how to support a struggling new manager

A reader writes:

I manage a newish manager, Jane, who has a team of four. Her team includes Rose and Lisa, newly joined from elsewhere in the company but experienced in their roles. In fact, they have more experience than either me or Jane in this work.

Both Rose and Lisa have performance problems. Jane has been addressing these. But I’ve discovered that they are ignoring direct instructions, and Jane is having lengthy circular discussions trying to convince them to do as instructed. They are at a level where they work very independently and it would be appropriate for them to push back a little on managerial suggestions if they have good reason to, but this is going too far. What can I do to address this without undermining Jane?

I have been clear to Jane that this behavior is not acceptable and justifies a formal performance improvement plan, and suggested that she make it clear to them that’s the next step if this continues. She is very supportive of her team, and really wants to find a way to make it all work, but I worry that she is spending too much of her time on them and they’re not going to repay the effort.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I think my employee’s emotional outbursts might be hormone-related
  • My coworker tried to reassign my work to other people
  • Mentoring a student with questionable social media judgment
  • Turning down former employees’ offers to volunteer

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. shannanigans*

    LW4 – literally went “oh no” aloud when I got to the part where the student with a risqué social media presence wants to get into corporate PR.

    If your own personal public image is detrimental to your personal goals, why would a business hire you to manage their public image?

    1. Zephy*

      In this day and age, she might-could parlay that into a career as an influencer, I don’t know. I think OP4 at least owes it to this girl to explain what it looks like from the other side of the desk, as best they can, and then it’s up to her to decide how much that matters to her, do her own research, and make decisions about what she puts online accordingly. I think this is an old letter so I’d be curious to know where the student ended up.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, me too. It’s entirely possible she ended up building a social media presence for an organization that doesn’t care about a risqué social media presence. They probably don’t exist in the corporate world, but I could easily imagine her working for some sex-positive non-profit. I assume they exist.

    2. Mongrel*

      Probably worse is wanting to get into corporate PR and not understanding why some publicly available social media stuff would be detrimental.

      1. jolene*

        I have an *extremely* risque friend with a very glamorous and sexy life who’s in very high level corporate PR: hedge funds in the UK. If she finds the right berth, she might do very well indeed!

  2. Myrin*

    #3, in addition to what Alison suggests, I personally always like framing things as misunderstandings (Alison mentions that as well but I would personally incorporate this into my script), as in “I think there might have been a misunderstanding regarding [tasks] – they never get divided up but are all things I do myself. Did [manager] tell you something different?”.

    And this is actually one of the rare cases where I wouldn’t use the “misunderstandings” angle as a kind of lubricant knowing full well that the other persons knows exactly what they’re doing – this is legitimately so odd that the only other explanation besides a bona fide misunderstanding would be that your coworker apparently wanted to do zero of your tasks and just decided by herself that she would fob them off to others; although that does seem unlikely to me since she also copied OP and the boss, which really makes it seem like she thought what you do with [tasks] is delegate them to others.

    What she herself did, then, for the rest of the week during your absence remains a mystery.

    1. Weekend Please*

      Yeah. It sounds like she was under the impression that these tasks were permanently reassigned to her and redistributed the new tasks to make the workload manageable.

    2. Cj*

      I’m not sure that the OP does usually do all of these tasks, since she asks if she should send out a new e-mail reassigning tasks herself.

      1. Myrin*

        That’s the one part I found a bit unclear but since she calls those tasks “the tasks normally assigned to me” and her first suggestion is to send an email saying that she’s got it/will take over, I assumed this part just seemed unclear to me (and you) because I don’t know what kind of work exactly it is she’s doing.

    3. Formerly Ella Vader*

      Or the OP could address it as if it was a misunderstanding about when she would be back at work. Like “That won’t be necessary, as I’m back on duty as of today as scheduled.”

  3. EPLawyer*

    #4 — oh heavens.

    I remember graduating law school when social media was starting to be a “Thing.” I told all my classmates to be careful what they posted (lots of drinking, risque poses, etc). The general reaction “I don’t want to work anywhere that would judge me based on my private life.” yeah, you are going into law, good luck with that.

