my boss won’t give me any direction — but then says my work is wrong

A reader writes:

I’m hoping you can give me a script to help me deal with a frequent and frustrating situation I am in with my manager.

Frequently, my manager will assign me a project and not give me very much instruction about how to do it. When I ask questions, she tends to get frustrated and asks me to just figure it out. So I do my best! Then, later I come to back to her with the work mostly or completely finished and ask her to review it. At that point she’ll tell me that I didn’t do it the way she wanted me to, and she’ll say that she should have given me more instructions.

For example, recently I was working on a project somewhat outside of my experience, and so I was asking her some questions about what to do. She told me she was hoping that I would take ownership for the work and she didn’t want to do it herself. I tried to explain that I was just asking for guidance on where to start and not asking her to take it over. At the moment, she seemed to kind of understand and she said she’d send me some suggestions later. She never did, so I just started working on it anyway.

Today we met about what I’ve done so far – and it was this same thing. She noted that what I had put together did partially work but was missing a crucial piece, and she even said that she should have given me that context earlier.

I’m not sure what to do, and I’m not even sure who is in the wrong. These interactions leave me feeling like I am constantly failing at my job, but am I off-base to feel like she is setting me up for failure? Is there any way to get out of what feels like a never-ending cycle?

You’re not off base. Your manager is bad at delegating.

When she assigns you projects, she clearly has an idea of what she wants (or doesn’t want), because when you complete the work and show it to her, she’s able to identify that it’s not what she had envisioned. But she’s not putting in the effort up front to articulate the expectations she has in her head so that you’re on the same page from the beginning. That leaves you stuck guessing about what performing successfully might look like, and then frustrates you both when your guess turns out to be wrong.

What’s even more maddening is that she seems to realize it! She keeps telling you at the end of this cycle that she should have given you more guidance earlier, but then doesn’t apply that realization to the next project.

I suspect that, like a lot of managers, she wants you to read her mind. She wouldn’t say it that way, of course, and I’m sure she doesn’t think of it that way. But if she’s telling you she wants you to take ownership for something but isn’t willing to talk through how she envisions that thing when it’s done well, and that she can communicate in shorthand without much detail … well, mind reading is the only way that would work.

To be fair, it is true that at a certain level of seniority, it becomes more reasonable for a manager to expect you to figure out the details and to know what doing a particular project well looks like. But even then, if that’s clearly not happening, a good manager knows she needs to invest the time to get more aligned on those things — not just keep going through this cycle over and over.

In any case, since we know your manager isn’t good at expressing the expectations and assumptions she has in her head when she assigns you work, what can you do on your side?

First, it’s worth talking with her and naming the issue explicitly. You might figure she’s already aware of the problem — after all, she’s in these frustrating conversations with you — but there’s a decent chance she hasn’t stopped to pinpoint exactly where things are breaking down or thought about how to fix it. You could raise it by saying something like this: “I’m finding that often I’ll understand an assignment one way, but discover when I turn it in that you had different expectations — and sometimes we both acknowledge that it would have helped to have talked in more detail earlier on. Could we try taking more time to discuss what you’re envisioning before I start working on something? I think it would save us both time later on!”

If your boss responds by again saying she wants you to take ownership, you can say, “I want to take ownership for my projects, and to do that with confidence, I want to be sure I understand what you’re envisioning. Right now I’m often just guessing, and sometimes we’re picturing different things. If we can take a few extra minutes to make sure we’re on the same page, it’ll be much easier to take ownership from there.”

Of course, the real thing you’re going to have to take ownership for is probably drawing those details out of your boss with each new assignment. When she assigns new work to you, don’t be afraid to proactively ask questions, including things like:
– “To make sure we’re on the same page, what I’m picturing is X. Does that sound right to you?”
– “So what I’m taking away is that doing this well would mean (fill in details). Does that sound right?”
– “Is there anything similar we’ve done in the past that would be a good model to look at?”
– “Are there specific ways you’d like this to be different from X or Y?”

Then, once you get started on the work, consider sending your boss an early “slice” of it to weigh in on (like the template you’ve created to track data or a key segment from a document you’re writing). Giving her a chance to provide input early on can end up saving you a lot of time on the rest of the work — especially since it sounds like she finds it easier to react to something concrete rather than thinking it through in the abstract.

Even doing all that, though, there will still likely be times when you turn in a piece of work and hear it’s not what your boss wanted. That happens even with managers who delegate well. That doesn’t necessarily mean you failed; sometimes it takes several rounds of back-and-forth to figure out exactly what something should be. If you’re not sure if that’s the case, you can always say to your boss, “Did I misunderstand your instructions? If there’s a way I could have avoided getting it wrong, I want to make sure I have that info for next time.”

That can be useful to ask because it’s possible that you’re more frustrated over these redos than your boss is. Who knows, what you see as failure after failure she might see as a necessary part of the process.

If you do all this, it should make your boss more aware of her own role in this cycle and help you both bring her expectations to the surface earlier on. But if she bristles at your attempts to draw details out of her at the start of projects and just huffs some more about ownership, then you don’t just have a boss who’s bad at delegating. In that case, you have a boss who’s bad at managing in more fundamental ways, and that’s much harder to change (impossible most of the time, really). But even just getting clarity on that — and knowing that it’s her, not you — can make working with her more bearable.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 182 comments… read them below }

  1. Lynn*

    I will say it more bluntly that Alison does: your boss is being a moron.

    Depending on the tone in the follow up conversations (ie if your boss sounds frustrated or annoyed at you), it may also be prudent to keep a list of these experiences, to be able to recall immediately in your follow up conversations with her, and to aid in your self-defense if this ever becomes a PIP-type situation.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      I wouldn’t say she’s a moron. I’d call the boss lazy.

      Delegating work takes work. You have to understand the project and successfully communicate the project. You have to provide enough resources for your employee to be able to complete the project. All of this takes managerial work, and LW’s boss isn’t doing that work.

      1. willow for now*

        It could be that the boss really does not know what she wants from scratch, but when the LW provides some basic groundwork, then the boss can see the direction she wants it to go. So in this regard, she does not know the work any better than LW does. (This almost sounds kind, as if I am giving the boss an out, but I’m not – just the opposite, if the boss doesn’t know the project any better than the LW, then the boss gets to have her way simply because she’s the boss. And that’s a morale killer.)

      2. Sparrow*

        It sounds like the boss is very aware that she’s not giving OP the information she needs and just hasn’t made it a priority to change things. I think that’s actually really helpful – it makes it much easier for OP to be proactive about asking for a few minutes to get more direction. But OP definitely has to (gently) force the issue or it will never happen.

        I had to do this with a very particular but also very busy boss. The keys for me were 1) tracking him down in person because you’d wait forever for an email, 2) going in with strategic questions that would get to the core of the issue(s), and 3) keeping it very brief and to-the-point so he didn’t get annoyed with the interruption to his schedule. That was enough to get me started in the right direction. I would shoe-horn an early update into a scheduled one-on-one so he had the opportunity to tell me to course correct if needed, but once I figured out the right questions to ask, he rarely did! Like OP’s boss, he knew doing this would make his life a lot easier so he was responsive to me taking the initiative; it just wasn’t enough of a priority for him to do without prompting.

    2. Remote HealthWorker*

      Another thing OP can do if the boss doesn’t change is bring their work to them earlier or purposefully leave it unrefined. Then set up a “check-in” meeting to review your direction.

      Some bosses suck at visualizing their final product and can give you better feedback with a partially finished product. The trick is making sure that you don’t spend so much time with the partial product that you get frustrated or feel like your wheels were spinning.

      1. Neosmom*

        Exactly. Earlier in my admin career, when I was assigned something new (develop a spreadsheet, manual, etc.) we would set a deadline. Then I would let the assigner know I was going to get back with them in X days or hours with what I had started. This set the expectation that I would be checking back and that we would be working as a team to refine so I could then proceed and produce what was needed.

      2. Meg Murry*

        Yes, I was coming to say this as well. When I had a (micro) manager who insisted on reviewing and revising every single report I wrote, it reached the point where I would write up a SUUUUPER rough draft first. And I mean very rough, like I would put in text boxes in that said “paragraph about ABC feature here” and “chart with sales per year from 2010-2020 here”. Especially with work that would require calculations or a cascade of revisions if the boss decided he wanted more or less years in all the charts, this saved me a lot of time.

        Was it annoying? Yes. But it was better than writing a many page report only to have my boss tell me to scrap huge sections of it and to add some other side detail that I thought was less important. Oh, and save every draft individually, because nothing will make your blood boil more than hearing someone say “oh wait, can you put back that chart I had you pull out 3 revisions ago?” if you deleted the chart and have to re-create it.

        1. selena*

          That sounds like a good way to guide a boss who only has a half-formed idea of what the final product should look like.
          Which may well be the problem with OP’s manager: only realizing what she wants when OP turns in a full report.

          Manager may alsof be reluctant to speak to OP because she has trouble understanding how relevant even her halfbaked thinking-aloud instruction are: ‘maybe write about X, and i think there is something about Y in folder Z, and can you ask Jenny about A because it would go nice with B, and on second thought we do not need C right now’. Manager might somehow have come to believe her only choices are either ordering OP to ‘do X’ or for manager tot write a detailed essay about every little thing that has to go in the report.

    3. Cafe au Lait*

      Yes, this.

      My husband was in the exact same situation at his last job. His boss would come in on a Monday having watched a TV show she liked. She’d ask him to put together a similar type of segment by Friday. Except, the TV show she watched cost hundreds of thousands dollars to make, with multiple people working on the set and was produced over months. He was one person. The TV station had a limited budget and a week is not enough time to build a set, write a script and get it set up.

      He was miserable. He ended up on a PIP since what his boss wanted was unfeasible. Ultimately he had to get several higher ups involved, and one thing that helped make his case was a large pile of documentation where his boss gave contradictory directions. Or vague answers when he attempted to follow up.

      1. selena*

        Sounds like the kind of idiots who think you can let someone build you ‘a site like ebay’ for the same price as building a simple standard webshop.

        I hope your husband can laugh about it all now that it’s over.

    4. It's All Elementary*

      I had a boss that did this. In my first review my boss said I asked too many questions and I needed to figure things out of my own. My second review he was ANGRY because I figured things out on my own. Come to find out he had someone else picked for my job and was overruled by his boss. He wasn’t going to do anything to help me succeed. And HIS BOSS did nothing to help me out after hiring me anyway. Such a toxic environment.

      1. selena*

        I hope you’re in a better job.

        My former manager was totally friendly and supportive during the application process (when other people were watching).
        A few months later it became very clear she only hired me to impress her own boss (affermative-action hiring) and started pressuring me to move to another departement, while pretending to her own manager that she wanted to keep me longterm. She told me i had to move, she told me to pay for my own training, she never gave me any of the assignments i was promised when i was hired, she never gave proper feedback. I had to work with colleagues who got everything handed to them, by being on her good side.
        It was intensely stressfull and i cried every week out of regret for accepting the job (at the time of the interview i was also doing great interviewing at another company). And because i was busy looking for a new job i couldn’t really vent anywhere about how much i hated my current job (had to look like a proper optimistic employee)

        I’m in a much better job now *fingers crossed*

        1. Eukomos*

          Ugh, the “can’t complain about the horrible behavior of your boss because it somehow makes you the unprofessional one” convention is such a dangerous part of work culture. I get why it exists, back when I was dating I wouldn’t have gone out on another date with someone who said all their exes were crazy, but some people have abusive exes and we all agree that shouldn’t mean they have to be silent about it or be single forever. It should be the same for bosses! Apparently not, though. Glad you got out of there!

