On the coaching couch

Some indispensable advice on fitting in, getting on and standing out at work.

The exact figures are not known but it is a fair assumption to make that there are as many 'accidental managers' in the engineering sector as anywhere else in industry. An 'accidental manager' is someone who's done so well in their technical discipline that they've been promoted so many times and to such a point that their day-to-day work is more about management than it is engineering.

Unfortunately, for many of those finding themselves with a swanky new job title, increased salary and a company Mercedes-Benz, life is not all plain sailing.

After all, a post graduate degree in engineering and (possibly) a couple of decades working on the frontiers of technology will do little to prepare you for the dilemmas of accidental management. And no amount of experience in product design can provide anyone with the level of clairvoyance that seems to be required of the emerging middle manager.

Here at E&T we get bombarded with letters asking for advice on real-life situations that occur almost everyday in the engineering management context. We will try to answer as many of these as we can on the Management section of the IET's website in our relaunched 'On the Coaching Couch' section. There are however a few provisos.

First, the actual situations are edited to make them general queries rather than referring to specific events (this is to protect the guilty as well as the innocent).

Second, the advice we give is only that, intended to guide those facing similar situations to seek out professional solutions to their problems.

And yet the advice we do give is of the highest quality and should be of use to engineering managers bumping up against these familiar themes.

Qualified management coach and chartered engineer, Janet Wright, is here to point you in the right direction.

Problem 1 - Squealing on the boss

Q: I struggle to work effectively with my line manager. I guess I'm lucky because I can work around her, but she really has very poor communication skills. She has been in role for just over a year and, as far as I'm concerned, has become more and more insular in her approach to managing the department. This is now so bad that I'm no longer sure how my performance or that of the department as a whole is rated.

I have been approached by my manager's manager to provide feedback on her performance. I want to be professional and provide honest feedback but I'm feeling quite uncomfortable about doing this. I don't know why I have been asked for feedback or how it will be used. What's also worrying me is that it is not annual appraisal time. Should I refuse to give feedback?

Janet says: I wonder if you would be feeling so uncomfortable had this feedback been requested as part of a 360° exercise. I bet you wouldn't, as it is a recognised and permissive process both for the person receiving feedback as well as those asked to provide it.

The beauty of 360° feedback is that it gives the subject of the exercise a window to how they are perceived by the people they are responsible for, their peers and the people they report to, hence the name '360°'. It evaluates a number of performance attributes and compares these against established norms for managers in similar positions. It also gives contributors the opportunity to comment on the 'behaviours' that have formed their perceptions. I think it is one of the most elegant management tools in the business, if it is used correctly.

The feedback you have been asked to give does not appear to be in connection with a 360°. If your company does use it as part of employee development, I'd be interested to know why it isn't being used here.

I wouldn't read anything ominous into the timing of this request. As you say, your manager 'has been in role for just over a year', and it is normal to have a staff appraisal around this timescale. However, as you haven't been given any other information to explain what's going on I can fully understand that you want to know why you have been selected to give feedback and how it will be used.

Let's assume that your manager's manager is trying to apply a 360° feedback approach but without using the formal process. Asking for your input would be understandable; you are a subordinate of the individual he or she is 'assessing'. The assessment would not be complete without your input.

Everyone in the loop

I sense something else is troubling you; maybe a concern that your feedback will be used against your manager. You may also fear that she will find out that it was you who gave this 'negative' feedback. This dilemma is not unique and had your manager's manager been using the formal 360° process this would not be an issue. Your manager would have approached you directly and asked you to participate, and in doing so given you permission to provide feedback. This shows that it is unwise to try to 'shortcut' well-designed processes.

I think you have every right to seek the clarification and assurances you need in order to provide 'professional' and 'honest' feedback.

Do keep things in perspective. You have been working 'around' this individual for some time and are clearly frustrated with her lack of communication skills. However, others may see her in an entirely different light.

