How to manage your manager

Posted as a reply in someone else’s journal. Saving for my reference. No this does not have anything to do with my current workplace :)

My first reaction is that I guess I have no concept of what it’s like being in a position like that. I have usually been fortunate enough to have a strong relationship with my immediate manager and to be able to talk to him about what my job is, how I am doing, etc.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say you have a supervisor but no manager. There is always a chain of command – if not, just stop doing any work and see how long it takes for someone to own up to being your manager :) Seriously though, I think anyone who supervises others *must* be able to answer questions about what their jobs are or aren’t. If your so-called supervisor doesn’t quite know what you do all day, either she is not doing her job properly or she is not really your supervisor. That is of course an easy one for HR to answer and there’s really no harmful side effect to asking – they have those records and can tell you who reports to whom up your immediate chain of management.

In any case, since you are not doing the job it says on your offer letter (or even if you never got an offer letter) AND since they have already started the conversation about what you should and should not be doing, that’s a good reason to ask for confirmation. If they can’t really provide you with a written job description, that’s piss-poor managing, but it can’t really serve to hurt you, on paper anyway. When it comes time to give you a performance review (or even to give you a warning if she doesn’t feel satisfied with what you are doing) they will have to start a paper trail about what your expectations are and aren’t at that time. While you’re in a somewhat “undocumented” state, she has nothing to judge you against really, so she can *talk* all day but nothing will escalate to the point of firing you until she has some kind of paper trail. (If you were bad at your job, this would be the perfect management environment for you, and same goes for the people around you — if it hasn’t already started to show :)

But. Being undocumented like this also means there is no way to show progress or progression of responsibilities either. The same “freedom” that allows workers to weasel out of doing their jobs due to no accountability also applies to managers — they have nothing holding their feet to the fire in terms of doing right by you either. To me it is the equivalent of getting a verbal agreement instead of a written quote from a vendor or contractor… if there is any dispute later, it will come down to he-said, she-said.

So. What to do about it. Here are some ideas…

1. Start a conversation (or perhaps you have already) about “what is my job and what isn’t.” I think you said that your supervisor wanted to put something in writing in terms of some of your expectations (admin role, I think you said, and if I understood correctly it was something that she didn’t want you to spend time on it?) This is a good context to start the conversation. You want this person on your side, so don’t go aggressive if you don’t have to. Start with something like “I have been really busy and I feel like I am getting pulled in multiple directions. I am getting a number of people asking me to do things and I don’t think I can do them all. Since you are my supervisor, I figure I should start with you. First because I want to make sure I am doing what you feel I should be doing and that you’re satisfied, and second, because I would like to be able to tell people to bugger off if they want me to do something that conflicts with my job and have you back me up. So, what’s a good time to sit down and talk?”

2. Do your homework. Remember that managers (especially bad ones) don’t like to do real work, and if you bring them problems, it’s best to bring a solution along with so they can just nod their heads. If you have had a review, check it out for ideas; if not, write up your own job description and evaluate how well you think you are doing at your job. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes and think, ok, I want to get this person as productive as possible and spend as much time as possible doing skilled work, because the other less-skilled work I can always have someone else do (and if she is happy at the same time, bonus points). So draw up a description of what exactly you are doing now (for the last 30 days or so) and then write up what you WANT the job to be. Don’t worry about pay and recognition yet… you have to get something in writing first, and if you decide to leave your job to go somewhere else, you will still be glad you got it in writing what your duties actually are.) If you’re not doing the job you want, or if there are other skills you want to learn, play manager and scope out a set of development goals for yourself and a plan for how you want to get to where you want to be in 6 months.

Now… don’t wrap this up and give it to anyone, yet. You need to be able to talk about your own job and responsibilities and performance and development intelligently, but you don’t necessarily have to provide it to anyone in writing.

3. Have the meeting with your manager. Don’t bring the full list of job you have vs. job you want and performance and development plan. Show your hand a bit at a time and compare notes with your manager as you go. Bring the minimum needed for this meeting, such as 8-10 one-line descriptions of the various duties you have, including those you currently do whether you want to do them or not, and anything that anyone may ask you to do. The idea is to go down the list and have your manager say “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” to each of these. You can sort of steer the discussion to the way you want it to go, but do so subtly — you want to manage your manager (especially a bad one) into thinking the right thing and still thinking it is her idea. Once you have the list with Yes, No or Maybe beside each one, this is really all you need for this meeting. Ask if there is anything else you should be doing, or that your manager might have that you could be doing but aren’t yet, anything you forgot, etc.

4. Type up the summary of the meeting and send email. Let your manager know by email that this is just a confirmation of what we talked about, and if I misunderstand anything or if we missed anything, please let me know. This is really the start of your paper trail. Keep the message and her reply. If it’s appropriate to copy someone else, do so.. the more eyes on it the better, but not enough to make your manager squirm under the glare. Say “thank you for taking the time to meet with me”.

5. Use the list to check as you do things during the week to see if they are on the list. If you’re asked to do something not on the Yes list, you have a choice of a. emailing or dropping by to ask your manager if it’s ok, or b. asking that person to please email you the request, since you need to get clearance from your manager. I would do a. with the stuff that I sort of like and b. with the stuff I want to avoid. If time is limited, make sure you have done everything on the Yes list and let people know if they want something on the Maybe list that it may not get done. Go this way for about a week.

6. Send status reports every week. If you’re manager isn’t good at telling you what to do, at least you can tell her what you are really doing and if you keep this up, there will be very little argument later about what your job actually is (or was during that time). This should take no more than 20-30 minutes per week. Keep notes during the week so you can whip out this status quickly.

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