our manager periodically flips out and jams her authority down our throats

A reader write:

I work on a team of four – our manager and the three producers. Our manager is not very experienced with managing, and we tend to pick up a lot of the slack for clarifying directives, managing vendors, setting plans, etc. Personality-wise, our manager is typically very playful and her goal is for us to all be friends. However, every now and then, she’ll flex her authority in a very authoritative fashion, as if to say, “Look. This is not up to discussion. It’s the way it is.” It’s not the words, but the tone of voice, the anger, and power that she flexes in the moment. This happened today during a team meeting that caught all three of us off-guard.

In this particular situation, she asked how necessary a particular vendor was because she was wanting to cut the resourcing. We let her know how vital their work was and started brainstorming how to cut costs. She fumed and went off on us about how “THIS IS THE WAY IT WILL BE” and stormed out. We were completely befuddled and confused about what happened. I felt extremely disrespected and protective of my two team members, who are younger and less experienced. I don’t believe in taking verbal abuse from anyone, especially when unwarranted.

In what ways can I nip this in the bud with my manager without coming across as threatening, overstepping my role, etc.? Also, if I do address it, how do I ensure I do not place myself in a place where she might hold it against me?

Ah yes, the manager who wants to be friends — until she doesn’t and flips out in an over-display of authority, instead of just calibrating things correctly from the beginning. It’s likely that she’s not sure what normal, calm authority looks like or how to exercise it, which is why she’s cycling back and forth between two bad extremes.

Usually people who act the way your manager is acting are incredibly insecure about their own authority. She doesn’t know how to use it normally (and at some level, she realizes that about herself), and so instead she over-compensates, beating you over the head with it when she doesn’t need to.

As for what to do about it, your best bet is to talk with her about what happened, calmly and rationally. This will signal that her blow-up isn’t a reasonable way to operate, but rather was something that took people aback, and thus is now A Thing That Must Be Discussed. And if you do it right, it can also shore up her ability to use authority correctly, by highlighting for her that you’re perfectly happy to do things the way she wants and that she doesn’t need to freak out on you to make that happen.

I’d use this an opener: “What happened yesterday? I was surprised by your reaction and wondered where we went wrong, so that we can avoid it in the future.”

And I’d be ready to also say things like:

* “I got the sense that you felt like we were ignoring what you wanted us to do. But we weren’t. If you’d told us that we needed to find a way to make things work without (vendor), that would have been fine. It felt like you were frustrated that we didn’t realize that that’s what you were saying, but we just needed it clarified.”

* “This sort of thing is your call. We’ll go along with whatever you decide, but I’m hoping we can communicate about these things without being yelled at. If you have concerns about how the team is working, we should of course address it, but yesterday felt like we were being berated, and I’d like to figure out how we can avoid that in the future.”

* “Is there a different way we can handle this sort of thing in the future?”

You want your tone to convey, “Look, you call the shots. But we got yelled at and that’s not cool, so how can we figure out how to avoid you wanting to do that in the future?”

Also, you should be totally calm during this conversation (not scarily calm, like talking-someone-down-from-a-ledge calm, but just normal-person calm). You should sound concerned, but don’t sound flustered or angry. You want to model how competent professionals talk, and you don’t want to reinforce the idea that wild displays of emotion are appropriate.

Ideally, this conversation will help her realize that what she’s doing isn’t working and that people aren’t okay with it — or at least start the process of that happening. Of course, if she’s a truly horrid manager, it’s possible that she’ll dig in her heels and you’ll be the target because you pushed back. But that’s a fairly rare response to a reasonable discussion like this.

That said, keep in mind that you’re dealing with classic new manager issues here. Those don’t usually go away overnight, and you’re unfortunately her training ground, which is rarely fun.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 112 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonAcademic*

    This is VERY timely because I just had a similar experience with a supervisor – we are essentially working on a project overseeing a team of 11 entry level workers who are motivated and talented but a bit green. Some of them missed a (non-crucial, soft) deadline for some administrative paperwork and this formerly friendly supervisor just…lost it. Wrote an email demanding I hold disciplinary meetings individually with half the team within a week, or he would try to get us ALL removed from the project. It was a huge overreaction. I managed to convince him to meet with me individually instead in the hopes that I can diffuse the situation, because the team below me will have zero morale if they know their jobs are in danger over such small missteps.

    The thing is that this supervisor doesn’t have actual hiring/firing power over any of us so it wasn’t even his threat to make. I think AAM’s interpretation of the above letter fits well here – this guy thinks he needs an iron grip on his authority or he’ll lose it entirely.

  2. cuppa*

    I think another classic hallmark of new management is that you internalize EVERYTHING until one thing breaks the camel’s back, and you flip out. I was absolutely guilty of this when I started out, and I still struggle with it somewhat today. I feel for you, OP. Alison’s advice for dealing with this is spot-on.

    1. LBK*

      Yup – and I think part of it is people new to having authority are extremely uncomfortable using it to set clear expectations. When you’re peer managing/managing without authority, you kind of have to trick your coworkers into doing what you want or position everything as a “favor” – so that’s what people continue to do when they actually become managers. The problem is that as a manager, you can’t just nudge people towards what you want and assume they will get it. You have to tell them, and it’s very unnatural.

      1. Hey nonny nonny*

        Yes. I am a relatively new manager and I struggle with this. I don’t ever yell, but I do get very annoyed when my employees turn in sloppy or late work. After being gentle, encouraging, and roundabout about it ten times, I tend to get really testy and authoritative the 11th time. It’s a very hard habit to break, but I’m trying…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          There’s a whole range of (more appropriate) reactions in between those two extremes, and it sounds like you’re skipping over them! It’s just being matter-of-factly assertive: “I’ve noticed X. I need Y. What do you need to change on your end to make that happen?”

          1. vox de causa*

            Do you have any plans to write a book of these sorts of things? It comes naturally to some people, but so many who are promoted to management need a lot of help with these sorts of scripts. I realize this is what your blog is for and I really look forward to your posts, but it would also be great to have kind of a reference with exactly this sort of thing in it. I do have your book Managing to Change the World, but I’m looking for something that is much more about the one-on-ones with each employee, and how to best communicate with them in a way that gets results.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Managing to Change the World is exactly what I was about to recommend. On this particular topic, check the chapter on exercising authority — there’s lots of suggested wording in there!

