how do I rebuild trust in my incompetent manager?

A reader writes:

My manager was an amazing individual contributor, but a year in, it’s fairly obvious that management is not a good fit for her. She’s defensive, disorganized, thin-skinned, and quick to blame others. But I love the rest of my job, so I’ve made my peace with this trade-off and found ways to work around her.

Until recently. Last week, she introduced an error into my work that (if I hadn’t caught it) would have had massive repercussions for the reputation of the company and me personally. She seems to feel that because there were mitigating circumstances (distraction on her part) and because it was caught, there was no harm done. I reported the incident to her manager, and while they’re taking it seriously, I imagine they’re going to handle it with a stern conversation and some coaching, meaning I’m stuck working with her for the foreseeable future.

But I feel like all of my trust in her has been destroyed. I don’t trust her judgment, so I resist asking her for advice/guidance, and when she suggests an idea in a brainstorm, I find myself immediately biased against it. I am so certain she’s going to introduce another error into my work that I find myself arguing over minor changes I previously would have just accepted. Every management misstep, which I’ve previously tried to just ignore/work around, is now more evidence that she can’t be trusted.

I don’t want to leave my job over this, but I also don’t want to spend every day being argumentative and on edge, unable to trust my manager’s judgment and decisions. What can I do on my end to move past this incident and rebuild trust in my manager, at least to my previously neutral stance?

I’m not sure you can, or even that you should! It sounds like you’re right to distrust her judgment and her competence in this role.

I’d be less concerned if she had responded to her huge mistake last week differently. If she had seemed rattled by it, taken it seriously, and talked about how to ensure nothing similar happened again, that would have been a much more reassuring response. Instead, though, it sounds like she doesn’t see it as a big deal. Maybe that will change once she gets the stern management conversation that you think is coming. But it’s concerning that it wasn’t her first reaction.

That doesn’t mean you should spend every day “argumentative and on edge” — and nor would that be good for your quality of life — but it sounds like you’re right not to default to trusting her.

That’s a really tough place to be if your work requires you to seek/accept her input with any regularity. If you worked relatively independently and didn’t need to work with her very often, this might be workable (not great, but workable). But it sounds like you have to work with her pretty often.

I think ultimately you’ll need to get clear on a few things: how much you do need to interact with her about your work, whether there are ways to limit her input, and whether there are ways to ensure any ineptness from her reflects back on her rather than on you. The answers to those questions will vary depending on the nature of your job … but if the overall picture is that her incompetence will affect your work often, that’s not a sustainable place to dwell for very long.

If that’s the situation and you don’t want to leave over it, your only real option would be to consider going over her head. If you have a lot of capital and credibility built up there and there’s someone above her who you think would take this seriously, you could consider a discreet conversation with that person (possibly using this most recent incident to frame it — “I’ve been struggling with whether to raise this but last week’s incident is part of a pattern of problems that I’m not able to resolve on my own”). Going over your boss’s head can be really tricky — and often isn’t advisable at all — but if you have the right person to go to (someone who’s forthright about tackling problems and will ensure you’re not retaliated against — the second quality, unfortunately, is nearly as important as the first), it’s something you could think about.

But I don’t think the question you’re asking — how do I rebuild my trust in someone who’s shown themselves untrustworthy? — is the right one.

{ 123 comments… read them below }

  1. KHB*

    From what you say, it sounds like your organization needs better procedures for checking work before it goes out into the world. If “distraction” on one person’s part is all it takes to introduce a major error that would ruin somebody else’s reputation, that seems like a pretty serious weakness in your system.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      It sounds to me like this is the manager’s excuse, not necessarily the reason. But you’re right, if anyone accepted “distraction” as a reason for committing a major error, that’s problematic in and of itself.

      1. KHB*

        “Distraction” aside, I’d say that if one person can introduce a reputation-ruining mistake into another person’s work, then all work needs to have multiple sets of eyes on it to check and double-check for errors. (And the person whose name is on the work needs to be the one who makes the final call on which changes get included and which get rejected, but it sounds like that might already be the case.)

        1. DataSci*

          Agreed. This is why code reviews exist for programming – nothing should ever make it into production without at least one other set of careful eyes on it, preferably two. And it isn’t seen as punitive, or as a lack of confidence in someone’s work – we all can and do make mistakes, we just want to catch them before they create major problems!

          1. MigraineMonth*

            Exactly! I’ve noticed in programming that there’s a sort of… professional distrust of any code until it’s been run through code review, tested and worked in the real world for several weeks. (Though yesterday I found a bug that’s over 10 years old!)

            So even though I know Aliyah is the best programmer on our team, I still review her code with the assumption that she’s made a mistake and it’s up to me to find it. Fortunately, making mistakes is completely normalized and it is extremely rare that there is any punishment for it.

        2. Minimal Pear*

          Yep, we just had this happen at work (the error went through and made us look bad) and we’ve started talking about ways to have some other people double-check that specific process.

        3. New Mom*

          I work at a nonprofit where everyone is pretty overworked and besides me and my direct report, no one can really check our work (without a lot of explanation) so I send things to managers to approve but they aren’t really looking things over because they don’t understand the nuances and either don’t care enough to learn or have enough time to learn. I could easily see something like this happening at my job.

          1. KHB*

            But in your case, if you and your direct report had an important mistake slip through the cracks despite your best efforts, I hope you’d be more upset with your employer (for not giving you the person-hours you need to do your jobs well) than with each other.

          2. OP*

            Yeah, this is spot-on. Not a nonprofit, but everyone is pretty overworked and under-resourced. So upper-level/final QA checks assume that the lower levels (my boss and I) have nailed down the specifics that they can’t be expected to know the nuance of.

            But in this case, she definitely didn’t…

      2. ARROWED!*

        Humans gonna human. Distraction’s gonna happen. Sometimes it’s going to cause errors. I can accept that as the reason something happened, at least initially, but perhaps the next question should be, “did you cross-check?” or whatever procedure could help catch mistakes. Agree there need to be more checks if a distraction-caused error can have serious consequences.

