do: First, don’t panic and don’t get defensive. Too often in this situation, people become so focused on how to defend themselves that they forget to really listen to what they’re being told about what they need to do differently. Understanding your manager’s concerns will be crucial to a good outcome here, so listen and ask enough questions that you truly know what you’re being asked to change.

From there, show that you take the feedback seriously, by using language like, “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I hadn’t realized this was a concern and I’m glad to have the chance to work on it.” And tell your manager what you plan to do to address her feedback, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m going to take some time to think about this and figure out how to resolve these issues.”

And remember, it’s not the end of the world to receive critical feedback. Most people have been told that they need to do something differently or better at some point in their professional lives.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Riki*

    Yes, yes, yes to #6. If you have a “difficult” coworker, always take the high road, do not engage and remember that their crappy attitude is 100% about them, not you. I worked with someone who was extremely hard to deal with when I was younger and I made the mistake of getting wrapped up in their drama. Not only did cause me a ton of unnecessary stress, but I ended up getting labelled as being “difficult”, too.

    1. hayling*

      Yes! I had a really awful coworker who ticked off everyone, but for some reason she particularly pushed my buttons. By getting into it with her, it became a “her and me” problem instead of a “her” problem.

  2. Looking for new career*

    Oh what wonderful things I have to look forward to when I get a job in a new career…and am no longer a solopreneur!

  3. Reader*

    Am I the only avid reader/fan that wishes links would open a new window? Whenever I follow your links I end up closing the window and having to re-log on to your site.

    I’m guessing you can just click a box when you add the link so that AAM stays open when you link to another site.

    Just me or would others find this helpful?

    1. Zahra*

      I usually right-click and select “Open in a new tab”. I hate pop-ups. Opening in a new window would be a pop-up.

      1. Persephone Mulberry*

        Me three (although I love the scroll wheel click tip, below). Mainly because I don’t always read stuff as soon as I open it – I like to leave links open in other tabs so I don’t forget to read them later.

        1. Kelly L.*

          I new-tab ev.ery.thing. because I hate it when I think a link’s going to open a new window but instead it just jumps me there in the same window and loses my spot on the first page I was reading. I also have this weird thing where I don’t like to have more than one window open at once. So I always have umpty-million tabs open.

    2. KerryOwl*

      No, I always open links in a new tab anyway (by clicking my scroll wheel on a desktop, holding down the link on my telephone.)

    3. The Other Dawn*

      I wish they would open in a new window, also. I usually forget it’s in the same window and end up closing it when I’m done. Then I have to lauch the site again.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t know how this works on a PC, but on a Mac you can force links to open in new tab by holding down Command when you click the link. (I open all new links that way and it’s awesome.)

      1. Darth Admin*

        On a PC it’s right-click and select Open Link in New Tab (or New Window, if you don’t do tabbed browsing).

      2. Annie O*

        On a PC mouse, you can click with the scroll ball and it will open in a new tab. Or you can press Ctrl and click.

        And my new fave shortcut: Ctrl+Shift+T to open the tab you accidentally just closed!

        1. Program Manager/Managing Editor working in the publishing industry*

          So cool! I just tried this ctrl+shift+T thing. I have officially learned a new trick! Thanks.

        2. Anonymous Educator*

          Control-click on Windows and Linux will open in a new tab in the background.

          If, for some reason, you want the link to open in a new tab in the foreground, do Control-Shift-click.

          Same deal for Mac, except substitute in Cmd for Control.

      3. Luxe in Canada*

        Same on Windows. Hold Ctrl while you click on the link to open it in a new tab, hold shift while you click to open it in a new window. On my Android, I hold-click on the link for a few seconds until a pop up menu appears, and gives me the option to open the link in a new window.

      4. hayling*

        It works on a PC by right-click and select new tab, or control-click.

        However as someone who does some website content management, I encourage you to have links to external sites open in a new tab (in HTML the code is target=”_blank” but usually WordPress has an option for this when you insert a link) because users aren’t going to lose your own site. Obviously you want them to read the external articles, but you want them to comment on your own site, read more on your own site, and see the ads on your own site.

        1. De (Germany)*

          This is really bad practice, please don’t do that. That will usually just stop me from visiting a site. I can open in a new tab if I want, but I can’t suppress the behavior you suggest. I find that really annoying.

      5. Just Me*

        When you insert the link when writing the blog there may be an option that makes it open in a new window automatically when the link is followed. I don’t know much about WordPress, but it works like that in Drupal.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Some people hate having links force-opened in a new window, which is why I don’t do it here — but you can make it happen yourself by the way you click on it (see all the advice above)! So my theory is, let people control how it happens for themselves.

      1. Onymouse*

        Thank you! As someone who does open everything in a new tab, I’d rather do it on my terms than having it foisted upon me. Plus, it’s somewhat of a best practice on the modern web.