    2. Jamie*

      The straw breaking the camel’s back deal is also huge when people have problems with delegating or saying no (when no is an option.) They take on every task, politely agree to everything, then someone asks them for one small totally job related thing and they lose it…because they are so overloaded it didn’t take much to bring the house of cards crashing down. That’s what I call “Marcia’s bracelet.” The one small thing that destroys it all.

      Seriously, I consider my learning to set boundaries and delegate to be analogous to the altered scene in my head where Marcia was smart enough to take off the damn bracelet. Life was much easier without having to navigate obstacles you put in your own way.

      1. cuppa*

        “Life was much easier without having to navigate obstacles you put in your own way.”

        Someone needs to stitch this on a sampler. +1000.

      2. Josh S*

        This is one of those rare instances for me that I completely am missing the reference. Who is Marcia, what is the bracelet, and what’s it from?

        1. Elizabeth*

          The Brady Bunch: The Unlucky Bracelet Marcia loses a gift from a boy and gets really upset. Link in next comment so this one avoids moderation.

          You can also google it and find a video.

        2. Doreen*

          The mids kn the Brady Bunch were building a house of cards to determine if the boys or girls would choose how to spend the trading stamps.Marcia was wearing a bracelet which knocked down the house of cards.

        3. Jamie*

          The Brady Bunch season 1. They have tons of trading stamps (don’t ask – apparently some thing stores gave out in the 60 which you saved and traded in for stuff – like Rachel Ray dishes at Jewel but you can get anything from this catalog) since merging two households and the deadline before they expire is NOW so the boys want a rowboat and the girls want a sewing machine and if they split the stamps they will get two crappier things instead of one big ticket item – so they have a contest building a house of cards and the winner gets all the stamps.

          Marcia is wearing a dangling charm bracelet which is so about to knock over the house as she puts her card on (and it’s pretty high by this point – makes you wonder how long it took production to build it) and you know it’s going to knock it over since the camera zooms in on it. But she doesn’t bother to take it off – and makes it way harder on herself than she has to. The girls end up winning because Tiger knocks into Peter who falls into the table – but instead of buying a sewing machine they get a color TV for the whole family. (Makes you wonder why Mike and Carol didn’t think of that to begin with? Seriously.)

          Anyway, Jan had said if Marcia had knocked them down it wouldn’t count because of her bracelet and boys don’t wear bracelets but it’s ruled that everything counts when you’re building a house of cards.

          SO technically the one thing to overload everything isn’t really ‘Marcia’s bracelet’, but it brings the point home and has more of a ring to it than “Tiger knocking into Peter.”

          Yes I do have a large segment of my brain dedicated to all things Brady – why do you ask?

          There are a lot of management lessons to be learned from the Brady’s. Allowance negotiation, contract clauses (caveat emptor), the whole use of resources thing when they had the issue with the club house only a finite amount of nails, where was OSHA when Cindy was left hanging from a clothesline, should Alice have gotten work comp when she threw out her back helping them practice for the 3 legged race…

          Speaking of Alice – what was her comp structure anyway? She went on vacations with them, but did the dishes and cleaned fish when camping – not to mention cooking, and looked after the kids. So she was totally working – was she getting time and half for that? Are housekeepers exempt? When she’d hear Peter and Greg in the kitchen late at night and got up to help them fix their snacks did she record her time for payment – otherwise if non-exempt it’s illegal even if you love the little hungry guys.

          Watch the Brady’s through a management lens sometimes – it’s fascinating.

          1. Elizabeth West*

            (Makes you wonder why Mike and Carol didn’t think of that to begin with? Seriously.)

            I don’t know about Mike and Carol, but my parents always made us work stuff like that out ourselves. I can’t recall if they were the ones who suggested the cards or if the kids did.

            I remember at one job, management always wanted you to come to them FIRST if you had a conflict with a coworker. To me, that was just ridiculous–were we kindergartners? Adults should be able to do that on their own. Though as we’ve seen in many letters from people whose workplaces are giant middle-school environments, perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

            Yes I do have a large segment of my brain dedicated to all things Brady – why do you ask?

            Off topic, but did you ever read Barry Williams’s book Growing Up Brady? It’s hilarious.

            1. Mister Pickle™*

              Actually, yes, I confess that I did indeed read Growing Up Brady. I thought it was rather artless of Barry to ‘kiss and tell’, but at least the publisher hired a reasonably good ghost-writer*.

              So I’m joking below when I ask if Brady Bunch is a television show. But in the past few years, I’ve been discovering that some of the cultural references I make just aren’t registering at all with some of the new hires and interns that I occasionally work with. This summer I tossed out something about “Snake Plisskin! I thought you were dead!” and got back four blank, uncomprehending stares. I felt really old.

              *If you ever want to read a truly interesting “tell all” kind of book from that era, check out Chuck Barris’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. He’s says it’s 100% true. And I believe him.

              1. the gold digger*

                Didn’t Carol date Greg in real life?

                (And I didn’t even have a TV when I was a kid! We lived outside of the US. I know all this stuff just from watching a few times at my grandmother’s over the summer.)

                1. teclatwig*

                  She was just on Wait, Wait and said that they went on a chaste dinner-date when he was 15. I haven’t read the book, so that’s the extent of my knowledge.

          2. Natalie*

            If Alice lives there, she would be exempt from FLSA overtime requirements, but she does have to be paid minimum wage.

            Fun (not really) historical fact – the carve out for domestic and farm workers in the FLSA was a giveaway to get southern senators to vote for it, as the domestic and farm industries at the time were heavily black.

          3. Koko*

            I have friends who work as live-in nannies and they often travel with the family that employs them to continue providing care and services at the beach house or whatever. I believe they usually get normal pay, all travel expenses paid, and some time off during the trip to enjoy the destination themselves. Of course all the nannies I know worked for fairly wealthy families. In addition to a weekly allowance, they also get room & board, and many of them were either given a spare car to drive (including for personal use on nights off) or some sort of transportation allowance (including for personal use).

