my boss is in crisis and it’s impacting the rest of us

A reader writes:

A couple of weeks ago, you had a question about how to manage a team when you’re having personal issues. My question is related: how do you manage/help a boss when she’s dealing with personal crises?

I’m on the management team of a division in a large organization. For the past few months, our VP has been off her game – showing up late for meetings, cancelling meetings at the last minute, being a bottleneck on moving projects forward – and it’s been frustrating and demoralizing. I saw the issue as one of her letting the team run itself while she was consumed with some higher level/organization-wide problems that we’re all aware of. As a manager myself, I strive to make sure that the people I supervise know that I have time for them even when I’m in the weeds on my own projects. I used to get that from her and I’m not anymore. Other directors have complained to me about how unavailable she’s become (among the leadership team, I have the longest tenure in our department and am closest with her). I’ve been trying to figure out how/whether/when to bring this up with her.

BUT THEN. Yesterday, I went to her office for a regularly scheduled meeting. She was flustered and unfocused — and then she burst into tears. She basically said that her personal life is falling apart and she’s completely stressed out and barely able to function. She isn’t sleeping well or eating. On the one hand, this caught me totally off guard. While we have a good working relationship, there is a bright line for us between the professional and personal. (i.e., we talk about The Americans and new restaurants we’ve tried. In the five years we’ve worked together, she’s never met my husband.) Also, in spite of my frustrations I did not get the “crisis-level issues” vibe from her, just “distracted-by-higher-priorities.” On the other hand, in retrospect, it shouldn’t be a total surprise: I knew that she had a relationship end, but wasn’t sure how serious it was to begin with. She is caring for an older relative, but she always seemed to have that under control. She has also alluded in the past to bouts with anxiety when she was younger. I asked her if she has anyone in her personal life to talk to, and she says she doesn’t. I asked if she has seen her doctor or a therapist, she said she hasn’t but she will. I asked what I could take off her plate to help her, and she said she doesn’t want to put her responsibilities on me.

Today, she’s acting like nothing happened. Needless to say I’m worried about her. I also feel a responsibility to try to keep things in our department on track. But I’m at a loss about what I can or should do to help. I don’t personally know her family (who are scattered across the country) or friends. I don’t know if she has said anything to anyone else at work, and I don’t want to start any gossip. We have an HR department, but I’m not sure how going to someone in that department would help. I’m also worried that if I did go to HR, she would know it was me who went to them and resent my interference. What should I do?

Yeah, don’t go to HR unless this starts impacting you in ways that are both significant and more than short-term — and even then you’d want to try to resolve it directly with your boss first.

And that’s where I’d start here. Talk to her. Frame it this way: “I’m sorry to hear you’re going through such a tough time! I’d actually been thinking about talking to you. To be totally up-front, it’s been pretty clear that something’s been going on, because it’s been tough to get time with you and some projects are getting held up. I wanted to suggest a couple of things that I think would help, if you’re open to them.”

And then I’d suggest something like this: “Given that you have a lot on your plate right now, I wondered if we could look for ways to streamline things so that you have less stuff coming at you while you’re in the middle of this and so that we’re able to keep projects moving forward. For instance, would you be willing to temporarily give me the authority to move X and Y forward on my own?”

And second, something like this: “If you’re comfortable with it, I think it might really help to let people know that you’re dealing with some difficult personal things right now. My sense is that people are worried that they haven’t had as much access to you as usual, and if they had some context for it they’d more easily understand why — and would probably work to make things easier on you too.”

Beyond that, though, it’s really up to her. You can keep her posted about what you need, and about the impact if you’re not getting it, but after this initial suggestion, I’d leave management of the broader situation to her.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    Oh, how sad for her. And good for you OP for looking out for her. She’s clearly at the end of her rope at this point, for her to tell you all that. Your compassion will go a long way.

    Agree wholeheartedly with Alison’s advice, but I want to add that if your company has an EAP, you might want to recommend that to her as well.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Even that seems too personal, frankly. From an employee to their manager, I feel like recommending EAP crosses a bit of a line.

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        Hard disagree. It’s all in how you do it. It would be over the line to tell her she needs to – but I think it’s fine to mention the EAP and remind her of the number or where the details are on the intranet.

        This is something I have to do a lot in my job: suggest things to people who clearly need them but haven’t asked for them. The trick is to present it as information, not advice.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Agree. If she’s mired down in just dealing, she may not remember that there are resources available. A simple “don’t forget that if you need help with X, Y, or Z, you can reach out to the EAP” doesn’t cross any lines.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I think that’s crossing a line, sorry. Even mentioning it and reminding her of the number is acting like too much of a peer, and this person is a VP. An employee could maybe say that to a midlevel boss they work with all the time, but there’s not enough familiarity here, IMO.

          1. Ramona Flowers*

            Wouldn’t you rather ensure they have the info?

