I am a freelance IT consultant, hired to perform a special technical role which I have been doing for 18 months. The problem is my project manager used to do a similar role using older technology. Instead of project managing, he wants to see what I am up to and wants to understand things at a low technical level.
When we have meetings he takes over answering all of the technical stuff that he understood from me and when he doesn’t understand something he gets rattled.
I feel undermined and have spoken to him about it twice. Senior management doesn’t know what is going on but my co-workers do and sympathize with me.
It seems he is basically riding my coattails and is suffering from some sort of identity crisis and can’t let go of his old job because that is all he knows and is not so good at the project management, or at least does not enjoy it. What are your thoughts?
THE FIRST ANSWER
Founder, Made You Think Coaching, Toronto
Your boss is having confidence issues. He either lacks confidence in you to do the job right, or his new responsibilities scare him so he’s lacking confidence in himself (so he resorts to what is familiar). Do you think he lacks confidence in you? Think hard about that, but let’s assume it’s a self-confidence issue, which is common after a promotion. Everyone who is promoted is at least a bit scared they won’t be up to the task. They’re scared they will fail or look incompetent. Think back to when you started a new job or took on new responsibilities. What was your confidence level at first?
The best thing for your boss right now is an objective voice such as a leadership coach. However, this is also an opportunity for you to be a superstar employee for him. But don’t just do it for him, do it for yourself. Any way you can make him feel more competent is going to make your life easier.
You could point out the wins he has, and the things he does right. You could ask him about his life outside work – most people are comfortable talking about that. If you trust his boss or human resources to keep a secret, you could inquire about the possibility of leadership training/coaching. Whatever you do, choose your words very carefully when you’re questioning his direction or ideas. He’s going to be touchy about that until his confidence builds up.
THE SECOND ANSWER
Chief people officer, Randstad Canada, Toronto
This situation is not uncommon. Many technical experts struggle at first when making the leap to leadership. It’s much easier to retreat to familiar subject matter when faced with a challenge, as it gives people a sense of control and accomplishment that they may be lacking in their new role. Consider your boss’s perspective; for example, he may be frustrated by a lack of direction on his recent transition. Without clear expectations of his role as project manager, it may be difficult for him to set clear parameters with the team.
I commend you for speaking to him directly. It’s always best to put a positive spin on these meetings. The dialogue should be collaborative, focus on how his behaviour makes you feel, ask how you can support him better to achieve the project’s goals, and tell him specifically what support you need in order to be effective. Try to reach consensus about the expectations for your role, including ownership for updates in the team meetings. It’s helpful to write these down and create a matrix outlining roles and responsibilities so you can ensure that you’re both on the same page.
Before you consider whether to escalate to senior management or human resources, revisit that matrix and let him know what’s working well, and where there may still be confusion. Be patient; it can take time to see changes.
You mention speaking to colleagues about your situation. While the support may feel good, I would caution strongly against engaging in any office politics and gossip. Follow the golden rule, and don’t share anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying out in the open. That type of casual banter is unproductive, and will only undermine your talents and working relationships in the company down the road.
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