    Honestly people don’t believe what they post on social media can harm them — until it does.

    You can try explaining to her, but if she won’t listen, there’s nothing else you can do.

    #1 — Jane needs to stop trying to be the “nice” boss and just be the boss. You can explain to her that part of being a manager is making the hard decisions — like putting someone on a PIP then having then not like you. The job is not to be liked, its to get the job done as professionally as possible.

    1. Zona the Great*

      The thought that personal behaviors shouldn’t impact work is odd to me. I managed shuttle drivers in a small resort town. I fired several for drinking excessively in public houses, speeding or driving unsafely in their personal cars, or for their public social media posts. Why would I want a passenger to see you at the bar getting trashed? I wouldn’t want to ride in their car the next day. I just wouldn’t know enough about their judgement. Adult or not.

  4. pcake*

    To letter writer 2 who is SURE that their employee’s issues are hormone-related, there are other things it could be. They could get a once a month call from an aged parent whose monthly check is beyond their ability to deal with, they could have a monthly bill that goes wrong every month, a monthly doctors appointment for the employee or a family member for something scary or that isn’t going well, a monthly treatment, a spouse who can’t pay the mortgage/rent each month that leads to an argument and money fears… I could keep going…

    1. RC Rascal*

      My thought was it could be financially related as well. Certain bills show up at the same time every month. I have previously lived paycheck to paycheck and remember the tension the end of every month when rent was due.

    2. KayDeeAye*

      The plain fact is that while severe PMS is definitely a real thing, it’s also fairly uncommon – particularly PMS that’s severe enough to cause the massive mood changes the OP describes. It’s just as likely to be something else that happens every 4 weeks (unless it’s a coincidence, which is also a possibility).

      My own husband gets cranky and moody every October, November and December because he knows he’s entering that magical time of the year when he’s about to start having to spend a bunch of time with his mother, which is for him a very stressful and even painful thing. I can assure you that if there was something required him to interact with his mother every four weeks (like if he had to go over bills with her or something), he would be cranky every four weeks. He’d try to suppress it because he’s a wonderful person, but there it is.

      There are a lot of possible reasons why Kristine is hard to get along with every four weeks, and her menstrual cycle is only one of them.

    3. Cat Tree*

      Yes, there are a million things that happen on a monthly schedule. Heck, it could even be that it’s just how long her frustration tolerance lasts and then it gets reset after she vents.

      I honestly don’t think I have ever noticed a cyclical mood pattern in any woman or suspected PMS, and I’m a woman with plenty of female friends. The few times a friend has specifically mentioned that she has PMS, I wouldn’t have even suspected. This situation feels uncomfortably like they were looking for it specifically so they think they found it.

      1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        The only instance where I’ve ever noticed anything cyclical like that with another person was when my daughter was still living under the same roof with me. The only reason I was aware of it with her was because she would mention feeling cranky because it was that time of the month, and I gradually started to notice a connection with certain behavior patterns occurring at the same times. So I’m not even sure if I can really take credit for noticing! I have definitely never picked up anything like that with a coworker.

    4. Minocho*

      I was going to post this. Flagging the pattern in timing could be useful for the employee, but it’s probably best to stop there, and let them use the information to examine what the cause might be.

      1. Ripley Jones*

        I am surprised Allison suggested the LW say it might be worth talking to a doctor – I feel like that’s over the line too. I would leave it at “I notice this is happening at regular intervals and it can’t continue…” and stay on the behaviour and the impact it is having. The rest is none of anyone’s business. This only changes if the employee comes back with “this is a medical issue,” then you can ask how to support them.

    5. MassMatt*

      While PMS is definitely a thing, I would be leery of going anywhere NEAR any kind of suggestion hinting at that.

      It’s basically the most gendered possible thing to say, with a terrible history. And may I add that it’s ridiculous to think that MEN don’t have mood swings, some brought on by hormones?

    6. OrigCassandra*

      Hi hi hello, I do have very conspicuous (to me myself) mood deterioration during late luteal phase. It’s like clockwork. I track timing largely for this reason — I need to engage the ol’ self-control earlier and better at this time.