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        This makes me so angry. I can’t imagine telling a report that they ask too many questions. I can imagine telling them I need them to be more judicious about when and how they ask their questions, or that I would like them to try to think up possible solutions when they bring me questions, but how the heck do they expect you to learn and improve and get things right without asking questions?

      3. Seisy*

        I had a manager playing mind games like that on me. She’d give vague and contradictory directions, belittle my experience and question my competence if I tried to ask clarifying questions, react with disgust and exasperation in response to any work I did while inventing new, unshared, requirements, and then accuse me of being unable to self-direct. I was only two weeks into the job when I asked her for clarification on job duties- there were some mixed messages about who was supposed to be leading a project and it was causing a lot of confusion and tension and I’d found out a coworker had been deliberately withholding information from me about a project he wanted for himself- and she spent an hour cutting me down telling me she was tired of explaining things to me, that I was incapable of learning, that I had no initiative, that people were complaining about me not knowing stuff, and that I had to shape up or I was going to be fired.

        I have no idea what drove it, but I do wonder if I was hired over her objections… Or maybe she’s just that insecure.

    5. PIP’n ain’t easy*

      Came here to say the same thing, re: documenting in case of PIPs. I had a manager who would do a similar thing to me—she wanted me to “take more ownership” of tasks, which I was 100% comfortable doing, but then she would not like the way I handled them, even if she didn’t have all the facts (e.g. would reopen a ticket I had already resolved it to give an answer that contradicted mine, even though I had more recently spoken to the client than she had). So I started doing what Alison suggests here—running my plans past her before taking action to make sure we were on the same page. I ended up on a performance plan for being “unable to act independently or without direction.” (I’m under a different manager now, manage several initiatives independently, and have been promoted for doing so successfully.) So please, OP, make sure you’re documenting this. It sounds alarmist but believe me, I never thought I’d end up on a performance plan, either.

  2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Yes your boss is setting you up for failure. If it was things that are documented, and you’re asking her questions that could be found on your own, that’s a different story. But if these are more of “I wanted it done this way, and you did it another way and I don’t like it” when she gave you zero direction, this is on them. I agree that you should have a conversation with them, outside of a specific project. You can provide examples of the projects, but you need to have a generic conversation. Good luck – this sounds extremely frustrating.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Yep – this is crazymaking. I’d cry myself to sleep every evening if I worked for that person.

        Also, OP, *if at all possible*, document everything, get as many of her “requirements” in writing as possible. Granted, I don’t know if boss is a benevolent scatterbrain, or someone who, six months down the road, will attempt to fire OP for bad performance and “being unable to follow directions” (nevermind that the only place the directions existed was in her head). Better be safe, IMO.

    1. Elizabeth (the other one)*

      I think it could be helpful to borrow some terminology from the field of business analysis:

      A business analyst is tasked with “gathering requirements” (also called “eliciting requirements”) at the beginning of a project.

      When you take ownership of a project, you START by gathering the requirements to ensure that the project is successful. The project cannot be successful if you have not determined the measure of success – what you are trying to accomplish – ie the requirements!

      In other words, gathering requirements – asking for more details on what your boss wants – IS you taking ownership of the project.

      And you can say that diplomatically. “ Great, I will take ownership of this project and make sure it gets done successfully. In order to do that, I need to determine what your requirements are so I know how we are defining success. Can you tell me more about what you’d like to see for X, Y, and Z?”

      1. Troutwaxer*

        >>> “And you can say that diplomatically. “ Great, I will take ownership of this project and make sure it gets done successfully. In order to do that, I need to determine what your requirements are so I know how we are defining success. Can you tell me more about what you’d like to see for X, Y, and Z?””

        And do it be email so there’s a paper trail. And print those emails and save them.

        1. Dancing Otter*

          Or confirm in writing, if she won’t put it in writing. I frequently went through multiple iterations of design criteria or a project charter, when I was consulting.

          1. Sparrow*

            I think she’ll be more successfully having the conversation in person and confirming in writing, since it sounds she can’t count on her manager to reply to email.

  3. CatCat*

    I suspect that, like a lot of managers, she wants you to read her mind.

    And it is so, so frustrating to work for this person. My sympathies, OP.

    1. leapingLemur*

      I’ve worked for someone like this. Very frustrating.

      It might be possible to try to tell the boss what you think she wants – sometimes people need examples to shoot down (or to say “that’s right”), but that only works if the boss is willing to listen.

      1. Not a Girl Boss*

        I agree with the example to shoot down approach. Its actually my new go to, constructing a draft for people to throw rocks at… instead of spending a ton of time trying to get a perfect draft, that then takes a super long time to redo when people “didn’t realize that it would look like THAT.”

      2. EPLawyer*

        Ugh, Boss who want you to read your mind are the WORST. I had a boss like that ONCE. I lasted a month before telling him I quit. With no job lined up. He would tell me to do stuff and I would do it. Then he would yell at me for DOING THE STUFF HE TOLD ME TO DO but not doing the stuff he didn’t tell me to do. In other words I was supposed to guess at what really needed to be done and do that while ignoring what he actually told me to work on.

        I was but one in a long line of paralegals he went through.

    2. two cents*

      Here’s the thing though, if you eventually get good enough to read her mind? She’ll be mad that you can and yell at you for not getting all the details from her mouth. So it’s a complete no-win situation.

      Ask me how I know. Sigh.

    3. Not a Girl Boss*

      I mean, I get that none of us are mind readers.
      But I have found that people can be on various ends of the spectrum in mind reading skill. Actually, one compliment I’ve received from every single manager I’ve had is that I’m good at “just figuring it out” which according to them is a really desirable skill.

      On the other end of the spectrum, it can be frustrating when people want to ask every single little detail of how to do their job. Its like, what am I paying you for? Obviously in the beginning you need to ask questions, but as you develop a relationship with your boss and some experience, hopefully the number of questions can be reduced, and you aren’t asking the same questions over and over for each new project.

      I’m trying to think back on how I was successful at ‘figuring it out’ in the beginning. I think it comes down to two things:
      -I asked about the what, but not the how. For example, “Can you describe to me how you envision the end state looking?” “Ok, so what I’m hearing you say is that you want a colorful but low maintenance garden?” but not “What do you think step 1 should be? What do you think step 2 should be?”
      -I checked in with 2-option plans. This helped me get direction from them without making them feel like I was relying on them to do the work. Basically “I was thinking of planting either pink or red roses, what do you think?” “I was planning to ask the gardener to come in next Tuesday, ok?” but not “should we plant flowers? OK, what kind? Ok, what color? OK, who should I contact?”

      1. Aquawoman*

        Yes, this. I manage professionals and I try to frame projects, give background, etc., but there are some people who basically want to be told when to inhale and when to exhale and those people drive me nuts. To be good at the job, you have to be a problem-solver. I have one new employee I’d tell “send the email to Wakeen” and he’d email me back “May I send the email to Wakeen now?” I actually shifted him from asking to telling me (“I’m going to email Wakeen [text]” and then I can jump in if it’s a disaster without having my workday be an extended game of Mother, May I, and it really has improved things a lot.

        I also think learning by experience works better than constantly following instructions.

      2. Uranus Wars*

        Al a manager there is these approaches (particularly the one I put below) show two different levels of thinking, too. To me the first shows that you used some critical thinking skills in coming up with a proposal on the project/task. But the second, to me, seems like you are asking me to do the project for you.

        I checked in with 2-option plans. This helped me get direction from them without making them feel like I was relying on them to do the work. Basically “I was thinking of planting either pink or red roses, what do you think?” “I was planning to ask the gardener to come in next Tuesday, ok?” but not “should we plant flowers? OK, what kind? Ok, what color? OK, who should I contact?”

      3. Coffee*

        From the LW’s description, it sounds more like her boss is saying “Okay, now plant out that garden bed” and leaving it at that, and when the LW comes back with her plan for a rose bed, the boss is like “oh no, the client asked for a garden with no flowers”. (I.e. the boss didn’t pass on the needed context.)

      4. Withering, over- or underwatered yellow thumb*

        I want a colorful but low maintenance garden SO MUCH.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Me, too! There was a meme on FB for me: “I am not a black thumb with plants. I am a gray thumb, a hospice worker for plants on their way to Jesus”.

    4. Lucy P*

      My boss is like this, without the apologies. I once was direct and said to boss, “I don’t have ESP.”.

    5. TardyTardis*

      Oh, I worked for her too! GAAP is a many-headed beast, and what one supervisor thinks is the proper form for GAAP isn’t always what the next supervisor thinks is the proper expression of GAAP. Having to read her mind just drove me nuts! And she finally ran through six accountants till she found one who *could* read her mind (and then the boss retired).

  4. BradC*

    Good answer from Alison.

    Think of it as “gathering customer requirements” for a new teapot/system/report/widget. Asking “how much tea do you need this to hold” IS “taking ownership” of the project! That’s what you’re supposed to be doing!

    Now clearly the more experience you have, the better refined these questions will be, and the more skill you’ll have to get useful answers (from your boss, or other stakeholders). But even now, you can still ask about how the goals for (new project) are similar or different to (old project), you can get feedback on your initial ideas, etc.

    1. Happy Lurker*

      I especially like Allison’s suggestion of an early mock up for the boss’s review.

      I would add that after the boss assigns a new project that OP could send an email the same or next day outlining the conversation as well as general expectations of what either the finished project or steps to take should look like. It’s more work, but might produce a much better result…maybe.

      Either OP will learn to read the boss’s mind or use this experience to better themselves. I do so get annoyed with managing up, but at times it is a necessity.

      1. Mockingjay*

        Came to say the same thing about a summary email. OP could say: “to sum up our convo this afternoon, you want a report comparing three llama grooming tools, looking at price, order availability, and ease of use. I will have a draft for your review by next Tuesday.”

        I considered adding: “Please let me know if you approve” or “Unless I hear from you, I will move forward per the above,” if the OP thinks the boss would be receptive. If not, don’t.

      2. UShoe*

        I’ve dealt with a similar situation before, a very junior member of the team who I managed getting thrown stuff by the MD (a terrible manager) and asked to “figure it out” and then getting absolutely rinsed when it wasn’t exactly what he wanted.

        He was never going to sit and play 21 questions with her or tell her what he actually wanted (see above) so we decided that every time she got thrown one of these curveballs she’d write an email afterwards saying 1)what he’d asked her to do 2)a bullet point outline of the end-product she was planning on producing 3)the request that he get back to her if that wasn’t exactly what he wanted 4)the statement that she’d assume that the plan was correct and proceed if she hadn’t heard back in 24 hours.

        This actually worked really well, he was very good at reacting to things he didn’t want but terrible at articulating what he did. And if he did get grumpy with her when she’d produced something she could just forward him the email and say “this is what we agreed I was doing” and he’d apologise.

