my new boss needs constant reassurance

A reader writes:

I’m in a situation that’s new to me in almost 15 years in my field. I’ve been at my employer for four years, and a new manager was hired four months ago to lead my team. I used to report to the person who’s now my grandboss. My new manager, Jim, handles an area of work that none of the rest of us do, although some of our work occasionally touches on his.

Jim spends nearly all our weekly one-on-ones and other times we chat obsessively running through how he’s doing in this area of work and ruminating about how it could be going better and things he feels like he’s done wrong. It’s not a kind of work I’ve ever done so I can’t help him with any specific advice, but having seen his predecessor do this work it seems to me like Jim is doing just fine in this area, which I’ve told him, but he keeps harping on this same topic. It feels draining and almost inappropriate to have to manage my manager’s feelings about his job, but I don’t know how to broach this directly with him. I have asked him if he’s relayed his worries to his manager (my former manager, who I know very well and I’m sure would be supportive and much more helpful in this area than I can be) and he said yes, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to dump his worries on me. I’ve heard from another team member that he’s doing the same thing in meetings with her too.

Is there a way to say to a new manager whom I don’t know very well that I don’t want to hear about his insecurities any more? We spend all our time talking about this and while I would say I’d like our one-on-ones to be focused on my projects, the truth is that I haven’t found any of his advice about my work useful so far so I also don’t exactly know what to recommend we cover in the meetings instead. He doesn’t ask about what I’m working on.

Aggh, this sounds so frustrating. Consciously or not, Jim is taking advantage of the fact that the power dynamic makes you a captive audience and is inappropriately using you as his emotional support. It’s one thing for a manager to occasionally share a frustration or a worry, but regularly leaning on you for reassurance like this isn’t okay.

Just like this morning’s letter-writer with the anxious coworker, you’re limited in what you can do to change someone else’s behavior but you can create some boundaries for yourself.

In particular, it will help to have an arsenal of standard lines to use when Jim starts ruminating about how his own work might not be going well. For example:

  “That sounds tough and it’s not something I have expertise in. I can’t help with that, but can I ask you about (insert relevant work-related topic)?”

  “Hmmm, maybe (grandboss) can help? Meanwhile I wanted to ask you about (or update you on) (relevant work topic)…”

  “Hmmm, it’s not something I know much about. I’m sure you’ll figure it out! Well, I’ve got to jump on a call.” (Obviously, this is for ad hoc conversations, not the middle of your one-on-one.)

  And perhaps at some point: “You’ve asked me about this a few times now and I’ve got to be up-front that it’s way outside of my area of expertise. I think you should take this to (grandboss), who will be a lot more helpful than I can.”

If you repeat this stuff enough, Jim might realize that he’s not going to get much satisfaction from these conversations and will stop pushing them on you.

Also, start sending agendas ahead of your one-on-one’s so that it’s clear how you want to use the time. I know you’re not finding his advice useful, but you can structure the time to mostly update on him on your work. Then, jump straight into that at the start of the meeting — “Okay, let’s jump in since there’s a lot that I wanted to go over with you.” If he starts brooding again about how he might be doing in his own work, steer the conversation back to the agenda: “That does sound tough! Well, I wanted to update you about X and Y too, so let me run through that before our time is up…”

You also might consider giving a discreet heads-up to your grandboss. You know her well, so you probably have a fair amount of room to tip her off that Jim seems to be struggling. If she’s good at her job, she probably won’t be surprised to hear it — but you might be seeing different pieces of the situation than she is (or getting a more unvarnished look at is than she is) and it could be useful to round out the picture for her.

Read an update to this letter.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. CharlieBrown*

    I love the idea of an agenda in a 1×1. We use them and it really helps ensure that we hit all the things we need to cover.

    The power of a written document in cases like this can be awesome.

    1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

      1 X 1 agendas also make things like year end reviews easier. I always list my current projects, or one off things that I worked on. That way come review time I’m not wondering what I did all year.

      1. Clisby*

        I (retired now) never had 1:1s that were any other way. I had yearly goals to meet, as well as handling SME stuff, so progress (or lack of it) on those took up most of the meeting. Of course either I or my manager could raise other issues.

    2. OP*

      I do always bring agendas for our 1:1s, this would just happen anyway, ugh. The stuff Jim was constantly anxious about was squarely in his arena and not work I know how to do, but it was part of a big project that I was also working on. So whenever I brought up status reports on my end, I’d get a litany of this hand-wringing stuff from how things were going on his side. If it happens again I’ll definitely try the redirecting comments.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        “Jim, let’s table that for now and get to the next item that’s [actually] on the agenda.” is the language I would use. I would only add “actually” if he needs redirecting.

