How to Work With a Spineless Manager
Does your manager avoid tough discussions, put her own boss or clients first, or overload the least resistant employee with a ton of work? She may be spineless, to say the least. Such a boss will often try to sneak out of situations as quickly as possible without hurting her chance with the higher ups. Simply put, she cannot take a stand and may have very few opinions of her own. If you are stuck with such a boss, there’s every chance that you are being overworked and underpaid. So given the odds stacked against your career, what can you do to help your position?
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1. Talk to the team, but tread carefully. It is possible that your team has the most attrition in the organization, with people unable to work with the boss moving to different teams or companies and those remaining being as helpless as you are. It is also possible that these teammates continue to work with her because they share similar personality traits. You could start with questions like, “In your experience, what is Ms. Sanders’ leadership style?” “In your experience, what are Ms. Sanders’ expectations from the team and how do we manage it?”
2. Defend yourself: Your boss will throw you under the bus in a pressure scenario. It is more important to her that she looks good in front of senior management. What she will miss in the process is that she will look bad if she is unable to come to your defense, because a bad team reflects badly on the boss. But, it may take a while for her to realize this, and you may not be able to enjoy that luxury. So keep your work and interactions documented. Knowing that your boss is not going to have your back sometimes is a good thing — you have to deliberate on your actions, assess the repercussions, and make your move. You will be able to think from a higher hierarchical level.
3. Establish a strong relationship with your stakeholders: Keep your stakeholders happy. Build a strong professional relationship with your stakeholders so they can vouch for your performance, strengths, and potential. Your manager will hardly have anything to say when they insist that you are an A-class player. In fact, she will use their input to fall back during any performance-related discussion with you or at the annual performance review meeting.
4. Have a strong relationship with her stakeholders: The sole purpose of her job is to keep them happy. If she hears that they are disappointed, you are going to be overworked. She is going to ask you for irrelevant data analysis, useless interviews, and worthless strategy meetings, just so she has all the information that she thinks her stakeholders may ask for. Should they even remotely indulge her, chances are that she will rope you into the meeting and have you answer all the questions. So it helps to establish a working relationship with her stakeholders, too. They know that you are the person behind the work she is presenting, so they are more likely to interact with you.
5. Keep her in the loop, but make your own decisions: She can’t make a decision. She can’t offer solutions. What she will do is nitpick. So keep her in the loop on all your projects, while also building a strong case for your decisions.
6. Make your case for promotion/increment: Spoon-feed her. Give her all the data you think she might need. Talk to an HR person or your manager’s manager to understand how promotions work and what kind of performance is recognized. Build your case accordingly. Give her all the information she may need.
7. Escape when you can: While you may still hope that she will change, it is unlikely that your spineless boss will turn into a superwoman that comes to your rescue at your hour of need. So plan an exit that best suits your situation. Can you explore lateral moves to a different team? Can you take on cross-functional projects that may include a dotted line reporting to a different manager, too? (Hopefully, someone with a better reputation.) If possible, investigate jobs outside the company. But, if you must stay on, don’t let your guard down.
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