      3. TardyTardis*

        I had to do that with one supervisor who would tell me to do something, and then would flat out deny she had ever done so. We communicated a *lot* by email after that, and somehow she never pulled that again.

    2. Hi there*

      I agree with the comment from Happy Lurker about checking in fairly early. I think the boss might want you to make some initial decisions about the scope and shape of the project (like the capacity of the teapot in BradC’s example) based on your earlier work and experience. That is what I would want to see if I said I wanted the person to take ownership. Another great piece of advice I’ve seen here is to not ask open-ended questions and instead ask questions that are easy to answer. A choice between A and B is nice. If it is complicated you can lay out the options along different axes. “I am thinking of doing A with flourishes of B, which would look like this or raise these issues. I considered C with some D spice but that would take longer or require extra coordination or not be as easy to follow in the end.”

  5. Lifelong student*

    Removed — per an earlier discussion, I’m no longer hosting discussions here about other sites’ paywalls! Paywalls are how some publications pay their writers, including me. It’s fine to choose not to pay for that access, but I’m going to continue to link to my work. There’s lots of other free content here to read (far more than on most sites run by an individual person, I’d argue). – Alison

    1. DBC*

      Your site has an amazing amount of free content!!! I usually can get the gist from the comments. Thank you.

    2. Somebody*

      You rock, Alison. Complaints about the paywall are far more annoying than the paywall itself ;)

      1. Erstewhile lurker*

        The gall of people to complain and try to circumvent Alison getting paid is astonishing.

  6. Retail not Retail*

    My job isn’t the documentation type but my manager does this at least once a week.

    Last month, I had to cut grass “across from X” on his off day. Well – there are like 4 grassy spots “across from” that spot. So I cut them all. Grass is grass, right?

    No, grass is not grass. I asked my supervisor that day and he said “across from” and I said “which across?” and he said all of it.

    Cut to manager back at work and he asked me in the morning meeting and later. The reason he had a chance to ask me later was because I was like I am not a mind reader and what he was literally impossible or would make a worse mess than the grass I should not have cut. (It did look bad, whoops, that’s not meant to be mowed.)

    I don’t know what to do, so I defer to those with more seniority but even they can be like ????? so all of us non supervisors just drill down as much as possible. Sometimes this leads to “unproductive” time as we wait on him but better than replanting hundreds of flowers a few inches away. My coworker was told she had autonomy on flowerbed design. She does not!

  7. Confused*

    LW, if you live in DC and your boss’s initials are TG…I’ve worked for them too. IT WON’T GET BETTER.

    1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      I was about to say, this sounds like my old manager from ToxicJob. Time to polish up your resume.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Been there, had that manager.

      The one I have wouldn’t give us mid-project feedback, either. You’d try to go to him with a sort of mockup or first draft and he’d still get annoyed that you were wasting his time and blow you off, then get mad again when the final product wasn’t what he envisioned. There was no way to get it right.

    3. Mockingjay*

      It’s not entirely a hopeless situation. You can “retrain” some of these bosses. I worked for one guy known for one-line, terse sentences that had to be extrapolated into an entire task. I kept sending him summary emails of what I planned to do, gave him drafts to review, and developed some basic SOPs so things were done consistently (consistency was apparently a sore point on the project, but he didn’t know how to get there). After awhile he began to trust me and opened up. We had actual planning sessions, set up regular assignments, and so on. I worked for him for 6 years.

  8. AnotherAlison*

    I might take issue with the idea that the boss knows what she wants ahead of time. She is signaling that she does with her comments that she should have given more/earlier direction, but I’m not fully convinced. I worked as an analyst for a while and had to put together a lot of presentations for an EVP. The direction was literally one sentence, like, “Give me a market overview for Purple Nuggets to present at the director meeting.” Then, after I created 20 slides, he would figure out what he liked and didn’t like. Sometimes he knew a lot about what he was presenting, and sometimes he was also getting up to speed, so the direction he could give was genuinely limited.

    The conversation I would have is to see if this way is working for your boss or not. It is possible that what is happening is fully in line with her expectations. It’s annoying and feels like it wastes a lot of your time, but if this way is how she wants to do it, you can accept it and then it becomes less frustrating. (You could always try to get more direction up front, but if it doesn’t work, you can make peace with this system.)

    1. Myrin*

      I agree that this could be an issue of “she knows it when she sees it” – but I do have to say, while that’s certainly a legitimate thing generally, it’s also often just an issue because the person in question is too lazy to think about something in all too many details upfront (I certainly know that that can be the case for myself – I’m a very good writer (in German; I can never quite gauge that about myself in a foreign language) but what I truly excel at is proofreading; it’s easier for me to work with text which already exists than it is to come up with my own, and I’m like that in several other areas of my life, too. Thing is, I can come up with stuff, it just takes me more effort than others.).

      That’s why I’m very much in favour of OP’s sending small little “packets” of information to her boss successively and from very early on – that way her boss can see that Step 2 already isn’t to her liking instead of OP having to go back and redo everything up until Step 10 because only then did boss see what OP has been doing.

      1. Yeah_I know*

        Yup. I deal with people all the time who want me to “just be creative” or “have fun with it” but when I show them what I did it turns out they had very specific requirements they couldn’t be bothered to tell me about.

        So I start asking questions up front. But they don’t want to do any work on figuring out what they want.

        What they want is for me to do a lot of work over and over and over again until they get what they want and I lose my mind – but they will not have done any work so it’s a win.

        That’s most coworkers/managers/clients.

        Occasionally I’ve had a real monster where it’s like a game to them. They want to make everyone guess what they’re thinking and if you guess right they’re annoyed and if you guess wrong you’re stupid. But, most people are just being lazy.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Interesting perspective. Rather than assuming they’re lazy or playing a game, I would assume they are crediting you with having a certain level of knowledge and experience that you may not have yet. I definitely don’t want anyone to rework something multiple times for sh*ts and giggles. I’ve recently worked with a peer who didn’t know the basics of our job, and for me, that situation is like this is a 4-hour task, and if I spend 1 hour telling you where to gather all the inputs from and laying it out for you, I could do it myself. You bring no value here. There is a point early on where you do have to train people, but later in your time at a job, even if you haven’t done Specific Thing X, the management is assuming you do have enough background to figure out most of it and ask minimal questions about the rest.

      2. Aquawoman*

        As a person with ADHD, I have a problem with labeling someone the way someone else’s brain works as a character trait like “lazy.” Also, I’m a manager and details are not my job.

        1. Myrin*

          I wasn’t solely talking about “someone else’s brain” but in large part about my own, which I referred to in the part in brackets – I definitely know that whenever I have that problem, it’s because I’m too lazy to really sit down and think. Likewise, the other people I was thinking of when writing this freely admitted that that’s the reason for their behaviour, so even if that might only be a deflection they use to hide some harder-to-manage brainweasels, I think it’s fair for me to talk about what was literally said to me without immediately assuming an underlying condition.

          And, I mean, it’s fine if details aren’t your job as long as you don’t then turn around and berate your direct reports for not doing something exactly as you envisioned it, which is the case in this letter and the one I was responding to.

        2. Drag0nfly*

          I don’t know if I have ADHD or not — I have some symptoms, but never got tested. It manifests differently in girls, hence it never becoming a “thing” to test me about. What I do know is that the symptoms cause problems, so I took the responsibility to figure out effective coping mechanisms. Doing the opposite *is* lazy.

          Managers are supposed to communicate. Communication is part of your job. I triage, and people who can’t be bothered to say what they want go to the bottom of the priority stack. Think about what you want before you ask people to give you what you want. Have examples ready, or at least clearly articulate what your goal is.

          You want a website? Great. Who is your target audience? What is your objective? What do you want the audience to do when they come to your site? If all along you wanted an e-commerce site to sell a particular product, but your vague request made it sound like you wanted a *blog* about the problem the product addresses, then you’re terrible at your job because you failed to communicate. You don’t get to say you don’t “do” details, and then turn around and get angry that the hypothetical web dev didn’t know you wanted a shopping site and not a blog site.

          Good managers know that if a task is important enough to hold someone accountable for *not* doing it, then it’s important enough to communicate what the other person is being held accountable to *do*. Two-way street here.

    2. Smithy*

      Really well said. I do institutional fundraising, and while I know the work that my organization does – I’m certainly not an expert. Ahead of the creation of a proposal or grant, I meet with the team and explain as much as possible “this is the donor and this is what we need to include to be as competitive as possible”. However, I don’t actually know the granular level of the work to provide a super detailed outline of what is needed. Especially for a specific program I’ve never raised funding for.

      Over time, the goal is to figure how to get as much information as possible in increments to determine if the final product is totally useless, needs major revisions or just needs tweaks. So while this boss is managing terribly – I can empathize being on the other end and thinking “I need you to do your work before I can give input”.

    3. Clorinda*

      That’s what I thought too. She doesn’t know what she wants until she sees what she gets, and then she realizes that there are parts missing and she wants them. If she would only SAY that, it would be fine! “I like what you’ve done here and here, and we need more of X, can you add that?” Maybe, in her own mind, that’s what she’s saying, and LW hears it as blaming LW for not having X.
      Seek early feedback in the process, and, as usual, document everything! When you have an in-person conversation, send a follow-up email “just to clarify the outcome of our meeting.”

    4. Green great dragon*

      This is at least possible, combined with a too-busy manager. I’ve seen something that could have produced this letter – boss wanted something done but didn’t have a clear idea of how, and asked for some rough ideas, employee set out a plan and was deeply aggrieved by the number of changes requested, but boss thought that, while employee had gone into more detail than expected and there were some places boss realised she could have given more guidance, the work did exactly what was required – came up with some good ideas, helped her frame her thoughts, ended up being a good piece of work.

      If that seems possible, I agree with Alison’s later points especially – check in early that you’re heading in the right direction, and ask your boss whether she’s content with the process.

  9. Myrin*

    I’m not even sure who is in the wrong.

    She is, OP. Like, I can see what you describe happening once or twice without anyone being really at fault but you say that this happens “frequently” and from your whole letter basically sounds like a constant occurrence – this is not your fault and you’ve really done everything right so far (and I concur with Alison in which steps are best to take next, especially that it’s highly important to clearly and directly name what you’re seeing).

    I’m also raising my eyebrows at her repeatedly admitting that she should’ve been clearer with you and then just… not being clearer the next time the exact same situation comes up again. It’s like she has no object permanence but not with regards to what’s around her but regarding what’s happened previously. The people in the house I lived in before my current one were like that – they would behave in a certain way and then in the next conversation with you be shocked and surprised by the fact that you’ve now learned something about them and now behaved a bit differently according to that. They acted as if every new interaction was the very first you ever had with them.

  10. AdAgencyChick*

    My job made me take a course a couple of years ago on “situational leadership.” I thought I didn’t need to do it — I thought managing people was one of my strong points. But I sure learned a lot.

    This boss may not be a horrible delegator overall. She may just not understand, as I didn’t fully, how much the amount of guidance needs to vary based on the situation. Is this a project your direct report is competent at, and KNOWS she’s good at? Minimal to no guidance. Is your direct report a rockstar at everything you’ve handed her before, but this is something she’s never dealt with? You need to provide some road signs and lots of moral support (like pointing out what skills at XYZ the person will find helpful at doing ABC). Is she totally new to the situation? Dunning-Krueger might mean she’s not going to know what she doesn’t know, and therefore you the boss need to proactively put in enough checkpoints that it might feel like micromanaging with a direct report who has more experience.