      2. Ghostesw*

        What about asking him, “I want to make sure I am adding value to these meetings, what goal do you want me to be working on?” Or something similar (a soft way of saying “why am I here?”).

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I wonder if you can push back on having weekly 1:1s? Maybe once a month or every other week would be better if he doesn’t really have anything helpful for your projects anyway. I know that’s something my boss’s have been open to feedback on in the past but I’m not sure how the best way to approach the request would be…

  2. Bananarama dingdong*

    Did I write this 3 months ago? Because this sounds like something I would have written 3 months ago.

    I’m sorry LW, I’ve been in your shoes! Redirection is what I ended up doing, like Alison suggests.

    But my manager also ended up leaving the company and now I have her job, so…..

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Ha, I just commented that it sounds more like Jim should have been OP’s report rather than the other way round.

  3. Unemployed in Greenland.*

    ack, I have a similar issue – except my boss expects reassurance about their expertise, their credentials, their looks, their having apologized sufficiently for a perceived inconvenience, their Not Having Been Mean (when in fact they can get very short and mocking w/ staff) … it’s… a lot.

    like, I don’t know what to do, to reassure, when my supervisor apologizes for having to leave to go to the bathroom. I don’t want to hear about your going to the bathroom! I am not your emotional support animal! argh!

    1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

      Just stop responding verbally. Maintain eye contact but just remain silent, or give them a “hmm.” Make it awkward for them. I’m a big fan of this method for dealing with childish behavior from higher-ups. They know what they’re doing and they deserve to be embarrassed.

      1. Unemployed in Greenland.*

        I have tried this occasionally, but have never actually managed to pull it off successfully – mostly because my supervisor then asks if I am angry with them, if I have something going on in my life that is affecting my work, and/or what they have done to offend me. WHEEEE

        1. Ms. Hagrid Frizzle*

          That may actually be worse than the supervisors who are so oblivious that they don’t even understand that the “hmm” was not a sound of approval/enagement. . . and just . . . keep going despite the “hmm”.

          1. Bananarama dingdong*

            This is exactly what I experienced; my supervisor had NO social awareness and could not take a hint, and when she did take a hint, she thought I hated her because I didn’t want to hear about her sex life. No, I didn’t hate her….but I’m at work to do my work, not be your emotional support employee.

        2. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

          “I’m not offended, I just can’t really help you with that. Anyway, about [work thing]…”

      2. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

        This is how I used to operate, but I’ve been learning from neurodiverse people that it often doesn’t teach the lesson I intend it to, so I’ve been trying to stop. I also think “They know what they’re doing” is often untrue, and also ableist.

        “I don’t think we need to discuss that here” (for the bathroom) and “I don’t think I’m the right person for you to discuss this with” (for their need for reassurance) are clear, kind, and inoffensive ways of telling someone the same thing without relying on them having your same neurotypical abilities to recognize and understand facial expressions and subtext.

        1. Higher Ed Cube Farmer*

          Upvote for Not A Racoon Keeper’s take on this dynamic.

          It can be exhausting and frustrating to be saddled with someone else’s anxiety when you don’t feel like you’re in a position be very blunt about your boundaries (because they’re your boss/over you in the org chart/ a relationship you need to keep on good terms/ whatever). And being exhausted and frustrated can sap your energy for managing your own response and make it feel tempting (and justified) to take whatever path is easiest/ your reflex way of dealing with frustration: either be aggressively blunt or passive and indirect.

          But it is possible to be direct and unambiguous while also being kind. Though it takes more self-control, it usually works better than either of the ‘easier’ options, whether the burdensome person is using you intentionally in a conscious power play, or unintentionally because they don’t have the awareness/skills to deal with their feelings more appropriately.

    2. SINE*

      Are you me? (sigh) My boss will call me up to ask “did I sound ok in that meeting?”, “did I say something wrong?”, “does this email sound too mean?”, “why did someone laugh when I said X?”, “does this analysis look ok?”, etc. randomly. MULTIPLE TIMES, EVERY FRIGGIN DAY. It is exhausting, super distracting, and quite frankly, incredibly annoying. I feel like I can’t even redirect because it’s not like we’re in a scheduled meeting to discuss a particular topic when she does this. Can confirm, the job description did not list being my boss’ emotional support animal.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        I’m starting to think there’s a market in ironic little neon vests for a lot of AAM commenters!

