Q: Our director doesn’t understand what the rest of us go through to keep up with our workload and serve our Alaska client communities, all of which desperately need our help. His work is his life. Because he’s older and has never married, he spends all his money on his own needs. He has an exquisitely outfitted, peaceful home office with glorious views of the Chugach mountains.
The rest of us have school-age children and work in homes with erratic WiFi and limited work area options. Despite this, he assigns us a crushing level of projects with tight deadline and then drenches us with criticism. Last Thursday I worked from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and turned in a report due the next morning. When I opened my inbox Friday at 7 a.m., my manager had already emailed me, chastising me for not paginating the five-page report.
I knew I couldn’t keep working like this, so I tried talking to him about his expectations. He threatened that if I couldn’t work successfully from home, I’d have to come back into the office. I have three school-age children; I can’t leave them home alone.
Our manager completely lacks empathy and prides himself on structure. He refuses to respond to urgent emails even if not doing so harms our client communities and their budgets. This hurts my heart and those of my coworkers. When we delay providing a client community answers for a week, it can push their project back months. It’s painful to watch our organization go down the tubes as my coworkers passively resist by doing only the bare minimum to express their frustration.
He has made clear that we need to observe chain of command and that he will permit no exceptions. This hampers any of us taking the risk of explaining the situation to our agency’s upper management. The brave individual would need to risk his or her job and work upward through two management layers to gain the ear of the senior manager who could make a difference.
In our agency every level of management protects the levels below them, but I’m ready to act if you outline a game plan that has even a one in 10 chance of succeeding.
A: Here’s your game plan. When approaching senior management, you need to realize their viewpoint, make a convincing business case, and provide them a viable remedy.
Not the same picture
The controlling manager with ice water in his veins you experience differs from the individual his manager sees. Top-down managers communicate respectfully to those above them, present a rational, often ingratiating persona and generally produce great short-term results. When an employee presents grievances, senior managers may reflexively defend the manager, saying, “That’s not the manager I know.”
You can make a business case that they need to act by providing documentation more substantial than anecdotal information. Effective documentation presents hard facts that lead the person who receives them to reach the conclusion you hope. Do you have any objective information concerning your coworkers’ passive resistance?
Accurate, neutrally presented facts persuade. When you offer only opinion, the senior manager may doubt you reached the correct conclusion and might consider you a disgruntled employee.
Starting the meeting
Begin the phone or Zoom meeting with a positive statement, such as “I’ve enjoyed my decade working here and feel great loyalty to our organization. I know you value employee morale and productivity.” Then present the situation in terms of how it impacts the entire organization and its clients and not in a way that seems motivated by self-interest. Your credibility is key.
Don’t make the senior manager the problem
When you lay a problem in another person’s lap, s/he may see you as the problem which can lead them to “shoot the messenger.” You want this senior manager to feel you are bringing something to their attention, not complaining or blaming them.
Present a potential solution
Ahead of your meeting, decide on the outcome you want to achieve and offer it as a solution. Do you want upper management to investigate the situation by interviewing other employees? Do you want your manager to receive targeted coaching?
Add depth to your case by providing the senior manager material that proves the benefit your organization receives from empathetic management, such as Businesssolver’s “State of Workplace Empathy Studies.” According to their 2017 survey, 77% of employees would work more hours for a more empathetic employer. Their 2019 survey documents that empathetic management increases employee loyalty and productivity and notes that eight in 10 surveyed employees would willingly leave a non-empathetic employer for one that demonstrates empathy.
Finally, ask your senior to keep the fact that you sought help confidential or to offer you an assurance against retaliation. Good luck.