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22 Dec

How to manage your annoying manager

"Dude. My manager is so effin' annoying. The other day she comes and tells me to do this thing "now" because it's "urgent." And in my mind I was like "What about all these other things we agreed on doing this week? Should I drop them?"

Of course, I didn't tell her that. Appraisals are due. Don't want to rub her the wrong way."

Whenever I hear someone complaining about this kind of thing happening in the workplace, which happens way more than you could imagine, my first question to them always is,

"Well, why didn't you tell her that?"

Why didn't you?

There are two sides to every annoying manager story. But there is always one reason and one explanation for why that reason is primary to all our management troubles.

The reason almost always is some version of a Lack of Communication.

And to understand why a lack of communication is the primary cause of all workplace conflict, you need to understand why we communicate.

You see, each individual has a map of reality of the world; a mental model, so to speak.

And we communicate with each other to update and align our mental models. In colloquial terms, we communicate "to be on the same page." We share our maps so that every one of us has more or less the same map and is referring to the same things when they're collaborating in a certain context.

So when we refuse to communicate, we both are updating our maps based on our own versions of reality without ever trying to compare notes and try to establish the same reference map. As a result, version conflict happens. Your updated version of the map conflicts with mine. We are unknowingly pulling in different directions.

With me so far?

Now that you understand this general principle underlying all our management, or rather people woes, the two sides to every annoying manager story are

1. When the manager is at fault

2. When the reportee is at fault  

Let's discuss both.

1. When the manager is at fault.

Let's take the very example we started with.

Your manager comes to you and tells you something is urgent and needs to get done ASAP. She tries to enforce a totally new set of tasks based on a new version of the map that only she has. She doesn't try to first make sure you both are on the same page. Her approach comes as a rude shock because, in some sense, she is completely dismissing your map of reality and shoving hers in your face.

Whenever such a thing happens, always remember that as the person who is in charge of doing the work, the ball is always in your court.

Make her take a few metaphorical steps back. And the way you do that is by asking her these questions to get both of you on the same page first.

  • Can you give me some context? What recent development has made this really urgent and a priority?
  • What is the impact we are looking at here? Why did everyone all of a sudden decide this task deserved pushing every other off the table?
  • Are you also giving me permission to not do the list of things we agreed upon? I will need to trade off a few things I had planned to get done this week in order to do this. Are you okay with extending the timeline on those things?

Every "urgent" task comes with a massive context switch that reduces productivity and momentum. Make sure you let her know the cost of dropping whatever's currently on your plate.

And even before this problem arises, the next time you mutually commit on a plan, make it amply clear that you're going to make her stick with it. If she doesn't stick to this agreement and reneges on the contract multiple times, feel free to let her know that it is not okay.

2. When the reportee is at fault.

This is a problem I see with most great employees: They think that they shouldn't waste their manager's time and take ownership. As a part of taking ownership, they try to communicate only when they think it is absolutely necessary and a thing is really worth saying.

But this is a mistake.

As a manager myself, I can tell you that I love it when my reports overcommunicate versus under-communicate.

This ties back to the principle we discussed earlier: more communication is always better than less. The more synchronized our maps are, the more we pull in the same direction and the lesser the effort wasted on things that never see the light of day because something more urgent came up.

Management is about having an accurate model of your employees: what they love doing, what they don't love doing, what they are good at, what they need to improve, what their expectations are from themselves and what their expectations are from you. And the more you communicate, the less effort I have to spend in divining these things from you.

Imagine you have a week's time to deliver a task. Somewhere around Wednesday, you get stuck on a problem. In order to not waste my time, you do not let me know. And right around Friday evening — the deadline — you tell me that you got stuck and couldn't move ahead. The end result is either is we both now spend our lovely Friday evening working on this problem or we push the deadline to sometime next week.

If you had come to me on Wednesday, I would have managed to get you unstuck on Wednesday, and we wouldn't have wasted so much time. But you did not because 1. you wanted to come across as self-sufficient, and 2. you didn't want to signal that you may not be as good as you think you are.

The same goes for all other kinds of problems with your manager that may arise as a natural consequence of working together.

Behind every issue, bad communication is often the biggest culprit.

And after reading all of this, you feel like you cannot communicate this freely with your manager, perhaps you shouldn't be working with them. It's that simple.

Work with people who you can communicate freely with without the fear of being judged.

And once that is solved for, understand that your manager is not an oracle.


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