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Unhappy With Your Manager? Fix It Without Changing Jobsby@ashborn
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1,249 reads

Unhappy With Your Manager? Fix It Without Changing Jobs

by Slava PetrochenkoApril 12th, 2024
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When managers fall short, it's often due to inexperience, overwhelming responsibilities, or misaligned priorities, leaving employees feeling unhappy. This strain can damage trust and communication. However, the path to improvement lies in mutual effort: employees can foster understanding by seeking feedback, demonstrating empathy, and maintaining reliability. Building trust with your manager—and even your manager's manager—enhances your work environment and career trajectory, transforming frustration into productive cooperation.
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I’m a software development manager at Amazon with about 5 years of managerial experience. This article is a reflection of my thoughts and has nothing to do with Amazon or its subsidiaries.


Unless you're the CEO, you likely report to a manager. Many people mistakenly believe they are powerless if they're unhappy with their manager. I'll explain common reasons why your manager can struggle. Then, I'll provide concrete steps to change the situation.

Isn’t It My Manager’s Problem?

If things aren’t great between you and your manager, it’s a problem for both of you. In the complex world of work, pointing fingers is rarely productive. From what I’ve seen, when there’s an issue between a manager and an employee, both parties usually play a role. Indeed, it’s the manager’s primary responsibility to build trust with their employees. However, this article is intended for you, not your manager.


Furthermore, employees often fail to recognize their role in these strained relationships. This oversight can manifest in many ways, such as not fully listening to feedback for months, prioritizing personal goals over business needs, failing to meet commitments, not learning from past mistakes, or not following through on agreed-upon actions.


My goal is to empower you by sharing insights into your manager’s perspective and outlining steps to build trust. This is because understanding and trust are foundational components of any relationship.

Why Not All People Managers Are That Great

I’d argue that the majority of managers have the best intentions towards their employees. So, why are so many people unhappy with their managers? I can see four main reasons:

Reason #1 - Lack of Proper Education and Experience

Software engineers often have CS degrees, followed by months of internships, and later, years of work under supervision. Only after that, they are considered competent to do their job. Many managers come from top engineers or those with strong soft skills. Companies do offer training and learning materials for managers, but newbie managers don’t usually have enough time for that.


It takes many years to become proficient in software engineering, the same is true for people managers. However, even managers with only a year of experience are often viewed as seasoned leaders, bringing high expectations.

Reason #2 - Too Many Responsibilities

Consider for a moment the responsibilities of an engineering manager. It can be project management, communication with stakeholders, definition of a roadmap, engineering and operational excellence, etc. People management is crucial but not the sole responsibility of a manager. Sometimes, inexperienced managers skip one-on-one meetings instead of rescheduling project-related meetings.

Reason #3 - Conflicting Priorities

Managers are hired to benefit the company's interests; sometimes, it’s explicitly stated in their contract as a fiduciary duty. You may think that making you happy is what benefits the company, but that is not always the case. If company leadership decides to cut costs, your manager can’t meaningfully influence that. Recall all the layoffs happening recently.


That's why visibility with your manager's manager (skip), or even their manager, is beneficial. Often decisions like layoffs orgs restructuring are made even without talking to your manager. Although, this topic deserves its own article.

Reason #4 - Context

One manager can be great at company A, but mediocre at company B. How is this possible? For instance, company A might value managers with deep technical expertise. They can still code and directly influence their team's technical direction. However, company B might prioritize managers mainly for their people management skills. They value attributes such as communication, negotiation, and the ability to navigate office politics.


What Can You Do About It

If your manager lacks experience or feels overwhelmed, you can help by taking steps to improve the situation. The key thing is trust.


Why is trust super important?

Imagine several hypothetical scenarios. Two strong performers competing for a promotion to a leadership role. Several individuals propose valuable project ideas where one must be prioritized. Layoff list being compiled. Who is more likely to be chosen for the promotion, whose project will be prioritized, and who is least likely to be included on the layoff list? I would argue it's the person who has managed to earn the trust of their leadership.


With trust, you can understand your manager and their decisions. And with understanding, comes the ability to influence.


How can I build trust with my manager?

Think about building trust with any person you meet. In my opinion, it involves the following:

Openness to Feedback

The more senior you are, the less feedback you tend to receive. While not all feedback may require action, recognizing critical feedback is essential. Many managers struggle to deliver hard feedback. They might soften it excessively. You could interpret it as minor when it's actually crucial. They should be clear: “This feedback is critical for your success. Ignoring it could cost you your job.”


