open thread – January 6-7, 2023 — Ask a Manager

My old boss is a nice person and a great teapot maker, but he got promoted to management without training, and he sucks at communication and logical thinking. Morale on the team when he was our boss was low, and productivity really varied by who could operate without management help and who needed support.

A couple years ago, he got promoted and is now my grandboss, but his day to day is hands-on management of another team, doing much the same work he did when he was my boss, just with different people. Two years later, Grandboss is struggling in the same ways: morale on his team is low, and productivity varies by who needs good management and who can produce work without it.

Since Grandboss moved to a new team, my new boss and I have been tag-teaming on leading our team. My job title is something like “assistant manager”, where I spend half my time making teapots and half the time doing the parts of management I’m good at and coaching my boss on how to do those parts. He does the parts he’s good at that I’m not. Morale is way up and productivity is way up.

Now Grandboss wants advice on his issues managing his new team. I’d love to help, but mentoring managers is new to me. I’ve been successful at mentoring my current boss because I work with the same people as he does day to day, I have regular 1:1s with them where I can form my own opinions and ask how things are going, and I’m in a position of management over them so I have standing for my boss to tell me about their performance problems he notices.

Most of all, my current boss and I click in terms of communication. What I say makes sense to him, and what he says makes sense to me. With Grandboss, what he says frequently makes no sense–either I literally don’t understand what the words mean, or else the reasoning ranges anywhere from nonsensical to “I see where you got that idea, but that’s a terrible way of managing people.” And when I talk to him, I can see he’s not grasping what I’m saying, which leaves me with the frustrating feeling that I’m talking to a brick wall. Effective communication does not take place.

I’ve heard from other people, including my current boss, that they have similar experiences with Grandboss: a lot of not understanding what he’s saying (he’s a native speaker of English) or thinking “why on earth would you say that?” This is primarily why morale was so low despite having great work/life balance and respectful colleagues. My boss said the way he deals with working with Grandboss is just to ignore anything that doesn’t make sense and proceed as though he doesn’t have a boss. He says sometimes he yells, “You’re not making any sense!”

I’m not sure how to coach under these circumstances. I can see why Grandboss current team isn’t thriving. But while my boss and I feel we could step in and take over that team and coach it to success, and I also feel that I could coach my current boss indirectly, because his only problem is inexperience/lack of training, in this case I’d be coaching through a level of indirection that feels like a missing stair. (Not in a sexual harassment sense, I hasten to add, just that when Grandboss hired someone on his team, my boss immediately took that person out for lunch and hinted that he might have to just ignore his new boss a lot in this role.)

I’m supposed to meet with Grandboss in a week and see what advice I can pass on. Any advice?

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