      2. Unemployed in Greenland.*

        Ugh, that sounds rough. At least I do not have to deal with my boss every day.

        But yes, it’s the sinking knowledge that a certain amount of emotional support will have to be provided in every. single. interaction. That it’s something above and beyond one’s pay grade, and yet one’s boss gets super upset if it is not provided. It just seems so unprofessional!

  4. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    The troll in me would be very tempted to respond to one of his musings of how he did something wrong with “yeah, you really boned that up good” and then just sit there maintaining eye contact. I mean, really. Our one on one sessions are not the time for you to be getting lost in your own navel, JIM. Put your big boy pants on and do your job.

    1. OP*

      This is funny because in the time since I sent in this letter, it’s become clear to me that he’s not actually doing as good a job as I originally thought… I did end up talking to my grandboss about this issue (I softpedalled it a bit to say that I was getting the impression that Jim wasn’t bringing his problems or questions to grandboss as much as he should be and grandboss confirmed that that wasn’t happening and that some stuff hadn’t been handled the way it should have been, doh). There was another aspect of this big project that was going on at the time that Jim really did eff up in a pretty visible way and many of us let him know about it. Sigh.

      1. RJ*

        I had the feeling that was going to be the case. I’m so sorry, OP, that Jim isn’t really working out, but I’m glad you spoke to your grandboss to get a better perspective. Hopefully your company will be able to get the project back on track and Jim….off to better pastures hopefully, unless you think there’s any possibility he can improve?

  5. Green Beans*

    oh, grey rocking can also be really helpful for dealing with other people’s anxiety. Pick 2-3 neutral responses and always respond to anxiety spirals with them (and only them.) Repeat as necessary, even within the conversation, in a very neutral tone.

    for instance,
    “That sounds frustrating,” “Hmm, I don’t know what to tell you but that does stink.” “I can’t help with that but I’m sorry to hear it.”

    Don’t engage, try to reassure, or point out solutions to the problem – that’s only validating the anxiety. Just repeat your stock phrases in a truly neutral tone. Make your responses as predictable and boring as possible. (This can be exhausting and I really only recommend it for situations where other responses are not practical. It is effective, however.)

    1. Nellie*

      Yup, exactly. I agree with “hmm” and some of the similar suggestions above. In addition to that, here are some non-reply replies I’m trying to use more in the face of rude/awkward statements by others (including a stranger I passed in the hallway at work who told me I had glowing skin):
      “Oh my!”
      “That’s interesting”
      “I wish I knew what to say to that”
      “I don’t know” / “I don’t know what to tell you”

      For a boss like this, though, I agree on pivoting to a different topic that is actually relevant. This is also a strategy for handling toddlers making unreasonable demands (“we’re actually not eating cookies right now, but maybe we will later. Which fruit would you like, strawberries or bananas?”)

  6. CAinUK*

    Alison’s advice is spot-on. I also wonder (given the insecurity this manager has and the advice he is soliciting about his actual management) if actually having the larger-picture convo is warranted? OP knows best if deflecting is the best idea if it feels like he would retaliate (even subconsciously) but I can also see benefit of saying something like: “You’ve asked me about how you’re doing as a manager a few times, and some feedback I have would be that you are actually doing well but it does feel difficult to keep reassuring you of that. I wonder if you can take those concerns to grandboss from now on since they have more control and insight?”

  7. no longer working*

    I’d be so tempted to say, “Huh, I thought our 1×1 was meant to discuss my work and how I’m doing, not the other way around.” But maybe this is Bizarro Land where everything is opposite. Can you suggest he schedule a 1×1 with his boss?

  8. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

    I think I read here that it takes 3-6 months to get comfy in a new position. Since it’s been 4 months, hopefully OP won’t need to deflect their boss’s nerves much longer.

    1. Observer*

      I don’t think that you can depend on those norms in a situation like this. Because the problem here is not that the boss is not “comfortable” with his job, but that he’s dumping on his report rather than actually managing and working with them.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Agreed. This is pretty blatant mismanagement of the direct report relationship and I don’t think he’s going to figure that out just by getting more comfortable.

      2. OP*

        Yes, somewhat ironically in the 6 weeks since I sent in this question several other significant and ongoing issues have come up with him as a manager. The anxiety talk did kind of stall out and I think it’s because the big project he was working on wrapped up and we haven’t had another one of that scale yet. All of this is really driving home to me that it’s time to look elsewhere for myself.

        1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

          Ugh, I’m sorry that’s happening. No matter which approach you take, dealing with a needy person is a chore, and chores are a bit more tolerable if there’s an end in sight. Best of luck finding a new gig; keep us updated?

