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  • Harriet Willmott

What to do if you have a bad manager

Not sure? Read this first


You have 2 options:


1. Get a new manager

Either through internal job postings, or by talking to other managers at the company, or by talking to your manager’s manager. The company wants to keep you and they will do their best to accommodate your needs. If they don’t, not only do you have a bad manager, you have a bad company. Go get a job at a better company (see my post on applying to jobs and interviewing, then choosing a new job).


2. Manage up

“Managing up” is when you make up for your manager’s shortcomings by doing their job for them. It sounds depressing, but it’s a reality that many of us face: a job that is pretty ideal with a manager that isn’t ideal, but maybe they’re not the worst and you want to try to make it work.


If you are not having regular 1-1s

Schedule weekly 1-1s with your manager and if they skip or are late, ask them what time every week they can reliably attend the 1-1s and hold them to it. If you still can’t make them have 1-1s with you, get a new manager.


If your 1-1s are useless

Make an agenda for your 1-1s. This should be a living document, shared with your manager, that you add a new section to every week (keep that history!!). The agenda should be centered around your career goals (short term, medium term, and long term). Define those goals with your manager in your next 1-1 and write at the top of the doc the next date you will revisit these goals (3 months from setting them) to see if they have changed or if what you’re doing is helping you reach those goals.


During your 1-1s, you should talk about what work you’re doing, what you’re struggling with, and if what you’re doing is bringing you closer to those goals or not. Write this stuff down. It’s good to have a record of what you’re working on so you can look back over the past 6 months or year and summarize what you did and expect that your manager knows what you did, too.


If your manager doesn’t remember what you tell them in 1-1s

Document everything! See the above note about 1-1 docs. If they say they’re going to do something in the 1-1, put that in the doc (“Action item: Bob to schedule engineering retro on Friday”). If your manager still forgets to follow up, send them an email after the 1-1 with action items (“Just to summarize our earlier conversation, you said that you would schedule an engineering retro on Friday”). If they still don’t follow up, bump that email (“ping!”). If you are starting to notice a persistent problem of them forgetting to follow up, or WORSE, never knowing what you’re working on, it’s time for a new manager. You will not get a promotion from a manager that has no idea what you’re working on despite you telling them every week. Stop wasting your career potential on them.


If you aren’t working on your career goals with your manager

Set the schedule for your next 1-1: your career goals (3 months, 1 year, 5 years). Write them in there ahead of time or come up with them with your manager during your 1-1. Then come up with a plan that will get you closer to those goals. Set a reminder in your calendar to revisit those in 3 months.


If you rarely get feedback

Ask for feedback in every 1-1. Usually the scope of this feedback will be pretty minor, because it’s in the context of 1 week. When you revisit your goals every 3 months, that’s a good time to review what you achieved over the past 3 months (documented in your 1-1 doc to make it easier for your manager, and you, to remember!) and get some larger-scale feedback. How did that project go? What could have gone better?


If you get useless feedback

“Try harder”, “work more”, “do more of everything”, “do it faster”. These are all examples of feedback that is not actionable.


Useless feedback will leave you feeling inadequate, helpless, and overwhelmed. Actionable feedback will leave you feeling optimistic and in control. Here’s some good feedback: “Next time you get handed a project like that and you feel like it’s going to take longer than anticipated, flag it early and let’s figure out how to cut scope and deliver it on time, or adjust expectations.” Good feedback is about the process you use to get things done, not you as a person.


You can NOT work more hours, so don’t try. You will just procrastinate more and be more tired at the end of the day. Productivity is a finite resource that only gets replenished by sleeping. You can’t work more hours, and you’re probably putting in adequate effort during your prescribed 8 hours, so the only thing you can change is what you spend your time on. For example: recently, feedback from my manager has been about spending more time at the start of a project learning about the technologies and design patterns I will be using. I also realized I spend too much time sending gifs on Slack (is that possible, though???)


So, if you get useless feedback from your manager, push back. If they say “Do more of X and Y”, you say “Does that mean it’s okay for me to stop doing Z?”. This is where it really helps to have a 1-1 doc where you’re tracking what you do each week. Keep track of what you spend your time on so you can paint a detailed picture when your manager asks you to do more. If you’re wasting time on something, you can identify it together. Push back until you get something actionable.


If your manager volunteers you for women’s work

Taking meeting notes, organizing team events, ‘soft skills’ interviews: you know what this is. Next time you’re volunteered for women’s work, suggest someone else do it instead. When they inevitably tell you that you’re better at it, respond by saying other people will get better at it by practice, just like you did. I did this at Google after organizing all the team events for too long. At first, I organized them because I knew we wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t organize it. Then, when I got tired of it, I confronted the team and set up a system where event organization was a rotating responsibility.


Side note: the meeting notes taker has a lot of power. You control the history of what happened. If your team has a problem of ignoring women’s ideas until a man repeats them, you can record the woman having the idea instead of the man. Just sayin’


If your manager uses gendered language in reviews

“Bossy”, “pushy”, “complains too much”. Did you mean to say “assertive”, “opinionated”, and “optimizer”? To be completely candid, I have not encountered this flavour of sexism yet in my career, so please take my advice with a pinch of salt.


My take: if you find this kind of language in your reviews, you should have a conversation with your manager about it. “Can you describe what I did that seemed bossy to you?” “Would you say that I was being decisive in that situation and helping the team move forward to deliver on time?” “Would you say those are leadership qualities?” If they say yes but “it’s the tone you use”, ask them to do an impression of the tone. Why does the tone matter? My tone of voice? A woman’s voice? Push back until they feel ridiculous about what they wrote. Also, please record this conversation and send it to me so we can laugh and cry together about it afterward, or so you can use it in the future if you need to prove your manager is a sexist piece of trash.


If your manager keeps asking the same question until a man answers

You can take the meeting notes and send them out later, with the original (female) answerer given credit, or you can interrupt the meeting and say “Betty said that first”, or you can keep mentioning her name when you talk about the idea “Betty’s idea to move the logic to the server..” You can bring it up in 1-1s “I noticed you didn’t respond to Betty’s idea in that meeting, until Kevin repeated it”.


If your manager does not prioritize hiring and retaining diverse talent

“We don’t lower the bar.” If you feel offended when you hear that, you are 1000% justified. I am offended for you. Google “diverse teams perform better” and send them some of the COPIOUS articles and research showing that diverse teams lead to more business success. You can’t argue with money. You can be sad, though, about your manager not thinking that women or people of colour are as good at engineering as white dudes. You can be righteously angry about that.


If your manager is gaslighting you

If you feel confused and helpless after talking to your manager, or you’re questioning your own experience, you are being gaslit. Gaslighting makes you think you’re going crazy. If you’re feeling this, recognize it for what it is!!! Trust your experience: your feelings are valid. This is REALLY hard to do, so I recommend carefully reaching out to teammates you trust to get some validation from them. “Did that seem weird when Bob said that yesterday?” If you don’t have teammates you trust, start building up those relationships.


When you have recognized the gaslighting for what it is, you can stick up for yourself. When your manager says “you should have anticipated that”, you can say “I had a million things on my plate because you asked me to work on 3 projects at once and I didn’t have the mental space to anticipate this one detail. Are we okay with this strategy of moving fast and breaking things or do we want to slow down and make fewer mistakes?” BOOM TOWN, POPULATION: YOU!


Conclusion

It’s okay to make your manager uncomfortable sometimes. They will only learn when they’re outside their comfort zone, and they have to learn to become a better manager for you. Try these strategies to help your manager get better at their job: helping you reach your career goals and get things done. If they stubbornly refuse to change, go back to option 1 (get a new manager).


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