Mixed Messages

When Your Manager Sends Mixed Messages

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell 

Q: I asked my manager for some assistance on a project, and he told me I should do it myself. So that’s what I did, but when I submitted the finished project, he got upset and said I should have included him in my preparation. I’m confused and could use some help on how to work successfully with him.

A: When you work with a manager who gives inconsistent directions and has unrealistic expectations, there are a couple of actions you can take to minimize the risk that the situation poses to you as an employee. But if this type of management becomes a pattern, be prepared to look for another opportunity in or out of your organization.

Before you take the drastic step of leaving your job, I suggest you meet with your manager. While this situation is fresh in your mind, ask to do a debrief on the project. Frame it as a “lessons learned” session where you each share what went well and what could have gone better, so that the next project goes more smoothly.

Before the meeting, prepare to share the details of what happened when you received conflicting instructions. You should aim to be as specific as you can without being negative or accusatory.

You thought you were asking clarifying questions, but he heard you dumping your problems on him. It might have been a communication issue.

During the discussion, listen carefully to your manager. You may learn about circumstances you didn’t know about before. For example, he may say that when he told you to not ask for help, he’d just been assigned a huge project and didn’t process your request because he was overwhelmed. While this isn’t good management, it may give context for what happened.

Also, be prepared for feedback on your own performance. When you asked for assistance early in the project, perhaps you weren’t clear about what you needed. You thought you were asking clarifying questions, but he heard you dumping your problems on him. It might have been a communication issue.

When you get your next assignment, be sure to ask your clarifying questions up front and determine whether your manager wants interim reports. Send him a confirming email to ensure that you are clear on his expectations. Then, if the inconsistency happens again and he says you haven’t kept him in the loop, you have a record to rely on for future discussion of the issue.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

Career Development Performance Management