How to deal with a disengaged manager

Dear Joan:

I report to the VP of our division -he's a great guy who has always been a good mentor. We have a great working relationship, but over the past year he has "retired on the job.”


Our department's 2007 results have been acceptable, but we could be doing a lot more with motivated and engaged leadership. My manager spends a lot of time on unproductive "make work" projects, or just chatting with other managers. When he gets an assignment, somehow I always end up doing the work and of course he takes the credit. Recently, he read out an assignment, asked my thoughts and emailed my verbatim response right in front of me! More and more of his direct reports are coming directly to me, since he rarely responds in a timely manner.


I like my manager and don't want to damage my career by going over his head. He's well liked, and since the work gets done (by me, mostly) people think all is well. I'm a highly motivated person and right now, I am not being challenged and I feel like I am managing my manager. I like the company I work for, but I'm tired of being taken advantage of and am thinking it's time to move on. Is there any benefit to having a frank discussion with him? Or is it time to move on?



Be savvy about your career, not a slave to his. But before you take drastic action and leave, why not explore a few other options? There are several positive pieces to this puzzle, and you may be able to emerge with a better situation right where you are.


For example, you mentioned that your peers are coming to you for leadership, since your manager is not responsive to their requests. They see you as the informal leader, and as time passes they are going to raise questions and make comments to people outside of your department. They may even talk to their manager themselves about their frustration. All of this, though it’s a burden now, may position you very well for a promotion—either your manager’s job or a different leadership job in the organization. At the very least, it will be an excellent example of your leadership skills in future job interviews.


Since your manager has been taking credit for your work, it is especially important for you to let others know—without grandstanding—about the work you are actually doing. This can be done subtly by sending key people copies of your work in progress, either to update them or to ask their input. When you see other managers in meetings, or interact with them over lunch, make it a point to share the work you are doing in casual conversation.


Step up your involvement in projects outside your department. If possible get involved in cross-departmental task forces or project teams. And if you belong to an outside organization, seek out a little more visibility through committee work or by networking with influential members. If you do decide to leave your job, you will be sowing the seeds in other departments and other companies.


Now, for the conversation with your manager. Since going over his head, or a direct confrontation about his lack of leadership is surely going to backfire, start out with a safer tactic, and if that doesn’t work, step up the intensity.


First approach him and say, “You have always been a good mentor and when you and I were really engaged on challenging work, it was exciting for me. Lately, we haven’t had much of that and I’m not feeling very challenged. I’d really like to sit down with you and do some career planning.” This is code for “Either challenge me or you risk losing me.”  It is also a way of telling him he isn’t engaged without embarrassing him.


He will probably be willing to have a career planning session with you (after all, he sure doesn’t want you leaving—he’ll have to do the work.). Ask him for opportunities for more visibility, such as sitting in for him, or joining him, on some committees with senior management. Describe the types of challenges you are looking for, such as ideas you’ve had that will improve the department’s performance, and ask to be put in charge.


If the conversation is going well, you may be able to ask for the coaching, mentoring and other leadership behaviors you want from him. Try to reach a concrete action plan for both of you.


In a few months, if you are disappointed by the results, it’s time for a more direct conversation. It might sound like this: “When you are engaged and actively leading this department, we are all motivated and performing at high levels. But I’ve seen a change in your style that is having a negative affect on me and others. (Then list some specific examples.) “


If this caring but direct approach doesn’t work, it’s time to step up the networking you’ve started and market yourself as the motivated, go-getter that you are. Your career’s too short to slave under a lazy master.

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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