I tried to think of a way to be kinder about the question, but perhaps I should just be uncomfortably direct. My manager just doesn't get it.

There. Phew. It's out. Let the healing begin.

We have issues with communication (organizational, tactical and personal goals). And, for the most part, the main issue is that it doesn't happen. He tries, in his way. But, his organizational skills are lacking, so he rarely sticks to any sort of plan or routine. Whether it's him, his desk, his car or his appearance, it's sort of permanently disheveled. The manic mood swings don't help the package, either. Niether do the 5-6 weeks of work he misses each year for sick days and car trouble.

I could go on, but I don't think it would be effective or helpful. Frankly, I'm surprised he's still a part of the organization (I think he's surprised, too). I think I might be one of the reasons he's still here, but that's because, despite my personal opinion, I'm here to support his goals. That's a real challenge, because I have to find out the goals from other folks. But, it has afforded me the opportunity to own fully what's delegated to me.

As a senior staff member, I'm aware that the junior and mid-level folks look to me for advice, guidance and mentoring. And, I think on the topic of our manager, I may be letting them down. I readily acknowledge that I have not always been as effective as I might be in dealing with him.

I'm moving to another part of the organization, so it's not my problem much longer. However, I don't want to pass on the opportunity to learn some things that I might have done better. When it seems like your direct manager is failing, what can we, the ordinary staff members, do to continue to be effective?

itilimp's picture
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Actually, I'm interested in the answer to this one as well although perhaps a slightly different take.

A little background...
I used to report to this manager who, due to the high number of direct reports got 2 staff promoted as team leaders which meant I reported to one of them instead.
A year later this manager had 'early retirement' (not redunancy, of course not :o) and the 2 team leaders have been left to hold the fort.
It seems there is no intention of replacing our manager (or if there is this has not yet been communicated to the team) and neither of the team leaders want the responsibilities of that manager (nor are they paid for it).

So... we're in a bit of mess with everyone getting on by themselves and no leadership OR management (though the team leaders are trying to a point between them).

Aside from commenting on the lack of succession planning and geting on with the job in hand, is there anything else we as direct reports can do to improve our situation?

jasdf's picture

Now I feel like I should have appended this to the title:
"... And What Could I Do DIfferently To Help?"

In trying to be brief in the title, I think I oversimplified my point to where, at first glance, it looks less like I need feedback and more like I needed to vent. I'm done venting. I just don't have many folks in my organization to whom I can turn for feedback on what I might do (or might have done) to better cope with a tough situation.

Mark's picture
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This is a hard situation to be in. I've been there, and it's just terribly frustrating at times.

The solution has nothing to do with your boss, or lack thereof. The solution is your behavior.

[b]Decide what you believe your job to be, and do that job to the best of your ability.[/b] Make assumptions when you need to.

Do your best to cultivate relationships elsewhere in order to learn whatever it is you want to know to do your job. Seek out his peers, and ask for guidance, if it might help. If you can ask questions of his boss every once in a while, do so.

Ask for what amounts to a one on one. Have prepared questions. If something is really important, ask 3-4-5 times, several times by email for documentation in case you're worried about retribution. Always ask politely, always respectfully, always being cheerful when you don't get an answer. NEVER rude, never short.

When you start seeing yourself (privately) as "without a boss". you start expanding your sense of what needs to be done, and begin to see yourself not as one of many cogs in the system, but more like the CEO of your own little organization (BTW, this is how CEOs feel about THEIR bosses (customers) - they never make up their mind, don't give good guidance, seem not to care...) When you do this, you're much more likely to ask bigger questions of the boss, and perhaps shake his thinking up a little. Maybe it will help... probably won't... but you're not doing it for him.

It's not appropriate EVER to speak openly in a disrespectful way about your boss... unless you want your directs telling theirs what a loser you are. On the other hand, if you are working to find something out, or are presenting to someone else, and they ask, "didn't your boss tell you X?" You can truthfully say, "No, sorry, I didn't get that. I've been asking, but hadn't heard. Thanks for bringing me up to speed. THAT is not unprofessional, not disrespectful, and over time will get back to your boss in the form of, "why aren't you telling your folks this stuff?"