            Yes, it’s not ideal in terms of seniority, but still.

            My take on this may be shaped by the fact that I’ve lost a colleague to suicide. I’d rather quietly offer resources to someone who’s clearly struggling than not help because I’m worried about hierarchy. Sometimes being a fellow member of the human race is hierarchy enough. YMMV.

            1. Ramona Flowers*

              PS The way I handled this recently was to have just so happened to have got some EAP info cards from HR and hand them out to everyone. Because I just happened to have them. And wanted to give the info to a senior manager just in case.

              1. Jadelyn*

                I think this is a good way to handle it. A reminder that hey, this is a benefit we offer! is less likely to be taken as intrusive for any one person.

            2. Detective Amy Santiago*

              I’m sorry for your experience.

              I agree with you 100% on this: Sometimes being a fellow member of the human race is hierarchy enough.

              1. Ramona Flowers*


                I also think senior people by definition have fewer people above them and so there’s less opportunity for anyone to help.

                A lot of the comments are focusing on whether you’d feel able to recommend the EAP to a superior, not on how you’d receive it as a superior. That seemed worth noticing. Feelings aren’t facts, people.

          2. Jadelyn*

            The rank/seniority part will depend pretty heavily on how hierarchical your organization is. In a really rigid organization where leadership is leadership and peons are peons and never the twain shall meet, that’s a reasonable concern, but in a more flexible and open organization where titles come into play only when the actual decisions have to come down (and not even always then), the level difference between the OP and the VP wouldn’t be the concern on how to handle it. (I’m thinking of my own org when I describe that – I was super intimidated by my VP when I first met him because OMG, a VP! But at this point, I regularly shoo him out of my office when he’s being chatty and I have things to get done, and he only becomes “the VP” when we need him to throw his weight around to get us something.)

            Basically, I look at it as, this is expressing personal concern for someone you’ve known a long time, rather than expressing professional concern about performance. Especially since the OP is themselves a manager, I think it’s less of a hierarchical concern than it would be for an entry-level assistant to bring it up.

        3. gingerblue*

          I think it comes across really differently when it’s part of your job to do this, though.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’m with you, Ramona. Given that OP has already asked if her boss has someone in her life she can talk to, and if she’s considered a therapy, EAP sounds like an appropriate referral and not an overstep in this context.

          Also, it’s what EAP is for. If your office has a functional program, then I think it’s better for folks to rely on it regularly and to destigmatize referrals to EAP by talking about it as a normal thing instead of a “thing for people in crisis” or “taboo thing that no one should talk about.”

      2. a Gen X manager*

        I agree with Not Mad – even though suggesting EAP is meant to be helpful, suggesting it to a boss won’t be received in the same way as it would from HR or from a boss to an employee.

        1. LBK*

          I think it’s completely dependent on your relationship with your boss. If the boss is crying in front of the OP, I think it’s arguable that the personal line has already been crossed to the point that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to suggest EAP.

        2. fposte*

          I would do it if I’d used it. Maybe even, since I’m in academics and we focus on student support, if I knew that they had recommended it to somebody else; that gives it a personal framework that I’d feel comfortable drawing on even with somebody who outranks me.

      3. Katie the Fed*

        I don’t think so. The boss opened the door when she confessed all her personal issues, and they already talked about whether or not she was seeing a professional for her anxiety. It’s not that much of a stretch to say “not sure if you know, but we have a really great EAP program that can link you up with resources that might be able to help”

          1. JessaB*

            And if they’re in the US and they have enough employees, maybe this boss needs FMLA time to deal with the ill relative (if that relative is close enough for them to qualify for that.)

            1. Gadfly*

              Which is only parents (or those who served as loco parentis), spouses and offspring (only minors or those who are disabled and remain dependent) unless they are in a state that expanded it.

              FMLA is one of those things that sounds a lot more useful than it is. When it applies it can be a lifesaver. It just doesn’t cover nearly as much as people often think it does.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I think it works differently when a boss discloses information to explain an emotional meltdown after the fact – it was necessary to explain, whereas OP would be volunteering a recommendation for personal mental health care to the VP.

          I dunno, I can’t explain it as well as I’d like…but I would never dare to tell a VP, even at my relaxed and informal employer, to look into the EAP.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            That said, it’d probably be fine-ish, I would just not choose to go there faced with a similar situation. I’d let that come from a peer, not from a report.

          2. Katie the Fed*

            EAP isn’t just mental health care though. They can help with other things like finding housing, finding childcare, etc. There are a lot of things that might be helpful in the VP’s situation.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Our EAP program is mainly mental healthcare, so maybe I’m conflating the two?

              1. Katie the Fed*

                I don’t know what your program is. MOST EAPs offer a range of services through a centralized program (ie. many companies use the same one) which include a lot of services.