        1. Antilles*

          Exactly. Nobody’s at 100% all the time. As the old saying goes, “the only difference between a wise man and a fool is the magnitude of their mistakes” because the fool isn’t trusted with anything important.
          BUT the proper response to that reality is simply that anything with “massive repercussions” should be heavily cross-checked, thoroughly reviewed, and relevant changes should be agreed to by everyone. And that if a mistake does happen, people need to take it extremely seriously – which it doesn’t seem like the boss is doing.

          1. KHB*

            To be fair, the mistake DID get caught in the end – so the guardrails OP’s team has in place did their job, even if only just.

            1. Mongrel*

              But “Well it all worked out in the end” is a terrible attitude for career defining mistakes, double so if someone else introduces it, it’s a glib skating over of responsibility.

              OP doesn’t mention if the re-checking was SOP, coincidence or straight up distrust of the managers handiwork. Adding another checking step to an already overworked team because the manager has had their hands on the project is counterproductive and edging one more step to burnout.

        2. Tau*

          Yeah, this.

          I work in tech, and soooo many problems we have are caused by human error. Sometimes really stupid human error. So many! The way we deal with this is not by glaring at the people who made mistakes and tell them to stop. That’s just completely unrealistic. We’re humans. Instead, we put processes in place to catch human error before it can get to a place where it causes problems. If we fail and something breaks, we investigate why and (usually) figure out how we can change our processes to stop it happening again.

          There are mistakes that are inappropriate and would get you censured even under this model, but they usually involve something like deliberately circumventing the process, a chain of compounding mistakes, or a pattern of making too many mistakes. Not a single oops, even when that oops was a big one.

          1. Ace in the Hole*

            Yup. I deal with safety/compliance for my site in a line of work where mistakes can easily kill someone. When there’s an accident or close call we investigate why it happened and what could be done to prevent it in the future. The answer is almost never “just pay more attention.” My motto is that sooner or later, no matter how smart or experienced we are, everyone has a stupid day. It’s our job to build systems that keep stupid days from ending in disaster.

            Yes, there are cases where someone was so horribly negligent or used such terrible judgement that they will be penalized for a single incident. But like you said, those cases are rare and usually involve a whole bunch of mistakes, or significant deliberate action to circumvent the process. Even then, we look into why that happened – is there an issue with the process that makes it difficult to follow? Did they get proper training? Why was the chain not stopped at earlier mistakes and how can we correct that?

          2. JustaTech*

            Yes this. I work in biotech (so the consequences of errors could potentially go all the way to death), and “yell at the individuals” is not how you prevent, correct or catch mistakes (though some people do still lean on “chastise”, which I don’t like).

            You have multiple systems in place to catch errors. And every step involves multiple people checking, not in a “I don’t trust you” way but in a “this is how the industry works” way.
            Every time you catch an error it goes in a database and you look for trends. Depending on the error you introduce engineering controls (physical objects to prevent errors) or re-work the process or at least re-write or re-do the training. And yes, if someone regularly messes up the same step or process even after re-training you might let them go.

            But you sure as heck don’t assume that everything will be perfect every time!

    2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Yeah, I don’t think I have ever worked anywhere where “I was distracted” was accepted as a good excuse or a mitigating circumstance, especially to a big mistake.

      1. KHB*

        “Distraction” can mean a few different things. If it’s the “hey look, a squirrel!” kind of distraction, then yeah, it’s hard to imagine that being an excuse for a major mistake. If it’s more “my mom’s in the hospital and I just can’t focus my mind on anything else right now,” that’s another story.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          Or “I’ve been working nights and weekends for the past three weeks trying to meet an unrealistic deadline, so I’m making more mistakes than usual.”

          It was so frustrating when Toxic!Job expected a crazy number of hours of extremely complex detail-focused work *and* perfection during those hours. I’m convinced that most of the issues were actually caused by overwork.

        2. Danniella Bee*

          I agree with you. In this instance, we do not know what the distraction was and the lack of grace for the manager surprises me. There needs to be additional quality checks for this task or work item.

      2. New Mom*

        I unfortunately do. I work on a super understaffed team and we have this hellish, hellish crunch time during the summer which is about eight weeks of working 60/65 hour weeks and we have BIG MAIN TASK that takes up like 90% of those hours. Unfortunately, other important stuff really falls through the cracks during this time. We’ve had to deal with angry clients and colleagues but I feel like our hands are tied because leadership won’t hire more people and we’re not robots. I’m sure some of the excuses I had to give people during that time were almost as bad as “I got distracted”, because people are angry that an important thing was not completed and I can’t give them a satisfying answer for why it wasn’t done.

    3. WillowSunstar*

      Agree, there definitely should be a third party checking things out. I do data entry for a living and we have someone who checks our stuff.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, if the boss doesn’t see that she needs to do anything differently then that is a problem for sure–but it also sounds like it’s true that there objectively wasn’t any harm done because OP prevented it. And IMO–that’s usually how these things *should* work (but in reverse, where usually the boss is the one catching errors!) Mistakes will happen and building out checks to catch issues should be an important part of the process.

      It sounds like OP has a major boss issue, but I think that as we often do she is focusing on one piece when that piece isn’t the real problem. It sounds like she wants her boss to be disciplined for a mistake that was corrected with no fallout, and personally I would not want to work anywhere that disciplined people for that! To me, mistakes like that should be addressed with “how did this happen, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future?” and then everyone moves on.

      It sounds like there are a lot of issues with the boss that need to be addressed, but I don’t think the error in this letter is the real issue here.

  2. Myrin*

    This is not the point of this letter at all but I’m boggling at how boss seems to frame “distraction on her part” as a mitigating circumstance – being so distracted by other things you introduce a grave error into somebody else’s work does not end up showing you in a good light, either!