  9. Michelle Smith*

    I’m glad Alison suggested an agenda because that was my instinct as well. I thought it was annoying at first that my new boss requires me to send her a weekly agenda before every one on one (the day before), but it actually is super helpful for keeping the discussion on track and seeing where I need her input or just need to update her on what’s happening. I highly recommend it, even if his advice isn’t useful. It’s good at least to have something prepared to take up that time so you can consistently redirect him back to your work. Good luck!

    1. Michelle Smith*

      I’m tired and my comment is confusing. We have one on ones every week. So I send the agenda every week. It’s not a week-long agenda of my tasks.

  10. Butterfly Counter*

    It sounds like your new manager is venting rather than looking for answers. While this is useful to know when talking to a spouse or a friend who is having an issue with something, whether they want your help or just a listening ear, in a professional setting, the manager should only be looking for answers and not venting to employees.

    Maybe try addressing it in that way. “While I understand your need to vent about doing a process you’re not comfortable with, it’s not an effective use of my time with you in these one-on-ones. Can we pivot to talking about X?”

    1. Baron*

      I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t know if a guy like this would respond really well to being told that listening to him is “not an effective use of my time”. Like, maybe if you said it in the right tone, but if I said it in the tone I would say it in, I’d get fired on the spot.

  11. Nopity Nope*

    You’re not getting much from these meetings, it seems, so I would consider:

    1) Suggesting switching to a monthly status check-in, rather than a weekly 1:1. I seem to remember Alison addressing how to do that.

    2) Be in charge of scheduling and schedule the (now monthly) meeting for 15 minutes (if you can get away with it) or 20 minutes.

    3) Always always ALWAYS have a hard stop when the meeting time is up.

    This sounds super frustrating, OP. The above are tactical, rather than strategic, so you might consider having a big picture convo, too, in addition to the [noncommittal banality] +[subject change].

  12. Goldenrod*

    I really like Alison’s comment: “Consciously or not, Jim is taking advantage of the fact that the power dynamic makes you a captive audience and is inappropriately using you as his emotional support.”

    It took me years to figure this out! When I was young and inexperienced, I thought I had to sit there and listen to my boss’s right-wing opinions (that I disagreed with), or looooong, rambling stories about her life…or endless plot synopses of TV shows I had no interest in.

    Even now, I’m not sure how much I could have cut that off without negative repercussions. But it’s helpful to just be aware, clearly, of how inappropriate that is!

  13. Baron*

    It can be hard as a new manager to internalize that when one of your reports is listening to you politely, it’s not because they’re your new Work Friend, it’s because you’re their boss and they’re stuck. That’s a hugely important lesson for Jim to learn. I wonder if he has any peers he can talk with? In my current role, I don’t have any peers in the organization I can talk with, but I absolutely can talk to colleagues at similar organizations who are at the same level I’m at.

  14. Anna*

    Oh, I feel the OP so hard. I had this issue with my last boss, and it drove me to a new job (along with some other larger picture/economy/industry things, but this was definitely a factor). It didn’t help that they also had direct experience in specific portion of our department (as in, their title/role at another organization similar to ours before taking on their current job here was the same role I was doing now).

    In my notice period, as we were doing hand off documents and other transition planning, I also had to point out to them that while I had advice on how to do things pursuant [my job] they were, in fact, more experienced in the execution of this kind of job than I was. I had to give them a pep talk about how they were, in fact, quite a knowledgeable in this field, so even if they did not know how I would handle each scenario they were asking me about, I had confidence that they could navigate the situation. it was 100% an anxiety/stress thing – we were stretched thin already, and I know my leaving didn’t help. But my coping mechanism ended up being finding a new job where the org isn’t in quite as much distress. Theirs was (still is) to ask me for advice on how to do some…pretty basic things.

  15. The Person from the Resume*

    I’m sorry, LW. This is honestly so bizarre to me. I have friendly relationships with my supervisors, but all our 1-on-1 and feedback sessions were about me, my performance, the projects I work on (with them/for them). I think I would be honestly utterly baffled by this happening in my 1-on-1s.

  16. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    This is a crazy situation. OP was reporting to grandboss, and now there’s another layer of management between the two, with th new manager not only very insecure about his particular sphere of responsibility but not even capable of managing OP correctly in that he’s not being at all helpful with her questions.
    Sounds more like OP should have been his boss, or that they should have been peers. Why add in another manager who doesn’t have any idea about how to manage?
    I’m that cynical, I’m thinking it’s because OP is a woman.

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