Fact is, it's unlikely to change. Focus on you, and your team. Define your job more broadly, and do your best. Don't complain... just consider this a great learning opportunity.

Keep us posted.


jasdf's picture


Thanks a ton for the feedback! My instinct was to do just that. And the external validation is most welcome.

I did not do a great job when it came to always being cheerful, and I mention that for others who might find themselves in that position. It was so easy to get frustrated with the situation, but I did have to accept that I own my responses no matter what the situation (they call me Captain Obvious with good reason!).

And, it was really hard to get myself and my peers to break the death-spiral of vent, vent, vent. When I think of the time and energy we burned on a less effective pursuit, it steels my future resolve to not find myself in that same place.

Thanks also to itilimp. It's always good to know we aren't alone in our respective plights.

As a sidebar, happy ending and reference to thinking of myself "without a boss." when the executive who recruited me into my new position (and out from under my old reporting structure), he said: "many times, I see you standing above your management." Maybe I'm just getting less cynical, but it meant a lot.

itilimp's picture
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Would also like to add thanks to Mark for taking the time to reply on this issue. As with jasdf, just knuckling down to what needs to be done has been what I've been doing so far. In my case though it has been with a smile which I get constantly ribbed about by my peers for being 'so damned optimistic' and they keep saying they'll make a cynic of me yet. Needless to say I hope that day never happens!

Anyhow, we've had some positive movement at work today in that a job advert has gone out for a new ICT manager. Here's hoping whoever is hired does a good job!

AManagerTool's picture

This was a very similar situation to my own. My boss HATED management. He therefore did everything in his power to avoid it. He sort of left me and most of my peers without any guidance other than the occasional rant about something that really didn't matter.

Some people saw this as a bad thing. I saw it as an opportunity to create for myself the job that I thought needed doing. As Mark points out, see what NEEDS to be done and do it. Stay positive, everybody will notice the fire in your belly and believe me they already know what is going on with your boss. No need to bring that to anyones attention.

Slats's picture

I like to say that's why they call it "taking" responsibility instead of merely "having" responsibility. See what needs to be done, TAKE responsibility for it from the vacuum left by the boss, and get it done.

badman's picture

This is such a good answer that I am seriously in trouble of becoming completely overconfident in Mark's answers.

Mark's picture
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Let's just say this is the good management blog! :wink:


badman's picture

HA! Awesome reply!

Well this is really my first experince with a difficult direct supervisor (and that's saying a lot since I worked in the film industry for a good long while), so my Badman Blog has been very cathartic.

My focus has already changed for the better and the advice on this particular topic is really helping me to orient my, and my coworker's, attitudes toward this particular supervisor.

Mark's picture
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That's why we're here!


escuccim's picture

I have a similar situation... I've been working with my boss for many years. When we started out it was a very small 3 person company with just the two owners and myself. Now we have 50 people and I am managing 15 of them.

When we were small my boss was very lax and basically didn't care what happened as long as the work got done. He still has the same attitude now even though it no longer works with so many people.

We have a couple of major problems here and people are getting very frustrated and it's extremely demoralizing for everyone. The biggest problem is that we do not follow a hierarchy. My boss will go straight to the bottom people and tell them to do things and none of the supervisors who should know what's going on do.

This, and the atmosphere created by my boss, are creating other problems. One is a huge lack of communication, as described above, as well as horizontal communication. No one tells anyone what is going on because everyone thinks they have a mandate from the boss to do whatever it is they are doing.

I have tried to solve this by implementing policies and procedures for requesting changes that must be approved by the people who should know but we are still a small, fast-paced company and if the big boss is there telling you that something must be done immediately you aren't going to follow the procedures and get it approved. And he doesn't make any effort to do anything like that so no one else does either.

In addition I don't like making more paperwork when it is not necessary.

We are still growing fairly quickly and I expect these problems to grow as we continue to add people.