Your feedback is important because it may indicate that your manager is spending too much time 'managing upwards'. You also say your manager has become 'more and more insular in her approach'. I think this might be an insightful observation, as it may indicate that she is no longer coping with aspects of her role. Support this observation by contrasting your manager's behaviour when she first arrived to now, as this will be helpful in her appraisal.

When giving your feedback I strongly recommend you:

  • Keep it top level: avoid going into too much detail. Your manager's manager can always ask you for more detail if he or she requires it;
  • Be specific: link your feedback to observations and experiences, avoid making generalisations or personal judgements that you cannot justify;
  • Give balanced feedback: avoid focusing on the negative. There must be some things that your manager does well and you should mention these too.

If you do this it will be well received by both your manager's manager and your manger herself.

Problem 2 - Not the job I applied for

Q: I recently started a new job with a new company. The problem is that the job I am now doing is not the job I applied for, or for which I was interviewed. I'm not sure what to do because I've been in role for about three months now and feel I should have raised this issue earlier. The reason I delayed is because I am enjoying the work and feel that the role is more senior than the one I applied for. However, I now find that I am not getting on with my colleagues or my new boss. I can only describe them as very cliquey and rather childish. I have made several attempts to 'be accepted', but they have not worked. To my knowledge, my new boss was not part of my interview process and we never actually met until my first day. I am not sure how to go about dealing with this situation without jeopardising my position within the company and possibly blotting my copybook for the future.

Janet says: I have to admit that it does sound rather odd that a company would interview for one position and then allocate the successful candidate to another. I for one would not fill a vacancy with an unknown quantity let alone one I had never met. Is it possible that there has been some silly mistake? What does your employment contact say? Were you one of a large number of new starters? Did another employee with the same or similar name start on the same day as you? Stranger things
have happened, and it would be worth checking.

Fitting in

It can take many weeks, even months, to get to grips with a new working environment so don't feel that your delay in questioning your position implies acceptance. However, what is clear is that any further delay will not help your case. You say you are enjoying the work, but not the people you are working with. Joining an already established team can have its challenges. Naturally, as the 'new kid on the block' you want to impress (especially as you feel you have been placed in a more senior role).

It's interesting that you describe your new department as 'rather childish'. I wonder whether your enthusiasm and more 'mature' approach has worked against you. Is it possible that your new boss may be feeling intimidated by you? How could you address this?

Perhaps you can work independently of your colleagues. However, this behaviour might just serve to further isolate yourself from them. Could this be what has been happening? Would setting up individual meetings with each of them to find out what they do and explore how you can help, break down some barriers?

What you must remember is that it takes 'two to tango' and if your colleagues and, more importantly, your boss will not make any effort to help you fit in, then it's likely that all your efforts will be in vain. I feel the action you need to take to resolve your predicament revolves around two questions:

  • Can you find a way to manage the challenges you're having so that you can use your role to open doors to other oppor-tunities within the company?
  • If so, how long must you stay in this role before it is possible?

No doubt a little research within the organisation will give you the answer to the second question. A key relationship to resolving this situation is the one you have with your boss. Whatever you decide to do, his or her behaviour will be pivotal. The best case is that they will be supportive (even if that is to help you exit the department): worse case they will be obstructive.

You should at least request a meeting with your boss to explain your concerns and how you have been trying to handle them and give him or her opportunity to respond. If the meeting goes badly, I would suggest that you bring it quickly to a close and ask that it be continued with a member of the HR department present. If your relationship with your boss is so poor that you cannot anticipate or trust their reaction to the request for a meeting, then speak with HR beforehand. They should respect any request from you to keep things confidential.

Under these rather unusual circumstances, it is important that you do not feel you have to handle this situation alone. Continue what you have started by writing to me. The old saying 'a problem shared is a problem halved' is true. A healthy debate about options and consequences with an impartial but trusted individual will pay dividends.

Problem 3 - Jump before being pushed?