            1. VintageLydia USA*

              An acquaintance of mine used to nanny part time with a family while she was in college, but she went to all their vacation with them (so long as they didn’t conflict with her school work) and the kids were so easy she got basically a half dozen fully funded vacations with very little work *and she was paid.*

          4. Crow*

            Jamie, your post was 100% awesome, and that’s coming from someone who never really liked the Brady Bunch that much!

  3. C Average*

    The post to which Alison links is pure gold and should be read and memorized by everyone, whether they’re managing or being managed.

    I have learned the hard way what can happen when your manager is your friend and then the relationship sours. In our case, there wasn’t any big ugly blowup or anything; there was just the gradual realization that my manager’s attempts to create a friendship with me (which had seemed pleasant and innocuous initially) were becoming increasingly intrusive and unwanted, and that it was really challenging to create boundaries where I’d failed to assert them at the outset. When I did try to reassert my boundaries, I did so clumsily, and awkwardness ensued. We’re on an even keel now, but it took a lot of work on everyone’s part to get to a relatively comfortable balance. She remains good friends with several of my peers, and it’s uncomfortable to the extent that I’m pursuing a lateral move just to get out of this environment.

    Lesson learned. I will never be pals with a manager again. I’ll be like Bartleby the scrivener, repeating “I would prefer not to” when asked to be Facebook friends, go to happy hour, do lunch, etc.

    1. New here*

      I agree, lost my friend once because her company hired me and I started reporting to her. We both are grown-ups and hoped for our sanity from day one, but unfortunately it did not work out, so our friendship faded. I understand reasons, but there’s nothing I can do.

      Talking about professional friendship, my opinion is: yes you can be friendly, but should not get too close with your colleagues, i.e. don’t get into close friendship or romance at work! It may work for some time, but eventually will either ruin your career or relationship.

      1. Simonthegrey*

        I have to have a similar conversation about this periodically, only in my case it is with students. I’m in both a teaching role and a more student-centered role on my campus, and while few students try to befriend their teachers, the ones I work with in tutor-oriented meetings often begin to confuse friendly help as actual friendship. It feels rude to be that blunt, but I did have to tell my supervisor that I am not friends with the students and that I won’t be friends with them. It actually hurts them, and I can’t be as impartial to a friend as I can to a tutee. It isn’t exactly the same as a manager-employee relationship, but there’s still a power imbalance and I think it behooves anyone to consider that fact!

        1. AnonEMoose*

          That’s one reason I don’t identify my employer in any way on social media, and I don’t friend coworkers. I work at a university and I don’t want students trying to friend me – or harassing me, because I sometimes have to tell them things they don’t want to hear.

          I also don’t accept requests to connect on LinkedIn from students. If asked (which I never have been), I’d simply say that I prefer to limit my network to people I’ve actually worked with, which doesn’t apply to the students in any meaningful way.

          1. College Career Counselor*

            I am pseudonymous on FB so that students cannot find me (although I suppose a particularly determined student could do it readily enough–still doesn’t mean I’m going to friend that person).

            I will link with current students, but only AFTER I’ve had an in-person conversation with them about what LinkedIn is for, setting up your account, how to use it, and how to ask appropriately to connect with people.

          2. Koko*

            I work for a national brand and I’ve set my Facebook so only folks I’ve added as friends can see my employer. I have this fantasy scenario in my head where I comment on another national brand’s post or someone like George Takei’s page, where hundreds of thousands of people see it, and inadvertently offend someone and then they click to my page and see who I work for and decide to call our 800 number and complain about what a bitch I am and how they’re never giving us another dime again because of my horrendously offensive comments. Far-fetched? Perhaps. But I’m not going to risk it!

      2. Elizabeth West*

        Same thing happened to me with a friend I’ve had since childhood. We’re back to being Facebook friends at least, but if I invited her to my hypothetical wedding, I don’t know if she would come. I hope she would.

        1. New here*

          I did come to my friend’s wedding this summer, but did not hear from her ever since. I moved on with my career and switched companies, whereas she stayed there, so I still hope we can renew something similar to our former friendship.. Unfortunately, it did not happen yet.

          I realize this may not be the case ever as well, but I still feel sad about lost relationship and would step towards if she’d accept it.

  4. Katie the Fed*

    Oh man, it’s a hard thing being a new manager, and she’s not handling it well. But really, it’s VERY hard to know when to draw the line and say that the decision will stand and it’s no longer up for debate. Is it possible she tried to say that a little earlier (before she exploded) and you guys missed the warning signs? Not that it excuses it, but some people will talk around “no” because they don’t like being direct, and then get mad that nobody is listening to them. I also think women have a trickier time doing this normally, because we’re often raised/socialized not to be direct or assertive.

    So this is a skill she’s going to have to learn, but you guys can meet her a little bit of the way by trying to read her when she’s getting to the point where she’s trying to say no. And definitely approach conversations from “we’re trying to help understand what we can do” etc

    1. LoFlo*

      If you have a follow up meeting with her, I would not bring up her past behavior but start the discussion along the lines of what to do in the future:

      I was sort of confused with us not being able to keep vendor x because in the past they were vital for A process. What is a good way to keep you update on the long term business relationships of the department?

      Then go into:

      What are some of the task you want me to do on project A or process B? Is there anybody else I need to coordinate this work with? If she ask you what you think, avoid including any management type duties, but do include the tasks that are in the job scope, not what you are capable of doing. You will be avoiding a whole lot of bad managemert enabling.

      1. Lamb*

        I disagree; this approach completely ignores the issue OP asked about (the outburst/heavyhanded use of authority) and revisits the loss of Vendor X, which, while OP may not agree with it, is the exact thing that the manager said was final and not up for discussion.
        OP did not say whether she wanted to change the manager’s mind, but given the incident OP described, it doesn’t sound like it would go well if she tried.

  5. New here*

    Awww, that sounds just like me a few years ago :) When I was first promoted, it was a nightmare! I felt like I need to create friendly atmosphere in the first place, but then again I needed that authority in place. So when I heard laughing behind my back (even when totally unrelated to me or my decisions), I felt like they laughed at me, so I felt like I had to do something about each incident just to build up my authority. That was a constant fight there! And I felt like no one supports me (whereas the Team should).

    In the situation above it looks like she indeed made this decision and it was not up for discussion, but she did not formulate this correctly… well, because she is new manager.

