Ex-Manager Frustrated Working For Younger Boss

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about sensing the lack of management skills of younger boss:

I am 53, with years of management to my credit. Out of necessity, I have taken a job where I am a programmer under the supervision of a rookie supervisor. She is 28. In a few staff meetings and one-on-one meetings I have asked many questions (like what is my role, how is the department goal number figured, and the like). I always seem to ask too many questions or more than she is comfortable with. On her side, she does not appear to be to or want to control the direction of the meeting.

She says she is just “too nice” to do so. I am blamed for “taking control of the meeting and etc.” I have no desire to take control, but it would be nice to get answers to questions. She said she feels guilty when she doesn’t have an answer for a question. I am not demanding but inquisitive.

She has needed to give me correction in my work but bottled everything up for 4 months, brought her boss into a meeting with me and then launched into everything I’ve done wrong. To have corrections pointed out in 8 areas in one meeting was overwhelming for me (I have not been there 6 months). According to her my humor is disliked by her; she “gets the feeling” I am doing too many purchase agreements instead of support; I don’t trust her knowledge of the database even though I discuss my technical issues with her and only ask others with her permission. She has the ability to bring facts about my performance to the table but does not. She can tell if I do purchases orders too many times (I haven’t), but instead of looking at our documentation, she goes with feelings. My supervisor comments to me that she did not ask to be supervisor, was forced into it, has had not training and then wonders if she should get any training. I do not comment but try to be supportive. I discussed the situation with my wife, and she thought my supervisor must be very intimidated with me. My question is this: How can I be less intimidating to a rookie supervisor? I am her first direct report that was not a previous co-worker. I would love to give her a class on supervision 101 but have said nothing about her skills in this area. Thanks.

Signed, Seasoned Manager Managed By A Young Manager

Dear Seasoned Manager Managed By A Young Manager:

Your wife is probably correct in her assessment that your supervisor feels intimidated by you. There are likely some other issues as well involving pressure she feels at work in general, style differences and age and gender issues, as well as issues you may not even be aware about. You are facing a difficult challenge with this situation, but this is what all those years of management have prepared you to do well…adapt! Let me share some thoughts and you can decide if any of them might be useful…at least to add to your own thinking about it.

First decide what you want to achieve out of this. The answer to that is likely going to be found in how long you anticipate working there, whether you want to move up yourself, how secure your job is, how secure her job is, do you like her well enough to want to help her or do you just want to get through this time as painlessly as possible and so forth.

I think it’s always good to ask yourself, “In another six months (or six weeks or year), what do I want to see changed and what do I want to have the same?” Then you can decide where you want the changes to be and focus on those. 1. You are aware, I’m sure of the Competency Model (Competency Ladder, Competency Matrix, etc.), which I’ll repeat in brief here, just in case. The concept is that we move through these levels every time we develop a skill: Unconscious Incompetence (We don’t know enough about a task to know what knowledge and skills we lack.) Conscious Incompetence (We’re familiar enough with a task to recognize what knowledge and skills we lack.) Conscious Competence (We can perform the task correctly by concentrating on doing it.) Unconscious Competence (We have internalized the knowledge and skills so well that we no longer need to think about how to perform a task.) The irony of this last level is that we can become so skillful we can no longer explain, even to ourselves, how we do something! That model was developed in the 1960’s-1970’s–no one is sure who first put it together in that format.

By the 1980’s a fifth level was added that is sometimes used in training:Conscious, Unconscious Competence (We are aware of our skill and purposely evaluate how we do a task so we can improve and gain additional related skills.) I mention that model to point out several things: I am assuming that you gained a lot of knowledge and skill as a supervisor and manager over the years. Although, you must admit, to use the old adage, some supervisors have twenty years of experience, others have one year of experience twenty times. You write as though you are in the former group! You are likely so skillful, because of experience as well as training, that you are not always aware when you show that skill in a way that creates a feeling of inadequacy in your supervisor. Consider the things you may ask her about–your role, how is the department goal number figured, etc. You may find that you use terms and phrases that roll right off your tongue and that you think a supervisor should know the answer to, but that sound to her as though you are grilling her for answers to tough questions. To her they may be words and phrases that she doesn’t often use or issues she has never considered. You don’t know how she is treated in meetings with upper-level management, or even much about her history at all. She may never have been involved in discussions that challenge her thinking. Many supervisors are in that situation, where they are not included in anything, just told what to accomplish.

