I am a young female project manager supervising a nearly all male technical support staff with varying experience, most of whom are older than I am. This is not my first management assignment, but I am dealing with a new management issue. Several staff members have attempted to bypass me on issues—contacting my direct boss, seeking his advice and instruction. How can I stop this, as I believe this will certainly impact my career if it continues?
The quickest and most effective way to end this staff behavior is for your manager to refuse to partake in the end run around you. He can do that by refusing to discuss whatever it is that the staffer is asking about and politely referring the staffer back to you. It won’t take long for the staff to realize that the gambit is not working, and they will usually stop doing it.
To get your boss to support you in this manner, you need to let him know immediately that you are aware this is happening and that it must be stopped. You need to point out to him that he gave you certain responsibilities so that he would be freed up to do other management activities. By allowing these staffers to go to him with questions and not sending them back to you immediately, he is actually taking on more work than is useful or appropriate. You need to talk to your boss and underscore how helpful to him it will be if he tells the staff people to talk with you instead of him.
Taking more serious steps
If the problem continues even after your boss has redirected the employees, then it’s time to take more serious steps. You and your boss could work out a plan whereby when a staffer comes to your boss to ask a question, your boss immediately summons you and instructs the employee to talk with you. It helps if the boss leaves the room after giving this instruction so that you are not under his watchful gaze—remaining and listening to what you say might make it seem like you have done something wrong.
It would also help if your boss would praise you in front of the employees who are causing the problem. That would allow them to see that your boss is happy with the work you are doing.
When your boss is part of the problem
If you can’t get your boss to back you up and help solve this issue, then you have a more difficult problem, and serious career issue, to deal with. It could be that the boss doesn’t believe you can do the job, and that’s why he allows employees to come to him for instruction and explanation. If that’s the case, you have to work hard at clarifying exactly what your responsibilities are and then make sure your boss knows you are doing a good job.
While you’re trying to solve this problem, it might be worthwhile to invest in some books and training classes outside the company to sharpen your communication skills. During the training, the instructor may be able to provide some tips on handling a situation where employees disagree with a direct manager’s directive.
If you take training, don’t share the news with your staff or even your boss, as it might be mistakenly misconstrued that you’re looking for help from outside sources. It might only serve to reinforce the perception (if it exists) that you are not a good manager. Keeping it quiet means you have to pay for the training or resources out of your own pocket, but it’s a worthwhile investment for you and for your career. Whatever you learn will only help make you a better manager.