Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
We have a new department head, who is my new direct manager (previously there was no one person supervising this group). Since she's arrived, we've had problems with her understanding of how our existing procedures work. If you say, in a perfectly neutral or even friendly tone, "Normally when this happens, this is how we handle it," she says she does not have time to do it that way or does not want to do it that way, or even "I have been in this for 30 years and I've never handled it that way."
Now, I realize that some of our procedures may be different from what she's experienced in the past, and I'm not saying our way of doing things is perfect. However, it's becoming increasingly difficult to get things done, because there is consistent and inflexible pushback to every request or suggestion.
Just this morning, I emailed her to remind her that we had an item that needed to be done today so we can push it out tomorrow. I even took pains to frame my question as "do you want to do this?" and when she said yes, I said in a neutral tone, "Thanks for letting me know. If you would, please just get that to me as soon as possible, as it takes some time to filter, enter, and apply." Her response was that she was preparing for a meeting tomorrow, and that meeting was her priority.
I will grant you, this company has a tendency to put things off until the last possible minute. But this meeting tomorrow has been planned since before she came on board with us. It's been on the calendar for months. It's been talked about since our last large meeting. It has not sneaked up on anyone. Neither has this other project, which normally is a very high priority. If she is ever asked about getting something in by a particular deadline, her response is an almost automatic "I'm too busy for that" or "I have too many interruptions, and I cannot get that done."
I'm supposed to be the assistant for her area of responsibility. I have tried to offer assistance and bring things to her attention before they're due, and I have consistently been ignored or told that she already "has too many interruptions." She can be hard to read, because she always smiles and laughs, no matter what the topic of discussion is, or how busy she's trying to tell you she is.
How do I deal with this?
I can't guarantee this will work, but it's probably the best way for you to proceed: Try things her way. And not a fake or not-very-sincere effort, but a real one: Genuinely decide in your head that her way, while different from the past, might be completely fine.
That's because there are two possibilities here:
1. She's making really bad decisions. If this is the case, hopefully someone above her is going to notice. If not, you probably can't fix the fact that she's a poor decision maker. Meanwhile, she's your boss, so she does get to set the priorities, even if they seem totally wrong.
2. She's not making bad decisions at all--she's bringing a different approach or focus, and her boss is actually happy about that.
From where you're standing, it can be hard to know which one it is, especially in the beginning. And either way, she gets to set the agenda for your department, until someone above her says she doesn't. If you fight that, at a minimum you're going to be unhappy, and probably not successful there. So your best bet is to try giving her the benefit of the doubt until it's clear that you shouldn't. (And at which point, what do you do? You can't force her to do things a different way--so then you decide if you want to keep the job under these changed circumstances.)
For what it's worth, I once hired a new department head to replace someone who had been well-liked. The new person had a very different way of doing things, and that was deliberate--that's why we had hired her. While the former person had focused on A, B, and C, the new person had more expertise in D, E, and F, and that's where she focused--and that's what we wanted. We and she made this clear to her team, but they were used to seeing a focus on A, B, and C, saw that as the right way to do things, and had a really hard time accepting the differences. It harmed their relationship with her, and for a few of them, it poisoned the way they approached their jobs. I'm not saying that's happening with you; you don't sound poisoned and your new boss does sound like she's not the easiest personality. Also, if this is the case, your new boss has certainly erred by not explaining to your team what the new priorities are. But it's worth keeping in mind as you acclimate to this new person.
Meanwhile, though, you can also ask about the changes straightforwardly. Don't approach it as criticism of her, but rather as genuinely asking about the differences you're seeing, with no judgment attached. For instance, "Jane, we typically handle X this way. It sounds like you'd rather we do it differently--can we talk about what you'd prefer we do?" Or: "Is there a better way for me to handle Y when it needs your sign-off before it can go out? Would you rather we just move it forward without bothering you, get it to you earlier, or something else?" And you can also say, "Matilda (or whatever her predecessor's name was) used to like me to ___ (remind her about deadlines, push hard to get things done by a certain time, or whatever). Do you want me to continue doing that, or is there a different approach you'd like me to take?"
Also, since she's mentioned that she has too many interruptions, streamline them by trying to set up a weekly check-in with her (if you're not already doing that), and save up as much as you can for those meetings.
Overall, approach it more neutrally, and you might find you get information that either changes your perspective or gives you more insight into what her thought process is. And if you ultimately decide that she is indeed terrible at her job, then you can decide what you want to do from there--but reserve judgment for a little while.
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