what to do when your new boss is hard to work with

A reader writes:

We have a new department head, who is my new direct manager (previously there was no one person supervising this group). Since she’s arrived, we’ve had problems with her understanding of how our existing procedures work. If you say, in a perfectly neutral or even friendly tone, “Normally when this happens, this is how we handle it,” she says she does not have time to do it that way or does not want to do it that way, or even “I have been in this for 30 years and I’ve never handled it that way.”

Now, I realize that some of our procedures may be different than what she’s experienced in the past, and I’m not saying our way of doing things is perfect. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get things done because there is consistent and inflexible push-back to every request or suggestion.

Just this morning, I emailed her to remind her that we had an item that needed to be done today so we can push it out tomorrow. I even took pains to frame my question as “do you want to do this?” and when she said yes, I said in a very neutral tone, “Thanks for letting me know. If you would, please just get that to me as soon as possible, as it takes some time to filter, enter, and apply.” Her response was that she was preparing for a meeting tomorrow, and that meeting was her priority.

I will grant you, this company has a tendency to put things off until the last possible minute. But this meeting tomorrow has been planned since before she ever came on board with us. It has been on the calendar for months. It’s been talked about since our last large meeting. It has not snuck up on anyone. Neither has this other project, which normally is a very high priority. If she is ever asked about getting something in by a particular deadline, her response is an almost-automatic “I’m too busy for that” or “I have too many interruptions, and I cannot get that done.”

I’m supposed to be the assistant for her area of responsibility. I have tried to offer assistance and bring things to her attention before they’re due, and I have consistently been ignored or told that she already “has too many interruptions.” She can be hard to read because she always smiles and laughs, no matter what the topic of discussion is, or how busy she’s trying to tell you she is.

How do I deal with this?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. kckckc*

    One of my biggest workplace peeves is people who are always “too busy” and make the people around them feel like an annoyance.

    1. Honeybee*

      What I really hate is people who love to emphasize how “busy” they are, as if the rest of us are not busy as well. Particularly when they really seem no busier than anyone else and are just ineffective at managing their time.

    2. BRR*

      This is an incredible annoyance for me too. I can’t remember where I heard this phrase but “nobody has time, you have to make time.” There are times where you really don’t have time but overall many jobs require the ability to juggle tasks and deadlines.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah, this lady sounds like she’s giving the message her time’s more important than her team’s time. It also sounds like she’s not communicating very well. I would think as a new manager in the org, she’d be having meetings about their objectives and how she wants things handled,etc. Instead she’s coming across frazzled and disorganized.

    3. Milena*

      Me too! I work with a girl who is about 22-23 years old and she always has an annoyed way about her. I personally am the type of person where if I am asked a favor at work, or asked to look something up…anything… I just smile and say sure! if I can’t do it, I say, Hey that’s great I can do that in about an hour! We are all a team. This girl rolls her eyes constantly… says “Ummmm ok?” and basically seems to feel everyone is always a bother or it’s not her job, she’s way too busy for that small task, kind of mentality. I have a lot of experience and I know that it has helped me just be chipper and willing to go all in, how do we get other “downers” to be nice and willing to be a team player? Be willing to help out even if it’s not their regular duty? I once asked her for photos of an event. This is important for me because I take the photos and create event sell sheets for the sales team, compile recaps for clients, etc. She asked me in an email “What kind of pictures? for what?” I replied “event photos, for sales tools and client recaps” to which she never replied and I had to walk to her desk hours later and get the eye roll. Nothing makes me more annoyed than those that act like that at work. She’s always too busy. We are ALL busy, right? :( I wish there was a seminar I could send her to. Anyone know of any?? Seriously!

  2. Mike C.*

    I just hope these processes aren’t in place for safety, ethical, regulatory or contractual reasons.

  3. Mabel*

    Do we have an update from this person? It would be interesting to find out what she did and how it turned out.

      1. Windchime*

        How do you keep track of all these updates? According to the time stamp, it only took you 5 minutes to respond with the link!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I save all my email from forever, so I just need to search my email for the URL of the original post, which brings me to the person I emailed that URL to originally (with a “hey, your letter is being printed tomorrow at this link” message), and then I see if that person ever sent me any other emails. Quick and easy — unless they sent me an update message from a different email address, in which case this method wouldn’t find it.

      2. Sunflower*

        If the OP is still reading this, I would love another update! It’s been almost 3 years- I wonder if things changed or if OP got out.

  4. nofelix*

    The issue here seems to be one of communication. If the boss said something more like “Ah, in that case I cannot give you the information in time because I have a meeting tomorrow and preparing for it will unfortunately have to take priority. Please can you see if the deadline can be pushed back, otherwise just send out what we have and we can review the rest on Monday.” – then the employee would at least understand what on earth is going on.

    Since that’s unlikely to happen, I think the best one can do is to infer that something like this is on their mind but they don’t have the time to write it. Then try and prompt them to a solution, e.g. “Okay, that’s fine. Shall I send out what’s complete or keep everything back until we can review at the start of next week?”.