What can you do about it? Ask for feedback yourself, and do it often and regularly. In that case, your manager would be willing to share more details, what they consider important, and what is nice to have. Trust-building aside, you will have a clearer understanding of your performance. And you can identify areas for improvement to secure a promotion.

Empathy

Another important element to understanding your manager and building trust with them is empathy. A lack of empathy leads to mediocre management. Empathy is crucial for understanding employees' struggles, hopes, and anxieties.


If your manager demonstrates even a semblance of empathy, you can start doing the same. It can start with basic things. For example, saying, "I understand how stressful it must be to manage all these projects and be responsible for their success."


And later evolve to “I see how overloaded you are, is there anything I can help you with? For example, I can attend these meetings instead of you, or build a Gantt chart for a project X”. Try to understand what motivates your manager and what are their goals.

Communication

Discussing your concerns with your manager may be challenging, and poorly conducted conversations can erode trust. Still, the benefits outweigh the risks. I’ve seen employees' major concerns relieved after one or two conversations.


So, how to properly discuss important topics such as compensation, performance, and career development? Be prepared. Do you want to ask for a promotion? First, make sure you’re a good performer. Open the role guidelines, and carefully read what each level and role requires. Show your manager that you’ve done your basic homework. Prepare facts - the more the better. In document-driven cultures, such as Amazon, preparation often includes writing documents.


Do you want to convince your manager that your project is worth investing time in? Write down the facts, metrics, what you need for success, and what this success looks like.


Stay calm and respectful during the conversation. Can’t control your emotions? Consider discussing sensitive topics in a follow-up meeting. Just say, “I need some time to think about it”. Actively listen, and seek feedback. Often, managers provide vague responses. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions when in doubt. Don’t assume what you want to assume.

Keeping Your Word: The Essence of Reliability

If you commit to a deadline, do your best to meet it. Doubting its feasibility? Speak up and suggest a more realistic date.


Keeping your word is simpler when you agree with a proposal. However, it becomes harder if you disagree with a decision your manager wants you to commit to. For instance, Amazon even has a leadership principle addressing this: “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” The concept is straightforward: don't hesitate to voice your concerns. However, if after thorough discussion your manager or team hasn’t changed their decision, fully commit to it, even if you disagree.


Committing involves more than just carrying out tasks you dislike. Committing means owning this decision as if it were yours. If the decision turns out to be wrong, saying “I told you so” is an example of poor commitment. And this does not help to build trust.

Consistency

Building trust requires consistently demonstrating reliability over time. If you succeeded in delivering 50% of your projects, but 50% of your commitments have failed, it does not help to build and keep trust. I'm not suggesting that you must do 100% of what you promised exactly as you promised. We all understand that it is impossible. When things don't go as planned, communicate with your manager and stakeholders.


By being proactive, you show that you’re doing your best to keep your promise. It can also help you to succeed with your goal. Your manager can ask for help from other teams, escalate if a dependency is missing, or simply change the plan. The key thing here is to communicate proactively, while things can be changed, not when the deadline has already been missed.

Building Your Network

Your colleagues can also influence your manager's decisions and vision. Have an upcoming meeting with a principal engineer who is close to your manager or skip-level manager? Make sure to prepare for this meeting thoroughly. It's possible that this principal engineer could play a decisive role in supporting your promotion. Are you interested in leading the engineering side of the new Project X?


Consider joining a lunch with the project's launch TPM. After learning about your relevant experience, they may consider you as the ideal candidate to lead the engineering efforts for this project.

Building Relationships With Your Skip Manager

Sometimes, you are reliable, consistent, and open to feedback. But you might not see any progress in building trust with your manager. In such cases, it's worth considering a discussion with your skip-level manager. They often play a key role in decisions about promotions and layoffs. But they also influence your direct manager. Skip-level meetings are conducted partly to assess the health of teams. It's completely natural to feel uncomfortable "complaining" about your manager.


However, If you trust your skip manager even a little and know your manager is harming the team or company, you should share it. If you fear your view might be biased, talk about it with teammates during coffee breaks. See if they share your concerns.


Can I Always Fix Relationships With My Manager?

Unfortunately, not all managers have the best intentions towards their employees. Does your manager lack empathy, disregard employee concerns, publicly criticize them, and contribute to a high turnover? If so, my advice is to change the team or company. Staying with such a manager would cost you a lot in terms of psychological rehabilitation.


Nevertheless, my experience shows that a significant portion of employee-manager issues can be resolved with enough time and effort from both sides. And you can be the initiator of this change.