  4. Meganly*

    I’ve given my partner the same advice for #1, and every time he tries to re-prioritize, his manager just says, “Everything is top priority; you have to get it all done.” Ugh.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      I’ve had (and currently have) a boss like this. Years ago, I went to him to tell him that I couldn’t handle the workload and was very stressed. I was told that he would be piling on more work, not taking away, and it’s never going to change. Awhile later he was let go for various reasons. Then one day, my mentor asked me how I was and I had a total meltdown. Uncontrollable tears. I explained that I was so completely overwhelmed and was working 12 hours a day, sometimes coming in on the weekends also. Also told him what Former Boss said about piling on more work. Within the week he put out a job posting for an assistant for me. I was so grateful for that.

    2. Annie O*

      Yep. Unfortunately, when everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

      Some companies keep trying to do more and more with less and less. I’ve seen managers really struggle with this – they can’t hire, they can’t give raises, but they can’t magically make the work shrink either.

      1. DLB*

        In these cases, I always wonder why they don’t take a step back and see if it’s actually costing the company money by not hiring additional people because things are not getting done, or only being done “just enough”.

  5. Brett*

    #8 Makes me wonder how I could have handled a past situation better.
    Our organization gives out two bonuses a year (out of about 5k employees). One for the best customer service, one for the biggest cost savings, and at the time, amounted to about 10% of my annual salary (pretty big when we don’t get raises either).

    I had a project where, working on my own time, I cut several million dollars out of a construction bid. The manager of the bid spec writer (a completely different department) nominated the spec writer for the bonus, and the bid spec writer won it easily.

    I did absolutely nothing in response to this. The award was sent out in a press release by the time I found out, so nothing was changing there. But I always felt that, at the time, I should have done something different. Even with the advice here, I am still not sure what I could have done differently then. Any ideas?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d pose it as seeking advice from your boss — “I’d love to get your advice on this. X happened, and I’m wondering if there’s something I could have done differently so that people were aware of my role in this.”

      1. Brett*

        That is a very good way to raise the issue (especially since I suspect my boss did not bother nominating me anyway, but never asked if he did).

    2. Tiff*

      That would have burnt my toast – I’m sorry it happened to you. Who was aware that you were doing this work? Just your boss?

      I’m going to put this out there because I’ve been there: toot your own horn. There are very few people who will do it for you. When I realized that my immediate supervisor wasn’t crediting my work to me I just began subtly including the intended recipient on my emails to my supervisor, and moved her name into the cc line. Keep in mind that my supervisor wasn’t serving any function as middle man (she didn’t revise, or change anything), and she didn’t even ask me to send her everything in the first place, so when I changed my communication method she wasn’t upset. It just didn’t cross her mind. That served a few purposes:

      1. My boss no longer had to send my emails
      2. Other staff had a better idea about the work I do (and what they could come to me for in terms of work requests).
      3. I felt more confident.
      4. My work was credited to me and eventually led to more advanced work.

      At the time I was resentful of my boss because I felt that she was purposely pushing me into the shadows, but I had to understand that the only person holding back my progress was me.

      On a slightly separate note, in your situation I would look at other factors. If you were working on this in your off time, was it because you wanted to make sure it would be successful before presenting it to others? Was your work folded into the spec writer’s work product before or after it became final? Things can get tricky when it comes to edits/revisions, and sometimes it’s worth it to let the original product come out (or just be seen by a lot of internal people) before you come in with your suggestions. That way it’s clear what the spec writer did and what you did.

      1. Brett*

        A lot of people were aware of my role. I had to collaborate with dozens of people of people, testify at a couple dozen public meetings, and did several tv interviews. And for 3 months during construction I led weekly conference calls and bi-weekly meetings with about a dozen senior mangers from other departments (including the person who nominated the spec writer for the bonus). But most of that contact was with people outside of my department, which was probably the issue.

  6. some1*

    #2 has happened to me twice. Both times my new boss had never managed people before and it became clear that they wanted to create their own teams vs managing the team they inherited.

    One was in govt so she just made the people miserable until they transferred to a new dept or left. The other one proposed a re-org to get her reports under different managers or volunteered to put her reports on the layoff list.

      1. Em*

        Wow! Agree with other readers that you are amazing for coming up with a solution for the OP on that one!

        1. hayling*

          Someone on Ask Metafilter had a question about someone stealing their food today, reminded me of the awful boss!

  7. FarFromBreton*

    For “You’ve Made a Major Mistake That Truly Harmed Your Team,” is there any decent path to take when you don’t think you made the mistake but your boss is convinced you did and has mostly convinced everyone else? This happened to me at a previous job–a few important computer files were deleted. I was blamed because I had worked with that folder the most, but I was 95% sure I hadn’t deleted them and that they had actually never been saved to the computer in the first place. (A few weeks later, I saw a brand-new recording device and its box sitting on my boss’s desk, but nothing was said about it.) I had made one semi-serious mistake when I was just starting at the job and taken full responsibility and was praised for it, so they had no reason to think that I would lie except that they kept emphasizing how deadly serious the situation was. I couldn’t prove that I hadn’t lost what was missing, though, obviously. It was analogous to being interrogated about a crime you’re sure you didn’t commit when you don’t have an alibi, and eventually you start wondering if maybe you really did commit the crime after all. It was hard for me to know if they were behaving appropriately and if I was just in denial about being a crappy employee who was shirking responsibility.

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