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

Remember the letter-writer whose manager flipped back and forth between trying to be friends and being angry and overly authoritative? Here’s the update.

After the initial situation, I decided it was necessary for me to have a difficult conversation with my manager to at least let her know my take on the situation and its effect on the team. She avoided the team for a week or two and I could not pin her down. Our 1-on-1s were cancelled and I couldn’t find her to find time. By the time she was around again, it felt awkward to bring up an issue that was now distant. I’ve worked with her long enough to know that this is a habit — cause a scene and disappear until it blows over.

A year later, I have insight into what happened. At the time of the explosion in our meeting (which wasn’t the last time this would happen), our manager had been concerned that we didn’t see her as our manager and she felt a need to show her authority. She did this with the explosion and then by excluding us from meetings integral to our work. As some commenters noted, she had been giving a directive from her manager and that’s why the issue was not up for debate. We were never told this. All of this was learned secondhand. We’ve struggled as a team with transparency and are often blindsided when information is shared.

Over the next few months, my manager started shutting me out of our work and then started withholding information from individual team members. I literally had 10 hours of work per week for the next few months. My manager knew this. I think it was her form of punishment for doubting her authority. At first I thought I was failing in my job to find the time and work, so eventually I had a meeting with my manager. We had lunch and I shared with her my desire to grow in my role and understand what I was missing about my job, that I couldn’t grow. Her response was that she had intentionally neglected me as a manager because she knew I needed that to move on to the next level. She even went as far as to say that she KNEW she shouldn’t do it and it went against all normal managerial protocol. Her suggestion was to go talk to another team about opportunities there. She set up a lunch date. I had no interest in switching teams at this point, but had enormous doubts about my career trajectory. I also learned she was certain that her employees wanted to switch teams (not true), and she was positive that’s what my conversation was about.

Fast forward 1 year… At the end of the day, this truly was a new manager episode. My manager has settled more into her role as our manager and become more okay with being a person of authority. She is more comfortable not knowing things and letting us be the experts in our domains. She still doesn’t excel at transparency, vision, goal setting, coaching, or any of the traits my colleagues and I want out of a manager, but we accept this about her.

The team drove conversations around roles/responsibilities – this went on for months with no conclusion because our manager was unable to define what her roles or responsibilities were. While she was impressed with our work, we knew we had to shelve it, since she couldn’t commit to her piece. As things would have it, she eventually got a promotion and since that promotion has stepped out of the day-to-day entirely. Since stepping away from the tactical work to focus on [we don’t know], the team has grown exponentially. My colleagues and I are able to drive the conversations and relationships that were once withheld from us. Our team became a truly high-performing team.

Recently, my manager had another blow up in front of my colleagues that left us all befuddled because she obviously mistook a comment from the team and spun it in a different direction. She stormed away and mumbled angrily about us. I immediately confronted her and clarified the comment. She played it off and avoided the conversation. The good news is that she apologized for it two weeks later… Growth is growth.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. F.*

    Ah yes, the Peter Principle in action once again. Reward managerial incompetence with a promotion. At least your team no longer has to suffer from being directly managed by her.

      1. NotherName*

        Maybe the companies have the same attitude that LBJ had about J. Edgar Hoover?

        I often feel it’s because they can’t admit they made a mistake in promoting someone to management.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Your second paragraph – I’ve been privy to this exact thing happening at an oldjob, it’s like they don’t want to admit or acknowledge they made a bad hire (and likely expensive hire) so they try to make it work with leadership training or whatever but sometimes that doesn’t even work and they try passing the bad manager around to different departments.

          1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

            This is my current job. No one is willing to admit my boss was a bad hire and completely incompetent.

            They’ve paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultants, they’ve gotten her a management coach, but no one is willing to say she is horrible.

        2. Vicki*

          We had a really bad one. Every time someone complained, his manager would say she was “getting him coaching”. Then another employee would leave.

          I think you’re right; they can’t admit the mistake.