    I’m keeping my finger’s crossed that something positive will come out of her manager’s handling of the situation, at least.

    1. Knope Knope Knope.*

      I know we need to default to believing the LW but this does kinda make me question the LW’s interpretation of things.

      As a manager, sometimes I’m focused on big pictures priorities that my team either doesn’t have the insight into or has trouble grasping. They sometimes give weight to day-to-day tasks that I as their manager don’t. Even if I try to give context, we don’t always see eye to eye, so ultimately the team has to trust me.

      Like right now, my team at work is missing some major KPIs. The rank and file are freaking out. The leadership knows it’s fine because the strategy is shifting, but we can only communicate some of that right now. But when we say “it’s fine” there are definitely people who don’t buy into it yet and see this as a major emergency.

      1. Kella*

        There are several things in OP’s letter that suggest your interpretation isn’t an accurate one.

        OP says that their manager did acknowledge it as a mistake due to distraction, meaning something happened that shouldn’t have happened. And OP says they reported the problem to their manager’s manager, who is taking it seriously, meaning the idea that it’s serious isn’t stemming from OP alone.

        The problem here isn’t just that OP’s manager is saying, “It’s fine.” It’s that OP’s manager has a. not laid out any steps to avoid making such an error in the future, making it very possible it will happen again and b. OP has not received any information to dispel their impression that this mistake would’ve directly harmed their own reputation more than their manager’s.

        I feel like employees freaking out about the consequences of a problem larger than they have the information to understand don’t just need to hear “It’s fine” but also “I will protect you from the potential consequences of this problem” or “You will not be punished if things go south.” Sometimes people are just concerned about their quality of work being upheld but lots of times, people are worried about getting in trouble, their career being harmed, losing their job, etc.

    2. Qwerty*

      Distraction is a frequent cause of management mistakes in my experience. Some managers are just inundated with noise – constant Slack messages, frequent meetings, tons of interruptions. Being distracted could mean they had some focus time but got interrupted by something urgent or someone important and erronously thought they picked the task back up again seamlessly. The disorganized trait could also be attributed to that – trying to keep up with the whirlwind at the management layer can be rough.

      I think a big takeaway here is having better processes so a distracted person can’t introduce a reputation-ruining mistake. I’m more disappointed in the OP’s manager for not coming to that conclusion than for making an error in the first place.

      1. KHB*

        OP’s manager might not have the authority to revamp the processes all by herself. (But someone above her surely does.)

    3. Lulu*

      I have an employee who was yelling repeatedly on the phone for a while, so I reminded him he was at work and closed his door. When he came to apologize later I told him he needed not to yell at work and he said “Yeah, I wasn’t paying attention,” like that excused the behavior. I was left standing there like, “Right…. that’s the problem. Not the excuse.”

      (To be fair, he’s just a loud person and was trying to get his kid to follow one direction. It wasn’t angry yelling.)

  3. Eldritch Office Worker*

    ” whether there are ways to ensure any ineptness from her reflects back on her rather than on you”

    This is the part I would focus on, personally. It’s also an easier thing to escalate, if you think your grandboss understands the gravity of what just happened. I’d go back to the manager you already talked to with something like (to borrow a piece of Alison’s language) “Thank you for hearing me out before. I’ve been thinking about it more, and this incident is part of a pattern that I haven’t been sure how to address. My reputation and the integrity of my work is important to me, and I’d really like some reassurance that if this happens in the future mistakes made over my head won’t reflect poorly on me.”

    I don’t know what they’ll say, but at least you’ll have raised it.

    1. bripops*

      This. CYA!! op should put everything in an email, get it in writing, document document document. if something with a reputation-ruining error in it is released at 2pm, make sure there’s a record of it leaving your hands without the error at 10am.

      if you have a phone call/in person meeting/etc, send a follow up email. “Hi there, just to recap our conversation from earlier, I’m going to do xyz and you’re going to handle abc and I’ll submit Important Report to you for final revisions by COB on Thursday. Any changes after that will be in your court unless you reach out to me for help. If you have any questions or we need to shift anything, let me know and we can work something else out.”

      that way if she doesn’t do abc or makes changes to xyz after it’s given to her you can point out that she had ample opportunity to bring any changes to your attention should the proverbial it hit the fan

      it’s exhausting, but it’s saved my ass more times than I can count

    2. QDF*

      I also work for a manager who has destroyed all trust. Her favorite phrase is “we’re not going to play the blame game.” It never stopped her from cc’ing my previous manager if she found a mistake I made. Without trust, trying to have an honest conversation with the person isn’t worth the frustration. I just document and use email as much as possible. I’m looking for a new job.

  4. El+l*

    What’s interesting is that the pattern that started it was not “bad ideas” or even “massive errors.” It was her behavior when accepting feedback. Then, when she made a big error and reacted to it as she usually does, it spilled over into everything she says or does.

    Absent a massive turn in heart about how she treats feedback – specifically that – I don’t think there’s a way back.

    (There’s a lesson here BTW about fixing problems before they turn into cancers)

    1. Marmalade*

      I caught that too. There’s nothing in there about the boss having a pattern of making errors. So why did one error destroy OP’s trust?

      I would give very different advice. I advise that OP learn to separate their trust in their manager’s work and their trust in their manager’s ability to manage. People can be very good at one thing and very bad at a different thing, and people can make mistakes at the thing they are very good at.
      Learn to separate the things the manager is good at and the things the manager is bad at. Trust her judgment in the things she is good at, and question her judgment in the things she is bad at.

      1. L*

        I really wonder what the error is here — and it seems kind of crucial to any judgment.

        Like, does this manager work in development and introduce an error into a line of code that would have crashed an app?

        Or are they a new chief resident and misidentified the limb OP was supposed to be amputating?

        Obviously that last example is extreme, but not impossible, so I feel like the nature of the mistake here is vital to understanding.