      So with that in mind, I agree with Alison’s advice. Point out the temporal pattern, do not opine further.

    7. LadyBridgerton*

      As someone who has just started to have symptoms of peri menopause, I can report a very alarming mood shift – we’re talking severe lows and anger – for a few days at a certain time every month that has just surfaced in the last year.
      My doctor has told me it’s quite common. I track it so I have a hope of staying on top of it and trying not to let it affect my work relationships. It can be very challenging to do so I really sympathize if that’s the employee’s issue.

      I don’t think I’d mind if my boss sensitively pointed out the monthly timing as long as it framed as “is everything alright?” but I have a very real talk-type relationship with him. It would maybe feel strange if the employee wasn’t used to that type of discussion from their boss.

    8. Joan Rivers*

      It’s tempting to “diagnose” but you’re right there are numerous reasons it could be.

      LW: Focus on the behavior! You’re straying from how wrong it is. Focus and document!
      Even if it were PMS, that’s a cliche and seems sexist.
      Aging men can have behavior that seems related to age, hormones, etc. But we don’t speculate about that unless they leave wife and buy a Porsche.

      B U T it is true that women in, say a dorm, can synch up their cycles — it’s good info. to be aware of even if you don’t discuss it.

  5. Well...*

    I’ve had to explain to my manager 6 times why can’t I can’t do a thing I’ve always done the way he’s decided he wants me to. He’s frustrated. But it literally WILL NOT WORK the way he thinks it can work. Not even a little bit. If the two staff members each have more experience than both of you, is there a chance you should consider listen to them?

    1. Katrinka*

      If that were the case, it still doesn’t excuse the employees’ attitudes. They need to tell Jane that that is the issue, not just ignore her. And if Jane persists, they should tell her boss (OP). But given that OP is not a new manager, I’m pretty sure that’s not the issue.

    2. Team Rose and Lisa*

      That was my thought as well, maybe don’t go blaming those two just yet. They just be patiently trying to deal with an incompetent manager giving incompetent orders all while knowing there’s no one to support them.
      Or maybe Jane is, in reality, condescending and rude.

      Not that I’d know firsthand or anything!

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Mind you, given that Rose and Lisa have been moved from another department, it’s possible that they are being shunted around because they are such curmudgeons, never doing anything out-and-out fireable, just being obstinate and unpleasant, at the kind of place it’s difficult to get fired from.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      I think LW#1 left the door open for pushing back in situations like this (“They are at a level where they work very independently and it would be appropriate for them to push back a little on managerial suggestions if they have good reason to, but this is going too far.”), but that that is not what she’s seeing happen.

      I fully (FULLY) appreciate the challenge of having someone less knowledgeable try to direct one’s work in a less productive or infeasible way, but, I also know that flat-out ignoring instructions from your boss is not a good way to deal with that.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I have flat out ignored instructions from several different bosses when I know I’m right and they’re wrong. The good boss congratulated me, the others all just hated me.
        Should I have followed their instructions? I’m pretty sure I’d get all the flack for everything that went wrong…

        Now I’m a freelancer and it’s much better like that.

    4. JB*

      It honestly could also be a miscommunication.

      I walked into this issue on my last job. Small department – me, one long-time coworker, and a boss who had taken the department head position only a few years ago (as opposed to coworker’s decades in the position). Coworker and boss had a very bad relationship. Coworker thought boss was constantly asking stupid questions, boss thought coworker was refusing to follow his directions.

      It took me only a couple weeks to figure out what was happening.

      Boss would want to make a change to procedure. He would approach coworker and, every time, would phrase it as ‘why don’t you do it XYZ way?’

      He was saying ‘let’s discuss trying it this different way’. Coworker was hearing ‘justify to me why you’re doing things the way you’ve always done them rather than this other way’.

      So coworker would say something usually along the lines of ‘because this is how we’ve always done it’, boss would say that’s a bad reason, the conversation would devolve, and coworker would never get the message that boss wanted her to try the other method. It was a stupid problem between two stubborn but otherwise wonderful people, and once I started getting involved in the conversation and breaking the pattern they got along much better, but they had been doing this for years (years!).