    Since the boss doesn’t seem to be savvy with the above, I think OP would be wise to proactively ask for more frequent check-ins and name the pattern as Alison has suggested.


    I am glad to see this topic. I was in this situation 6 months ago and it was so frustrating! I absolutely hated the, “Great job! Now let’s talk about everything you did wrong.”

    Alison’s advice is great. One thing I would also ask for when I was given little guidance was “Is there someone in the department/company who is knowledgeable about the subject matter who I can use as a resource?” Sometimes I was given a resource to talk to.

    In my situation, there were red flags about the job I ignored. They lost 3 team members in a very short time, the team had a revolving door – people didn’t stay long in general, the supervisor was a first time supervisor, Glassdoor and Indeed had stories, etc. There were too many problems that I couldn’t fix and I am at a point in my career where I didn’t want to wait and see if things would magically improve. Your situation might be different, but if the bigger picture is filled with red flags, you might find all your efforts still leave you frustrated.

  12. Richard Hershberger*

    My thoughts reading the question ran about half a step beyond Alison’s advice to send an early “slice” of the work. Upon receipt of the assignment, figure out what you envision as the final work product and the steps required to achieve it. Write your boss a memo laying these out. Keep it to half a page. I would word it as “This is what I am planning on doing, unless you tell me otherwise.” Then when she tells you weeks later that this wasn’t what she had in mind at all, you have written documentation to point to. That changes the conversation from “I should have explained this to you” to “I should have taken the two minutes it would have required to read the memo.” It also provides you cover, should this prove necessary.

    1. leapingLemur*

      Yeah, this is great! Some people have a hard time articulating what they want and can work better with specifics that they can OK or modify.

    2. Ali G*

      This would be my plan too. Give Boss a game plan upfront of what I plan to do, then provide her with an early pass for feedback. Then if we are too far apart we can discuss the differences, document next steps, and go from there.

    3. Anon Anon*

      As a manager I would love this approach.

      I actually just had a situation with someone I don’t actually manage, but who was stepping in and helping out my team, and she completed a project incorrectly. Granted, I made the mistake of assuming that she had been taught this particular process when she had not, but if she had showed me a sample, I could have redirected her and saved her and a lesser extent me a ton of time.

    4. designbot*

      Yep! This is what we do in design—create a project plan, then ask your boss to review the project plan with you. It should include milestones, deliverables, staffing levels, scope of work… anything you need to outline “this is how I am envisioning this working.” If it’s less about project organization and more about a single deliverable, thumbnail that deliverable and walk her through it. A thumbnail is like a visual outline or a cartoon of the document you plan to create, which can help people really envision the final product without you actually developing all of the content. That could look like, this page has a table plan on it, followed by detail plans of the teapot, teacup, and saucer, then section of each piece plus teacup+saucer combo, then one page of details for the handle, spout, lid, and then a materials and finishes schedule. This gives her the opportunity to redirect and say “no no no, why are you on details? We need renderings to sell the teapots!”

    5. Kate 2*

      Unfortunately I tried to do this and my truly evil boss would lie and say “I did tell you to make changes you just forgot.” And when I tried saying in an email “This is my understanding of our last conversation, I’ll wait to hear from you if this is okay to move forward.” He called me in his office to berate me for sending and said “I need to know if we are having a problem with communication here, because if you are having trouble understanding me we have a real problem here.” He made it clear anytime he made a mistake or changed his mind it would be my fault. I lasted almost 5 years, my replacement didn’t even last 1!

  13. Grits McGee*

    This “approach” to management is absolutely maddening and drove me out of an office where my supervisor was extremely guilty of this. (Not only could she not articulate what she wanted, she changed her mind constantly on top of that, and then would get grumpy and upset with me.) I was able to somewhat deal with it by creating detailed work plans for every project I worked on and got her sign off in writing before starting anything. It didn’t stop her from changing her mind and forcing me to redo completed work, but it did help with the frustration that was being directed at me- she was a new manager and I think she felt insecure about supervising. In this case, making it clear that I was invested in making sure the final work product was exactly what she wanted made her feel more in-control and less anxious.

    I still left as soon as I got another job though.

  14. Bob*

    Try what Alison suggests and when it fails you will have to either live with being a punching bag or seek out a higher power (i’m not referring to the Flying Spaghetti Monster or equivalent deities) or start job hunting.

  15. Not All*

    Ah, the “bring me a rock” boss. They shouldn’t be in charge of anything ever.

    Bring me a rock.
    What type of rock?
    A rock! You should know this…it’s your job!
    Not THAT kind of rock!
    Bigger? Smaller? Different color?
    A rock! How can you not do this?
    This one is shinier?
    Nevermind I’ll just get one myself.

    1. Snark no more!*

      Love it! I’m going to steal it. Mine has another twist. Instead of “not that kind of rock,” I get “I asked you for a worm.”

    2. Retail not Retail*

      That is a task i’ve literally had to do omg. Which stone? Where is it going? Where is it coming from? Are you expecting me to do it alone?

      Okay looks good, now take it back.

    3. Teapot Librarian*

      Recently, my boss asked me to send her a list of X. In response, I sent her the list of X in a spreadsheet with additional information about each of the items on the list. Did she ask for the additional information? No. But I thought it would be helpful so that she would see how I came up with the list. She called me and said “I asked for a list! You didn’t send me a list! What you sent me is confusing.” I explained why I had included the additional information, at which point her feedback went from “you sent me too much” to “why didn’t you also include…?” Sometimes there’s just no getting it right.

      1. 3DogNight*

        I get this type of feedback so often that I make 2 sheets. One with the list, then the other with the additional information. Most people want the additional information, they just can’t seem to consume it unless fed in small bites. Drives me bonkers.

    4. Cheerfully Polite Grey Rock*

      Urgh, I felt that. Or the alternate response:

      Why did you bring me a rock? Do I look like I need a rock? Get that thing out of here!
      Five minutes later..
      Where the hell is that rock I asked for?!

  16. Troutwaxer*

    Maybe you can email your boss a list of possible alternatives. Something like, “You’ve assigned me to paint this teapot. What would you prefer as a base coat? The colors we have available are white, yellow, orange, red, blue, green, purple, or black? Also, what colors would you prefer for the decorative elements?” This will both get you guidance (hopefully) and if your boss gives you no answers, you’ll have a record – so you win either way!

    1. snoopythedog*

      As a manager, I’m hoping you would add in your own solution here (if you have some context)…like “Based on the requirements you told me and similar projects, I’m leaning towards base coat, red pot, yellow decorative elements, please let me know if I should proceed differently.”

      Take some initiative in the problem solving. (As someone who also has a directionless boss sometimes. Giving some direction as the employee is better than asking “which way should I go” all the time. Save the “which way should I go” question for the times you literally have no clue and no context)

      1. Alianora*

        This is very important. My managers have always responded better when I say, “Here’s the question, and here’s what I think we should do, but I wanted to check with you,” instead of just asking the question. It saves them some work figuring out the context, and if my thinking is wrong, they can explain it to me so I’m better equipped to make these types of decisions in the future.

      2. Middle Manager*

        Can’t agree more. Getting on the same page is important, but at least in my line of work where researching options/planning programs is a huge part of our job roles, to just put that all back on your manager is pretty much asking them to do your job for you (or at least a big portion of your job for you).

        I’m so much happier when I see staff putting in the work in advance of questions with a “here’s what I’m thinking, do you agree” or “here are our two options, I think option B is our better choice because X reason”.

  17. Amanda*

    Instead of partially completing the work then asking for review, tell her your plans on how you plan to complete it (this is likely to be less annoying to her than questions) and get corrections then. Then, still keep the review at the end.

  18. Handful of Bees*

    Ugh my first real job was like this. She’d send you back time after time with new nitpicks. My coworkers told me to just say ‘no’ after a certain point; that the project was done. Thankfully it was a short-lived job.

    She was a college art professor who I later learned had an incredibly bad rep for stuff like this when teaching her courses. Which is a shame, because she did very cool projects herself, but was very bad at directing/teaching people, and she seemed to almost take pride in the constant bad feedback from her students.

  19. Luna*

    It’s an impossible situation. I’ve been told stop asking too many questions because it slows down the process. I’m still scratching my head.
    My only saving grace was that my manager left.

  20. KTB*

    I also work for this boss, and it’s a commonly discussed issue in my department. All of us commiserate about how she always has a very specific goal or visual in mind and it’s up to us to figure out what that is and present it to her. To the point where we tell new employees “don’t put a ton of time into your first draft since she’s going to change a bunch of it to fit her vision.”

    It requires a ton of back-and-forth, and she loves to tell me that I should be bringing her “more finalized projects.” Um, no. I will bring you “more finalized projects” when I know that you will accept something that is not the mirror image of what you had in your head. Until then, I will put in enough effort to get your feedback, and then build from there.

  21. clogerati*

    Woof. I have a similar boss. Fortunately, I’ve worked with her long enough to generally know what she wants (I guess I am a mind reader?) but I’ve run into an issue where managers from other departments (the structure at my job is weird, I directly report to the owner of the company but technically have 3 other managers above me) have WILDLY different expectations for projects. Since Owner is not clear on her expectations I have 3 other people trying to chime in with what they envision. It’s incredibly not fun and has forced me into some unpleasant conversations with higher-ups!

  22. RagingADHD*

    Clarifying the goal of a project, assessing the elements that it should include, specifying measures of success and collecting relevant samples or templates to use as a guide – that is the definition of taking ownership of a project!

    If the boss refuses to communicate these things, how is the OP supposed to take ownership?

    The OP can’t possibly take ownership as long as the boss is clinging to ownership herself.

  23. A Simple Narwhal*

    I used to work with someone like this, and it drove me bananas. She’d refuse to give details on something, tell you to “use your best judgement”, and then get mad that I didn’t read her mind. Like she’d say ok, paint this room blue with white trim, and then flip out that I didn’t know she meant royal blue and eggshell, not navy blue and pearl. It was perfectly fine but not what she specifically envisioned, and therefore wrong. And then of course she’d throw me under the bus for why we were delayed when we had to revise.

    Towards the end of our time working together I started calling her out on it. There was something incredibly satisfying to finally see realization break through to her that not giving details and always being unhappy later were correlated.

  24. Employment Lawyer*

    There are two likely options.

    1) Your boss is managing poorly.
    2) Delicately put, I hope: it’s possible you’re just not so generally good at new things as your boss is hoping for or expecting.

    To help decide, you might want to ask: Does your boss have this problem with everyone? Or just you?

    If this is an “everyone” problem then you can ignore it (your boss is presumably a bit used to it) or try to change your boss.

    If it’s a “you” problem it may not be solvable.

    If you give ten different people a new-to-them but ill-defined task, you’ll get a huge range of outputs. Some folks will figure it out; others will struggle with anything not explicit. Jobs vary hugely on how well-defined the tasks are, and how well they reward that particular skill. Some jobs are about ability; others require agility. If it turns out your boss needs that skill, and if you don’t have it, you will probably need to look elsewhere.

