My Manager Is Blowing Me Off!

7 minute read

George, a leader we work with, recently shared that he’s been getting “blown off” by his manager Scott for the better part of 3 months. George was frustrated since he wanted help from Scott with some important activities.  George simply wasn’t getting any face or even phone time, and email replies were short and insufficient.  If he called Scott, they would talk for a couple of minutes before Scott would have another urgent call come in, and Scott would ask if he could call George back.  Only he consistently didn’t call George back.  Team members that find themselves in these situations usually aren’t sure what to do when a manager keeps blowing them off.

Challenging Your Manager

George felt stuck, and really disappointed in how things were going.  He wanted more input and interaction with Scott.

If you’ve ever felt frustrated, upset, or even angry because your manager wasn’t making himself available, you aren’t alone.  Sometimes managers like Scott don’t even realize what they’re doing.  Sometimes they don’t grasp the importance of what you’re asking for, or are feeling anxious because they’re behind on their own work.

Most employees don’t feel comfortable challenging their manager on this sort of behavior.  They see it as risky and perhaps even a signal that they are being a bad employee.  Some fear getting fired.

That’s a really unhealthy way to see the manager’s responsibilities to you and to the business, and is probably a thin justification for the real reason:  you aren’t sure how to do this and are scared of how it could go wrong.  Lots of people find themselves in this situation, and they find plenty of “good reasons” to work around it, to fake it, and to make excuses for it.  None of those will address the situation and create real change.

Remember that a manager’s primary responsibilities include directing and guiding the work of their team members.  That’s at the top of the list, and is reflected in their title of manager, leader, director, etc.  It can help you reframe the situation as you prepare to have a different conversation.

Three Steps to Manage Up

What does someone do in this situation?  Here are the three key steps for George to change things with Scott:

  1. Get heard/Pattern interrupt:  The first thing for George to do is a pattern interrupt with Scott.  This is where George can do or say something different to really get Scott’s attention that THIS is the conversation he wants to pay attention to.  The pattern interrupt could include saying something different, or doing something you don’t normally do.

    If you usually start off a conversation with some small talk, skip it and get Scott’s attention.  You want to sound different so your manager knows things are different right from the start of the conversation. That could sound like, “Hey Scott – we have a problem and its’s time we talk about it because our communication really isn’t working”.  If your manager is glued to his screen, move so you are out of line with the screen.  I once even closed my managers laptop to really get his attention because he kept shifting his focus back to his screen.   
  2. Describe the problem:  Now that you are sending clear verbal and physical signals that this is not “just another conversation”, be crisp and clear in describing the problem.  You may include that you’re feeling frustrated, or that you’re concerned you’re heading off track and haven’t been sucessful in getting help from them.  This is where you will probably feel the most awkward and will want to water things down.  DON’T.  The more honest you are in describing the pattern and what has or hasn’t been happening, the better the conversation will go.  Be sure to include facts like, “of the last 8 times I’ve called you, we’ve spoken for about 3 minutes each time, and in most of those you ended our call to talk with someone else, said you would call, and never called me back.  This is on top of the fact that in the past 3 months, we’ve only had our weekly 1:1 meeting twice, and I’m not getting the help I want for this project”.  You’re not accusing anyone of anything. You’re helping them see the patterns in how you and they are interacting, and what’s missing.
  3. Ask for what you want:  Now be bold!  You’ve made two strong moves with a clear pattern interrupt, and then describing what isn’t working.  This is the time to carry the conversation all the way to the goal line.  You probably have your manager’s attention, and this is the time to make a clear and definitive ask.  That could sound like, “Scott, it’s essential that you and I have at least 15 minutes of dedicated time a week to talk about these two projects.  Will you commit to 15 dedicated minutes every week, without any distractions?”.  When asking for what you want, stay away from fuzzy subjective language like “more time” or “better input”, since 30 seconds could be “more” and still not nearly enough.  Shoot for a tight, objective target like “30 dedicated minutes without distractions”, or “replying to my emails within 24 hours”. 
    1. Ask for alternates:  If your manager won’t commit or you know it’s essential that you get input or help from someone, ask them who else could provide guidance.  You can bring a list of people that could help.  The key is that your manager gives the OK for a proxy to provide guidance. 

Put the butterflies in a box

This is usually one of the more uncomfortable conversations that a team member will have.  The good news is that once you do it, you will realize how much you were making it a bigger deal than it really was.  Every single leader who has done this has come back to me and said they were blowing it out of proportion.  Once they got their three steps down, and rehearsed them, they felt a lot better.  That helps get some of the butterflies out of your stomach so you can have a good conversation.

And think about it this way…almost everyone works with peers or has direct reports.  If you were accidentally creating a problem that was causing frustration for team members, would you want someone to let you know?  Of course!  Your manager is almost certainly no different.  He or she probably wants to know how they can help.  They just don’t see things or realize the extent of the problem the way you do.  Remember that your manager is probably a good human being who wants to help, and just doesn’t know there’s a problem.  That mindset will help you tremendously!