      2. Charityb*

        It might be a tone at the top issue. Companies with serious leadership issues tend to promote bad managers because they have the traits that they prize. I don’t know if the OP’s company is this issue, but if they don’t now they eventually will. The OP’s manager behaved this way because of feedback she was getting from people above her. Now that she has been promoted, she will probably give the same feedback to the people below her.

      3. Artemesia*

        This is the biggest failing of US business — the failure to assess managers for their skill at managing and to fire or demote them when they aren’t good at it.

        I would be scrambling to get away from a manager who told me ‘I am not helping you grow because I don’t want you to progress’ which is what it seems like this twit is saying. Why hasn’t everyone sought to get out from under her incompetent and vindictive thumb?

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I agree, most companies have absolutely no idea what their managers are doing. Making it worse, if you do approach upper management with some issues the higher ups will say, “Got bigger fish to fry.” I guess that is to be expected if you keep your head in the sand too long.

          Yeah, I am wondering why people stay with this company, also. They must have incredible resilience.

  2. videogame Princess*

    Is it so classic, though? It doesn’t seem like people should be withholding work in order to punish people OR to push them to the next level.

    1. videogame Princess*

      I want AAM’s opinion on this “growth” so badly. Do new managers typically behave *this* strangely or is it something else?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        There are pieces of this that are very common in new managers, like the trying to be friends / being very lenient and then over-correcting and being too harsh, and continuing to go back and forth between those extremes because they don’t know how to exercise authority in an appropriate way (which would keep them from both extremes). And having trouble defining clear roles is unfortunately not uncommon.

        But there are other pieces of this that are far beyond normal new-manager stuff, like the disappearing/being totally unreachable in order to avoid a difficult conversation (happens, yes, but definitely not standard new manager stuff), excluding them from meetings they needed to be in, or shutting them out of work. And the whole “I intentionally neglected you as a manager because I knew you needed that to move on to the next level, even though I knew it went against all normal advice” thing is crazy, as is “storming away and mumbling angrily.”

        Those things to me say Serious Problem and that she’s in need of real intervention from above.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I wonder what kind of mindset you would have to have in order to think, “Oh, I will have my subordinate(s) do less work as punishment and that will never reflect on my leadership. No one will ever notice that the group’s productivity is going down with me at the helm.”

      The disconnect is so huge, that I must stare in morbid fascination.

  3. The Strand*

    If she ever ends up moving back down again to day to day, my concern is that she would take her frustrations out on you. Scratch that, I am concerned she will take out her insecurity in her new position out on you.

    I think you guys have had the patience of saints.

  4. Elizabeth West*

    Recently, my manager had another blow up in front of my colleagues that left us all befuddled because she obviously mistook a comment from the team and spun it in a different direction. She stormed away and mumbled angrily about us. I immediately confronted her and clarified the comment. She played it off and avoided the conversation. The good news is that she apologized for it two weeks later… Growth is growth.

    Oh no no no. This is not growth. It’s someone who knows she’s going to be called on her bad behavior so she’s giving lip service to the team. A two-weeks-later apology is a power play. “Yes, I know I will have to apologize for my behavior, but I will do it on MY time not yours.”

    1. fposte*

      Jean Kerr, ostensibly quoting W. H. Auden but nobody’s found the Auden, said that man is the only animal that learns by being hypocritical. I think there’s something to that, and I also think that learning that actions have consequences counts as growth. It’s not the degree of growth one would hope for, but it’s a start.

    2. Jeanne*

      Also, you should not have to be your manager’s mother, attempting to teach her manners. It’s awful.

  5. AMG*

    I thought maybe she was just of the ‘educational variety’ and growing, albeit slowly, until I saw this. She may end up doing this to the wrong person–or in front of the wrong person–and seeing her professional reputation suffer the consequences. If she doesn’t grow out of this more quickly, she’s going to regret it. Unfortunately.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Except, sometimes they never do need to regret it: See I’m a Little Teapot’s comment near the top.