    1. JSPA*

      This is fair, if OP is somehow way off-base as far as audience or look and feel, when those things are fairly invariant, and could be deduced by comparison with prior projects, or if OP is producing something that’s legit not fit for a very obvious function.

      But we have no reason to believe that OP has randomly defaulted to Comic Sans font, fuchsia and chartreuse color scheme, vocabulary comprehensible at a third grade reading level, for a court deposition.

      Or made a donor spreadsheet that’s not sortable except by first name or house number…but not last name, ZIP code, street name or prior donation history.

      Or whatever the equivalent is in OP’s job.

      1. Employment Lawyer*

        I’ve had a lot of people work for me and the “general agility at new things” trait varies more widely than almost any other trait. It is rare and difficult to find, and hard to interview for, but I couldn’t imagine keeping any employee (in this job) who lacked it.

        If you’re in the large group who thinks keeping a job is merely “don’t screw up” then this may not make sense, but there’s really a lot more involved for many positions.

        1. JSPA*

          If you find yourself repeatedly saying that people “just didn’t work out,” that’s a tip off; not that “most people are not great,” but “We need to work on our hiring process.”

          I’m trying to say this nicely, but hiring people to do a job that requires a certain aptitude, without hiring for that aptitude, and then firing those who don’t meet the “secret additional ability” screening, isn’t a failing in the people who are being hired.

          Some people can, and many people do manage to hire for exactly those sorts of abilities. Or they use temps, and hire away the few that fit excellently. And some people might be content to be explicitly hired on a “let’s see if this works” basis. But if you’re regularly hiring people using an inadequate job description and hiring protocol, and they do the job entirely as described, and you either fire them or rag them until they quit because they’re not doing some other thing, that’s not good.

          Do you see how it’s entitled to screw up other people’s lives–remembering that these are people who could have taken a different job, not to mention saved themselves the experience of your displeasure–because you’ve decided it’s not worth modifying the hiring process?

          As for the implication that only a hack would that all humans are a level of dignity and respect and (yes) even deserve a level of job security for meeting the actual stated job description…and that disagreeing with you involves a lack of understanding on the part of whoever’s disagreeing…hm.

          Never mind that it’s offensive (which is fine, as I don’t have to live with you).

          But it’s also a pretty severe logic flaw (which, in a lawyer, is unexpected).

          No, I’m not a hack. We actually, substantively disagree on what it means to be a good manager / good employer.

          1. Employment Lawyer*

            If you find yourself repeatedly saying that people “just didn’t work out,” that’s a tip off; not that “most people are not great,” but “We need to work on our hiring process.”

            It can be. But employees are people, and they lie all the time. At some point the employee bears a lot of the burden for lying about, or misjudging, their own capabilities.

            I use a super detailed 2-3 page job description. I tell employees things like “This is a really hard job which requires a huge amount of fludity and a very high intelligence. Among other things, you will be expected to constantly have a note pad; to take notes about issues; to track those issues and deadlines on a per-day and per-hour basis; and to provide information about them on demand, at all times. This is a crucial part of your job. Please don’t take the job if you can’t do this.” Etc.

            Then they take the job. And it turns out they can’t do it. Even though they claimed they would and could. That’s their fault, not my fault.

            I’m trying to say this nicely, but hiring people to do a job that requires a certain aptitude, without hiring for that aptitude, and then firing those who don’t meet the “secret additional ability” screening, isn’t a failing in the people who are being hired.
            It is mostly about intelligence, which is surprisingly hard to screen for legally. Some people are literal “you asked for a paper, here is a paper” and some people are smart and agile “you asked for a paper, I understand you’re trying to make the client happy; it looked like you left out an issue which relates to the client; I included a paragraph on that as well.”

            Lots of stuff can’t easily be screened for and intelligence is one of the hardest (tests are sadly illegal so you have to use proxies. But if you don’t want to discriminate against poor smart people or POC, which I don’t, then you can’t use those either; it’s actually pretty difficult.)
            Some people can, and many people do manage to hire for exactly those sorts of abilities.
            Few do, actually, outside companies who are incredibly selective or who spend thousands/applicant on screening.

            Do you see how it’s entitled to screw up other people’s lives–remembering that these are people who could have taken a different job, not to mention saved themselves the experience of your displeasure–because you’ve decided it’s not worth modifying the hiring process?
            If that was it, then sure. But at some point, if they can’t do the job it’s on them.

            As for the implication that only a hack would that all humans are a level of dignity and respect
            This is bizarre.
            Humans deserve dignity and respect, sure. But that doesn’t mean they can keep a job they can’t do, and calling it a “dignity and respect” issue merely shows you’re misapplying those terms.

            We actually, substantively disagree on what it means to be a good manager / good employer.
            Out of curiosity, how many times have you ever been an employer?

        2. Anon attorney*

          I’ve got to say I agree with this. The quality that sets aside good junior associates from okay ones is the ability to think beyond a set of initial instructions. For example, an adequate junior person will obtain precedents for you and summarize them. A good one will then think about what that means and set out the legal tests distilled from the cases, or highlight contradictions, or analyze how the law applies to the facts of the case.

          Putting it another way, this is the difference between description and analysis, and in my experience, you have to select for it; I’ve never seen someone develop it.

          However, I wouldn’t manage a junior associate the way OP’s boss does either. A boss who doesn’t know what she wants (but it isn’t what you’ve done) requires a lot of managing. The real difficulty is that she won’t engage with the OP requesting clarification. I think I’d try to have a big picture conversation – what does ownership mean to the boss? I think I’d also try to distinguish explicitly between scope, deliverables, and work breakdown structure. You can’t deliver her project without clarity from her on #1 and #2. However, if you’re asking her stuff about #3 – process not outcome – that might be where the disconnect is – that’s what she expects you to deal with independently. I wonder if using project management language and concepts might help bridge the communication gap you have currently?

          If none of this applies and boss is just outsourcing the iterative process of developing ideas, that’s how she works, and the focus then has to be on ensuring there are no performance management consequences for you, which means everyone understands that is the process and by providing output she can shape you are actually contributing. If that can’t be agreed or you don’t want to work like that, I think you gotta look elsewhere, sadly.

      2. Employment Lawyer*

        Which is to say, that when it comes to mutual relationships, “fair” really doesn’t have much to do w/ it.

        OP is allowed to insist on a boss who is 100% clear and who never wants more than they ask for; that apparently isn’t this boss.

        OP’s boss is also allowed to insist on an employee who can “just make it work” to their satisfaction, whether on their own or by asking the right questions or anything else; that may or may not be OP.

    2. Lilyp*

      Yeah I think OP should consider this possibility. I’ve struggled with this a bit with some of the junior engineers I’ve worked with — yes it’s fair to expect instruction but coming up with a design independently, finding your own answers in the source code, thinking about user experience and performance and maintainability and edge cases are real skills and habits that you need to have or build. If someone has to write out a super-detailed design doc or play 40 questions before delegating something to you because otherwise you write something that will require major restructuring later that’s not gonna stand forever and it’s not entirely the fault of the person delegating. Good judgment can be a real skill and expecting it isn’t the same as expecting mind reading

      1. Lilyp*

        To be fair, if this IS what’s going on the boss should be taking the initiative to identify the pattern and coach OP on it, so she’s still in the wrong here in that sense.

        1. Employment Lawyer*

          Honestly if the problem is “act like the smart people do” that is
          a) often difficult to identify (since it is spread across many domains);
          b) virtually impossible to coach for most people who aren’t professional coaches or otherwise trained in coaching, even if it’s theoretically attainable for the employee; and
          c) not attainable by a significant fraction of employees, no matter how much coaching you give them.

    3. Anononon*

      Yes, this is something to keep in mind. One of my biggest skills is that I’m very intuitive and receptive when it comes to learning new things. I’m good at filling in the blanks and putting the big picture together with not much information. However, this also means that I’m not always the best teacher/trainer because I skip a lot of steps that other people need, especially at the beginning. There could be an issue with the boss where she’s expecting OP to “get” certain things without needing to explain them because the boss has always “gotten” it.

      1. Alianora*

        Yes, I could see this being the case. It’s still on the person training the other person to catch these patterns, but it’s very possible the boss doesn’t have this issue with other employees she’s trained.

        While I was reading the letter I was thinking about my coworker, who I was asked to train. I could see him writing a similar letter. He does work hard and he means well, but he needs very detailed instructions and doesn’t really take it upon himself to try to figure out what to do when he runs into an issue.

        For example, there’s a weird edge case that we run into sometimes in our work. It’s just something you have to remember. So I explained it to him the first few times he ran into it. After about 5 times, I said, “Let’s add this info to the reference document.” We went to check his reference document and it was already written down there – he just wasn’t checking it before coming to me with the question.

        Or sometimes he makes mistakes with report parameters that renders the reports completely useless, because he doesn’t think about the purpose of the report. As in, I’ll ask him to run the XYZ report to check on tickets that have been pending for more than 3 months. He’ll run the report for tickets in the past week, even though I’ve previously explained the purpose of the XYZ report.

        So I’ve learned to be very, very specific when I ask him to do things, because I don’t feel like I can count on him to catch his own mistakes. And if I’m asking him to use a new software or system, I walk him through it a couple of times first. I think this is an extreme case, and probably not exactly what’s going on with the LW, but possibly a similar dynamic to consider.

  25. Oeskathine*

    Ugh, my former boss was just like this. It was so exhausting as we’d have to redo a project 3-5 times because he’d neglect to inform us of a key detail or be too vague in his instructions. Of course when we tried to ask for more details he’d say some BS like “I trust your judgment” and but then he’d hate the result. Plain laziness and poor management.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      That was my PhD advisor. We called it “management by guess and check”. He always had a very specific outcome in mind, but refused to state it outright – and any attempts to make him do so would result in lengthy “coaching” sessions, to the effect that he wanted to help us find a job that would better suit our laziness and stupidity. All we could do was show him a draft, judge whether it had gotten better or worse by the intensity of the butt-chewing that resulted, and iterate from there.

      Suffice it to say that I now screen potential bosses for this trait VERY carefully.

  26. JSPA*

    This is a common problem when dealing with people who believe they think in categories, but actually think in specifics.

    Someone above gave the example of, “bring a rock.”

    You combat it (well, if you can’t leave) by making the options explicit:

    This could mean A, or B, or C, or D. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’m going with C.

    Next, you could want me to focus on aspect x, for reason / audience x’ or aspect y, for reason/audience y’. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll be assuming x.

    Stylistically, I’m assuming medium-high contrast, for easy appreciation across a table, and a serif font, and accent colors taken from our logo. Again, if this doesn’t sound workable, let me know.

    I’ll send you a mockup by noon Tuesday; if no feedback, I’ll continue with the project Thursday, and have a rough draft Friday afternoon.

    The “ownership” your boss wants you to take likely isn’t ownership of the entire process, including all decisions; it’s ownership of defining the choices and parameters, as well as scheduling feedback points.

    1. toots*

      This is kind of a tough balance to strike. I’ve worked with people who see the adage “don’t tell your boss about a problem unless you’re also telling them the ways you could solve it” and thus take on decision-making power about which is the BEST way to solve it it. Then they tack on a few poorly fleshed-out other options to complete the brief of offering multiple solutions.

