A reader writes:

We have a new department head who started about a year ago. He is my age (young-ish) and has a lot of enthusiasm and ideas. That being said, we work for a large government agency and there are a lot of rules, budget issues, etc. A lot of things he wants to try have already been tried, or are not allowed etc.

Now we are planning our big annual dedication event. The great thing about having a new leader is that he wants us to try new things and make it bigger and better, but he won’t tell us what his vision is and then when we come up with something, he says no.

He asked a coworker to make the website for the event. She made it, he didn’t like it. She remade it per their meeting and he still didn’t like it. He then came in the next morning and said his wife (!!) had made the website, but prefaced it by saying “don’t be mad.” Well, if I were that coworker, that was when I would have taken an opportunity to have a WTF/come to jesus discussion then, but she didn’t.

I was put in charge of VIPs and food, etc. I do this regularly. I had meetings with coworkers, vendors, etc., developed a plan, and then turned it in and it was completely nixed/changed. Again, wasting my time and others. So he’s either “testing” us and wanting to see what we come up with or he’s just clueless so when we ask him want he wants and he says for us to plan it and doesn’t give specifics, well, he should let us plan it.

I can handle this for this one event but after the event is over how do I/we approach that this method is impractical?

Wow. There are two separate problems here: one is that he sucks at delegating and communicating clear expectations, and the other is that he thought it was okay to have his wife do someone else’s job.

Having his wife do an employee’s work is messed up on a bunch of levels — and the biggest one is that it’s demeaning to the person who was in charge of that work. The message it sends is “I don’t think you’re capable of this, so I’m going to have someone who doesn’t work here or have any known qualifications for the job do it, simply because they live with me.” It devalues your colleague’s work, and it conveys that he doesn’t think it’s worth investing the time in working with her on her job to get it right.

Your coworker isn’t the one who wrote in, but she’d be on solid ground in raising this with your boss if she wants to. She could say something to him like, “It’s important to me that we communicate well enough that I’m able to understand what you’re looking for and incorporate it into my work. I was taken aback that you asked your wife to do a piece of my job and I hope in the future you’ll work with me directly instead.” Given the dynamics with a new manager where you’re all just getting to know each other, she might prefer to wait and see if it happens again before she addresses it — but it would be entirely reasonable for her to say something now if she wants to. (And really, he needs to be called out on this and to hear that it’s not okay.)

To be clear, when a piece of work is absolutely crucial and must be done in a specific way in a short period of time and the employee it’s assigned to isn’t getting it, it’s fine for a manager to step in and find another way to get it done — ultimately getting important, time-sensitive work done is the immediate priority. But if that happens, it shouldn’t be framed as “don’t be mad” (!). It should be framed as “this is important and it’s got to be done quickly, so I’m going to ask (other coworker) to handle it since she’s done this before, but let’s talk later this week about what I was looking for here so that you’re set for next time.” (And not only did he not do that, but it doesn’t even sound like this was crucial enough to justify reassigning it in the first place, totally aside from the wife issue.)

Then there’s the issue of him sucking at setting clear expectations. He either needs to delegate enough authority to you and your coworkers to do your work the way you judge will best get the outcomes you’ve agreed to, or he needs to be more specific about how he wants it done at the outset. Right now he’s not doing either of those things, and that’s wasting your time and setting you up to be frustrated and demoralized.

It’s true that sometimes a perfectly good manager will assign something and not realize until it’s turned in that they needed to be clearer. That happens to all of us!

But when it does, that’s the manager’s fault, and

At some point, you might want to say something like this to him: “I’ve noticed that when you’ve delegated work to me, after I complete it, you tell me you want it done a different way. I don’t want that to keep happening, so I’d like to spend more time talking at the outset of a project about what you’re looking for, what the final product should be, and if there’s a particular approach you want me to take. Otherwise I’m likely to keep putting time into work that isn’t what you’re looking for.”

The complication here is that I suspect he may be bad at doing that — or is just lazy in his thinking, doesn’t bother to take the time to think things through at the start, and finds it easier to just react to something once it’s turned in. So you may need to be really proactive about drawing details out of him (“what I’m thinking I’ll do is XYZ — does that sound right to you?”). But at some point you may also need to have a big-picture conversation with him about what kind of autonomy you want in your role, and the level of trust he should have in you to figure out how to approach things that are part of your job if he’s not giving specific guidance to the contrary, and the demoralizing effect of letting you continually invest time and energy in things that he repeatedly changes at the end.

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