What to do when your manager is a no-show

empty conference room
Credit: Pixabay / pashminu

Your work is piling up and your supervisor isn't around to help you prioritize. How do you increase your chances of success?

You have a lot on your plate. It seems like everyone wants everything at once. Others don’t communicate at all. You need someone to help you prioritize and to support your decisions, but your manager is nowhere to be found.

The 'pretend manager'

If you've tried to reach out to your manager, but he or she seems to be unavailable — indefinitely — you might have a "pretend manager."

Pretend managers exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Complete invisibility. Not responsive to any form of communication.
  • No real-time communication. You call. He responds with a text. You text. He leaves you voice mail.
  • Meetings are rare events. You set up one-on-one meetings, but the meetings regularly get canceled. And even if you do meet, you don’t get the feeling that your work or your development matter.

Don't get lost in the shuffle

If you don’t see your manager much and it doesn’t appear you are a high priority, then it’s time for another strategy to make sure you're not getting lost in the shuffle.

Give a one-on-one meeting one last try, and take the following steps:

  1. You handle the invitation and agenda.
  2. You lead the discussion.
  3. Prepare a list of what you are working on, and send your manager materials ahead of time.
  4. Share what you understand your deliverables are.
  5. Check to make sure that your supervisor shares your understanding of the timing of deliverables.
  6. Ask your supervisor if she agrees with the prioritization you propose.
  7. Follow up with a reiteration of your discussion via email. The message can look like this:

"Thanks for meeting with me. To reiterate what we discussed, I understand that we agreed to [description of deliverables], [timing] and [check-in frequency, for example].

If at any time your expectations change or you see any deviation from our agreement, please reach out. I will follow up [at this interval].”

If you never see your manager

If you can’t seem to ever get a moment with your supervisor, you may have to rely on email to communicate.

Document what you're doing. Include a status update and your assumptions about deliverables, timing and prioritization. Then send this information to your supervisor via email. It doesn’t matter if he responds.

Your next best step

Let’s say your supervisor’s response is lackluster at best. Look at your objectives and projects. Identify the item that has the most at stake. Check this with someone you trust -- it would be great if that individual was someone above your pay grade or a trusted mentor. Initiate the interaction by saying "I just want to run something past you."

Ideally you'll want to meet with each co-worker to whom owe a deliverable. This includes each project stakeholder and anyone you report to on a “dotted line” basis -- but don’t overwhelm yourself.

Choose the stakeholder who is most responsive and supportive of you. Cover the same ground described above with this person as if you were meeting with your supervisor, but only discuss the stakeholder's project.

Depending on your working relationship, ask the stakeholder for advice for getting other people’s attention. Ask her what your priorities and next steps should be.

The 'no manager' workplace

Some companies have been experimenting with radical new organizational structures, including the concept of a workplace with no managers. But until your employer embraces such an approach -- and makes it work -- you may have to to take care of yourself and compensate for a lack of support from your supervisor by trying some of the tips I've discussed here . Be your own manager. In this way, you are also honing your leadership skills -- even if you're only leading yourself.

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