Wants-to-Please Director Over Promises!

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about boss who overloads:

Our unit, in a higher education institution, has a Director who is causing no end of misery in our lives. She is head of an organization made up of about a dozen people charged with providing certain types of support for faculty. She takes on tasks or assignments that are beyond our scope and that are really the purview of other campus units. Often these seems to happen when she is asked to do these things by the heads of the other campus units or by administrators that have conflicting views about what we should be doing.She seems to be in a state of denial about all of this.

We have a staff of professionals who have considerable experience in our core areas. However, we’re completely overloaded with work that we have no expertise in doing. In some cases, the work we’re doing is actually getting national attention for the head of another unit, and that unit’s employees had little or nothing to do with the project.In the past year, we’ve lost about a third of the people who work in our unit, and, during the hiring process, she has not given the potential new employees any indication that what they’re being hired for will only be a very small part of what they do day to day.

She makes no effort to do planning or assessment on the number of staff hours required or used for projects and resists any efforts for the managers below her to implement capacity tracking. She just seems to say “yes” to everything. We only seem to make progress on a few projects or initiatives; our faculty has begun complaining that we aren’t delivering on what we (our director) promises. She doesn’t seem to understand why her employees are dissatisfied. She holds meetings to do presentations about our scope and mission (which she continues to ignore by having us do more and more work that doesn’t fit). And she does not address concerns that employees express. As we become more disheartened and downtrodden in the meetings, she holds more social events like group lunches or bowling outings, thinking it will improve morale.

She avoids conflict at all costs. She becomes visibly tense and defensive whenever we try to have a discussion, privately or in a group meeting, about the areas we’re concerned about. She just seems to want to please everyone and for everyone to be happy. It’s almost as if she has some kind of blind faith that everything will fall together without her direction or intervention. She can talk quite proficiently about our organization’s overall “vision”, but seems to be incapable of giving us a structure, focus, and direction to actually make it happen.I’m prepping my resume and hitting the job boards to leave the unit and doing some creative marketing, shall we say, because I haven’t been able to point to many accomplishments in my primary fields of expertise here.Any advice on dealing with this situation until I can find another position? The workplace almost seems toxic. Our group is so frustrated that they’re starting to lash out at each other or become very withdrawn.

Signed, Unfocused and Overworked In Academia

DearĀ Unfocused and Overworked In Academia:

It certainly sounds as though you are in an unhappy environment! What you can or should do will be dictated by several issues: What you have to risk, what you have to gain, what kind of support each employee will give to the other, what supervisory and managerial support you’ll receive and what kind of communication channels are effective in your organization and the larger organization in which you work. If what you want to do is simply get through it until you can find another job, your best response might be to focus on maintaining positive relationships so at least you’ll have a good reference when you leave!

However, if you think there is a chance for a change, you may want to consider these thoughts:

1. Let me mention some things from your Director’s perspective. You may not agree with them! But thinking about them will allow you to see another view, and that might help you as you develop your approach. Maybe your Director genuinely believes all she is asking the unit to do comes under “other work as assigned.” Sometimes directors are given marching orders by those higher up, and they sell the ideas as their own, which is the way it should be. You are likely not in the meetings where she takes on the tasks you think are not appropriate for your unit. She may not volunteer as easily as you think. She may try to object but be overridden and try later to put a good face on it for her staff. Maybe she has been told to expand the work of the unit. Often specialized groups become very insulated and feel they shouldn’t do anything other than their specialty. Maybe there is a move to change that. You may be grateful one day that you have a varied resume. You mention the meetings and the fact that the Director becomes defensive. Often such meetings feel like “ganging up” to a boss–especially if she’s also getting pressure from higher up to do even more. My experience has been that a boss who wants to, as you put it, make everyone happy, has a strong sense of personal failure when everyone isn’t happy. Your boss may feel very demoralized herself. She’s been taught that bosses are supposed to have “Can Do” attitudes and talk about group visions and set goals that are difficult to achieve, knowing that the work to achieve them will often create positive results. She may feel that it is possible to do the work if people would only stop complaining and focus on how to do it. Other employees or supervisors may be telling her that the work level is not too much. Similar units in other educational institutions may be achieving the workload of your unit. I mention all of that to say that rarely does a boss see misery and purposely choose to continue it.