I'm not sure what to do since when I try to do anything to help this situation my boss agrees but then disregards whatever I am trying to do. There are many other smaller issues that arise from my boss still having a small-company mentality in what is now a big company and it is extremely frustrating for everyone. I have had several key people talking about quitting due to the frustration from these issues.

Any help that can be provided would be greatly appreciated.

Mark's picture
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As we've said many times before, influencing up the chain is VERY difficult, and fraught with danger, particularly in smaller companies. The smaller it is, the higher the risk.

There are two general approaches I recommend, neither of which is a lock.

First, the best way is to produce stellar results, and thus gain credibility to talk about structure and management behaviors. Contrasting your results with others', and comparing your "different" tendencies can be a powerful influence on management.

Second, passively commenting on negative impacts to RESULTS AND CUSTOMERS in meetings (small and large) without pointing fingers can have some value. For instance, "I hope we don't have any retention issues over this," at the end of a discussion, can invite a discussion about what you mean. You can respond with, "well, I've heard rumblings", or, "I worry sometimes that we're at cross purposes. I'm totally on board... I just want to make sure we all walk this talk."

Suggestion two is DANGEROUS in the hands of a clumsy or over-eager communicator. It is only to be delivered as a toss of an unplayed hand onto the table... NOT a rock through a window or dropping a dime. Quiet, easy, unaffected, no big deal... those are your watchwords here.

(By the way, recommendation one sometimes leads to promotion, which is THE surefire way to manage up.)


escuccim's picture

Thanks for the advice. I actually have a golden opportunity right now because my boss is out sick for this week and maybe longer so I can try to mold things in his absence.

Unfortunately there is really nowhere for me to be promoted other than taking his job. I'm in charge of my department, which is essentially the half of the company that actually produces our product, and I have enough to worry about as it is. I wouldn't want to be given any more responsibility right now.

Unfortunately his behavior and the attitudes it fosters among our employees is causing major friction and problems. I have had three people tell me they are interviewing for other jobs and our department is only about 20 people right now.

My boss will listen to any suggestions I have to make, we have been working together for a long time and I think we would value my opinion even if I am disagreeing with him, but then he agrees and ignores them and continues doing things the way he is.

Anyway thanks for the advice. Seems pretty spot on.

rthibode's picture

Hi folks,

There is a good article on dealing with a bad manager at Scott Berkun's web site. I found it because Berkun's book was recommended on MT.

BrianAW's picture

Hi folks,

I've been reading the various responses to this post, and am impressed by the quality of the advice. I think that, in a situation where a boss is quite obviously a 'passenger', and is allowed to get away with it, then it speaks volumes about the culture of the organization.

I would explore my options in such a case, by asking questions such as:

1. Do I really want to 'compensate' for my bosses behavior?
2. Do I want to continually cover up for him/her?
3. Do I want to work for a company that will not hold people accountable?
4. What do I want? What are my expectations in working for this company? While I am working hard at producing results for them, are MY expectations being met?

I believe this last point is crucial to this discussion. While I may in the short term compensate for my bosses behavior, will the company truly recognise it and reciprocate? There is a good chance that this particular company won't, by the sounds of it, as they are allowing a bad boss to negatively impact not just one person, but probably many.

They are blind to the situation.

So, what are your work expectations? Research has shown that we all have work expectations other than compensation and benefits, and these vary in intensity from person to person. These work expectations include such elements as structure, diversity, recognition, autonomy, environment (social/physical), career growth, expression, teamwork, stability, and balance.

So start thinking about what you want, set some goals in these areas, and focus on them. Are your work expectations being met? Can you be specific about them, without falling in to the trap of 'blaming your boss'.

Take charge and give yourself options, such as:

Can I achieve my work expectations working for this boss; working for another boss in this company; working for another boss in another company, or by being my own boss?

The key is to be specific about what your work expectations are, and if you have a mentor or even someone in HR you can talk with about these expectations, WITHOUT pointing the finger at your boss, then you can succeed in a tough situation.

Good luck!