    I would suggest you to talk to her, but also – to support her, try being a little more careful with your wording, with your non-verbal messages. It’s not just the Team being in stress, it’s her being stressed as well, if not more. It should fade over time.

    Just make sure you are not jealous yourself and you may, indeed, support her. I have had a horrible experience with my former peer who was really jealous about my promotion and kept asking “why she’s better than me?” in the kitchen. Had to move him to another department… Awful.

    1. some1*

      You moved an employee to another department rather than sitting him down and telling him to stop undermining you behind your back?

      1. Helka*

        I don’t see where New here implied that it was an either/or, or that no coaching took place prior to the transfer.

      2. New here*

        I tried hard, and since I was new at management, I considered this issue as my heavy challenge. After a few months, numerous effect-less one-to-ones it was too far gone.

        My mentor and line manager was aware of the situation as well form some moment, and he proposed to speak to the neighbor department about possible move, so I did.

        My message was similar to: “I really appreciate your professionalism and knowledge, but unfortunately I feel like it does not work between us. I spoke to Manager X, and he agreed to accept you as his team member. I know you respect him a lot and believe you will be happy working in his team. In addition, I think that your work responsibilities fits with that department even better than ours.”, which was all true.

        During this last meeting I observed that employee in question was quite worried about the outcome. It looked like he did not feel this bad about his behavior but of course he accepted the change.

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I disagree with a lot of this. Being a new manager is not an excuse for horrible behavior. This manager didn’t just “not formulate this correctly”, she formulated it horribly. It’s a two-way street– I’ve had disagreements with managers, and occasionally they’ve been heated, but once the manager says (calmly!), “This is my decision, this is how it’s going to be,” I’ve backed off. Such a thing stated with authority, and not abuse, is what managing is all about.

      I support my manager, but she’s the one in charge– she has more say, more control, etc. I don’t think it’s the team’s place to handle her gently while she’s getting her footing. I do think the team should be understanding, but it’s on her too. I can never, ever overstate how much I believe in transparency. A little, “Team, I’m getting my footing here, please be patient sometimes” goes SUCH a long way.

      Being promoted to a managerial position requires self-confidence. If you don’t have it, fake it. If you think people are laughing at you behind your back, you either address it directly or let it slide completely. New here, you even acknowledge that the laughter had nothing to do with you, it was you being a bit paranoid. That’s not the team’s fault, and it’s not their responsibility to make it all better. It’s the manager’s responsibility to make it better– not abusively, not antagonistically, not in a “respect mah authoritah!” way.

      1. Koko*

        I don’t think New Here was saying the manager is excused for her behavior or framing it as an adversarial thing where only people whose responsibility it is to do something are the ones who should do something. I think she was giving pointers, based on her own honest reflections on stumbling as a new manager, for the best way to talk to a stumbling new manager and be her ally as she tries to improve her management skills rather than her adversary. She suggested that they be aware that the new manager might be irrationally paranoid about a lack of support, based on her own experience of feeling that way, and with that in mind the staff might want to be more sensitive (“careful with their wording”) and not approach her as though she’s a power-tripping bitch when she may be an insecure and inexperienced but well-intentioned person. Certainly the team is under no obligation to be sensitive or patient with her mistakes or to be her ally in the workplace, but I’ve personally found that being sensitive and patient with people (while still being firm about accountability and standards) generally makes for a better working environment and gets people to where you want them to be, faster.

      2. New here*

        Sure, there is no excuse, and yes, if you want to be a manager, you need to be this and that. I agree.

        I was trying to explain manager’s behavior based on my own experience.

        Yes, I was paranoid; yes, I was completely stressed; yes, it did not excuse me; but I worked hard on that and this is why I am better now.

        I think that understanding another person may make a difference. As I have noticed, generally people are not easily able to see another side of the situation, while this may help a lot.

        Being thrown into manager’s role seems fun on your promotion day, but a lot of hard work and learning comes afterwards. For example, I had to change my communication style, I had to learn how to deal with my emotions.. Basically a lot of psychological work. All this along with learning about your new responsibilities. It wasn’t easy for me. But now, I kind of enjoy manager’s position :)

        I wish I had known about all these difficulties before. On the other hand, it would have frightened me to hell :) I would decline my promotion and never be where I am now. So, everything happens for the best I guess :)

    3. New here*

      Another consideration: New Manager seems to be stressed and not able to deal with emotions. This is a tough part of management: you should not take everything too close to your heart. I used to have the same problem and genuinely worry about every single littlest issue as my personal one. Constantly being stressed, I tried to seem calm, but sometimes accumulated emotions prevailed – and then I could actually respond too much to a trifle.

      Not that manager should not be genuine, but she should treat many things philosophically.

      Another thing, which created additional stress, was keeping bad news to myself, trying to “guard” the team. They did not appreciate this because they did not know. I found that better and less stressful way is sharing responsibility and punishment with the team :) It’s probably banality, but I had to learn it the hard way.

      Of course, this is bad style of management, but what I am trying to say: try to understand her and not create additional stress when you can. If she still does it after some [meaningful] time, look, that’s wrong.

  6. Jamie*

    Couple of thoughts:

    I’d be careful about assigning the term abuse to just unpleasant communication – it dilutes the term. Real verbal abuse can be very damaging and yes, working with someone who can communicate like a jerk sucks and can ruin your day – but it’s not in the same ballpark.

    Pure speculation, but if I had to guess this sounds like someone who was given a directive which was non-negotiable from her boss and (as Alison astutely pointed out) isn’t comfortable at all with her own authority so she likely felt cornered. She misinterpreted your response as arguing, which you weren’t, because she wasn’t clear or relaxed in communicating the message. And ditto what Alison said about this not going away overnight – this has new manager growing pains written all over it.

    Fwiw the people I have the biggest issues with in management are the ones who really need to be liked. The friends thing. It is much easier to teach someone to be less draconian than it is to teach people how to manage effectively when they get tied up in knots having to have an uncomfortable conversation or merely assert authority when their reports disagree.

    I think I’m pleasant and friendly the vast majority of the time (and when I’m not, I’m quiet and keep to my office) but I don’t lose any sleep when people take issue with what I’m enforcing or what is and isn’t non-negotiable. I will evaluate myself to make sure I was professional and civil and as long as the answers are yes to both I’m good. I don’t feel the need to cushion every direct conversation with a backrub and a kiss on the head.