  5. Too Busy Boss*

    My previous boss was like this. She sure did whip us into shape about how and when she wanted us to approach her about certain things. Sometimes I would approach her desk and she would say “Can’t you see I’m typing? It’s very rude to approach me when I’m in the middle of something. Please come back another time.” etc. I would let her know when I was done with a task, that I needed her to review it, and then I would put the finishing touches on it – she would prioritize whatever was on her plate, especially meetings, and review the task whenever she saw fit (which was often a larger departmental project and not a personal check mark off my to do list), often returning the project with her notes at the latest possible moment, while I myself was working on something, then I would have to drop my tasks to quickly finish the project within her last-minute guidelines. Then I tried the method of holding all my final edits to projects and concerns for our personal meeting times in which she would tell me, “Actually, I already have a few things in mind I need to discuss with you in this meeting, and I’m sorry but I won’t have time to go into whatever you have here.”

    Eventually I learned not to poke the sleeping bear, I would only approach her when she was in a good mood or directly after she had received good news – I wound up guessing on a lot of stuff and ultimately quit that job with nothing else lined up because I couldn’t take the atmosphere or stress of the work anymore.

  6. handtwab*

    Assuming the project and the meeting are both the boss’s responsibility, it’s really unprofessional for her to just respond that she can’t do the project, and not provide or even ask for a solution.

    1. Kelly O*

      This was the hardest part. There were some things I had agency to do independently, but some things I just could not make an actual call on myself. I could make suggestions based on historical data, but those were not necessarily always what was the best choice.

      Getting her to commit to a decision was hard. Sitting in a meeting and hearing her go on about how successful it was, when I wanted to say “based on the numbers I researched and gave you, but whatever.”

      I learned a lot about understanding which hills are worth dying on, and when to realize everyone else in the room gets it, and just be quiet and let someone else continue to show us all who they are.

  7. Kelly O*

    I was the OP on this one, and the company was acquired by another company back in 2013, and we all wound up losing our jobs. She made a rather substantial show of how many times the company who purchased us flew her out to their headquarters on the West Coast, and how many times they called and how she turned them down. (After the fact, I found out that may not exactly have been how it went down, but that’s another story for another day.)

    With a couple of years of hindsight now, I understand that she’s someone who truly did get a lot of personal joy, it seemed, out of going on about her busy-ness because she felt it made her seem more important, and more valuable. Everything about her was appearance; she was very all style, little substance. She was in constant “hair on fire” mode, and that’s just how she operated. It’s hard to support someone like that, but I did manage to take lessons from it, and use those to better deal with people going forward.

    1. Adam V*

      > (After the fact, I found out that may not exactly have been how it went down, but that’s another story for another day.)

      Ooooh, I really want to hear this one now.

      1. voyager1*

        Had a boss like that only she didn’t have experience in our area. It was rough. Sounds like it all worked out in the end though.

  8. Audrey*

    I have to register for an Inc.com account to read the linked article, unfortunately! I guess that’s a pitfall of reading too many Inc.com articles of yours ;)

    1. fposte*

      Or you can just turn off your adblocker. Basically, they need to be able to count you, either through subscription or through ad view.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — if you’re outside the U.S. or using an ad blocker, Inc. may ask you to register in order to read more than one article there. That’s because they otherwise aren’t able to earn any revenue from those page views, which they’re of course dependent on.

    2. Oh Susannah*

      Incognito mode, or whatever private browsing function your browser offers, should get around that.

  9. Argh!*

    Keep your head down and wait it out until she gets herself fired. She doesn’t sound very organized

  10. Jeanne*

    I think I had this boss. I hated that she laughed at everything, like Dr Hibbert on The Simpsons. Really annoying.

  11. Ky*

    My boss is hard to work with too. She certainly has certain good qualities as a manager.
    -acts as a career coach/good at mentoring
    -develops careers of employees
    -advocates for employees
    -Flexible in terms of vacations, remote working
    -receptive to feedback
    -gives us 1 hour of one-on-one time each per week where we discuss career development plans etc
    -clear instructions on what to achieve

    -work products such as reports are almost re-done by her to the point that I do not recognize my work any more, Yes, her points are valid but it makes me feel incapable and non independent
    -her questions on any errors in meetings/emails or approach makes me feel pressurized

    Ofcourse, this is not a personal treatment and I understand that since my colleagues feel the same way. I want this relationship to work since I like my role/company and plan to stay. However, if she does not change her habits then I may be forced to quit. I do realize that partly it has been my fault since this is a new job and I strugglea bit as this is he beginning.

    How do I make this work with a combination of my effort and approach her with feedback?

    1. Victoria, Please*

      Your boss sounds…really great actually. I think it may be you who needs to adjust and manage your feeling a little better. You’re new to the job. You are learning. She is giving you LOTS of feedback.

      Feedback can suck, that’s for sure, even when it’s perfectly valid and given nicely. So I’m sympathetic that you FEEL the way you do. I just encourage you to tell your feelings to take a back seat here and try to cultivate a knee-jerk reaction of, “What can I learn from this?” not “I’m awful.”

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