      1. JSPA*

        This shows up a lot at public comment sessions of planning hearings. I’ve learned to always have options ready, to flesh out the “Fake options we don’t want you to consider seriously.”

        1. Certaintroublemaker*

          As a designer, I’ve learned to not offer the “don’t take seriously” options, because they’ll invariably get picked! (In planning you have the advantage in perhaps being able to list out the anticipated pros and cons, heavy on the cons for the fake options.)

  27. Michael Valentine*

    This is my boss! He has gotten better over time –I’m his first direct report–but there is still a lot of mind reading to be done. Our projects are not similar enough to each other for me to learn how anything goes, so I’m left guessing. I’ve asked for a template or example, there never is one; I’ve used examples I found online, those are always wrong; I’m told to own something, but I never do that right either; I’ve tried doing mockups or “slices” to make sure I’m on the right track and then told it’s not finished enough for feedback or that I’m outsourcing too much of the thinking. I can’t win, and it’s very frustrating.

    1. JM in England*

      I feel your pain!

      Have had this kind of boss too and there’s no pleasing ’em…

  28. JM in England*

    There is one simple, virtually foolproof way to get your employee to do the work the way you envisioned it…………….TELL THEM!

  29. Tiredtiredtired*

    I’ve worked for this type of boss/manager, twice now and my advice to OP (on top of Alison’s) is to document everything and plot your exit.

    From my experience, unless the manager/boss/colleague in question is remotely reasonable and receptive to feedback (and OP it doesn’t sound like your boss is), conversations on the matter, no matter how diplomatic are unlikely to resolve the issue. I’ve tried doing this before and calling attention to it makes the person in question feel called out/attacked and creates tension in the working relationship. Instead of giving you the info yo u need to succeed, they will continue to label you as either high maintenance, or in OP’s case as unable to take ownership and direction and will point to your asking questions and failure to meet expectations as evidence of that.

    I will say initiate the dialogue a few times to see if it helps. If it doesn’t, as Alison said, you’ll at least have some clarity on the situation.

  30. Lilyp*

    In addition to all the good advice already given, it might help to sit down and write out all the corrections your boss has made over the last month or two (or start keeping a log going forward!) and rating where they fall on a scale from subjective to objective (e.g. you should have used purple because I like purple — this would work but would be logistically difficult to roll out — this is factually incorrect) and see if any patterns fall out. If they’re predominantly subjective maybe you need to have a conversation about how “ownership” really has to include the authority to make and own your own stylistic decisions for it to be meaningful. If there are a lot of more objective or in-between complaints maybe you can find patterns for what you need to think about or ask about upfront — interfaces with other departments? Interactions with existing products/programs? Office politics? Upgrade paths? Are there best practices or industry norms or office norms you should get more familiar with?

  31. LKW*

    Definitely agree with the recommendation to mock up or draft a table of contents or outline of the work. Also ask if she has examples of things she’s used, recreating the wheel isn’t a good use of your time if she has stuff that can be leveraged/reused.

    What I’ve also found helpful was to take a good ol’ fashioned piece of paper or a white board and say ” are you thinking this… and then just start drawing/writing and have them correct in real time.”

    Your manager is not a good manager – if you want a specific outcome, you need to give people a template or example. If you don’t give people a template, you have to accept that what you get may differ but that you need to accept that it’s not exactly what you envisioned but as long as the content is complete and the messaging is accurate, it’s OK.

  32. Bookworm*

    I was in a somewhat similar position, except I didn’t get any feedback until the end of the temp job. Although it was not certain, there was talk about possibly hiring me for FT. I was never given any feedback to tell me that I was doing anything wrong, as in, I’d ask and they’d tell me it was fine.

    When I sat down at the end, thinking they were going to talk about transitioning me into a FT job, they told me I was not going to be brought on, that my work was not good and I was too slow. They admitted they weren’t very good at giving feedback (yeah, putting it MILDLY there) but there was nothing I could do. They’d give me a short extension but that was it.

    Look for another job. In my case everyone I worked with all left within 3-5 years, so in retrospect I likely saved myself some hassle anyway. Some people who are in positions of supervising and/or managing really aren’t good at it, as might be in your case. I’m sorry you’re going through that.

  33. bluephone*

    Ah, I had a boss like this. Unfortunately, the only real solution was to find a different job with a different boss :(

  34. Taura*

    I’m not sure asking questions as recommended is actually going to help. It probably won’t HURT, and there doesn’t really seem to be any other way to get the info out of the boss so I’m not saying don’t do it, but it sounds like the boss is going “here! Work on this for me” and then when LW asks for details the boss is going “ugh, figure it out for yourself” and I’m just not seeing where even the best phrased questions in the world are going to turn that into “yeah, so I was thinking xyz for this, and then…”

    1. Kate 2*

      Agreed. I tried doing this and my boss actually chewed me out for being “insubordinate”. If you boss refuses to answer questions and actually punishes you for trying to document via email as many commenters suggest, like my boss did, there is nothing to do but job hunt.

  35. EddieSherbert*

    OP, I relate to this so strongly! Is your manager new (or new-ish) to management?

    I totally agree that having a big picture conversation can be helpful, if you’re comfortable doing that!

    I had a manager where I was their first (and only) direct report and they would swing pretty wildly from totally hands-off to micromanagement the first couple years. Finally having a frank conversation about it, I learned that they thought they were “helping” “teach” me through “learning opportunities” by giving me no details at all, seeing what I come up with, and then telling me what they were actually looking for and having me totally re-do it (or often taking the project away and totally redoing it themselves). I had to explain that No, I actually find it extremely discouraging, and it makes me not want to take on anything new because I assume it’ll be trashed.

    It got better after that – we took several months to find a system that actually worked for us and my manager definitely still had some bad habits the whole time I was there – but I also felt pretty certain I *could* have a really blunt talk with them about the situation where they would listen to me without backlash.

  36. Eether Eyether*

    Start sending your comments/questions via email, bcc yourself, and SAVE them ALL.

    1. toots*

      What’s the difference between bcc-ing yourself and having the messages in your Sent folder?

        1. voyager1*

          Going to disagree with bcc. Places I have worked have outright banned its use. You can just add your own name in the To and get the same result.

  37. CyaneaCapillata*

    This sounds like my boss who would give me a task without instructions; then tell me exactly how I did it wrong halfway through, causing me to waste time fixing it; then scold me for not being efficient. Then, when I did her top-priority task perfectly and completed it ahead of time, she scolded me for having finished that task instead of asking for different work partway through. I was gone after three months.

      1. JSPA*

        Alison has asked that we not do psychological evaluations / not throw around psychological terms on AAM. Or at least, not do so unless it is relevant to proposing a way of dealing with the problem.

        As I understand it, the reason is multifold:

        Psychological problems are medical problems, not a moral failing, yet people use the terminology as shorthand for “your boss is a jerk / your boss isn’t going to change / your boss is terrible.” That’s not fair to people who have the disorder, and are doing their best, despite the disorder, to be decent bosses, decent employees, and decent human beings.

        Psychological disorders are hard to diagnose, even for experts. Even if they are “textbook.”

        The public understanding of most psychological disorders is shockingly bad / highly distorted ; people throw around assumptions about traits and treatments (or lack of treatments) in ways that are misleading, hurtful, or just not so. It’s as if anytime someone mentioned cancer or HIV, the commentariat jumped in to say, “well then, they’re a goner, make your goodbyes.”

        Even if people are sharing direct experience, the total of that knowledge is automatically skewed. (People who have a disorder under control are not as visible as those who are flailing; thus, the visible face of the disorder is of the person who doesn’t successfully compensate.) There’s also conflation between “person was scarringly bad to deal with” and “Person had X”: not all aspects of the badness were caused by X, and not all people with X are bad in the same ways.

        So, anyway, we’re asked to focus not on the “why they might be like this by nature”–and honestly, there are a thousand reasons–and move along to, “ways to approach the situation.”

    1. Pobody’s Nerfect*

      Yes thank you, It seems she WANTS the LW to feel small and bullied and incompetent. She is doing this on purpose as some sort of weird power play and it’s maddening. She could even be using it as a ploy to give the LW a poor annual review or use as “evidence” to terminate LW’s employment. Don’t trust this boss.

    2. Derjungerludendorff*

      Not really?
      The boss isn’t trying to make OP believe she said things that she didn’t, or otherwise trying to make her doubt her own senses and memory.
      She’s just not telling OP everything they need to know.

      Gaslighting is a very specific type of abuse, and this really isn’t it.

      1. JSPA*

        Yep. All unpleasantness-with-power-differential situations will have, for some people, echoes of other types of unpleasantness-with-power-differential situations. But language becomes meaningless if we declare them all interchangeable.

        Boss doesn’t need to instill doubt to create a power differential; it already exists, structurally.
        Boss is being careless with OP’s time and wasteful of OP’s effort. That stings, sure; but to assert that it’s a deliberate warping of reality, on the basis of exactly zero evidence, is fan-fic.

  38. Chronic Overthinker*

    LW I used to have this problem! I get ad hoc projects all day long from multiple sources. Some just hand me things and expect me to figure out or will give me little to no direction. It definitely led to incomplete projects, frustrations
    and extra work for those higher up early on. Now, after a frank talk with my supervisor I’m given accurate instructions or at least given direction on which resources I can use to find the instructions. Alison’s suggestion are perfect. Give your manager updates, templates and mock ups prior to completion and then they can add their concerns/comments/suggestions at that time. This also might be the time to ask where resources can be found. Do you have an intranet where you can find forms/templates/instructions? That can save you many headaches in the future.

  39. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    Are there any good, decent, competent bosses left anywhere? Bueller, Bueller? Do they all now go to some secret boss school where they learn how to be malicious, uncaring, incompetent bullies?

    1. Jackalope*

      There are still good bosses out there, but none of their reports need to write in!

  40. Choggy*

    I just wanted to jump in here to add you are not alone in having a manager who expects you to read their mind! This is probably the number one issue I have with my manager, her requests never have any context behind them so my response is vastly different than if I knew the who/what/where/why behind the question, and when she asks me to take the lead on a project, it’s without any guidance. I start to take over, based on our discussions, but then she think of something else, usually out of scope for the project, and so we’re back to starting from scratch. She won’t be my manager for too much longer, but will be working for my company in the same department and I’m worried that I’ll still be dragged into projects but am trying to push back as well. I am currently involved in a software roll out but have been given no information as to the role I’m playing or what I’m supposed to do, and will pull me into meetings at the last minute that have nothing to do with me.

  41. writelhd*

    I saw this and was somewhat worried it was about me. I have a highly detail oriented job, one that took me a dedicated year of formal training under a mentor, plus my college degree, plus 9 more years of the “school of hard knocks” to get to the level of knowledge I have now with it, and I have no assistant or employees…still not in the budget. But new employees regularly have some degree of interest in what I do, and management likes to have me try to give them small projects as a way to do “cross training” while also “helping” me manage my workload in lei of hiring me somebody. But as a result, I worry I am guilty of causing one of my “employees” to feel this way.