        1. Lenora Rose*

          There’s a reason people have been known to write “Not this one!” on their other limbs…

      2. El+l*

        Well… no.

        Because that’s the problem with arrogance.

        Arrogant people don’t learn from their mistakes*. It’s always someone else’s fault – or they’ll spin the bug as a feature.

        Here, “I was distracted” is a lame excuse. She’ll be distracted again, so there’s nothing to stop it from happening again.

        *Per below, agree, there’s just no way of knowing how big this actually was – I suppose we’ll just have to take OP at their word that this was massive

      3. linger*

        Yes: OP explicitly recognizes Manager was an excellent individual contributor before being thrust into management. Which suggests either
        (i) the error in question was administrative or procedural in nature rather than a change in content, or
        (ii) OP and Manager have very different areas of content expertise, or
        (iii) Manager is so overwhelmed by the demands of their new role as to genuinely not be able to pay full attention to detail.
        The first two possibilities should allow OP some scope to assume some areas of competence from Manager; but the last possibility, unfortunately, doesn’t allow a neat separation of things OP can trust Manager to do reliably — and is most likely to explain OP’s reaction. If that’s true, OP should try to be understanding of Manager’s situation, and seek to introduce more effective checks in the system, rather than seeking a disciplinary solution as currently seems to be the case.

    2. cncx*

      This is a decision i had to make in a job, i wasn’t comfortable with the way my boss handled feedback (especially coupled with how he dished it out). Ultimately i decided not to stay. My then boss was a great individual contributor and an awesome consultant, but as a team member or people manager, big ehhh. It’s exactly like you said, that reaction was not sustainable.

  5. OrigCassandra*

    OP, how independent is your function? Any chance you could request to be moved to a different unit with a different manager?

  6. Janeric*

    This is a tough situation, and I feel for you. It makes sense that you want to wade through some of your emotional response to be less reactive about minor issues so you can save your energy and capital for (probable) big ones.

    To address/mitigate the emotional response, you’re going to need to identify what you’re feeling (angry, panicked, worried, sad); what you aren’t getting (protection of your reputation, acknowledgement of harm, a path forward that will prevent this from occurring again), and then empathy for the other people involved (your boss, her boss). Sometimes it’s helpful to walk through this with a friend or therapist.

    It’s a big hurt and it’ll take work to get past, and if you can do the work you can find workplace acceptable ways to express the hurt. (Like, after reading this, I’m pretty sure that I could either be brittle and polite or utter a wordless howl — but maybe what you need is to have final review of your work, or have your boss’s boss swear that in a reference check they’ll explain that if they had listened to you they’d still HAVE a company.)

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Great points. I can imagine it would be super stressful to be constantly on edge that someone else is going to make a huge mistake and that it’s going to blow up on you. Especially if the procedures at work don’t lend themselves to figuring out who made the error. It would be hard to feel secure in your job when there’s maybe a Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. No wonder OP is having emotions about this.

  7. mondaysizecoffee*

    Document, document, document. I’ve had bosses like this. Save your original files (in duplicate elsewhere if you must). The error would NOT have been yours.

    It’s the absolute worst though – I am sorry.

    1. Fives*

      Yep. I had a manager (in a different department) throw me under the bus about a documentation error. I had documented all of her changes though and could prove that she was the one who requested the change. This ended up being a larger pattern with her (throughout our company, not just with my department) and I think she eventually left management to be a “regular” employee.

    2. Smithy*

      Absolutely this – if you didn’t do agendas/thorough note taking during all meetings and one on ones, I’d start. It can be set up as a way to help you keep organized, but also to help have a written record of what you discussed in contexts where you won’t necessary have email documentation.

      Then during any 1 on 1 or meeting where her ideas need to be adopted or more complicated decisions are discussed, following up with her in an email to confirm you’re on the same page. It is frustrating, it is essentially micromanaging yourself as a means to micromanage your supervisor. But I have found that it does help let go of some of the desire to fight back on every future suggested change or edit. If you think A is the best move and they want B, ok – but we have in writing that I wanted A.

    3. Mrs. D*

      Something related to consider: anything emailed to OP’s boss would be saved, including attachments. This would automatically create records without extra effort on OP’s part as long as the emails aren’t deleted. Also, if OP uses something like Google for creating files, a history of each document/spreadsheet/slide would be recorded, making it easy for OP or anyone else to go back and see what changes were made and by whom. Will definitely help to hold the person making a mistake more accountable!

      1. I am Emily's failing memory*

        Yeah, an electronic paper trail is broadly useful for more than just assigning blame after a mistake is made, so I always recommend using version control on documents. Same with circulating notes after a meeting to confirm everyone came away with the same understanding and nothing is missing.

        I wouldn’t waste time doing anything more involved than that unless you’re dealing with someone who has lied to avoid responsibility for mistakes in the past. I’ve had a lot of colleagues in my career who did sloppy work, made lame excuses, and reacted poorly to corrections – but very few of them were liars. And even among the few who got caught lying, their lies weren’t trying to pin blame on someone else, they were more like, “I thought I sent that email yesterday, but didn’t notice it got stuck in my outbox,” to cover for not having sent it at all, or someone who’s conveniently sick or their Internet is down almost every time they have a deliverable due, to avoid having to admit they didn’t finish it on time.

        I really think that people who are willing to throw someone else under the bus with a lie are relatively rare, if only for the pragmatic reason that their lies are probably way more likely to be questioned and discovered by someone with a vested interest in clearing their own name than if they had just blamed technology for losing a document or a traffic jam for making them late, etc.

        1. Smithy*

          Yeah – the lies I’ve most frequently encountered live in the “hard to blame” space around a topic that has been discussed but then either forgotten or misremembered.

          So discussing who was going to write a report, and the boss remembering the OP would write it and the OP remembering the boss would write it. And while in the moment, those moments are deeply angering and certainly can feel vindictive – I find it’s far more likely that people really did just forget or misunderstand.