                1. Feline*

                  Yes, a lot of folks don’t know or forget all the stuff all their EAP includes since it’s stereotypically for counseling. Ours includes referrals for elder care assistance. Granted, the referrals weren’t anything I couldn’t find with the help of Google, but a VP may not have the free time to do that.

                2. Emi.*

                  Yeah, my EAP does mental health counseling, financial counseling, and legal counseling, and also maintains a list of other resources to draw on, including support for caregivers.

                3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Yeah, this may be a case where experiential differences impact how we view EAP. My experience has been like Katie’s—EAPs often offer comprehensive services that go well beyond referrals for counseling/mental healthcare. The EAPs at my jobs covered things like emergency grants (or no-interest loans) for employees with sudden financial crises, childcare, food delivery, and referrals to local services providers for the issue affecting the employee (e.g., substance abuse, youth support programming, assistance from a CPA/attorney on discrete legal problems, etc.).

                4. Not A Morning Person*

                  Standard EAP service is counseling. Different organizations contract for different services that may include help locating daycare services for children or adults, offering access to legal and financial advice, helpful access to identity theft response services, stress management training, or any number of things. The extra services are dependent upon what the EAP offers and what the organization chooses to contract for from their EAP provider.

                5. Sarah G*

                  Yep, I’ve used my EAP at various employers for free consults with lawyers more than I’ve used it for anything else. But I’ve had EAPs at at least 4 separate employers, and they all offered a long list of services that had nothing to do with mental health.

              2. Jessie the First (or second)*

                EAP at OldJob included counseling, referrals for respite for caregivers of elderly relatives, dependent care information and referrals… lots of things. It was not just counseling but a resource for referrals for all kinds of services. That’s not uncommon at all. Some do just offer counseling, but many don’t. So for many people, reminding someone about EAP is not akin to saying “Hey, you could benefit from some therapy” but “Hey, maybe there is some resource out there that could be relevant.” The latter feels far less personal.

          3. Blue*

            They already discussed looping in a doctor or therapist. If the VP didn’t get weird about it then, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for OP to point her in the direction of the EAP. In the aftermath of that kind of discussion, I can very easily imagine saying to a coworker (or even a superior) something like, “Hey, you mentioned that you wanted to look for a doctor or therapist. If you haven’t checked out the EAP for that, it might be useful – I’ve heard several people say it really simplified that process for them.” I’m admittedly in a field that may be more accepting of this kind of thing, but I would’ve felt ok saying this to most of my past/current bosses.

            1. Ramona Flowers*

              I’d like to hear from some managers about how they’d receive this as opposed to how people think it might be received.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                I’d personally be uncomfortable with it. I’d probably politely take the suggestion, and even act on it, but it’d make me uncomfortable.

                1. Owl*

                  That doesn’t really seem too bad. So she would risk making her VP uncomfortable, but there’s a likelihood that the VP would appreciate it instead.

              2. Allypopx*

                Especially in this kind of circumstance where there’s an inciting incident, I’d find it to be a very nice gesture.

              3. CAA*

                I’d be totally fine with someone reminding me that we have an EAP. It would be especially fine if the person said something like “I remembered after we last talked that the EAP helped me find xxx service when I needed it, and thought it might be able to help you as well.”

                I have personally used an EAP to help find childcare providers in a new city. I know ours also helps people find things like elder care, legal assistance, mortgage brokers, etc, and I have suggested it to my employees for those types of services. Nobody has ever seemed taken aback or mortified when I mentioned it.

              4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                If I were in the Boss’s position (clearly in crisis, had already cried in front of an employee or told them I was going through terribleness), I would appreciate the referral. And even if I didn’t appreciate the referral, I would appreciate that my report was worried/concerned about me and trying to figure out ways to be supportive.

                Honestly, when you’re in the middle of something awful, it’s easy to lose perspective or forget that there are obvious resources available that require little to no effort to use (as opposed to trying to find a therapist).

              5. jamlady*

                I would be fine with it. I also make sure my staff knows they can be open with me about those things if they’re comfortable, and that kind of opens the door to show concern upward if they feel comfortable.

                I know there’s been mention of it being inappropriate in strict hierarchies… But if I really felt concerned about a manager enough that seeking help crossed my mind, I’d take the risk and consequences (assuming there are any). There’s just too many times I worried about boundaries in situations where someone was really struggling (this is from someone who LOVES boundaries), and I have moved forward in life making exceptions for this sort of thing. It’s just not worth it to me to turn away.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Agreed—this is great language for a referral, too. Thank you for bringing this up, Katie!

      4. PatPat*

        I agree. I’m also worried that the OP’s manager is going to really, really regret opening up to her employee and revealing personal information. Sometimes when people do that they make the person they’ve taken into their confidence pay and suffer for having personal knowledge about them that they regret sharing. I think the OP should follow Alison’s advice but keep things STRICTLY on the professional level and not verge at all into the personal. Offering to take work off the boss’ plate is great but reminding them about EAP seems way too personal and could bite OP in the butt.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            It is, at least in part, mental healthcare, so very, very personal indeed.

