update: what do you do when your coworkers are afraid to address a problem as a group?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose coworkers were afraid to speak up about problems because they feared retaliation? Here’s the update.

I took your advice and the advice of the community to heart and immediately stopped encouraging my team members to approach Head Boss as a group. I also had not thought about the fact that what I had considered “nice” behavior from Project Manager wasn’t really him being a nice person, but putting on a façade. It was a very eye-opening realization which was only reinforced when we found out that the PM has actually been taking credit for others’ work on top of everything else.

What the group did do, after I shared your suggestions, was employ some of your alternate solutions, such as band together to work around our PM’s hurdles – encouraging communication to come directly to us, going directly to Head Boss and CCing her on any and all problems or deliverable complications, and pushing back against the PM as a group when he pulled some of his usual stunts. These tactics helped to a degree and more responsibility was shifted to each of us and away from the PM.

The larger issues with the PM continued, however, and at this point all of the senior personnel – myself included – are bailing as we cannot take the work environment any longer. Some of our coworkers already left for a different team, I found and accepted a new job (I start Monday!), others are actively looking, and the other that experienced retaliation last year has applied for another position elsewhere and has high hopes. This group member also opened up and told Head Boss quite frankly that the reason we are all leaving is due to the ongoing problems with Project Manager that were brought up previously that are no longer bearable.

Head Boss was floored and upset, claimed to have no idea that this was happening, and blamed “personality differences” (though since it’s really only one personality that has a problem here, that’s a bit of a stretch in my opinion) – and unsurprisingly has decided to do nothing about PM’s behavior since we are all departing anyway. We then found out Head Boss is also trying to leave, so there is an added level of “no bothers given” that probably contributed to neglecting this issue in the first place.

Thank you again for your tactful and helpful advice and for the community for opening my eyes to the problems this situation really held and how to handle the situation as professionally as possible given the circumstances.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Kathlynn (Canada)*

    Ouch LW. I’ve also experienced difficulties from o e person being labeled “personality issues” or other things with the effect of “it’s up for you to deal with him. I’m not not going to do anything”.
    This ended when our 4th senior manager saw his doctor notes, after he got into a fight with a shop lifter. Troubled guy Thinks it’s reasonable to work in retail while being unable to talk or deal with customers or coworkers. He actually thinks we are being rude by talking to him in general and especially if/when he ignores us, or calling him by his given name.

  2. LemonFizz*

    The head boss rather leave the company than get rid of one crappy manager. Well I guess he maybe didn’t have a choice if everyone was leaving for greener pastures and the company is headed for a downward trajectory but what a crappy thing to do. Personallity problems my butt.

    1. Venus*

      I’m guessing the causality is in the other direction. The head boss has been looking to leave for some time, and therefore can’t be bothered to deal with the crappy manager. Why make the effort when you hope to be gone soon? (a good boss would still care, but a bad one will use it as an excuse to avoid the problem)

    2. The Other Dawn*

      That’s what I came here to say. Practically the whole company is leaving rather than someone just managing the crappy PM out. But since the boss is leaving, too, he probably figured “why bother?”

  3. MissDisplaced*

    The head boss would rather leave than deal with the problem PM? Even after it being brought to their attention?
    Wow. Talk about heads in the sand.

    I’m happy you’re getting out. If you are able to help others get out by providing references, do so.

  4. Argh!*

    The problems here are probably bigger than either PM or grandboss. I’m beginning to get that sense where I work, too. My toxic manager is a symptom, not a cause.

  5. Sara without an H*

    Translation: “personality differences” = “I don’t want to manage.”

    Another entry for the AAM lexicon.

    1. ThreeFrenchHens*

      Like “faults on both sides.” Which is particularly devious because almost no one will come back with “No, I haven’t got any faults.” The only possible thing to say is “I don’t think any of my faults, such as they are, have any bearing on this issue.”

      1. LW*

        I really like this framing, and you’re exactly right at pinpointing what the issue is; you can’t come off like you’re blameless, so this approach might help.

      2. Dr Wizard, PhD*

        Also it’s always stuff like ‘Yes, they put their name on your project and lied about it, but your tone of voice was slightly off when you pointed it out at the meeting.’

  6. Sara without an H*

    Has anybody else noticed that, in several recent updates, the presenting problem turned out to be relatively minor compared to the way the situation was described in the follow-up? It’s as though all the OPs had originally written for advice on dealing with stray mosquitos, then updated to report that, actually, they were surrounded by multiple hives of EVIL BEES???

    1. Delta Delta*

      Sometimes when you’re in the middle of the hive you don’t totally notice you’re surrounded by evil bees instead of honeybees. Then you get out and you’re like, “wait, THIS is honey?!”

    2. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Yes, sometimes you’re so deep in a disfuncional workplace that you only see the dumpster fire it is once you leave it for a saner place.

    3. Filosofickle*

      My guess is that many letter writers are trying hard to stay focused on a discrete thread and avoid sounding hyperbolic. If they described all the banana crackers context, letters would be three times as long and would be a long string of AND AND AND. But they do seem to be over-editing! Or missing the forest for the trees.

    4. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I’m wondering if it’s a case of letter-writers are suffering from some tunnel vision that they think “if I can fix this then everything will be better” when in reality that one thing is just the tip of the iceberg of disfunction.

      Alternately, it could also be that they are writing in about the squeaky wheel problem, and after the squeaky is quieted the other problems become obvious and make the letter-writers realize they are surrounded by angry bees.

    5. Thany*

      This definitely seems to be the case. And most of the time Alison hints that there might be larger issues at work. I think an outside perspective just helps the OPs realize that their issues are a symptom of a problem.

      Also your comment made me think of Eddie Izzard. “I’m covered in bees!”

  7. Annie the Mouse*

    We all come from different places, with different backgrounds and experiences that color the way we perceive people and situations.

    Please keep that in mind.

    1. Dragoning*

      Which means when all the people around a person are perceiving them and the situation surrounding them the same way….something’s rotten.

  8. Observer*

    OP, I’m curious is there is any way for anyone to speak to the people on top of “Head Boss” who must answer to SOMEONE?

    I’m glad you are getting out of there, because management sounds like the definition of dysfunctional. But I think that IF you can tell someone higher up why you are leaving, the results would be interesting. And if there is no one to talk to, that says a lot too.

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