          It’s not that anyone needs to enjoy those moments, but it does help in thinking through how to protect yourself and also prevent those moments going forward.

  8. Anastatia Beaverhousen*

    I am in the same boat. I am finding that I am having to spend a lot of time saving documentation to CYA. Receive email communication that asks for you to do something questionable? Save it. Need to keep reminding your boss to do things so deadlines are met, do it via email and save the email. Keep hard copies of reports and emails where you sent them to the boss. It’s exhausting but well worth it when they try to push the blame onto you.

  9. DataSci*

    How was she a great IC if she was “defensive, disorganized, thin-skinned, and quick to blame others”? Those are not good qualities for any type of work!

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      You’re right, but they might not have manifested in obvious ways or ways that impacted other people as much as an IC.

    2. CharlieBrown*

      LW states “she is” not “she’s always been”. I took it to mean that she’s been that way since becoming a manager. A sure sign that she knows she’s not very good at her job, I think.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        Not very good at her job and also maybe has something going on outside of work that is impacting her ability to work in any capacity.

        But neither of those things are things OP has any control over. So document, escalate as needed. And consider whether there are lateral moves at the company that could remove OP from this bad manager’s airspace and blast zone.

      2. As If*

        This. “Defensive, thin-skinned, and quick to blame others” sounds like someone who is floundering, and lashing out in fear of being discovered as not up to the job. This is still not LW’s problem to solve; it just explains how a good individual contributor can become a bad manager.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Yep. If this big management conversation happens, I doubt the manager will be surprised. So many people flounder in management roles because nothing in their background implies they’d be good at a management role besides being a good IC. If that’s the case I feel for her, but OP rightly needs to prioritize their own career over sympathy.

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          I had one of these. It was coming from a place of being insecure with the broader responsibilities and feeling unsafe in their position. We provided management training, a peer mentor, and a regular, safe-space meeting where they could ask questions free of judgment because we needed someone with the subject-matter knowledge in the role. They came along very quickly, but we also put a lot into it. You can’t just promote an IC and expect them to know how to manage instinctually.

          Management is a different set of skills from being a great IC, and, if that’s not made clear and management skills aren’t cultivated, it’s a recipe for disaster. In some cases, the skills that make someone a phenomenal IC are the same ones that hold them back from being a great manager.

          1. Lily*

            “In some cases, the skills that make someone a phenomenal IC are the same ones that hold them back from being a great manager.”

            I have seen this time and again.

    3. Marmalade*

      Management is a different set of skills. As an IC, she may not have been defensive and thin skinned. but now that she is in a different role with different expectations and different stresses, she is having a different set of reactions.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        This! Just because you are good at *thing* does not mean that you will be good at managing people who do *thing*. Likewise, just because you don’t have a lot of experience doing *thing* does not mean you won’t be successful managing people who are doing *thing*.

        1. DataSci*

          I agree! Which is why I never want to be a manager. But good ICs aren’t thin-skinned and defensive.

      2. Alternative Person*

        This. I have a peer about half a step below me who has been pushing for more toward-management chances. He’s a great individual contributor, but his judgement re: management issues has been iffy, he has trouble seeing the big picture, remembering that he might not be privy to everything that’s going on and has reacted un-constructively when these things have been pointed out. In a full on management position, he would likely struggle.

        Not to say that he won’t improve in time, but right now (and likely for a while) management is going to be out of his reach.

      3. But what to call me?*

        For that matter, it’s possible she didn’t have much opportunity to be defensive and thin skinned as an IC if she was really good at it and therefore never received much criticism or questioning of her decisions. Going from a star IC who no one ever had a bad thing to say about to a struggling manager who is suddenly having to deal with lots of criticism of her work skills could easily bring out a new side of a person.

  10. Mockingjay*

    You might have to manage up, in order to protect your own interests.

    First, implement the 24-hour rule. When she has a brainstorm, hold off on any response for a day. Sometimes things die off naturally, others are a decent idea when you think about them the next day. If she still wants to go forward with Idea, send a recap email. “Per our discussion on date, we’re going to do X.” If she changes course: “Just want to confirm that we are now doing Y and the due date has changed to next Friday.”

    Next, as others have suggested, implement some sort of QC process. Process Improvement, not People Improvement.

    Ultimately, though, you’ll have to decide how much of this you are willing to do. Managing up for a disorganized, reactive Boss is a huge time suck, especially if Boss doesn’t “improve.”

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Seconding all of this: the 24 hour rule (which is great when dealing with unruly teenagers, although you may have to shorten it to 2 hours), the process (not people) improvement (also great with teenagers), the realizing that you can only manage up so much.

    1. KHB*

      Me too. I’m having a lot of trouble envisioning what kind of mistake could:

      (1) be serious enough to have “massive repercussions for the reputation of the company and [OP] personally,”
      (2) conceivably be caused by “distraction,”
      (3) be hard enough to catch to warrant OP’s feelings of personal betrayal (at least, I assume that’s why OP’s feeling so shaken by this – because she almost didn’t catch it, and there was a real risk that the work could have gone out with the mistake in it),
      (4) be the kind of blunder that could be committed by an “amazing individual contributor” (i.e., not a sign of total rank incompetence in the field), and
      (5) not have prompted somebody to say, a long time before this, “Hey, if this kind of mistake is so easy to make and has such serious consequences, we need to have multiple rounds of checks and cross-checks to make sure we never ever make it.”

      1. Critical Rolls*

        Speculation, but 3 could be that the manager made the change after the deliverable (I guess?) was supposedly finalized, outside the normal process of alteration, and only some unscheduled last minute look by OP caught it. But the rest of it? Yeah, very curious. Hope OP finds a way to get her bacon away from this fire.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Yeah, I imagined a scenario where the manager went and changed things without telling anyone and OP found it by accident. So who knows what else the manager might secretly mess with?