            1. Emi.*

              Yeah, but the boss has already opened up to the OP. To me, this would be like if your boss told you she couldn’t function because she’d been so physically sick, and you said “Hey, did you know we have a free clinic here?”

            2. Elizabeth West*

              I disagree–the EAP folks might also be able to refer the boss to some resources for her family member (respite care, home help, etc.) that could give her a break.

              Where it would get inappropriate would be if the OP then took the disclosure and referral as an excuse to get chummy with the boss. I think it’s fine, if she maintains a professional demeanor, and it’s very kind.

      5. hbc*

        If you have the kind of boss/employee relationship where you could pop your head in and go, “Sick days are for managers too” or similar, then it shouldn’t be a problem. If it’s more authoritarian/less friendly, then probably best to back off.

  2. Aunt Margie at Work*

    “I asked what I could take off her plate to help her, and she said she doesn’t want to put her responsibilities on me.”
    You need to find a diplomatic way of explaining this is not optional. Yes, she’s your boss, but she’s damaging the department with both actions and non-actions.
    You need to go back to her with specific suggestions and short and longer term plans for projects that you and others can do. In the same way I’m not suggesting you stage a coup, I am saying that something needs to happen and apparently you are the one to get it started. Don’t present her with a done deal, but with strong suggestions for revamping the process for now.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Erk. That’s too strong, the “this is not optional” mindset. I’d limit myself to what Alison suggested, because anything stronger would be too heavy a touch.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        And, riffing, I think the thing to address is how her unavailability is a bottleneck for projects, and asking for the decisionmaking autonomy to move those projects forward without her. I feel like the lateness/flakiness with meetings and other issues are just not something you can manage up on – that has to come from above.

      2. MegaMoose, Esq*

        I agree. I’m not 100% clear on the reporting structure at issue here, but it doesn’t sound like the OP is in the VP’s direct chain of command, only that she’s been around the longest and worked with the VP the most. If the VP is damaging the department, that’s ultimately up to her boss to handle. If you’re a peer or subordinate, the most you can do is offer to help, and escalate to her boss if it becomes necessary.

      3. a Gen X manager*

        YES – I so agree, Not Mad! eek! Being managed up through “strong suggestions” of things that are “not optional” by a staff member is the last thing this boss needs. This is an example of where the messenger of those strong suggestions would most definitely “be shot”.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Yeah, and when you’re in the mindset that everything is falling apart, I’d be concerned that the firm touch would come off like “you can’t handle it, so we’re staging a coup” not “Can we streamline things to help balance the load while you’re dealing with things.”

      4. LBK*

        Obviously you don’t phrase it that way, but I agree with Aunt Margie that you can go back and reframe the request from “Is there anything I can take off your plate?” to “Tell me what you have going on,” and then you tell her which things you’re taking. You don’t do this with a demanding tone, you do it with a smile and a tone that says “I know you said you don’t to do this but we both know that it will help out everyone.”

        I’d approach it the way most people make a vacation “request” – you don’t say “Is it okay for me to take off Friday?” but rather “I’m planning to take Friday off, let me know if that doesn’t work for some reason.” You don’t necessarily demand it, you just phrase it in a way that you’re assuming it’s okay until told otherwise, which leaves less room for the manager to contradict you and makes her feel less like she’s imposing on you, because you’re actively deciding to take on the responsibility.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah — and really, people have all sorts of relationships with their managers, and often the vibe is that they talk like peers 99% of the time.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Yeah, my deputy is like my other half at work. We do this CONSTANTLY – Fergus, I’ve got a ton going on today, can you take this? Katie – I need to leave early, do you mind if I dump this on you? Fergus, you seem like you’ve got a lot going on – I’ll take over project X if you want.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              But is that what LBK is advocating? There seems to be a lot more distance between OP and VP than between you and your deputy, and this goes way beyond routine work shuffling – it’s basically telling your boss you’re taking over part of their job and doing it, without even allowing them the opportunity to say no or make a decision.

              1. LBK*

                Huh? There certainly is opportunity to say no…you don’t sprint out of their office with your ears covered immediately after the conversation.

          2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            Wow. I’m kind of shocked that you’re agreeing with an approach this aggressive.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Again, lots of manager relationships allow for it (and I wouldn’t characterize it as aggressive at all!). Obviously if you’re in a much more formal one, it may not fit — but it would have been fine in most that I’ve had.

            2. LBK*

              I seriously think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying or imagining it being done in a way that’s more aggressive than what I mean…it’s not strutting into the VP’s office, slamming your hands on her desk and saying “I’m taking over the quarterly teapot report!”