    People who need to be liked will often get mad at/blame the people who make them do the uncomfortable parts of their jobs – but it’s not your fault she’s uncomfortable issuing a directive in a neutral way and she did herself a disservice by not listening to your ideas – because if you had a way that she could meet her bosses objectives and still maintain X it was something to think about – but she cut herself off from feedback.

    There should be some kind of practice department where new managers can cut their teeth on professional direct reports who are paid to throw various scenarios at them so their real direct reports don’t have to suffer through the initial learning curve.

    1. Natalie*

      To speak insultingly or harshly is a standard definition of “abuse”. I don’t think the OP is trying to draw parallels to, say, domestic abuse or something.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Not to get too into semantics, but no. The definition of abuse is “cruel and violent treatment of a person or animal.”

        Neither of the examples provided would really qualify as cruel, violent, or even insulting. Rude, yes. Abusive, no.

        1. JMW*

          Agree. When we use a word like abuse, we are indirectly labeling ourselves as a victim. We are choosing to take the other person’s behavior personally. This is probably not productive in a situation like this. It also adds an emotional charge to the conversation at a time when more neutral language would perhaps bring a good result more quickly. The behavior, which certainly should be addressed, was likely caused by a combination of factors including inexperience as a manager and stress. It was probably not an indication of some larger negative intent on the part of the manager.

          As a manager I spend so much time helping people navigate boundaries. It wears me out how often people choose to see themselves as a victim, instead of seeing the “abuser” as someone who just needs help with her side of the boundary and who is dealing with issues of her own that may be contributing to the inappropriate behavior.

      2. Kelly L.*

        I think this may be another US/UK thing, like “mean” earlier. Abuse in the US has, for whatever reason, become associated almost fully with major trauma, whether physical or emotional/verbal, I think. I remember reading the Harry Potter books and coming across phrases like “Ron was abusing Umbridge” and it just meant he was bitching about her. But in my experience it’s not usually used as lightly in the US.

        1. Anonsie*

          It’s similar to how people in tense work environments will say it’s a “hostile work environment.” There are two sort of meanings of the term and they have very different implications. It very well may be hostile, but there’s a separate meaning to hostile workplace here that has certain implications. It clouds your actual meaning when there isn’t an example provided (as above) since it’s hard to know which one you’re talking about by the term alone sometimes.

      3. Jamie*

        I didn’t think she was drawing parallels to domestic abuse, which of course is a whole ‘nother level of personal.

        I don’t see what she quoted as insulting – harsh, sure. But I’ve read comments here over the years of people really messed up by being in toxic work environments where they were subject to abuse/bullying and that’s a real thing that can cause some serious emotional damage. Someone speaking harshly or like a jackass to a room full of people, no one in particular being the target doesn’t meet the bar for me. I get why people would be annoyed by it and even refuse to tolerate it if they have options, but it’s not abusive.

        I didn’t mean to hijack about word usage – it’s a matter of perspective. I think verbal abuse is directed, personal, and belittling/shaming/personally insulting. etc. Just my opinion but I didn’t realize I was commenting on word usage until I posted, so I shouldn’t have said anything.

        1. Natalie*

          Sure, I get what you’re saying. It came across as a bit nit-picky, but I can see how the word has a different connotation to different people and thus seem worth mentioning.

        2. fposte*

          I agree, though, in that I felt that word didn’t match the behavior described by the boss. I thought it might be a point worth making because the OP seemed to feel that that was why it demanded a certain behavior from her. And it may be that the OP feels that about any unpleasing behavior, but I in general wouldn’t see a boss’s tone-deaf but accurate noting that her word is the ruling factor something that’s a point of honor to push back on. Worth exploring to avoid the blow-up in future, sure, but that’s not the same thing.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I think it’s not the part about noting that her word is final, but rather this part: “She fumed and went off on us about how “THIS IS THE WAY IT WILL BE” and stormed out. “

            1. fposte*

              I’m willing to call it a perspective thing; it seems intemperate to me but not abusive. But it sounds like it really is just a terminology digression at this point, so it doesn’t matter.

    2. Shortie*

      “Pure speculation, but if I had to guess this sounds like someone who was given a directive which was non-negotiable from her boss …”

      Good point, Jamie. I realize this is wild speculation since we don’t know the OP’s workplace, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by my superiors to make something happen, publicly agree with it even if I don’t privately agree, and, oh, you can’t give your employees details because [insert reason here]. This is part of being a manager, but it is tough, especially if you don’t agree with the executives’ decision or you wish you could give your employees a little more background information.

      1. Jamie*

        One of the hardest parts of being a manager is enforcing something with which you don’t agree and not being able to distance yourself from the directive.

        I’m not talking about anything illegal or immoral, but a policy that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t give ground where it would make sense. You fight the good fight in private but when you lose you have to tow the party line. It’s tough when people complain about things when you totally agree with them.

        1. louise*

          Thank you for this. I’d love to hear more about how to do that. I like to think I’m a genuine person and it kind of eats away at me — does it mean I’m not cut out to be in management or is there hope that I may learn to do this without feeling duplicitous?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Well, the idea is that you’re part of the organization’s leadership team, which means that you represent the organization to your staff, not just yourself, and you act in the best interests of the organization. So while you should absolutely voice your opinion about things to those with the power to do something with that input, once decisions have been made, it’s in the best interest of the organization for you to help implement those decisions and not sow discontent around them, even if you would have chosen a different direction. It’s not about being duplicitous; it’s about recognizing that this is the direction that we’re going in and working to help implement it.

            1. C Average*

              My spouse works at Intel and they’ve formalized this process there as something they call Disagree and Commit. The idea is that during the pre-decision phase, discussion should be lively and open to all. Feedback will be heard, though there’s never any implied or express promise that it will be acted upon. Once the decision is made, though, everyone owns it supports it. There’s no distancing yourself from a decision just because it wasn’t the one you’d hoped for.

              I think it’s brilliant and I wish my company did it. I try to live by it myself and have talked to colleagues about it. I think the idea has caught on to some extent within my immediate team; we have a lot of “speak now and forever hold your peace” discussions.