I recently looked through the supervisory book I studied for a promotional test in 1977. I had diligently underlined words and phrases that meant nothing to me except material to study. I was amazed to see the things I underlined and highlighted as though they were gems of knowledge; until I remembered that to me at the time, they were, in fact, gems, and strange gems at that. I had never used the phrases in normal conversation in my young life! In the book I found an old, worn, index card with a definition on it, so I could take it with me and study every spare minute. Here is what the card had written on it, with many underlinings in color so I would remember the unique (to me, apparently) concept written on it:

Feedback: Finding out if something you said was understood. (Questions) Important thing to do!!!!I remember very well reading many things at that level of thought, underlining it and re-reading it, having people quiz me (with me not answering correctly). I’m not quite sure if I was unconscious or not…but I was certainly incompetent at that stage. I was well educated, an avid reader and I wasn’t timid at all. I was anxious to take on the responsibilities of supervision, but I was still struggling to learn the words and phrases associated with tasks of the position and how to apply them. It’s almost thirty years later and when I teach supervisory classes I sometimes rush through such things figuring they are basic material and wonder why I get blank looks from a few people! So, the first challenge for you may be to become consciously aware of your competence in comparison to hers. When you do that you will find yourself editing your questions mentally and maybe even refraining from asking some of them. Or, if you must ask, you will not use a phrase or jargon that you have never heard her use. You will ask the questions in a way that does not sound like a test for her, but merely an effort by you to do your job well. I know you try you do that. I’m just suggesting that you be very alert about it. Think about the questions you ask and consider writing them instead of asking them to her directly, where she has to stumble for a response while you are watching. Consider not asking them at all if you can find out on your own from someone else or if you don’t absolutely need to know anyway. Being aware of the extreme disparity in your knowledge, skills and experience, as well as gender and age, will also help you monitor your use of your body and voice, just as you would be aware if you were the supervisor and she was a nervous, unsure, but nice employee.

Another issue about the Competency concept: There is nothing scarier than realizing how much you don’t know! It may be that until you got there, your supervisor was doing OK mentally with her work. She had the title without much heavy lifting. When you arrived, she started finding out there was a higher level of expertise and sophistication about the job than she ever had to learn. So, she may have had to move from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence very quickly! She has asked you if she needs training. That’s a good sign, don’t you think? At least she’s starting to get ready mentally to move up the ladder of competence.

2. I’m glad there does not seem to be hostility between the two of you right now. Keep in mind that after being afraid, the next reaction is often to snarl. Your supervisor does not seem likely to openly confront you, but she may work behind-the-scenes as she did with the performance meeting. That doesn’t mean she is being nasty about it, but may feel that puts her in a better position or shows that she is willing to take-on problems. I don’t want to put something negative in your mind, but certainly you would want to document for yourself any corrective comments or lack of them, as time goes on. Consider starting a habit of sending her an email once a week or so with an overview of things that are going on or to fill her in on a conversation or information she might need to know about or ask her a question that you know is something she will be able to respond to easily. As part of that, pointedly include a question about your work. “If you notice anything you want me to correct, please let me know.” “Hope everything is going fine this week. If there’s anything at all you’d like me to be working on or working differently on, please tell me.”Make it easy for her to talk to you about concerns or problems. That is not being manipulative and it’s not being condescending, it is simply courteous–while ensuring you can prove that you have asked for her thoughts about your work. Please do not think I am implying that you need to grovel or be excessively humble; especially not in a phony way. I am an advocate of honesty and directness. The email tactic is just one way to ensure that you are keeping the communication door open all the time.

3. According to your relationship with your supervisor, consider loaning her a supervisory book you found helpful, or the name of a class you think she might find useful. The book doesn’t have to be about supervision specifically. And, you would want to ensure that the title wasn’t insulting to her. I have a book here called, “If I’m In Charge, Why Is Everyone Laughing?” I don’t think that would be a good book to give her, do you?The very act of recommending or loaning her a book can be a positive thing. I have recently recommended the book, “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s an interesting look at how we think, not specifically for any reader, just those who are interested in life and thinking. A participant in one of my classes told me he bought it after the class, enjoyed it and kept it on his desk. As people would notice it he’d talk to them about it. He found it to be a nice change from gossip or sports! He said he’d decided to bring in a book every couple of weeks, just as a conversation starter and he was already being considered a resource for good reading! You may also want to try to very, very carefully start a low-key supportive mentoring program, in which your supervisor does not know she is participating. She is still the supervisor and you are her organizational subordinate (direct-report), no matter what the comparative skill levels or age. One way to do that is simply to let her talk about issues and if she asks a question you can answer it. She is a young woman working to develop her career and would likely appreciate the chance to talk about it. “Where do you want to be in your career when you are my age?” (Don’t be offended if she says, “Alive.”) “Is there a project you worked on before you became the supervisor?” “Has the company changed a lot since you started working here? (Or something like that, based on the job…you know what I mean.)Just let her know she doesn’t need to fear you and that you enjoy talking to her in an appropriate work-related way. That’s a key issue of course; that most of your conversation should be work-related.