              It’s like what Katie describes, where you’re checking in with each other on your workload and juggling things between you as needed, so this conversation wouldn’t be that different from one of those: “Okay, I know you’ve got this monthly report coming up so I can do that this month instead, and then I can just finish up that analysis request that I forwarded to you last week myself. I have to get out the quarterly report by Friday, so can you send me your review of the numbers by Thursday?” This would be a completely normal discussion for me to have with my bosses.

              1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                Like I said in my response below, I think it’s this wording that threw me: “Tell me what you have going on,” and then you tell her which things you’re taking.”

                That strikes me as one notch lower than the slamming hands on the desk scene and totally inappropriate. But if what you’ve got in mind is what you’re describing in your second paragraph, then I definitely concur with that and retract my earlier comments.

                1. LBK*

                  Saying “Tell me what you have going on” is just a prologue to what I described in my second paragraph, though; the only difference is that I generally have a good enough grasp on my boss’s workload that I don’t have to ask, but if I didn’t, I don’t see how starting from that point and then going into the claiming of tasks in my example above is that different.

                  I’m not asking for approval to do that, I’m just saying I’m going to do it – notice that it’s a lot less aggressive when actually written out than it might sound when generally described as “telling them what things you’re taking.”

                2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  10-4. We’re on the same page now, I just hugely misinterpreted what you were saying.

            3. Detective Amy Santiago*

              I really don’t think it’s that aggressive.

              My boss is going through a personal crisis right now too and I’ve been doing everything I can to mitigate what she needs to deal with.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Hard, hard disagree here. Even with a smile and a gentle tone, dictating which of her duties you’re going to take is WAY too aggressive, bordering on flatly insubordinate. This IS a coup, and it arrogates to OP a level of decisionmaking and authority that does not belong to them, period, full stop.

          My bosses are chill and love me, I’ve been with the company 6 years, and my employer is incredibly informal. If I tried to do this, I’d get fired. On the spot.

          1. LBK*

            To each their own, I guess – I can absolutely picture saying that to my boss or my grandboss and not having it be remotely inappropriate, and certainly not rising to the level of a coup or taking on authority I don’t have. Assigning work in the office isn’t like a teacher assigning homework; it’s about who has capacity to do what and what the sensitivity of the request is, and my boss, my grandboss and I all inter-delegate work between each other pretty regularly.

            1. Katie the Fed*

              Yes. And we know that the VP trusts OP on some level to have confided in her like this.

              1. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

                Not necessarily. I have found myself once or twice over my career confiding in someone I, frankly, had a terrible working relationship with – simply because they popped in at the literal worst time possible. Kind of a “straw that broke the camel” situation. Under any normal circumstances I would not have shared to that level of personal information with that individual.

            2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              I still maintain that presenting it as a proposal to streamline process carries a lot less baggage than “I’m going to start doing X, Y, and Z of your core responsibilities, we know this will help everyone, kthxbai.” I dunno, maybe it’s just how you’ve phrased the approach that I’m responding strongly to, but I feel like what you’re proposing goes waaay beyond interdelegation and verges on “I’m the boss now.”

              1. LBK*

                Whoa, that’s totally not what I meant at all. I wasn’t suggesting putting yourself in charge of the department or anything, just temporarily covering tasks that you have the knowledge and authority to perform so she can focus on the things only she can do. When I do this in the normal course of business, I don’t usually give an open-ended “What can I do for you?” question because a) my bosses are work hoarders who won’t delegate anything they didn’t already decide to delegate as soon as it arose, so the answer will always be “nothing,” and b) because I have a better sense of my capacity than they do, it’s easier for me to just tell them which things I can take over rather than them worrying about overloading me if they start assigning me work.

                Also, the line about “this will help everyone” wasn’t something I was suggesting literally saying to her. It’s the subtext of the conversation that you use to inform your tone and phrasing.

                1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

                  Yeah, I’m on the same page now, I think I was just taking you too literally.

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s not dictating. It’s saying “how about this?” Suggestions, not a coup.

            But again, depends on the relationship. I think most senior-ish relationships allow for that though.

            1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

              Maybe I’m just reading something into the tone and wording used that nobody else is, but I don’t read”“Tell me what you have going on,” and then you tell her which things you’re taking” as a suggestion.

          3. Blue*

            I think there are ways to do it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve said something like, “Working on Minor Project X doesn’t seem like a good use of your time while you have Major Projects A, B, and C on your plate. I’m happy to take it over for now.” His response was basically awe that I had noticed and was willing to help. I would’ve been less direct with my last boss, but there were still approaches that would’ve worked. (Agreed that this wouldn’t universally be ok, but I think OP knows her boss well enough to have a sense of how she might respond.)

          4. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

            I have to say, I agree more with your take on this than others.