    My issue is that doing this job in a way that is remotely helpful to me requires a great degree of technical knowledge, and you can’t really get it out of a book, you have to acquire through experience. My approach has been to sit down and explain/show the technical thing, see what questions she has, then sit down and do the technical thing *together* (well, more or less, mostly I’m doing it and explaining to her what I’m doing and letting her see it as I’m doing it), then assigning her items to try out on her own then send back to me for corrections. Usually her work comes back needing quite a few. But!, I try to make it clear that I don’t expect her to get it perfectly right on the first (few) tries and doing these on her own with corrections is part of learning. However this exercise makes me constantly aware of how vague I might be without realizing it, and I’m constantly floored by how much detail I’ve absorbed over the years and utilize daily, and I am really stumped on how to make that learning curve easier for others.

    1. JSPA*

      Depending, the answer may actually be, “youtube-style video, with time points listed below.” You can do variants, show the thinking and the process concurrently, and your narration isn’t interrupted in real time by making sure that the person sitting there is catching on. Plus, you can edit, or suggest good jumping off points for “what if you need / here’s where you bring in X.” The person learning doesn’t have to take notes; they can review as often as necessary; they can recapitulate what you did. It’s distancing-friendly, and you can reuse it for the next person with essentially no extra time lost.

    2. JQWADDLE*

      Whitelhd – this sentence tells me you aren’t doing what OP is talking about – “My approach has been to sit down and explain/show the technical thing, see what questions she has, then sit down and do the technical thing *together*”. You are sitting with the person and providing guidance. The one thing they say about people who are very proficient/experts at what they do is that they sometimes have a tough time teaching – mostly because they aren’t following a script anymore, they are doing things by feeling or muscle memory. Then when the new person asks “Why did you do that?” the expert is kind of flabbergasted and wants to answer, “Because that is how it is done,” which isn’t very satisfying for the newbie who is looking for step 1, step 2, step 3, etc.

      The only thing I could add that might help here is that maybe you need more than 1 example (if possible). I personally like 2-3 examples. There usually are nuances to each “fix” so giving more examples also gives examples of the nuances they might encounter. Plus it gives you a chance to say, “This is similar to A, but it is slightly different because….” and talking through things like that is generally pretty helpful.

  42. learnedthehardway*

    It sounds to me like the manager thought they were getting a more experienced person for the role than they actually hired. If they wanted someone who could run with the role without guidance, they should have hired someone with the background and experience to do just that.

    Since you’re in the role, and you need the guidance, I think it would make sense for you to have a meeting with your manager to go over the fact that you have X experience, require direction from the manager on A, B, and C areas (where you don’t have experience).

    Alternatively, it could be that you have the experience and knowledge required, but the manager is just not good at giving direction. I’ve dealt with that before, where a manager would leave out important pieces of information about the project, and then wonder why things went off the rails (once, they forgot to tell me that the project was going to be in another city entirely). In that case, the person was senior enough to have an EA, so I would touch base with that person to get the complete scoop on the assignment. If you don’t have that option, you could respond back to briefings with a write-up of what you understand the assignment to be, and request additional information if there is something you don’t understand. At least it would be documented that you TRIED to get the information you need to do the work. (With the manager I was supporting, I eventually had to tell them that I was not a mind-reader.)

    1. sofar*

      Yes, I also wondered if there was an experience gap here, too. In my field, I’ve gotten used to having hires with certain degrees and certain experience, to whom I can say, “Produce an XYZ, here is an example of what we’ve previously done, now run with it” and it’s fine. And when someone comes in and just doesn’t quite have the experience to do that, it can be … jarring. They’ve put in hours of work and what they’ve produced in no way resembles what you thought was a basic request. And, even if they ask questions, it can be hard to catch this. I had a new writer (with work experience and a writing degree) ask if she could write a guide that was a little longer than the example I’d given her, and I said, “Well, sure, use your best judgement.” The example was about 500 words. She turned in 3,000 words. I didn’t even anticipate that, but now I say, “If you find that this is going over 700 words, you need to come to me so that we can align.”

      In this case, even if it is an experience gap, the manager *should* know that she needs to communicate the steps/expectations more clearly.

    2. Kira*

      I don’t think that this is an issue with OP’s experience level. It just sounds like the manager isn’t very good yet at setting expectations for what good work looks like. Her comments when she realizes the miscommunication hasn’t been that experienced employees get it right and OP is going through a learning curve, but rather that she never told OP what the project needed to be.

  43. Candi is Dandy*

    I previously had a boss that was terrible with direction. My favorite story was the time that she told me to just do this spreadsheet and make it work. I tried for 45 minutes and asked a few other people if they could explain it to me. No one could. I finally had to go check in with her for further direction.
    Her response – Exactly WHICH part don’t you understand. You are supposed to fill in Column x and leave column y blank.
    Me – okay. Just to verify I need to fill in Column X that you marked for me do NOT fill in and leave column Y blank which you marked ONLY fill in this column?
    Her response: I don’t understand why you don’t get this.
    Started immediately applying for other jobs.

  44. Anonymous For This One*

    This happened at my last job working for someone else. As in my husband and I went into business for ourselves after this job. I would be assigned things I had NEVER done before and had not been trained for. Was always told “figure it out”. WTF! I worked at this place for 26 years, multiple promotions and raised, glowing reviews. Until my last year there. During that time I rebuffed a senior managers attempt at “flirting”. And my life was hell for the next year. The “figure it out” always ended up in me being written up. I grew to HATE these people. When my health finally tanked I left…and sued. Thank God that whole year is now many many years and a lifetime behind me. But I still get enraged when I think of it.

  45. ArtK*

    An alternative interpretation, that still puts the onus on the manager: They’re someone who can’t really deal with “that’s not the way I’d do it, but it’s still good.” If someone delgates work, it’s quite possible that the delegatee (?) will do the work in a way that is different. They may even do it better than what the delegator had imagined. The delegator has to ask “does this meet the need?” and not “does this meet the need the way *I* would have done it?” Focus on the latter question can end up discouraging innovation and growth.

    This is something that I’ve struggled with for many years.

  46. OP*

    Hi all – OP here. I really appreciate all the suggestions and ideas in here. It’s also just validating to hear that it’s not just me.

    To clarify a few things, I’ve seen her do it to other people too, so I think it is about her style. She’s very experienced in this field and newer to managing which it seems like may be part of the issue.

    Giving her feedback in the past has had mixed results, sometimes she gives the cold shoulder if you say something she doesn’t like. A few times I’ve tried and things change for a few weeks and then go back to normal.

    The giving her an ‘early’ slice is a good idea that I think I’ll try. I tend to like to only share things when they are polished because otherwise I’m nervous it makes me look bad but that could be contributing to this issue, so maybe I need to let go of that a little.

    1. Kira*

      Hi OP! I think the early slice approach is really helpful. I’ve had to get better at identifying valuable places in my projects to pause and get buy-in (in part because many of my projects are never “done”, there’s a lot of value to touching base and checking if it’s good enough and I need to switch projects.)

      You can try the email – “Here’s a sneak peak at the white paper on llama grooming. Mind taking a look at the table of contents page to make sure I’m covering all the bases?”

      … or the short call – “Can I grab 10 minutes with you this afternoon? I’m making good progress on the marketing plan for X and wanted to run through a couple rough spots with you to make sure I’m not going too crazy.”

    2. snoopythedog*

      Good idea, OP!

      My boss is like yours but to a much lesser extent. I would also suggest reaching out by phone for clarification. I’ve found chats/emails can get confusing if you need more than a yes/no or direct feedback on something written/visual.

    3. Row row row your boat*

      LW, it sounds like you’ve got this smothered and covered, so I have no unique advice, just affirmations because I’m in a similar boat. It’s draining, demoralizing, and (if you’re like me) *SO* stressful to have a boss tell you that your work wasn’t what they wanted even when you met the brief they provided. You’re not alone. I’m also working on being better at managing up with these techniques, and communication is improving with my manager slowly, but it is improving.

  47. the Automator*

    Ha, this is my entire job. I work in software, and a lot of the time my bosses come to me with a vague request, something like “Facebook for dogs”. Often, they don’t really know what they want; it’s up to me to help them figure it out. As a software designer/coder, my role is to guide the process. I love all the advice to give outlines or mockups, but I routinely go further than that, and have a process with multiple opportunities for feedback.

    So, if I were assigned “Facebook for dogs”, the first step would be something like a quick in-person meeting just to answer some large, general questions. “What prompted this? Who are we targeting? What kinds of things would a dog owner be able to accomplish logging in to their dog’s Facebook account?”

    Next step would be creating a list of goals for the project: 1. allow dog owners to rate dog parks 2. allow dog owners to meet up with other owners for playdates 3. allow dog owners to join breed groups. I would write these, and then send them via email or chat for approval and/or notes/feedback.

    Third, rough mockups for each of those pages. Here’s the dog park review page. Here’s the playdate event creator. Here’s the breed group. Nothing super detailed, just basic outlines of the different actions available. Another brief meeting where I explain all the choices and get feedback.

    And so on and so forth. The general idea is that at no point are my bosses surprised by anything I’m doing, and each opportunity for feedback is refining the previous step. If you wait until you have created the custom breed award logos before your manager tells you she wanted a way for dogs to express political opinions, everyone’s unhappy. Instead, keep her in the loop the entire time, so you can incorporate feedback as it shows up.

    1. ArtK*

      I had a job where the boss said “We need a portal.” I asked all the right questions like “Who will be using this portal?” “What operations will they perform through this portal?”. I got nothing back. I *did* hear from a colleague that he was bad-mouthing me to others saying that I was the “worst software architect he’d ever had” and that the others would have had a portal done by then. I was *very* happy that he got moved out of that job.

      1. the Automator*

        Yikes. I’m glad you were able to move out of that. Sounds like you did the best you could, considering.

  48. Kira*

    This seems to be working with me & my boss (similar boat – she’s aware she often doesn’t share all her relevant expectations up front, and she’s working on being better at that).

    One thing that *seems* to be helping is that I’ve developed a kit of go-to questions at the start of a project. They’re open enough that they fall into the “just making sure I’m doing this well” camp instead of the “what font color do you want me to use? which font size? do you want this word or that word” level where it feels like I’m requesting micromanaging. We were often on different pages about turnaround time/priority, what problem the document needed to answer, etc. Some of my go-to’s are:

    – “Do you know how quickly you want this? Are we generally thinking this afternoon or next quarter?” (or “Before your next meeting with your boss”)
    – Sounds great! I’ll copy Example B from last week and use that as my starting point, sound good? (often leads to clarification from boss about how she expects this to be different from Example B)
    – Got it! I’ll whip up a blog post-length piece emphasizing how the new product solves problems A and B!
    – So when I create this ad, what’s the main call to action again? It sounds like we want to drive them to this webpage, right? (the helpful part here is providing my gut reaction so it’s not completely “tell me what to do”. That also really helps build up trust when you are on the right track and she can see that.)

    Like somebody commented above – a lot of this is just variations of “here’s my rough plan” that provides a low-effort opening for her to realize you’re not on the same page. It takes some personal knowledge of your projects, and what kinds of things she tends to forget to communicate, in order for the questions to actually get useful reactions. Y’know, don’t spend a lot of time clarifying the deadline if that’s not the issue. And if you’re not identifying a theme in her changes, then I guess maybe just sprinkle a couple of these in each time to see if any of them hit home?