      Some people are very good at looking good to the people above them. And they never seem to get the comeuppance they so desperately deserve.

      1. Observer*

        Most of those people do wind up getting their come-uppance, often when they are actually doing something in service of the bad bosses that let them get away with it till then. Keep in mind that those kinds of bosses also generally don’t mind throwing people under the bus.

  6. Anonified!*

    This is so rough, OP. Congrats to you on the leadership you and your team showed to figure out a way to make yourselves more effective in spite of your boss.

    I worked for a manager who was like this. I have a lot of sympathy for her: she was promoted super fast, and given lots of responsibility over areas that she didn’t necessarily want or have expertise in. She had a hard job. But she was so defensive at any suggestion that we disagreed or that she was doing something wrong, and would spin situations where she dropped the ball on something to be about how we didn’t prepare her for it. I still field emails from her new assistant, who’s finding it impossible to figure out if there really are things she’s doing poorly, or if the boss is just taking out her frustrations. Being able to be vulnerable, and taking responsibility for your own actions and feelings is such a core managerial competency. It’s impossible to work for something like this because you spend all your strategic energy on figuring out how to placate them, rather than on how to best get something done. I feel grateful, though, now that I’m in a leadership position, because I have a voice in my head as I make decisions asking “Is this something that a real leader would do, or something that a defensive person would do?”

    OP, it sounds like the structural change of moving your manager into a new role is helping your team; it must be great to finally begin to see what you’re capable of! I hope you are able to keep your distance from her outbursts. (And I hope she gets managed out of those behaviors, or out of your organization!)

    1. darkwing duck*

      Why? Managers like this are typically the Kings/Queens of the spin!

      I had a defensive, passive-aggressive boss much like the one the OP describes. Case in point, her boss came to her and said “Achieve X.” She was adamant that X could not be achieved and complained loudly to us. I found a way to achieve X working with our team members in our spare time. I brought the solution to her and …. got royally chewed out! “How dare you undermine me to my direct reports! Who do you think you are working on projects without my approval?”

      It was all utterly ridiculous since we were salaried positions in charge of managing our own individual and shared workloads anyway. We were also told to question everything, innovate, and find solutions to the problems everyone else thought was impossible. What we did was literally in our job description!

      If she reacted this poorly to me bringing a solution to her to make her look good – imagine how she behaved when I achieved anything that anyone else noticed! In her mind, our team succeeding in creating X made her look bad for saying it couldn’t happen! Utter. Nonsense. She was a huge detriment to the company.

      Of course, that didn’t stop her from spreading around the department that I was an insubordinate, insufferable know-it-all who had to be watched! She even lied about my performance, quite a few times – one time going as far as to say that I was receiving a disciplinary HR meeting … when actually I was meeting with HR to discuss an upcoming promotion!

      Queen of spin. She got promoted just before I did.

    2. Observer*

      What other side? “Whah, OP was mean to me?”

      Here is the thing. The issue is not if the manager should be managing the team, asserting her authority and doling out consequences, as needed. The question is whether there is ever a situation where it is appropriate for a manager to blow up, storm off and mutter angrily (loud enough to be heard.) The answer to that is no. So hearing the manager’s side of the story wouldn’t help anything.

    3. Snarkus Aurelius*

      I’d like to hear it too for entertainment purposes. Nothing excuses her behavior though. Hearing her side or no.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “So I asserted my authority in the usual fashion. I yelled, screamed, stomped my feet and slammed the door. You know, the way all professional managers handle things. Then, icing on the cake, I hid from them for weeks! ha! That will show them!”

        1. voyager1*

          Yeah I am with the group, I wouldn’t mind hearing the manager’s side but throwing a temper tantrum is never appropriate.

  7. Workfromhome*

    Wow so the moral of the story is : If you have a manager who functions terribly as a manager to the point that your team can’t function the best hope to resolve it is when the incompetent manager gets PROMOTED?