4. That brings us to what to do now, since there is already somewhat of a history. You can just keep going, and do what you can to defuse any discomfort; using some thoughts from this message or you own ideas. That would be less stressful probably, in that no direct conversation about it would be needed. One way to do that is simply to start the new week not by reversing your engines, but by backing off the throttle a little. Haven’t you sometimes wished some of your more challenging subordinates would let you have a painless week or month or decade? I’m not suggesting you don’t deal with genuine problems, but that you ensure your voice or face doesn’t start getting a response of an inner groan on her part. Let that be the norm for a while as you focus on your work and let her focus on hers. One thing is for sure, you will never be held responsible for her success or failure, only yours. So, you don’t have to rescue her. You should be supportive of everyone on the team, but you don’t have to be a mentor or guide. She is an adult and is aware of her skill development needs, and she alone can take the initiative to improve and gain confidence.Or, you could consider an open, honest, direct, brief and low-key conversation about the situation and how you hope to proceed from now on. You would want to pick a good time and place, but maybe you could say something that would segue into a conversation about how strange and even funny it is to have a work situation like this; it would make a good sit-com. Say that you also know that your style can be difficult to deal with sometimes. (That’s true for all of us, so it’s not being excessively humble.) Finish by saying you just want to enjoy work and are committed to doing a good job, so you hope she will never hesitate to let you know what you could do differently or better and tell her that she has your complete support and loyalty. Even a younger supervisor knows that loyalty is hard to come by! Keep the conversation brief. You don’t need to say everything on the subject in that thirty seconds or one minute…just enough to let her know that you are aware of the awkwardness of the situation and want to have a good working relationship.

5. One thing that involves only you is your gut-level response to her and the situation. It must be very uncomfortable to be making mental adjustments all the time. But, obviously you want the job and want to stay, at least for a while. All of this may simply require some massive patience and restraint on your part. I’m sure you CAN easily take over a meeting, especially a one-on-one, without even trying. You can ask perfectly reasonable questions and inadvertently confuse her with them. You can be secure about yourself in ways that you don’t even know are obvious. But, if she were 53 and had years of tenure, even if she wasn’t very skillful, and you were 28 with only a few years of work to your credit, and someone on the outside was listening, they might say you were over-confident and too pushy. You would know you didn’t mean to be that way, but an older employee might say that you need to just do your work and pay your dues. From the viewpoint of dues in your current job, you might as well be 28 or less–with no history at all. If you’re like me, I have to bite my tongue, sit on my hands, close my ears and squint to not jump in sometimes at meetings and say, “No, no, no! That’s not the way you should handle it!” I solved that by quitting some committees. You don’t have that luxury, so it will be a daily test for you I imagine; but one you can pass. I recently did some work in a city where a department head had much, much less experience and training than one of the employees, who was working after he had retired elsewhere. The older employee was adamant that he did not want to usurp the authority of the Director and didn’t seem to have ever done so. Something had happened that the older employee could have easily handled, but the department head didn’t consult him and the other employees griped about it. At a meeting one of his peers asked the Director about it and he became very angry. He said, “I sure as heck do not need to lean on someone four levels lower than me who only works part time and has only been here a year! I think it’s great he had a good career, but it’s over and there isn’t a Co-Director’s position available!” He was angry all of proportion to anything the older, experienced employee had ever done. I mention that situation just to say that you may never overtly do anything that would warrant your supervisor being intimidated by you. Likely she has enough self-talk going on about it anyway! So, your biggest challenge may be to clearly be a direct-report in all your interactions and stay low and don’t make any sudden moves until she becomes more comfortable or the situation changes. I hope some of these thoughts will reinforce your own thinking and start some new thoughts as well. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things develop. (That’s an example of feedback. See? I did learn eventually!) Merging one’s ego with another makes for a big WEGO.

Tina Lewis Rowe