              1. Jamie*

                I love that – I try to live by that as well, but it’s cool it’s an actual thing some places.

              2. Anonsie*

                I’ve worked at places that did this, and honestly I wish they wouldn’t. It’s immensely frustrating when a change coming from the top causes issues for your team or doesn’t solve what it needs to, and your group’s leadership has to toe the line and just say “this was the best possible solution and we made a good decision” without giving any acknowledgement that you still need something else.

                It’s one thing to say it was the best and explain how it fits greater needs within the organization even if it doesn’t meet ours… It’s quite another to give the former and not the latter part of that explanation.

                1. C Average*

                  I guess I’ve just seen the flip side so many times and, honestly, it’s exhausting.

                  When there’s no understanding that everyone in the organization needs to throw their support behind a final decision, you get stuff like this:

                  –People constantly bad-mouthing and undermining policies that are in effect. And, because these people have no sense of ownership of the policies, they don’t do anything constructive to improve them; they simply complain about them and talk about why the solution they favored would have been better.
                  –After a few go-arounds of this, no one ever wants to be a decision-maker, because you know that members of your team will continue to oppose and undercut your decision even when it’s a done deal. Instead, teams dither and overanalyze and wait for someone else to make the final call.
                  –When, in retrospect, a decision IS clearly the wrong one, the people who didn’t commit to it can just shrug and say, “Yeah, well, I never wanted to go that direction.” When the team collectively owns the mistake, they can conduct effective post-mortems instead of blaming others for the failure.
                  –When dealing with external partners, your team doesn’t look unified. If Apollo is complaining about the new teapot design internally, you can bet he’s doing so externally, too. It makes your organization look disorganized, divided, and unprofessional.
                  –There are no good-faith efforts to actually reach consensus, because everyone comes to view it as an impossible goal.
                  –Good ideas sometimes do fail because members of the team are permitted to not throw their honest effort and commitment behind them.

                2. Anonsie*

                  When, in retrospect, a decision IS clearly the wrong one, the people who didn’t commit to it can just shrug and say, “Yeah, well, I never wanted to go that direction.” When the team collectively owns the mistake, they can conduct effective post-mortems instead of blaming others for the failure.

                  In my experience, though, there is no ownership of mistakes in the all-buy-in policy. You’re not allowed to acknowledge that there is any issue with the decision made, even if it’s starring your team in the face every day. You’re expected to keep humming and looking the other way and saying “we made the best decision, be a team player!” That’s extremely unproductive and it makes people distrust their leadership.

              3. cuppa*

                I think this is really neat.
                I’ll admit it, I tend to be a Kool-Aid drinker. I will ask questions and bring up points during discussion, but I tend to stand behind decisions once they’re final. But, I’ve found that this gives me some credibility. My manager tends to listen to my counterpoints or dissenting thoughts when I do present them because he knows I’m coming from a thoughtful place.

          2. Jamie*

            Doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for management – just means you’re human and I don’t think we should feel too comfortable enforcing things with which we don’t agree because if we were we wouldn’t push back and argue a better case when we can.

            It’s one of those things like disciplinary meetings and firing someone – I don’t trust anyone who is happy to do those or comfy with them – but you can learn to evaluate to make sure you’re making the right call and be okay with carrying out an unpleasant professional duty.

            Feeling less than happy about it just shows your moral compass is working.

            1. cuppa*

              As someone who had to do that unpleasant professional duty today, this makes me feel a little better.

          3. Koko*

            The best way I’ve seen this handled is when a boss says something to the effect of, “Here’s the decision that the leadership came to. Chad and I really fought for our team’s preferred solution, but there were a lot of competing needs from other teams to consider and in the end, this was the solution that we settled on to do the best we could with those competing needs. I know it’s not ideal, but let’s make the best of it and do the best we can with what we’ve been given. You all are a great team and I have full confidence we’ll be able to make this work, but if you run into any significant roadblocks that you can’t seem to get around, my door is always open and I’d like to hear about it.”

            So the boss clearly signals that he represented your team’s concerns and that he may have chosen a different solution if it had been up to him, but he’s also signaling that he’s accepted his own bosses’ decision and that he expects us to fall in line as well–and that he’ll support us the best he can in helping us do that. He’s modeling appropriate professional behavior for us: fight for what you care about and believe in, but know when it’s time to stop fighting and get on board and do the best you can.

  7. Christina*

    New manager issues? My manager does this and I don’t even know how long she’s been managing people. So frustrating because when you try to approach her about it, it’s “Well you should have known X, Y, Z” where X, Y, or Z would only be possibly through mind-reading.

  8. Mister Pickle™*

    Just a couple of things: Alison talked about “you should be totally calm during this conversation …” which reminds me of something from the notion of “Transactional Analysis” that I’ve found useful, which is the notion of Parent, Adult, and Child ‘ego states’. I’m pretty skeptical about things with names like “Transactional Analysis”, but I’ve found the Parent-Adult-Child thing is often useful in helping to adopt the correct attitude during certain challenging conversations. In short, if it were me talking to my manager about the situation at hand, I’d probably focus on being “Adult”.

    I feel for the manager in this question. I think that most depictions of management in the popular media fall into either “Management By Friendship” or “Management By Intimidation”. Someone who is not very experienced will pick one or the other and it will make life hell for their direct reports. Heh … I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s “it is better to be feared than loved”. The notions of “leading by example” and “building consensus” – which (I think) are considered some of the better ways to lead – aren’t always obvious to someone who gets shoved into a job and told “you’re in charge”.

    And Jamie’s suspicion that the manager may have been following a directive from their boss rings true to me.

    Note that I have Trademarked my Mister Pickle™ brand of random comments about management. Mister Pickle™ brand comments are available at only the finest management advice websites; please accept no substitute.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      ” I’m reminded of Machiavelli’s “it is better to be feared than loved”

      I always liked Michael Scott’s interpretation – “I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”


    2. Sarahnova*

      TA is a pretty useful tool for thinking about how you’re engaging with someone; I use it all the time. (But I am a management psychologist, so.) And if you go all Bad Parent on someone (“YOU WILL DO THIS BECAUSE I SAY SO!”), you are pretty much guaranteeing that they will go Bad Child on you. (“Make me. Nyaaaah.”) It’s hard to keep conversations adult-to-adult sometimes, but it pays off.

