open thread – January 13-14, 2023 — Ask a Manager

I recently did a gumption at work, and I need to find a way to course-correct. The situation is kind of reminiscent of, only…less so. I’m not trying to take over a pregnant coworker’s work, and I didn’t try to become a sysadmin while not actually being qualified. But I did do an end-run around my boss, in a way I’m not proud of.

I report to “Ann.” She’s the one I have 1-on-1s with, and she’s in charge of doing my semiannual evaluations, but there are a number of other managers who I work with, who assign work to me, and so on. Promotions/raises are done at the department level by the management of the department collectively.

The thing is that compared to the other managers I interact with the most (especially “Joe,” the director of our department), Ann seems to have a lower opinion of my work. She told me that a certain task was too advanced for me, but then I was assigned to do that task by another manager shortly afterward. Based on what Ann had said, I assumed that this was a last resort, but I later heard from Joe that he had them assign me that work specifically because he thought I was ready to take it on. Another time, I got what I thought of as a cool stretch assignment, only for Ann to tell me not to read too much into it. But soon after that I was given a title/salary bump. What I’m saying is: the messages, they are mixed. Often depending on who’s giving them.

So then this particular project comes up. I get assigned to do Task A. “Traditionally,” whoever does Task A also does Task B, because they are interrelated, but they could be done by different people. Task A is already a stretch assignment for me, and I’ve never done Task B before, but I’d be glad, even excited, to do that too. In fact, I think it would be a good learning experience for me for various reasons. Ann has done what is basically this same project several times in the past, so I mentioned to her that I was doing this one, and asked a few questions about the overall process and about the timing between Tasks A and B. She offered to do Task B for me (even though I didn’t ask for that).

I should have just said “I think it would be a good learning experience for me to do Task B” right then and there, and gone into those reasons I’d thought of. But what I did instead was talk to Joe the next day — he’s ultimately in charge of the project. I gave him an update about how I was getting ready to do Task A, and then: “This would be my first time doing Task B, but I’d be happy to take it on if that’s OK with you. In fact, I think it would be a good learning experience for me to do this one because of XYZ. If not, Ann mentioned that she’d be available.” And he said “yes, I agree, it would be a good learning experience for you, and I think you’re up to it — go ahead.”

So I got what I was looking for, but I don’t feel good about how I got there. First of all, I temporarily lost sight of the fact that staffing decisions on projects should be based on the needs of the company, not what’s a learning experience for me or makes me look good. I’m embarrassed that I brought that up with Joe in as many words. Secondly, I think of myself as work-to-live, not live-to-work, so this may be a sign that I’m getting too caught up in work stuff and need to refocus on the other things in my life that are important to me. (Why am I “excited” about Task B at all? I have fallen into the old Puritan capitalist trap.) Thirdly, I totally undermined Ann by going over her head to tell Joe what she told me, in a way that made it clear that I disagreed.

The other issue is that I’ve been more comfortable talking with Joe than with Ann, in general. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m just not respecting her ideas/opinions because of sexism (like Ernest in the letter). I’m tentatively coming down on the side of “no,” and here’s why: Joe thinks I’m doing great, and tells me so frequently; it’s natural that I would feel more comfortable talking to him than to someone who’s more lukewarm about my work, isn’t it? (There are also several female managers-not-appearing-in-this-story who I work well with.) But it’s something I’m trying to be careful about. And I was still The A$$hole here, even if it’s not 100% guaranteed sexism, so something needs to change about how I handle this.

I’ve also been trying to think about why I did what I did. I should have advocated for myself with Ann by explaining why I wanted to take on Task B, but what I’ve realized is that when I’ve done similar things in the past, I’ve often regretted it. I tend to come out of those conversations feeling like I’ve been defensive or disrespectful. So in the moment, it feels easier to talk to people who I don’t *need* to advocate for myself with, when I have the choice of which person to talk to.

This makes me think that I might be happier if I reported to someone else. But the company is small, so I fear torpedoing my relationship not only with Ann, but with others as well, if I ask about that. People hardly ever change managers here; the only times I’ve seen it happen (other than when the manager left/retired) were cases where someone’s role changed and they now report to a manager in their new department or whatever. I don’t know how asking to change managers *just because of how I feel about mine* would go over, and I’m not sure I want to find out.

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