          As I understand it, a small error in coding could crash the whole thing and be very difficult to debug if nobody knew where to look. I only code to do statistical analysis and even experts sometimes make mistakes that they have to figure out. If OP was the one writing the code, I understand the concern that they’d be in the line of fire. Though OP may overestimate the extent to which they’d be blamed specifically.

          1. KHB*

            Sure, if it wasn’t just an error but an act of dishonesty, that changes things. But I’m not sure that’s indicated by anything in the letter.

          2. OP*

            OP here. I missed the convo but for the sake of future readers… it’s something like this. We’d finalized a new data report (for our high-profile, public-facing government agency that often gets used as a political football) and she went back in and “summarized” some “confusing” aspects and in the process, introduced errors that would have likely generated a hugely embarrassing and public correction. In-house, it would have been easy to know it was her fault, but in the public eye, it’s my name/reputation on it

            1. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

              Thanks for clarifying, this is helpful to understanding the situation — mainly that your manager doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Which is dangerous when paired with her impulse to wade in to “fix” or “correct” or “clarify” things in ways that introduce inaccuracies. Eek.

            2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

              Thanks for clarifying. And yeah, I see how you now feel like you’re just playing with fire with her around, since it’s (I’m assuming) your name on the report. Particularly since she is not acknowledging that she just about caused a whole world of problems.

      2. Startup Survivor*

        More speculation: if OP is in charge of, say, the company’s Twitter account, I could see this happening. Boss had a “great” idea that she just added to the copy and almost pushed it.

        1. It even has a watermark*

          I work in marketing where I deal with ad copy, so it’s similar to this example. If my boss did this to me, I would absolutely be annoyed, but I would say my boss does have the authority to do something like this without me. And it’s something that doesn’t warrant reporting them.

          Oh now I’m so curious!

      3. I am Emily's failing memory*

        At many nonprofits, a typo in a public communication would likely tick all of those boxes if a C-suite exec, major donor, or board member saw it.

        See, there’s this hilarious thing nonprofits do where they don’t hire enough people to be able to have a second person thoroughly QA everything that goes out with fresh eyes, and when that predictably leads to even the smallest error making it out the door, heaven help the poor soul who wasn’t able to effectively proofread their own work, and will be read the riot act about how their carelessness might cause Richy Perfectionist McRich to decide we’re a shoddy organization who does sloppy work and stop giving $100,000 a year, and that’s literally at least one person’s entire salary and benefits package, so two people might have to be fired now because you accidentally wrote “socal media” instead of “social media.”

        1. KHB*

          I work for a nonprofit publication. I know all about typos.

          Never have I seen one ruin anybody’s career. But maybe our audience is more understanding than yours.

          1. I am Emily's failing memory*

            I don’t think it would actually ruin someone’s career, but I’ve definitely worked at places where they’d be raked over the coals and made to feel as if it were a career-ruining mistake.

            The main determiner of how well an organization tolerates the odd careless mistake in my limited experience has been how many donors contribute a large enough share of the annual budget on their own that losing their support would mean entire programs get shuttered or staff have to be laid off. Put a few big fish like that in the mix, especially ones who are very vocal about sharing their feedback with their handler in development, and there’s very little tolerance for any error that one of those big fish might see, no matter how ultimately inconsequential the error is. There’s just an outsized level of fear around the potential loss of a major donor’s support.

        2. KayEss*

          I once saw a university communications team spend over a week issuing corrections and apologies because someone used “alumni” instead of “alumnae”… I don’t think the guy who made the error had his job threatened, but everyone certainly knew he was responsible.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I almost wondered if someone from my old organization wrote this. They work with highly sensitive materials that have to be prepared for public consumption in a very specific way to avoid disclosing the protected information. If not handled properly (sensitive info removed, redacted, or anonymized) it is a black eye to the organization who disclosed it and (appropriately) risks their losing access to said info, which would basically kill the business.

      It’s also very fast-turn, so multiple, time-intense layers of QC are not an option if you have any hope of hitting deadlines. I just assume the people who make the rules/timelines have never actually done the process (much less a high volume of it) and don’t know what they are really asking people to do.

  11. Twix*

    I think Allison’s point about asking the wrong question is spot on. There isn’t a good way (or a good reason) to rebuild trust if the distrust is justified. The question to be asking is “How should I address the fact that my boss can’t be trust?”

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Yep. And usually the answer to this question is to either wait for a biological solution or to find a different position or job. Sadly, for OP.

  12. Marketing Unicorn Ninja*

    I am coaching a friend through exactly this — document, CYA, create a paper trail, save everything in an off-site place, print documents with timestamps to show if edits were made later.

    In his case, his boss is making changes that will nullify a multi-million dollar grant; cost the organization that grant and also several hundreds of thousands dollars in other revenue; and possibly result in legal action.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      OH NO. That all sounds extremely bad. Glad that your friend at least has you to help them through it.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      From experience: Appropriately-preserved digital metadata would be the best thing to have in a legal proceeding as timestamps in document headers/footers are easy to manually edit/print (because his boss sounds like the kind of ass that would make such accusations to C his A). Ideally, save the email message with the original attachment still appended to it.

      Also, have your friend check their info gov policy to make sure removing documents from the premise (digital or electronic) is not a terminable offense. It would be where I work, but others may not work with material that is confidential and subject to contractual materials-handling provisions. If he has to keep things onsite, a secured thumb drive (BitLocker + password) in a safe location is a good option.

  13. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the manager *does* know it’s a big deal, but is acting like it isn’t to protect her ego. Doesn’t really change the advice about how you should approach the situation, though.

    Since part of your letter was about how to find a way to not just reject everything she says out of hand, could you try to avoid having to make in-the-moment decisions about her suggestions? Like, rather than agreeing or arguing, could you tell her that her idea is interesting and you’ll think about it? Then you can go away and imagine that the suggestion came from someone you respect and give it a proper evaluation.