            I’ve gone through a few periods like this in the past three years where everything hit at once (for context: the day I became a director is the same day the former director left the organization is the same day I went into labor with my first child AND the same day I found out two of the more senior people in the department I was now taking over were leaving). I had many directs step up and help through the next two-three months.

            The directs that came in and gently suggested or offered specific ideas on how they could help were well received. The directs that took a more aggressive stance or in any way sounded like they were saying “you can’t do this” or “things are falling apart” were not only not well received, they impacted our relationship to the point that three years later, none of them work for me anymore.

            In moments of extreme stress or pressure, it’s a lot harder to be objective. It’s during those times when gut reactions or insecurities tend to be the loudest, and opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstandings are seriously high. If the OPs primary intent is to do what they can to help cover things while the VP gets a handle on this hopefully short term period of stress, that’s fantastic and should be well received. If the OPs primary intent is to make their job easier by removing the VP as an obstacle, that’s going to go badly. This doesn’t seem like it’s a case of a bad manager getting worse – it seems like it’s a good manager who is going through something big. Nuance is important here, and some of the suggestions do seem a bit strong given the situation.

            1. LBK*

              The directs that came in and gently suggested or offered specific ideas on how they could help were well received.

              That’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying go in, tell your boss she’s a mess and tell her to sit in the corner while you take over.

              And frankly, I think this is a case where you need to put ego to the side, especially when viewing the situation in retrospect. I can understand that at a time when you’re already emotionally fragile and on edge, having someone come to you and basically imply that you’re not faking it well and people can tell something’s up probably isn’t going to make you feel better. But the work does need to get done, and pretending things are hunky dory doesn’t help you dig out from your problems, nor does it help your employees get their jobs done.

              I also think that it’s specifically because this is a good manager who’s going through something that this approach makes sense, because it comes with an understanding that this isn’t normal for them and that they just need some support to catch up. If you had a manager who was consistently terrible, I wouldn’t bother trying to take on work for them, I’d just look for another job. I think viewing this as trying to circumvent an annoying bottleneck is a really uncharitable reading of the OP’s intentions – but honestly, I also don’t see that as being an invalid concern, because the OP still needs to do her job.

        3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          This would work with my team and me. I encourage “managing up” to a degree and if I was in trouble, someone or someones would bail me out pretty much like this.

          It’s not like if I said “Hey, I appreciate the thought but back off” that they wouldn’t back off.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I agree with LBK and Alison on this. There are sensitive ways to approach this issue, and if OP has the right kind of relationship with the VP, it makes sense to push a bit. I didn’t take Aunt Margie as saying OP should say “this is not optional,” but rather, that OP should be just a little more persistent because the VP’s perception of what’s happening may be off (e.g., it’s normal to delegate to your reports tasks that you cannot).

          As LBK notes, you should ask in a way that’s compassionate and supportive and that emphasizes that it’s not a “burden” to take on some of her tasks temporarily while she tries to sort out life.

          1. Aunt Margie at Work*

            Persistent. That’s where I was going. Yes. I think it’s important to realize that the boss’ personal life is affecting her judgement and LW needs to break through to the professional boss in there somewhere – again, without becoming a therapist.

    2. TL -*

      It would definitely be worth gently telling her that it would be less stressful for you to take more of her responsibilities (temporarily) than it would be for you to keep on dealing with this level of underperformance from her.

      But much more gently than that.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, agreed. And I think it can help, if it’s truthful, to frame things from personal experience: “When I get stressed, it’s harder for me to delegate but it’s really helpful to both my staff and me when it happens.” You can even suggest specifics for delegation and how it would work, if you have that kind of relationship–“if I take the newsletter I can send you a draft to proof by Thursday–would that work?”

        To me that last is something that happens pretty normally in workflow anyway–my staff says “Hey, should we do this?” and I say yes, take it over, or no, I’ll keep it–so it doesn’t seem out of line.

    3. Jessesgirl72*

      You can’t say “it’s not optional”

      However, what you can say is that X specific problem happened as a result of the VP not getting around to Y until it was too late, so although you understand her not wanting to put off her work on others, wouldn’t it make more sense if you temporarily delegated X to Fergus and Z to Jane until the VP is used to her new normal.

      It’s important that the VP know the truth of how this has already been bleeding over into her work life and how it’s already causing more work/stress for others. In a respectful way that is more about “what we can do to fix these things” than assigning any blame.

  3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    “Needless to say I’m worried about her. I also feel a responsibility to try to keep things in our department on track. But I’m at a loss about what I can or should do to help. I don’t personally know her family (who are scattered across the country) or friends.”

    Alison’s sample scripts are great, but I wanted to underline how they speak from your professional relationship to your boss, not the personal relationship you don’t have with her. Both you and she have drawn a bright line between personal and professional, and I think you need to honor that, as implied by Alison’s focus on streamlining process and asking for limited autonomy. While it’s tempting to try to engage her friends/family and help her personally, she doesn’t actually want that from you, and I think it would be hugely mistaken to try.