That is especially the case with a boss who seems to be making efforts to increase morale through such things as social events and group outings. Those are clear indicators that she cares about how you and others feel, but that she feels strongly–for whatever reason–that work demands are fair and should be met. Or she feels she has no choice in the matter.

3. Assuming that she is not a mean-spirited person, consider writing a letter to her citing your concerns. List some projects that you do not feel are part of the work of the unit. Ask for help in understanding why your unit is working on them. Be honest and say that you are feeling more and more demoralized about how things are going. Acknowledge her apparent concerns, but say that social functions cannot overcome burnout. If you have a supervisor or manager, who agrees with your perspective, maybe he or she could review the memo before you send it to ensure its accuracy and effectiveness.

4. I’ve noticed that often people, who don’t feel they should be handling a project sit with a glum look, grouch generally, and then take it. After awhile that becomes so habitual that it only causes frustration for the person assigning the work. If you work in a university setting, you cannot be summarily fired for making a statement or asking a question, so consider the statement/question method to try to bring a sense of reality to an assignment you are given that seems problematic: “This seems like work that XX unit would know about. I don’t think it fits what we’re supposed to be doing.” “With what I have to do already, I can’t do this.” “So, when is this due? Can you see a way I can to it, with everything else I have to do?” “Could we pass this to XX Unit, since it’s their responsibility?” “I’m worn out already and my work is stacked high. This is one time I have to say I just can’t do it.” (Remember the Seinfeld episode where an employee used that kind of bland but adamant statement well?)

5. Do you have any kind of employee association, HR office function that handles complaints, or any other method for expressing concerns? I’m talking about a polite mutiny, I guess! What if every employee, who was unhappy, documented the things they are being asked to do for which they do not have expertise and expressed their intention to find other work? If you have a psychological services function for employees, what if many employees started using it and expressed their frustration and depression over the situation? What if no one attended the social functions and wrote the Director a letter ahead of time to say that buying goodwill is not working? What if you wrote to the Director and noted that another unit is receiving national recognition for something your group has done, and you would like to ask for some sort of recognition for the employee responsible? If everyone is genuinely as downhearted as you say, they have little to lose and much to gain by standing together to express their lack of support for the Director, nice though she may be in other ways. If you go to her first and tell her that you want to be supportive but cannot be if things continue, then you have given her the chance to handle this privately.

6. Now, let’s assume that none of those things seem to be viable options. Then, your only recourse is to keep your head down and wait for another job. Upon exiting, talk to HR or others and give them a memo saying why you are quitting. If you have been a good employee, they won’t want to lose you and your reasons will be heard. You will want to be logical and well organized in your remarks, stating the case as you see it. Perhaps that will get the attention needed. In the meantime, if you are doing all you can do, that is all you can do. If you are not getting bad evaluations, apparently you are considered to be doing OK. Just work steadily and do not feel an obligation to set records. A supervisor told me of an employee who came to him in near tears, over how much work had to be done. He told her, “Don’t worry about it. Do what you can. I know you’re busy.” He said he found the employee working an hour after the office was closed and asked her why. She said she had to in order to get her work done. Again he told her not to do that, just work steadily and don’t worry about it. The next day, she worked over her lunchtime, and he told her that was not allowed. This type of thing happened often. He told me he was so frustrated with her because she created most of her work stress for herself! He said, “I have never once told her she wasn’t doing enough, but she acts like I beat her every day!” If you think you can change things, do it. Otherwise you will have to find another job and that isn’t easy! It might be worth it to try everything you can to make things better. Best wishes as you work to meet this challenge. If you have the time and wish to do so, we’d enjoy hearing what ends up happening. Reason needs a voice to help create a WEGO workplace.

Tina Lewis Rowe