    Because Alison’s totally right. Your boss’ judgment is off. You should be keeping an eye out to try to prevent major issues from happening.

    1. JustAnotherKate*

      Also, and someone may have said this, when she mentions an idea in a brainstorm, can you separate the idea from the person? So when your immediate thought is “oh hell no” (which is fair given the circumstances), try to consider “what would I say if Competent Coworker X had raised this instead?” Maybe her ideas really are crap and this isn’t worth the time, but I’ve used this occasionally and every once in a (long) whil they do come up with a decent idea against all odds.

  14. E*

    The manager doesn’t need to bend over backwards to show how bad she might feel for an error. If you grind on it and treat her badly for making a mistake remember what goes around comes around. It’s just a job. Mistakes happen. Move on imo.

    1. Roland*

      When you make a mistake that would have had massive repercussions for someone personally, you at minimum explain why it was an outlier and won’t happen again, or explain what steps you’re taking to prevent it. And preferably you apologize, but at least you take some steps to reassure the person it won’t happen again. Meanwhile this manager’s response was “well it was because I was distracted”, something that could very well happen again, and she doesn’t seem to think it’s worth the effort to prevent in the future.

    2. Dawn*

      By the sounds of it, OP could have lost their job if they didn’t catch the manager’s mistake – and she’s being completely cavalier about it in the meantime.

      At the very least, “Yeah I made a mistake that could have cost you your job but you found and fixed my mistake on your own initiative, so no bigs” is an astounding failure to read the room.

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Who’s asking the manager to bend over backwards or show she’s feeling bad? The manager seemed to refuse to even acknowledge that what happened was a problem, and that’s the issue. Probably “yeah, that was a near miss and could have been really bad, thanks for catching it, let’s implement X and Y to make sure we’re never in this situation again” would have been sufficient.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      There’s a wide swath of reasonable behavior between bending over backwards to show regret and blowing something off like LW’s boss did. At minimum, a, “Thank you for catching that. I really appreciate it and am sorry my being distracted put your work at risk.” would go a long way. As would giving LW some public/upwards kudos for catching a potentially serious mistake.

      When you couple failure to apologize with generally being defensive, thin-skinned, and finger-pointy (none of which are good managerial traits), I can see where LW is turned off.

  15. Sometimes you have to choose it.*

    I’m in the process of leaving a job for exactly this reason.
    Personally, I like my boss well enough – but professionally she sounds very much like your boss. I spent two years ‘managing up’ and documenting everything under the sun and I’ve come to the realization that, for me, it’s just not worth the stress and crazyness.
    I’m sad to leave, because there are many things I like about my current position, but a bad manager can make any job unpleasant.
    I wish you well!

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      Yep. Left a job I loved because a peer was promoted to supervisor and destroyed the program which was to provide capital to human service organizations. Dozens of organizations lost their funding because she bounced around like a twit ignoring my pleas for her to do her job or else we’d lose everything. Then we lost everything. She remains in her high paying role (for the public sector) and I had to move on. Still hearing about these poor orgs who still suffer the consequences of her actions.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Argh, that SUCKS.
        Seems like so often in the public sector, the people who move up are the ones who don’t rock the boat or ask too many questions. So you can end up with an entire leadership chain that’s… not great… and refuses to acknowledge problems that exist, which creates more problems.

    2. Seal*

      Same, although I quite frankly don’t like my boss. They’re new and I had hoped to if not like them to at least have a cordial relationship with them, but that never happened. Their staggering incompetence paired with the knowledge that better people were passed over for their role very much colors my view of them. I truly had hoped to stay, because we had gotten to that point that a good manager could have taken us to the next level, but all that’s gone now so it’s time to go.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        True. I’ve quit a few jobs (usually temporary, summer work when I was young); I’ve quit many more managers.

        Poor managers cost companies a lot of money. It’s sad that they don’t realize that.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I’m in kinda the opposite situation. I don’t love my job. It’s not a terrible job, it’s just not for me. But I’ve been sticking around because my direct management is generally very good.

  16. Dawn*

    If it’s possible in your organization/position you could also see if there’s a possibility of your reporting to someone else; this often requires less capital and less context, in my experience, than trying to actively call your boss out.

  17. Hi-ho Steverino*

    Time to look for a new position somewhere else. All the techniques that might allow you to effectively deal with this boss carry the huge risk of whether everyone who will see what you’re doing will reward your willingness to go over your boss’s head. They won’t, and you’ll get the shaft.

    You know where your boss doesn’t work? Everywhere else. Go there.

  18. Michelle Smith*

    No one likes looking for a new job because of a bad manager. You like the work you do, it was great before they started, and looking for a job is stressful and time consuming and uncertain.

    That being said, you should probably look for another job, even casually. You don’t know what else is out there that could be a better situation until you do. You know that saying that people don’t leave jobs they leave managers isn’t 100% true, but it became a saying for a reason.

  19. Dancing Otter*

    I don’t know in what format you submit things, but can you turn on change tracking?

    On one project, I had to lock all the formula cells in my spreadsheets. Data could be changed, which did introduce the possibility of error but was necessary, but no one could cause calculation errors. Input cells were background colored to be easily identified, and data validation was activated.

  20. Tiger Snake*

    Manager needs some training and guidance, yes. It sounds like they’re getting that. But I worry the OP needs a bit of a reality check as well; OP’s manager might be highly skilled, but if a singular error did has shattered trust completely, then I think the OP has accidentally put her on a pedestal where highly-skilled was mistaken for ‘never, ever makes a mistake’, and that was never fair to manager.

    I wonder if a part of the OP’s issue is because feel that their manager isn’t taking this seriously enough for their liking?

    From a different perspective – manager gave feedback, the feedback was reviewed and the potential error was identified and resolved before anything could happen. The guardrails and the checks-and-balances in place did their job. The system works.