    Its just sad. We see it so often that rather than getting rid of someone who is detrimental to productivity that they shuffle them somewhere else where they can continue to do damage (or even more damage) rather than addressing the root of the issue.

    1. Jeanne*

      That’s all I ever saw. I had a problem manager. I finally was able to prove she was lying about me. In order to then have her not manage me, she got promoted. And I was still the problem employee for sticking up for myself.

    2. misspiggy*

      It is sad. Even when our insecure and terrible manager got into a serious misconduct situation, all that happened was that he was moved to another role. Thankfully one without direct management responsibility, but still with enough influence to derail a lot of stuff.

  8. Adam V*

    > Her response was that she had intentionally neglected me as a manager because she knew I needed that to move on to the next level. She even went as far as to say that she KNEW she shouldn’t do it and it went against all normal managerial protocol.

    Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!

  9. Not So NewReader*

    OP, you are a much stronger person than I am. I would have had to leave long before now.
    So, serious question: What did you do to cope with the situation? How did you keep showing up everyday?

    1. OP*

      Ultimately, it was all about mindset.. I took the security of the paycheck and LONGTERM career trajectory, focused on my personal growth and pushed the day-to-day BS aside, hoping time would intervene. I wasn’t about to let one bad manager ruin my opportunity at a great company.

      I had a lot of life happenings outside of work that I filled my time with. As the work dried up, I focused on my personal life.. Not ideal, but I literally had hours of the day without anything to do. I also started spending substantial time improving soft skills – presentation skills, networking, anything I felt was applicable for me.

      There was the obligatory “unhappy with my job, job hunting” as a part of my day. This led to a few job interviews, but never in a organization as good as the current company that I work in. The interviews were good reflections on the current opportunities I had in front of me, how much I had grown with my current company, and how much more I could grow (once the obstacles were removed).

  10. Cassie*

    We have a manager that is just like this. From my armchair-psychologist POV, she desperately needs to be liked – to be loved and admired, and even feared a little. She lacks self-awareness and always sees herself as the victim. She would never apologize for being wrong (she’s never wrong), nor for behaving inappropriately (yelling, screaming).

    I wish she could see how her behavior is directly affecting her relationships with every single person in the office. It’s not about “trying” to get people to like you. Some people will like you, some people will not. If you treat people with respect, people will treat you with respect back – that’s all you really need in the workplace. We’re not there to be BFFs and have slumber parties. It’s not a popularity contest.

  11. MR*

    The only growth that I saw was the manager getting a promotion. I didn’t see any actual growth by the manager.

    This type of behavior will eventually end poorly for that manager. Just give it time. People like this can’t survive forever in their current firm.

  12. Jjoon*

    Wow, I am experiencing this right and expecting to be fired when we return from Xmas break. Im seeing. The set up for this.

    OP you have way more patience, I don’t think your company would be a good place to work if they tolerate and reward someone like that. Mine isn’t.

    In my case, our entire team has been demoralized and I have been physically ill since starting this job from mgrs. horrible, mean, degrading behavior. I would bet not one employee under this mgr. will be left come this time next year, (probably much sooner). Similar to OP, since hiring another new employee this Mgr has had my Workload withdrawn, excludes me from meetings, not allowed to attend events, kept in the dark about happenings related to my duties, being bad mouthed to other office personnel I believe I’m the target because we are the same age, have similar experience and she knows I know she is a fraud, while the rest of the team is very young and very early into their careers. Did I mention this happened to 2 people previous to me?

    Unlike OP, this company is not worth fighting for

    1. HardwoodFloors*

      I feel for you. A bad manager can cause so much loss of self esteem (on top of a job loss of course). I hope you don’t lose you job when you go back. I had a bad manager who fired one person, a direct report to him, each and every year. I was his seventh in seven years, oh the common thread was these people were on the team before he was brought in to manage them. And they started out having excellent reviews and they got lower and lower ones as the years went on. Good luck to you.

Comments are closed.