    1. Aunt Margie at Work*

      I agree. It addition to it not being what you or she even wants, it is not what she needs. She doesn’t need a friend, she needs professional guidance. You can’t give her that. You can’t act as your manager’s sounding board (much less therapist) and expect to keep the professional balance that you’ve both established.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Yeah, especially between the VP and midlevel manager tiers, it’d just be really bad.

  4. Bend & Snap*

    This is a really thoughtful letter and reply.

    I’ve been the boss in crisis, although not at VP level, and when I miscarried triplets I didn’t share it with my team. In retrospect, I should have told them something was happening.

    Managers are people too. It’s okay to let your team know that you have a life outside of work.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        God, me too. We had a miscarriage a few years ago, and I was astonished by how deeply it gutted me.

        1. Bend & Snap*

          Thank you. It’s been a long time since it happened and I finally had a baby in 2013. I lost her twin too, but my perfect little gem makes up for all the rest of it.

          Not Mad, I’m sorry for your loss too. It’s such a hard thing.

          1. Myrin*

            Oh Jesus Christ, Bend & Snap, I’m so extremely sorry to hear that. I’m so glad to know that you’re happy with your daughter and wish your little family all the best!

          2. RVA Cat*

            Bend & Snap, that must have been so hard.
            My son is almost 3 and is the joy of my life. I miscarried last year and it’s looking like he will be an only child too.

          3. TheLazyB*

            You’ve lost four babies?! I am so, so sorry to hear that, and so glad you have your little girl. I know it doesn’t make up for it but… I hope ykiwm.

            1. TheLazyB*

              Same to JoAnna and Not Mad too. I lost a baby 8 years ago and I’m finally processing my grief and anger now with help from a bereavement counsellor. Hard work.

    1. JoAnna*

      I’ve had four miscarriages, and I know well how devastating it can be. I’m sorry for your losses, but glad to hear your daughter is happy and healthy!

      1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

        In my case it wasn’t even a miscarriage – it was a chemical pregnancy or blighted ovum, but we had been trying for a couple years and I know the “what might have been” thoughts still make me sad. I’m so sorry for people who have been through so much more.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      I think it’s actually important for managers to show that they’re human once in a while too. I think it helps your employees know it’s ok for them to have struggles too – that we all have problems sometimes.

  5. Ramona Flowers*

    “Today, she’s acting like nothing happened.”

    I think a lot of people would do this after showing such vulnerability. I think you asked all the right questions.

    1. OxfordComma*

      There may be a level of embarrassment on her part. I’ve been the person bursting into tears. It’s a tough place to be in.

      1. Jadelyn*

        I’d be the same – pretend it didn’t happen and maybe they’ll take pity on me and pretend they didn’t see me lose my self-control to such an embarrassing degree.

        Though to be fair, I’m kind of extreme on my need for self-control and my response to anything I feel like is a loss of that self-control. So that could be my bias talking.

  6. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Instead of asking “what can I take off your plate”, why don’t you suggest concrete tasks that you can take over that would help reduce her load? If it’s your idea, that might make her more amenable to passing tasks along.

    1. Kj*

      Yep, I like this. Obviously she needs to agree, but you having suggestions can help enormously. One thing I know is that when someone is overloaded, sometimes making plans is too much task demand. Giving suggestions will be helpful

    2. Dr. KMnO4*

      I agree that suggesting concrete things is more likely to be helpful than asking the more nebulous “what can I take off your plate”. I often see advice columns recommend people be more specific about what they can do when dealing with friends/family who are struggling with grief or health problems. I think that when someone is overwhelmed, as this VP seems to be, it is difficult to think through all the things someone could do to help, and then decide on the best one, and then suggest it. I think it would make the VP’s job easier if the OP made a list of projects/tasks she’s willing and able to take on.

    3. LBK*

      Agreed – this is kind of what I was trying to allude to above, that rather than a nebulous request to take on work that would require her to do mental organizing than she probably wants to do right now, you basically just tell her what you’re taking off her plate and proceed that way unless told otherwise.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I agree insofar as OP should present two or three specific, detailed proposed changes to streamline process – concrete rather than nebulous is always the way to go. But like I said above, taking X, Y, and Z duties off their plates and proceeding on one’s own authorization would be really, really bad.

        1. LBK*

          It’s not really proceeding on one’s own authorization. It’s basically negative consent – “Unless you say otherwise, this is what I’m going to do.” That doesn’t mean you ignore her if she says “No, I’ll do X still, don’t worry about it.”

          My whole point is just that telling rather than asking takes the weight off her of deciding what to delegate, and it also makes her feel less like she’s imposing on you by delegating anything, which is important when she’s probably already feeling like a burden and a bottleneck on the department.

