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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Signs Your Boss is in Over Her Head

I’ll be the first to admit it: Managing a team, especially for the first time, isn’t easy. There are about a zillion different things you’re responsible for and often no one there to train you on the nitty gritty—which means you’re left to your own devices when it comes to learning the ropes. And asking for help is a delicate process, so many managers do their best to figure things out on their own.

While this can be overwhelming for managers, it can also be pretty frustrating if you're the one reporting to a boss who’s still getting up to speed. After all, most of us expect our managers to have all the answers, not the other way around, right?

The good news is, you may have just the tools and knowledge she needs to help her—if you can recognize the signs. Here are a few hints your manager may be in over her head and what you can do to help you both stay afloat.

Sign #1: Nothing Gets Done When You’re Out of the Office

Early on in my career, I had the unfortunate luck to get sick with Strep throat. It was unexpected for both me and my boss, which meant neither of us had a chance to prepare. He told me to take care of myself and get well soon, and that I shouldn't worry about work. What a great boss!

Well, when I returned several days later, a pile of unread faxes (yes, it was that long ago), an angrily blinking voicemail light on my phone, and unread emails I didn’t think I would ever get through awaited. In other words, none of my work was touched while I was gone.

That’s when I realized that my manager, who was recently promoted, didn’t quite know what he was doing—he could barely find the fax machine, let alone figure out how to use it. While part of me wanted to gloat, knowing he literally couldn’t survive more than a week without me, the better part of me knew it was best for both of us if I gave him a few pointers—covertly, of course.

I prepared a binder outlining just about everything I did on a daily basis, including contacts and how to handle common issues. Once it was ready, I presented it to my boss and asked if he would mind reviewing it and providing input. Not only was he pleased with my foresight, he was able to easily get a better handle on the nuts and bolts of what I did. Which not only made him appreciate me more, it ended up making him a better manager.

If you find that the work just isn’t getting done—whether you’ve been out of the office or not—consider the possibility that your manager isn’t as well-versed in your team’s duties as you are, and see how you can help bring her up to speed. Chances are, your manger has more responsibilities than she can count, and learning what everyone does is part of the process. By making it easy for her to learn about how you contribute, you’ll make your lives a lot easier and set you both up for success.

Sign #2: Her Door is Always Closed

It’s no secret how I feel about a constantly closed door in the office. When used too often, it can send a negative message to the team, and it does little to foster a collaborative environment. But, it can also indicate you may have a boss who’s trying to hide from her responsibilities.

Several years ago, I was working on a high-profile project with my manager. Everyone from the head of our office to the CEO of the company was carefully monitoring our progress. It was incredibly stressful for me, but I knew no one would blame me if things went wrong—that honor was reserved for my manager.

After a grueling week of intense meetings, I expected to see her mingling with the team and making sure things were running smoothly. But instead, I found her almost constantly behind closed doors, despite the fact she had no meetings on her schedule. When I poked my head in to see her poring over the materials we’d presented, I realized she was just trying to get her arms around the project.

From that point on, I made a point of stopping by on a regular basis each day, giving her succinct updates on my progress, and making sure she was aware I was available to help (while still acknowledging she may just need some alone time to power through, of course).

If you notice that your otherwise engaged manager is suddenly sequestered behind closed doors, it’s quite possible she’s just trying to get a handle on a challenging situation. By making sure she knows you’re taking care of your responsibilities and that you’re available to help out, chances she’ll be back to enforcing her open-door policy in no time.

Sign #3: She Doesn’t Address Performance or Disciplinary Issues

Most people avoid confrontation, but as a manager, that’s part of the gig. So, when I noticed my manager was completely avoiding an underperforming team member several years back, I didn’t realize part of the reason was simply due to the fact he didn’t know how to handle the situation.

After the employee in question had made several pretty major mistakes, I finally bolstered the courage to do my own bit of confrontation and shared my concerns with my boss. As soon as he understood the issue wasn’t just impacting him, he realized it was time for him to step in and have the uncomfortable—yet necessary—conversation. My boss later thanked me for being honest, and admitted he wasn’t quite sure how to handle addressing a performance issue—he had been avoiding it because he’d assumed he was the only one who’d noticed.

While directly addressing a performance issue may not be your role, it’s important for your boss to understand when his or her lack of leadership is impacting the team. No one likes to tell people they’re missing the mark, which means sometimes, we all need a little nudge to do what needs to be done. Even managers.

While the title “manager” may imply omnipresence, the reality is, your manager could probably benefit from your guidance and expertise on occasion. In the same way you’d expect your manager to step in when she sees you struggling, take the time to recognize signs of stress in your manager as well. By showing her you’re committed to the success of everyone on the team, chances are she’ll do the same.

Photo of stressed manager courtesy of Shutterstock.