  49. Just stoppin' by to chat*

    I’m inferring her based on my own experience, but it sounds like the manager either assumed the LW had different skills/experiences than they actually do, or just want them to, and so are getting annoyed with having to “hold the LW’s hand.” Even though this is not the LW’s perspective. I agree with needing to have a straight-forward discussion with the manager about what they can realistically do. But it just sounds like an annoyed manager that isn’t dealing with the resource they have available to them in a productive way.

  50. Kolgate*

    It seems like the manager had someone else mid-career in this entry level position, and then expected this new grad(?) to be able to do mid-career work…without the years of experience, just some classes on the subject, if at all. So they’re saving a few bucks on a person in their first job, no experience, and expecting them to be able to do the job. And they can’t, because they don’t have those years of experience. I’d blame the manager, they should’ve done a better job interviewing and selecting someone mid career, and if that meant paying more for a mid level candidate, they should’ve hired that person. And if they don’t hire someone appropriate for the tasks/job, then they’d better train them.

    I don’t think people really mind read, they have years of experience to pull from in order to appear to “mind read” what their boss wants. Or maybe some people do mind read, but I’ve never heard of such a person…

    As for managers who say they’re more intuitive about how to do a task, I’d suggest taking a simple task like filling out an online form, and write down every single step involved in filling it out. Including stuff like: do you need to tab to the next field, or do you need to put the cursor at the next field. How do you complete/save/submit all the data in the fields? Where is this information that you’re inputting?

    I did this in a library setting to create a manual for everyday tasks. For example it seemed more intuitive to me to do ____ to check journals into the database as received, when there were actually many steps involved for something that took just a minute. Try doing something like this at least as an exercise before you provide any training to your employee. And if you have an employee who forgets stuff said in a training, it helps them learn the task if they can refer to the manual instead of going to you to ask questions, yet again. They can take notes, but sometimes stuff is not translated well as some commenters have mentioned.

  51. Nessa*

    I have a boss like this! He hates training people and only gives vague responses to questions, so we frequently have to figure things out ourselves, and when we do, we get told we did something completely wrong, like “Why didn’t you use the template?” I didn’t know there WAS a template or where to find it because I was never told this information.

    It’s caused a lot of anxiety amongst our team, and it’s not helped by the fact that our boss also frequently forgets things he’s said or done and will sometimes just refuse to answer questions. I’ve had to ask him the same question 4 times to get an answer out of him. We go into projects without all of the information, only to be told later, “Oh, the client told me that they wanted something completely different and they hate everything you’ve done.”

    It’s a big reason why our small company has such high turnover because no one can stand working here for very long.

  52. MissDisplaced*

    It is hard sometimes, especially if you have a boss (or salespeople in my case) who are not good at communicating or articulating what they want. Beware vague 5 word emails! But you CAN get better at dealing with ambiguity. Learn to ask a series of clarifying questions quickly, even if you feel stupid for asking.

    They may vary, but for me it’s usually:
    >who is the audience?
    >what is the main goal, point, objective, theme or idea you want to convey?
    >where/how do you want to distribute it? (social, brochure, website, meeting slides, video, spreadsheet, etc.)
    >when do you need it by?

    It’s a skill you learn to hone. But even then sometimes you still have to just sit down or call once you get a little ways into projects. I’m not embarrassed to ask for a checkpoint, or a review of a early draft to make sure it’s what they expect.

  53. Rocket surgery*

    We call this the “Bring me a rock” problem. Here’s your rock, boss. Wrong color rock, employee. Wrong shape, wrong size, etc., etc.

  54. Daisy*

    Oh my God!? Are you me? I have the exact same issue with my boss. It’s so frustrating!

  55. Six Feet Under Par: A Chip Driver Mystery*

    How frustrating. In my line of work, we use reverse briefs, where we write down what we’ve been asked to do and submit it for feedback before starting the project. Would that help here? Google Return Brief or Reverse Briefs

  56. Bun bun*

    Oh look it’s my ex-boss! Except mine was a man. I hope your “early slice” method works… but having experienced this type of manager myself, and trying every strategy under the sun, I doubt they will change their ways.

    It didn’t matter what I did (check-ins, progress updates, just hunker down and “figure it out”, ask questions, emails and meetings and blah blah blah), everything was wrong. If I figured it out myself and it was correct, he would get mad at me and take away job duties or ask why I didn’t do more. If I tried to figure it out and it wasn’t correct, I’d get berated for not asking questions or seeking out guidance. When I sought out guidance or asked questions, I was told I needed to figure it out because he didn’t want to do that. He literally told me when I requested to be trained on a process that it wasn’t happening because it’s not how he does things. Despite being told by HIS boss to train me.

    I felt like I was taking crazy pills. Needless to say it was so stressful, I ended up quitting when it became apparent nothing would change.

  57. cncx*

    a few jobs ago i had a manager like this who would do stuff like berate me for doing A instead of B, then the next time i did B write me up for not doing A.

    I racked my brain wondering if it was me, if it was her, if it was personality, if it was my skills…i finally got fed up and started job hunting. What was really going on is her friend used to have my position and there were politics in play that had nothing to do with me (i spent months fixing her friend’s mistakes even), but i didn’t know that until my professional self-esteem was effectively shot.

    There’s certain types of management mismatches that you can’t communicate or work hard your way out of.

  58. Wherethewildthingsare*

    this resonates so much in my current situation and it’s caused me a lot of emotional anxiety and a big blow to my self confidence (I’ve had to start therapy to help me work through some of the issues.) Thankfully I am getting out soon, and I am thinking how I can frame this sort of issue (if at all) in my exit interview (the problem is that these incidents taken individually can come across as nitpicking / that I am over sensitive, but as a whole, can result in some pretty serious long term damage to emotional and mental well-being)!

    Hang in there OP, but definitely start looking for your escape route!

  59. Carmela San Diego*

    I had a boss like this. I always though she did it because she wanted to prove only she could do the work.

  60. Workfromhome*

    Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where George is given a project but the boss gets interrupted before he can tell him what its supposed to be.

    This is tremendously frustrating especially since the boss continually admits “I should have been clearer”. He’s not just wasting your time but his own because projects could be completed much faster if you were not having to go back to square 1 after you finish because it wasn’t what he wanted.

    I’d suggest that since you seem to do many of these things that you create a “request” template. List out the things that you need to know to complete the project. Like an outline with a goal, essential components, the output (any details that go along with it -must be less than 10 pages blue font etc) and deadlines. Next project use it by saying “I find that sometimes these take longer because I don’t have the essential information or a clear idea of what you want. I want to deliver exactly what you want as quickly as possible. Ever project I’m going to ask you the questions to fill this in and then at the end we can be sure what I give you matches what you asked for.

    If he says no just figure it out push back. “I’m happy to figure out how to get it done but I NEED to know these things to get it done. If I don’t know your presentation is 30 minutes long up front and needs to include the budget figures for 2021 and 22 I can’t make the prestation less than 30 minutes and wont include the right budget figures.” He may not like it because it will force him to really think through (with your help) what needs to happen rather than just saying “make me a presentation” and then leaving the room. It seems to be common among many levels people just want to push a button and then its someone else problem.

    Its critical you ask questions about what HE wants not how to get it done. This will avoid him getting frustrated or side tracked with the whole “you figure it out” . You tell me exactly what you need and ill figure it out BUT when I deliver it it will be based on what this document says you need.

    Once you’ve gathered the information for the template make sure you email a copy of it to the boss. If he doesn’t come back to you with changes then you move forward and check in part way through to say “Hey I’m half way through and I have A and B done towards the project which needs A,B C and D at the end.” If you receive no response keep going.

    Then at the end you present the finished product and review it matching up “You asked for A.B.C and D and here they are. If you hear “Well its missing a crucial piece of F” the response is F was not in the plan you signed off on. Give me the parameters for F and I’ll work on adding it in.

    This is not going to solve the issue of boss being unclear or changing his mind. What it will do is help YOU frame the way you feel about it. It goes from being told “You are doing a poor job(of being a mind reader) cause you don’t give me what I want
    To “The boss is doing a poor job of spelling out the needs of his projects…I’m hitting all the targets ..its his fault not mine”
    While it will be frustrating at least you can feel better in your own mind.

  61. Nom de plume*

    Oof. I had this boss. When I would ask her for clarity, she complained to HR that I was questioning her authority and pushing back on her requests. When I did the thing, she found everything to criticize about it – down to the font, whether or not colons were bolded, etc. (and note these were internal research documents for which there was no template so as long as the formatting was consistent it didn’t matter whether I used TNR or Calibri). Not only that but she would yell at me for not knowing which documents should have bolded colons and which shouldn’t. Incidentally, she also used to find the documents I was actively working on on the shared drive and yell at me when the formatting wasn’t perfect – while I was actively writing and copying from different sources. Did I mention I was an intern?

  62. boop the first*

    Omg I feel for you so bad. I had a boss like this… He accidentally fired his best worker and had no one left to train me and he didn’t know how to do it himself. So my training was giving me the task, telling me what the final result should look like, and asking me to demonstrate how I would get there. So I would make an attempt, and then, and only then, would he bark at me about how wrong I was and inform me of some extra steps he could have told me about in the beginning.

    To be way more fair than it deserves, I certainly do learn better from mistakes, that is true. But every task gave me so much anxiety I was constantly breaking out into eczema blisters and mouth ulcers, and it took a whole six months to get out of training mode.

  63. Quinalla*

    I had a similar situation as an intern in college. My supervisor would yell at me if I asked ANY questions when he gave me extremely vague or incomplete instructions, but I knew I couldn’t get my work done (I was an INTERN, I knew only what I’d learned in 3 years of school) if I didn’t get questions answered, so I persisted. I also did save some questions for others who I knew could help me, not sure if that is relevant for the OP, but figured I’d mention it. At the end of the term, he had a summer BBQ at his house with all the staff and interns and took me aside and said I was the best intern he’d ever had and he appreciated that I “stood up” to him. I was baffled as I thought he hated me from all the yelling, but apparently he thought I was great. So it worked out ok for me, but jeez was it annoying. Some strategies that helped:

    1. I mentioned previously: Asking others for help when possible so I had to ask him less questions.
    2. Re framing it in my head as I wasn’t bothering him, I was getting clarification so I could do my job.
    3. Asking his admin for advice – she recommended standing my ground and not backing down.

    I would definitely try Alison’s advice if I ran into a similar situation again. I would have an overall conversation about “Hey, this situation keeps happening, how can we make this better for next time?” conversation and have ideas like setting aside time for a clarification meeting after the assignment, giving a rough draft for review very early on and maybe a mid-point draft, etc. depending on length of the assignment, getting examples of what they want, etc.

    Good luck, it is frustrating, but don’t feel like you are doing anything wrong and I strongly recommend erring on the side of asking too many questions. You need clarity to do your job, that IS taking ownership. Sometimes you can rephrase it less of a question and more of a check-in to help “How do you want X done?” vs. “I’m planning to do Y and Z for X, any suggestions?”

  64. NinaBee*

    Sounds like those “I’ll know it when I see it” types of clients we see in design industry :)

  65. Ember*

    I had bosses who were like this and it’s so annoying, i wonder if it is because they are old and white (im in singapore).
    They are always super vague and don’t know what they want, they only know what they don’t like. Time to document everything down

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