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            Yes. In crisis, asking her an open-ending “what can I handle for you” just adds ONE MORE THING to her to-do-list, and her to-do list is already too long with her personal crises. But suggesting specific tasks to take on lets her delegate without making her work harder first to delegate.

        2. TL -*

          I think it depends! I can often take things off my manager’s plate that are small but time-consuming and a lot of times I can phrase it as, “I’m doing X at 3 pm anyways, so why don’t I just take your Y-closely-related-to-X and do it then?” Or sometimes, “I’m doing X at 3 pm, so I’ll just take care of Y while I have the program open/am using the machine/whatever.”

          If the OP knows the workload really well, it’ll actually be fairly easy to gently take stuff off VP’s plate. If she doesn’t, then it’s more the “let me whip up a proposal” route.

  7. FD*

    Remember too that if she’s in crisis mode, it’s not just that she doesn’t want to burden you; trying to figure out what she should delegate is one more decision that she has to make. If you use Alison’s phrasing and suggest things you can take over (perhaps even provide a high level overview of how you’d do it), she’d be more likely to say yes.

    And I would also give her periodic status updates by email about those things so she doesn’t worry about whether they’re being handled.

    1. a Gen X manager*

      YES! Totally agree, FD. OP’s best chance for making a real difference in moving things forward again is to MAKE IT EASY for the boss to accept help / grant additional responsibility/authority. When someone is really stressed, the last thing they need is more information and more decisions to make, but if OP makes it easy for the boss to see the path clearly and provide QUICK green lights, it will benefit everyone.

    2. Tomato Frog*

      Amen. The first thing everyone needs taken off their plate in a crisis isn’t the tasks themselves — it’s making decisions about the tasks.

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        Absolutely this. It can be as easy as “I handle a lot of that information anyway, I can take that task and keep you in the loop, if that will work.”

        Also, for decisions she can’t take off her plate, it can help to be as explicit as possible in email requests and coach others to do so. Something as small as adding the action needed and due date to a subject can help. “Teapot Quarterly Report: please review by April 24.” Use the first paragraph to explain what the manager needs to do, when by, and what happens if they don’t. (My manager appreciates “if I see no changes from you by X date, I’ll proceed.” Some won’t.)
        Basically, make it as easy as possible for her to find the things she must deal with first, since she has limited capacity. It can get overwhelming having to evaluate everything to figure out what people really need and how urgent it is.

  8. Jessie the First (or second)*

    I just really like this letter. I mean, obviously, I feel for the boss and I understand the OP’s dilemma is real – but this letter shows a higher-up who is really trying to stay professional and maintain strong boundaries (SO NICE to read, given all the boundary-challenged folks we read about here). And it shows an OP who respects that boundary, is clearly a trusted member of a team (people coming to you – yes, to complain, but the implication there is you are known and trusted), who cares about her job and wants things to run smoothly.

    So, yay for everyone!

    I have nothing actually constructive to add to Allison’s advice and the great scripts she suggested.

  9. Jaguar*

    It’s worth noting, OP, that many people have jobs where work doesn’t flow down to them in a way that could be described as freely or efficiently or have co-workers / superiors who hold up work they need done before they can start or progress on work of their own that has nothing to do with a crisis. This is not a defense of those situations – they’re obviously frustrating and destroy productivity – but it is worth noting that people do find ways to be productive in those situations, so viewing it as a crisis that you need to resolve might be over the top.

    Maybe none of this applies to your situation, but I wanted to at least share the perspective that things running poorly is often still a workable situation.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      She didn’t call the work situation a crisis. She said the Boss is in crisis (she certainly sounds like she is) and it’s impacting the work and coworkers.

  10. Parenthetically*

    Oh, this is so awful. Bless your heart and bless her heart. No advice, just sympathy — I had to tell some of my students I’m pregnant WAY before I publicly announced it because they were definitely noticing how sick and exhausted I was, but didn’t have the context of knowing I was sick and exhausted, so it was just reading to them as “disconnected and apathetic” and they were getting really resentful. They were great about it and super understanding. All that to say, I think Alison is right that it might be good to encourage your boss to give folks some context around her demeanor and actions so they can make decisions with good information.

  11. Viola Dace*

    “Today, she’s acting like nothing happened.”
    I really think this is the answer to OP’s question. OP was present for a moment when the VP let her guard down and revealed personal information. Take the cue from the VP and let that stay in the vault. If she ever brings it up to you again, you might just offer to help in any way she would prefer. Going to HR or suggesting EAP is completely out of line. Unless the VP were your direct report, the impact her personal stuff has on work is none of your business. That’s for her manager to handle. The OP would also be in danger of getting caught in the revelation trap. You know, you spill to someone about a bunch of stuff, are embarrassed and then get pissed at the person you spilled to. Not uncommon.

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