  9. LoFlo*

    We tend to pick up a lot of the slack for clarifying directives, managing vendors, setting plans, – this is a big part of the issue. So many managers think that this is some how developing and empowering employees. The manager thinks everybody should be doing these things to foster collaboration/teamwork. All it does is causes confusion. Then when it comes decision time the manager is like the person on your school project that showed up for the first meeting, was always too busy until the last meeting, and then at the last meeting has to cover old ground and picks apart the team’s work.

    I would work towards getting some type of formal role clarity for both ongoing and one time tasks and develop some update process to make sure the manager is aware of the work you are doing. Make sure your manager is reading the updates by asking follow up questions. If she won’t do this, you are doomed. She is likely out of her depth and any attempt to manage up will be resented.

    1. Jamie*

      And this is why group projects in school are one of Dante’s circles of hell and should be abolished immediately.

      I’ve spent the last 2 months complaining that work has become like a school project and I was sick of carrying the people who didn’t care about the grade. Complaining in my head, to my family, and my cat’s were amazing sounding boards. If I’d complained about this as much as work I’d be so fired by now.

      1. JMW*

        They used to tell us that those group projects at school were to prepare us for the world of work. And here you have found that they were exactly, miserably, the same as work! Yea teachers!

        What teachers and employers miss with group projects is that they are often assigning one goal and rewarding for a different goal, and this never works. If I tell you the goal is collaboration and I grade you on the product, I am not going to get collaboration. I am going to get workhorses carrying the load for the less competent or less inspired.

        1. Jamie*

          I always thought the point was to give the teachers fewer projects to grade. But if it’s to prepare us for the world of work where competence is punished by extra work and laziness is rewarded by being carried by people who actually give a damn then well done, school system! Lesson learned! :)

          1. LBK*

            My new work mug is a parody of those cheesy motivational posters. It has a picture of a relay race runner dropping the baton while trying to hand it off to the next person and the caption is “Teamwork: ensuring that your hard work can always be ruined by someone else’s incompetence” :)

              1. TotesMaGoats*

                My hubby gets me a demotivator calendar from despair.com every year.
                October: Platitudes-THose who do not learn from cliches are destined to repeat them.

          2. A Non*

            I have fond memories of the one time I ended up on a team where we all gave a damn, and communicated clearly with each other, and nobody’s ego got in the way. It was amazing. It’s never happened again.

    2. LBK*

      I love this. Yes, employees should be self-directed to an extent – but the manager should be setting clear expectations and should be continuing to observe and make judgment calls throughout the process as needed. It’s great if the employees do end up going exactly the way you want without having to steer them, but you don’t cover your eyes and hope for the best, otherwise there’s no point in you even being their manager.

    3. Koko*

      Working on a project with no clear leader is truly a nightmare. I was on one of those recently and you’re constantly blundering because nobody knows who has authority to make decisions, so everyone just keeps throwing materials at the group and kind of waiting to make sure there are no strong objections and then guessing that’s probably the decision. I would have questions about how to do something and realize I had no idea who I was supposed to ask and how much authority the answers of the people I did ask carried. Did I have to do what they said? Could I use some of my own discretion if I disagreed? Are these outside consultants considered the experts who should always be listened to, or should I disagree with them? Did they get approval from the people above all of us, who hired them and who never come to these meetings or chime in on our email threads, for what they’re asking us to do, or have they been given authority to self-approve? Will it be taken as an insult if I ask these questions? Who’s in charge, anyway? Oops, we did something wrong and caught some heat.

  10. Ann O'Nemity*

    I wonder if part of this boils down to inconsistencies in the leadership approach adopted by the manager. I’ve known managers that utilize a (mostly) participatory leadership style and usually solicit a lot of input from their group before any decision is made. The problem arises when the manager fails to convey that a particular issue or decision is non-negotiable and then gets pissy when the group launches into a discussion about it.

    Now I’m not saying that a manager who usually uses a participatory style can’t be authoritarian on occasion. But it can cause confusion and frustration when it isn’t properly communicated.

  11. Mister Pickle™*

    I think that the topic of how “saying no” can be confusing due to different communication styles has been discussed previously here on AAM? As I recall, some people are very direct about “no” – others aren’t, and will perhaps say something like “I am not sure that’s possible”. And to someone who is expecting to hear a simple “no”, “I am not sure …” can sound like an invitation to brainstorm about how to get to “yes”.

    Anyway, I was reminded of this by your comment “the manager fails to convey that a particular issue or decision is non-negotiable”.

    1. Anonsie*

      I moved to a part of the country where no one ever says no and it’s maddening. People never ever ever turn you down or say anything negative, they just say yes and then don’t ever follow through. And every time you follow up they’re like “oh yeah I’ll do that right away!”

      1. YogiJosephina*

        I’m keen to guess: Seattle?

        I live in the same region and I’m ready to peel my skin off over this.

        1. Anonsie*

          HAH! Give the lady a prize! Good god if you guessed so easily this must be even more pervasive than I thought.

  12. Jerry Vandesic*

    ” she asked how necessary a particular vendor was because she was wanting to cut the resourcing. We let her know how vital their work was and started brainstorming how to cut cost”

    This might be the crux of the problem. She asked a simple question, and you took it to be an opportunity to make it more and started brainstorming. She didn’t ask you to brainstorm. After she received the answer to her question, she probably needed to formulate a response to her management. She likely wanted to do that herself, using the information that she had (and you might not have). Your going off an brainstorming wasn’t what she wanted or needed to do, but simply complicated the situation. She might have been abrupt, but you weren’t helping her (even if that was your intent).

    1. Jamie*

      If that’s the case she’s even worse at managing than I thought. If you have employees not only capable of brainstorming about cost cutting, but willing to do it of their own volition you nicely tell them right now you just needed X information, but you really appreciate the response and if they go that way you’ll all get together and see what you can come up with.

      Because when someone tries to help in a way you don’t need at that very moment, but the overarching behavior is great and one you want to encourage you don’t slam the door shut. You explain why it’s tabled in a way that makes it clear you appreciate the action and even if it doesn’t come into play now you’re glad to know you can count on them when it comes up again.