Q: In a recent meeting with my manager, he told me that if  I didn't buck up my ideas he would start disciplinary proceedings against me that could lead to dismissal. I know that we haven't been getting on, but even so I was surprised and upset to hear that my performance is unsatisfactory, as I do not believe this is true.

Since this meeting I have been trying to get a clear understanding of my objectives and the standards I am supposed to achieve. I don't feel that my manager has given me good enough examples to justify his claim. When I pressed him on this last week, he responded by telling me that my report writing was 'not perfect'. I find this situation unacceptable - how can anyone be expected to be perfect? I am beginning to believe that our strained relationship is irreconcilable and my manager just wants to get rid of me. Perhaps I should offer my resignation, as I do not want my CV to show that I have been sacked following a disciplinary procedure.

Janet says: Your predicament shows how important it is to have a clear understanding of job objectives and performance targets. All jobs should be have a job description and, once you accept the post, objectives and performance targets should be set and formally approved in conjunction with your manager. As you are only now trying to get these clarified, it's obvious that this didn't happen in your case.

With no clear and agreed understanding of what a job entails or the standard expected, performance is left open to subjective judgement rather than objective review. And if little or no feedback is given, it is quite understandable that misunderstandings arise.

You do not mention how long you have been in your current role. However, it's certainly long enough for you to form an opinion that your work is of a satisfactory level.

What I'd like you to think about is how are you are evaluating your performance. We have already established that you have no clear objectives so how do you know that you are focusing on the right tasks? I'd guess that your manager has given you a little feedback, otherwise the news that he was considering disciplinary proceedings wouldn't have been a surprise. How do you know that you're doing a good job? Are you comparing your output to that of others doing similar work? If you work alone, perhaps you're basing your view on all the positive feedback you have received; all good evidence to use in defence of your manager's accusation.

There are three facts to clarify here. The first is to establish that without any feedback from your manager it is perfectly understandable that you have been operating under the impression that your performance is satisfactory. The second is to establish that your work is in fact sub-standard and then, if this is true, thirdly, and most importantly, to establish that you are capable and willing to improve your performance.

What about your manager's comment about your report writing 'not being perfect'? This smacks of an ill thought-out response to being put on the spot. It proves that, if you really want honest feedback, it's important to pick the time and place carefully. I'm not condoning his response - just trying to explain it.

Understanding that no one is perfect, let's treat this 'label' as another term to describe a performance standard. If we do this then you are quite within your rights to go back and ask your manager to define what he means by 'perfect'. It not a case of being cheeky: it's merely seeking clarification.

Internal relations

That brings us on to the current relationship you have with your manager. You mention that you have 'not been getting on'. This suggests that you meet on a regular basis. Could it be that your request for feedback has been falling on deaf ears? Or could it be that your manager has been giving you feedback, but you have not been listening? Is there anything that you can do to improve your relationship?

It's one thing to have a strained relationship with your manager, but it's a far more serious matter if, having threatened you with disciplinary proceedings, the only justification that he can come up with is that your report writing is not perfect. My suggestion would be that you request a meeting with your manager to clarify and record the evidence behind his decision. If this unfortunate situation has arisen purely because of differing expectations and poor communication, then it will be easily rectified. However, do consider requesting an impartial witness be present during the meeting. This could be a trusted colleague or a representative from HR.

Familiarise yourself with your company's disciplinary process. Normally, at least one verbal warning must be given before disciplinary proceedings can be initiated. This is followed by a written warning outlining what will happen next. A meeting is then held to agree a performance improvement plan (PIP) with the individual.

This will detail the specific tasks and performance targets. The PIP is tracked by feedback given to the employee on a regular basis. The intention of a PIP is to give the employee every opportunity to improve. This normally spans a period of three months, after which a final decision is made.

Although being placed on a PIP might not be an appealing thought, it would give you the clarity you seek around objectives and standards and ensure they are formalised. It should also provide you with the opportunity to review your position and resign gracefully before being 'sacked' if you truly believe your position is untenable. 

Write to Janet Wright with your engineering management issues at management.editor@theiet.org.

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