    But if the system is working, then its going to be of less priority than the systems that are broken. Its always frustrating to be the one listening to the squeaky wheel squeak, but if the wheel is still turning then we need to fix the broken one of the other side of the carriage first.

    1. Tiger Snake*

      Which is, of course, not to say that the OP should just accept her licks and move on. Its just that if there are other issues manager is struggling with in her role and that’s having a flow on effect to the OP, then I think that the OP is misplacing the blame of some of her stress; its not that the response to this mistake was that out of like, its that all of the rest of it could be starting to reach a breaking point for them.

  21. Waving not Drowning*

    LW have you read my mind! I’ve been thinking of writing in with a very similar question!

    Mine was a micromanager, basically pushed our team to the sidelines because we couldn’t be trusted to do the work ourselves (mind you – we’d been a high performing team before she joined us, receiving awards and praise from higher up). If we made a (very low level) mistake, it was a major drama with her, yet, her mistakes were shoulder shrugs. She was so focused on doing our work that she didn’t do her work, meaning more screw ups. She took the credit for all new initiatives we developed, regardless of whether she had input – she gave her daughter in law who she employed on our team joint credit for something that was completely 100% my work, but, took absolutely none of the blame if she screwed up.

    It actually drove me to a breakdown. I went to HR and set it all out, and they kind of addressed it with her, but no real follow up. They suggested mediation, and I was happy with that, but, manager thought we had an amazing working relationship and thought it unnecessary. To her great surprise, I left, as did the majority of the Team. She was then promoted upwards, managing more staff, same hijinks occurred, mass exodus of staff where it was much more visible because of the large Team. She’s been quietly moved into another role with minimal staff supervision.

    I do wonder if mediation would have ever helped, given by that point I’d completely lost all trust in her.

  22. Fikly*

    It’s not your responsibility to rebuild your trust in her. It’s her job to do things that rebuild your trust in her. That’s how trust works.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      This is true.

      But it also requires that the person on whom this task falls actually realizes that people have lost trust in them. Given LW’s description of their manager’s behavior, it doesn’t sound like this is going to happen any time soon, unless someone from up above has a serious (i.e., “come to Jesus” as my old boss described it) meeting with her and she takes it seriously.

      I am really hoping for an update on this one.

  23. Devil'sAdvocate*

    There’s sometimes 2 sides-

    This posting brought to mind the submittal by the manager whose employee was copyediting every memo/email she sent; from the tone of it, I worry that OP feels entitled to have a perfect manager. And, perhaps some resentment?

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Lol! This reminds me of JRR Tolkien’s response when people compared Lord of the Rings to Wagner’s Nibelungenlied: “Both Rings were round and there the resemblance ceases.”

      OP doesn’t sound like they are asking for a perfect manager. But they are asking for a competent manager who can acknowledge their own mistakes and not just gloss over them, and that is a perfectly reasonable expectation of all workers.

      There are always two sides. But that doesn’t mean both sides are equally valid. I can set my bread dough in front of the oven, or I can set my bread dough inside the oven. Only one of those situations will produce a loaf of bread.

      1. Lily*

        “There are always two sides. But that doesn’t mean both sides are equally valid. I can set my bread dough in front of the oven, or I can set my bread dough inside the oven. Only one of those situations will produce a loaf of bread.”

        Just gonna tuck this in my pocket for later use.

  24. lilyp*

    First, it sounds like you need to take some time to sit down and process your emotions about what happened — fear about the damage to your reputation, frustration that your boss didn’t recognize or acknowledge the gravity of her mistake, resentment that she won’t face real consequences over this. I find that writing out what I’m feeling and why, and then deciding what (if anything) I’m going to *do* or learn from each reaction helps me stop ruminating and move on.

    Second, can you parse out more specifically what boss is actually good vs bad at? You say she was a great individual contributor, and the flaws you list are more about interpersonal skills and communication than the quality of her ideas or technical judgement (not to say interpersonal skills don’t matter! but they are different). So before this mistake did you generally think she came up with good ideas and gave good suggestions that improved your work and had good judgement re: specific work products? If so, I don’t think this one mistake (as scary as the experience was for you) should outweigh that larger pattern. If that’s the case, you could try reminding yourself about the last two or three times she had a good idea or valuable feedback to try and reset your current feeling that everything that comes out of her mouth is cursed. Then you can start building a more nuanced set of reactions to her, like taking technical commentary from her seriously because you know she has an eye for scalability, but ignoring petty criticism about other departments because you know she tears down others to make herself feel good. Or knowing that you can take a tricky bug to her, but you should take a question about how to phrase something delicately to someone else.

    If that’s not right, and this mistake is just the latest/most serious in a pattern of bad judgement and incompetence across all areas of her ideas/feedback/work, then you really should believe that pattern, and try to either leave, get transferred to a different manager, or escalate issues above her head.

    1. lilyp*

      Also, trust your own judgement! This part felt a little surprising:

      “I am so certain she’s going to introduce another error into my work that I find myself arguing over minor changes I previously would have just accepted”

      You should think critically about her suggestions and think through for yourself whether they could introduce issues (you should do that even if you trusted your boss!) but if *you* don’t see an issue with them, I don’t see why you’d argue about it or refuse to change something just on the principle that if she suggested it it must be bad. I think that’s getting into petty territory.

    2. CharlieBrown*

      First, it sounds like you need to take some time to sit down and process your emotions about what happened

      I love this! This is always a good first step when something traumatic happens. You’re going to feel the feelings, so it’s a good idea to just turn everything electronic off (so, no angry emails or text messages), make a sandwich (because your brain needs food, even if your stomach says it doesn’t), and just…feel the feelings. And realize that the reptile part of your brain that needs to feel these things is going to be in charge for a while, and you don’t need to make any decisions. Just feel the feelings. Move through them until you get to a place where you can be logical again.

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