      Because if I try to help and someone’s response is to raise their voice at me because they didn’t need that help at that time, then when they do they’d better remember to approach me directly and make it clear they’re asking for my opinions since they’ve made it so clear that they aren’t welcome otherwise.

      I just really appreciate feedback and it’s not always easy to get people to kick in ideas so I hate to think of a manager stifling that deliberately.

    2. Jolie*

      +1. This manager’s team is trying to do her job for her, and it isn’t really helpful.

      The OP tells us so up front: “Our manager is not very experienced with managing, and we tend to pick up a lot of the slack for clarifying directives, managing vendors, setting plans, etc.” This team has become accustomed to doing the manager’s work for her when she should be finding her own footing. When a directive needs clarification, ask her to clarify it. When vendors need managing, say “This needs to happen and you’re ultimately the person authorized to do it; let me know if I can be of help.” When plans need to be set, let her know and ask what she wants to do about it. She has to find her own footing. Let her own the work.

      Boundaries. Both sides need to stop muddying them up.

      1. Koko*

        I was actually the most skeptical about that sentence. I’m not sure about “clarifying directives” but at my workplaces, managing vendors is almost always delegated to individual contributors, not a managerial function. “Setting plans” is broad/vague, but I’ve generally been expected to contribute to goal-setting within my department. The management usually wants the people with day-to-day hands in the muck to offer their insights on what’s possible and what isn’t when setting goals. It’s possible that the employees aren’t really doing the managers job but think they are. I was in a workplace once where a manager who rarely delegated was replaced by one who did, and many of the employees grumbled about her incompetence because she was having them do things they had for years viewed as the boss’s job. But the whole department’s performance began to improve over time because the manager was engaging in higher-level tasks that the previous manager never had, because she’d delegated everything that was feasible for her subordinates to do.

  13. some1*

    This is an issue I have seen with new managers: phrasing something as being up for discussion when it’s not. I think some managers think they need to cheerlead everyone on board.

  14. Janice*

    Am I the only one reading attitude in the LW’s post? S/he talks about nipping the manager’s authority (or expression of authority) in the bud, feeling disrespected, taking a protective stance, and not taking verbal abuse from anyone (not that I disagree with her/him on this last point). S/he also immediately sets up the manager as ineffective and the staff needing to take on the manager’s duties, though I can’t tell if taking on duties is from mismanagement or delegation.

    I’m simply reading this as the LW has decided to view her manager as a co-worker, and sideline the manager when it is convenient to the LW.

    1. LoFlo*

      Yes. This is where everybody doing everything is confused as teamwork. Do not confuse the ability to do something with the authority to do it.

  15. Jeanne*

    I have a question. I understand the need to start these sorts of discussions calmly and professionally. Then all of a sudden the manager is not just discussing but telling you everything that is wrong with your ideas, your work, your attitude, the way you breathe, etc. How do you stay calm? Can you leave? I tend to get upset when I try to start a calm discussion and all of a sudden I’m practically accused of treason.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope, you shouldn’t just get up and leave. You stay calm and talk about the concerns she’s raising. It’s really useful for you to know that she thinks those things, and it’s actually in your best interests to talk with her about her concerns.

      I’ll quote what I wrote in a different post:

      Approach your work like a consultant and try to assess things from an emotionally detached place. That means, for example, responding to critical feedback about your work in the same way you’d respond to a problem that wasn’t connected to you — by gathering information and talking over options. (“Would it be better to do X?” “I think Y is happening because of Z. Let me try to do ___ and see if that solves it.”) It’s approaching it as collaborative problem-solving rather than as something sticky and emotionally charged.

  16. Vicki*

    “classic new manager issues”

    Sadly, all too often these issues don’t go away over time because no one ever did anything to stop them at the beginning.

    I had a senior director with these issues.

  17. HR Pro*

    I loved this phrase:

    (not scarily calm, like talking-someone-down-from-a-ledge calm, but just normal-person calm)

    Also, having been a new manager and (possibly) having done things like what OP described, I can attest that some people DO improve over time. I love Alison’s suggestions, because ideally, they will help that manager get better at her job (without even reading Ask A Manager! It’s like Alison will be working THROUGH other people! Amazing!)

  18. A.K.*

    I’m a new manager, and working through writing an email to my team right now about a new system we’re putting in place. (Literally right now, while reading this). This whole thread has been SO HELPFUL. I’m going back through and making clearer which parts are up for discussion and which are not. I’m replacing “I think we should start doing this” with “We are doing this” and also adding “If you have feedback on X or suggestions for Y, please let me know,” so that it will be clear which parts ARE negotiable. Also, I know the system I’m proposing might get some pushback, so my first impulse was to say “The manager of X team did this, so I thought we should try it” so that I could push the negative feedback onto her, but then I realized that conveys that I’m not committed to this path, even though I am.

    Thank you AAM community, for hopefully helping me grow out of the “new manager” phase sooner, rather than later.

  19. Jules*

    I am a Project Manager and my work needs me to be flexible and to listen to all points of view. It’s my job to herd people to the direction that the team has to go to. I listen as a 3rd party and generally encourage the team down the path they need to take to reach out goals. So you can imagine me as friendly manager.

    So for the most part I am easy going, I would adapt the project according to the team needs, make changes that they recommend since they are technical experts.

    But when I outright say, “No, we cannot do that because the system cannot support it.” I am not insulting anyone’s intelligence. I am outright telling you it’s not happening. But because I rarely exert my authority, some takes offence to it. They run to another manager and complain etc etc. But seriously, I am not dissing you with my tone. I am just making it clear that it’s not happening. That is a great idea in another situation but not in this one. Just because you are not used to hearing my ‘all business’ voice or “No” doesn’t mean that I am being mean to you.

    Consider this OP. You are in a meeting discussion concentrating on one work and suddenly the group goes off tangent. People like me, I don’t care. But people who are high Conscientiousness (I am referring to DiSC), finds it annoying. We are here to talk about A, let’s talk about A. All the OT stuff is irrelevant. I’ve had meetings where we were brain storming something OT but connected to the topic, and a high C supervisor got pissy and made us stop and get back to the main topic at hand.

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