  6. tanklizard*

    LW#3: You should consider going to your manager first and asking if these changes came from them or if your co-worker made this decision without management’s approval. You may find out your manager approved the change in responsibilities and hasn’t let you know yet (I’ve had that happen far to often.) or you may find they didn’t and are already taking steps to address the situation.

  7. Reality Check*

    #2 I used to work with a man who had angry emotional outbursts every 4 weeks (yes we all began marking our calendars)… so there’s that.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      I was thinking this could be my dad. Every month my stepmom told him she only bought the groceries and gas on the credit card. And then he’d get a $3K bill he had to figure out how to pay and was pissed for dayyyyyyyyyyyyyysssssssssssssssssss.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      We use “shark week” within one of my friend circles.

      Seriously, though, I used to get borderline suicidal due to PMS. I never melted down at work but there were some rough days.

      1. Aquawoman*

        I like both of those euphemisms and am also glad I have no need for them anymore! Dust Bunny, you have my sympathies.

  8. Anon for Now*

    LW #1 – I love Alison’s advice. I think it’s really critical to make it clear what is acceptable in her reports behavior and then help Jane manage the issue. I know I’ve had a manager try jump over me when she didn’t like something, and all it did was compound things. I think once and awhile it’s fine, but if it becomes a pattern all it does is undermine the manager, and the manager in question never learns how to manage these types of reports.

    1. Ripley Jones*

      I would like to add, THANK YOU, LW#1 for being a good manager and wanting to help Jane to become a good manager.

  9. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    LW2 – “Kristine […] periodically has very strong emotional reactions to work situations.”

    picard face palm dot gif

    Please get out of the habit of speculating about other people’s menstrual cycles. Alison’s advice is perfect.

  10. Anon just because*

    #1. I wonder if the OP, or someone, ever evaluated Jane’s directions? I usually have managers that know nothing about my job and it takes a while for things to start to function. The worst was the guy I had to continually tell that his great idea was illegal, against many regs and would piss off our partner agencies. After a month I just ignored him. Fortunately he didn’t last long.

  11. Not So NewReader*

    OP #1. I had a subordinate tell me, “I don’t have to take orders from you! You are not my boss!”
    So I went to my Big Boss. And Big Boss explained, “No. She IS your boss. You either follow her instruction or you will be fired.”
    Bosses get their authority from the higher bosses. If subordinates reject their boss’ authority the next higher boss can step in and explain it to them.
    Or just write them for insubordination. It feels harsh. But remember your ultimate goal is to HELP them keep their jobs. A fair and reasonable boss tells people what they need to do to remain employed this week/month/year.
    I understand that these are seasoned employees. But all the institutional knowledge in the world is worthless if the employees are slackers/saboteurs/unproductive.

  12. Formerly Ella Vader*

    #5 – about not taking on the former employees as volunteers.

    I can see a bunch of potential problems.

    Depending on their personalities and those of their successors, “Oh, sweetie, we tried putting the sign in table in the lobby a few years ago and everyone ignored it. Let’s just move it back onto the convention floor, that won’t take me a minute.”

    “Oh, welcome Mx Delegate. So glad you could join us, this is always a great event. I’m Bellatrix Lestrange, and I’m now with Big Competitor, here let me give you my card, and steer you away from this organizing group that would like to talk to you.”

    “I’d be glad to answer your question. [ followed by outdated information because they didn’t bother to pay attention at the briefing for new volunteers]”

  13. Captain of the No Fun Department*

    LW2, I think the exact wording suggested is really good. I also faced a similar issue personally (which my partner brought up to me as potentially PMS related in the moment, so that DID NOT go over well) but it turns out that it kind of was PMS related. I was diagnosed with PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoria disorder). It is treatable and knowing what I have and what to do about it has 1) made each month easier to manager and 2) given me what I need to ask for accommodation at work. It may not be PMS related but it certainly could be a medical condition.

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