Direct conversation with smothering manager, may be only hope

Dear Joan:

I work at a non-profit affiliate of a national organization that is governed by a local Board of Directors. Our office has an executive director and three other full-time employees, whose jobs all cover distinctly different areas of expertise. Because it is such a small office, we all do vastly different jobs and we all have specialized training in our particular areas.  

About six months ago, all three of us noticed that the executive director has been inserting herself into our areas, to the point of taking over our jobs. The interference will run the gamut from questioning every step that we take, to making decisions, often without our knowledge, that directly impact the project they we are working on. She also continually denigrates steps that we have taken if we haven’t used her contacts or ideas.  

Unfortunately, despite what she thinks, it is quite often painfully obvious that she has neither the skills nor the training for most of the specialized areas of our jobs. She also spends so much of her time doing our jobs that her job suffers. She is often behind in deadlines, has failed to write needed grants and costs the agency money in mileage and express postage, to try to cover herself. We have all talked to her individually in an attempt to define our rolls in projects but it never seems to stop her from taking over any aspect that strikes her fancy.  

This problem has escalated in the last six months but she has always had an ego problem, i.e. has to get credit, loves to either sit on or head up committees, loves to see herself as the one who steps in to ”save the day.” She also seems to be this way in her personal life. 

We all enjoy the work that we do but it has gotten to the point that we are all either considering, or are actively looking for new jobs. Should we approach her together, which we know she would consider confrontational, or should we approach our Board of Directors? There was an incident two years ago when two employees approached the Board with much the same concerns but she managed to spin things in her favor and both employees left. 


Going over her head to the Board is a risky move. When I have seen this done, it usually gets messy. Even though the Board’s job is to oversee the organization, the Board (usually volunteers who really don’t want to get involved in operational matters), have a relationship with the Director and want to be supportive. They usually don’t know who to believe and they don’t know how to learn the truth. 

As the scene plays out, the Director inevitably becomes defensive in the he said/she said, and the employees, who had good intentions when they initially approached the Board, become sorry they ever spoke up. They end up leaving because the relationship is so damaged…so, it’s no surprise that you saw that happen the last time employees went to the Board. 

Instead, I would approach her first and give her an opportunity to change. After all, what do you have to lose? You are all going to leave anyway, if this continues. If she doesn’t change or retaliates, going to the Board is an option. You will need to form a plan in advance, so you can stay objective and calm.  

You mention that you’ve each spoken to her, to define your roles. I suspect that she didn’t hear your message. Normally, I’d suggest that you each speak to her individually but in this case, she may need to hear from all of you—as long as you don’t attack her and stay sincere in your attempt to fix the problem, not fix the blame. 

You will need to be more direct. For instance, use an “I message” approach that puts the focus on you. Say, “Are we doing something that you don’t like? Don’t you think we are competent? Don’t you trust us? We’ve noticed that over the last six months in particular, you have been questioning what we do and even changing things in our projects without telling us.” Then site several examples to back up this assertion. 

Another technique to get past her defensiveness is to use the phrase, “’We know you have good intentions’… when you step in and personally redo our work, but it is very frustrating. If we aren’t meeting your expectations you should tell us and we’ll make the changes. You have much more important work the organization needs to get done, like getting grants. You shouldn’t have to do our jobs.” 

Avoid any comments about her ego needs, such as needing to get credit or her need to save the day. It will only provoke her and turn your discussion into an emotional quagmire.  

If she acknowledges her meddling and she agrees to back off, put an agreement in place that allows you to “cue” her by saying something when she starts to step in inappropriately. On the other hand, if she is unhappy with something you are doing, you need to be open to her feedback. There is always the possibility that she is stepping in because she isn’t happy about a project but doesn’t know how to tell you.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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