What do you do when your boss is a good person but bad manager?

“My boss is a nice person but a nightmare to work for – what can I do?”

Have you got a manager who is totally disorganised and micromanages you? Well, you’re not alone. Here, Stylist’s Honest Boss tackles the problem head on

“My boss is a great person but a terrible manager. I have to constantly remind him of things we need to do, but he will also have intense bursts of micromanaging me on random tasks he knows I’m more than capable of doing. I’ve been working with him for a couple of years now but it’s getting more and more frustrating. I just don’t know how to tackle this, especially as he’s in a senior position, but I feel it’s really affecting my morale at work and getting in the way of my overall progression. What shall I do?”

Emma, 25

Initially, I am going to focus on the fact that you get along with your boss. This gives me hope that he will be capable of change, following some strategic moves from you. It can often be the case in a working relationship such as you describe that the senior person becomes intimidated, even undermined, by the colleague they’re managing simply because the latter has become so good at their job. 

This is especially likely in your case because you are regularly setting the agenda on what needs to be done, as well as the giveaway fact your boss is micromanaging you on tasks you are more than capable of completing. It all suggests that he’s slightly lost confidence in his own abilities and is starting to question what value he is adding. In a nutshell, you have grown to become just as capable as him, if not more so.

As you like him, however, it is worth trying to change your partnership dynamic. Take advantage of the fact that you are the one with the forward-looking brain. For example, next time, why not suggest that the tasks required are divided into the areas you want to complete, while gently reminding him of the areas he should focus on. You could say something like: “We really need to attack X project and complete it by Y date. If I complete A and B this will leave you to focus on C and D.” By saying it in this way, you are subtly reinforcing the importance of his role, which he seems to have lost sight of. Yes, it’s annoying that you have to tell your boss how to do his job, but at least this way you are encouraging him to leave you alone so that he can focus on what he’s paid to do.

When it comes to the micromanaging side, you could try suggesting: “I know what is required and would appreciate the chance to complete this on my own as it’s a better learning curve for me. Perhaps you can give me some constructive feedback when I’m finished and I’ll be happy to make any changes you think necessary.” If he insists on amends, ensure that you understand their purpose. 

You need to be open to the possibility that he will have something valuable to say that will improve the quality of your work. It’s important that he is given this chance to express why his alterations are necessary – it is, after all, his job to manage you. If you don’t agree with his suggestions or they feel like change for the sake of change, you could press him on his reasoning. This way you’ll encourage him to think about how unfair he’s being.

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If none of the above tactics achieves the result you want, then it’s time to be more direct. I would advise a meeting where you tell him in advance that you want to talk about your personal learning and development. As your boss, this should be a big part of his remit. During this conversation, you can say that you feel you have reached a ceiling in your current role and are eager for new challenges and a promotion – either within your current department or possibly somewhere else in the business.

If there is nothing immediately available that will reflect your progress, ask him about training possibilities. It’s important that you present your case positively and he might even see it as a compliment to his managerial skills that you have already reached your potential. You never know, he might be relieved at the possibility of moving you on and replacing you with someone more junior and less capable so that he can be reminded of his own abilities. At the very least, you should walk away with a commitment from him to help get you to the next level and something you can follow up with him in a few months’ time. 

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If he is not at all helpful then you need to suggest that you’d like to talk to his boss. He can’t stand in your way and you’re being courteous by telling him in advance. Then approach this more senior boss with a similar attitude and without being too obviously critical of your manager. You can’t know their personal opinion of him and it’s generally not a good idea to bad-mouth a senior colleague. 

I recommend sticking to an agenda with this senior boss that’s about you, expressing your desire for further opportunities that don’t seem to be coming your way. This senior boss should have the wit to appreciate your ambition and realise that you have outgrown your position. At the very least, you will be marking yourself out as someone with gusto, which is something most companies should value. I once managed a woman in exactly your scenario and, after she spoke to me, I was able to steer her towards more responsibilities and ultimately a promotion, which her line manager had failed to push for.

It is entirely possible that none of the above methods will reap the reward you desire and you will either have to carry on accepting the irritations of a poor manager or take matters into your own hands by seeking a job in a different company. You can console yourself in the knowledge that you tried several approaches without jeopardising a relationship with anyone who might be a useful referee for you.

The Honest Boss has held senior management positions at some of the world’s most well-respected companies. With over 25 years of experience under her belt directing and mentoring teams of people around the globe, managing multi-million-pound budgets and representing brands on the international stage, she’s more than qualified to help sort out your work woes. So, whether you’re feeling overlooked for a promotion, struggling with being back in the office or you’ve thrown up in front of your manager, The Honest Boss is here to give you no-bullshit career advice.

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