Workplace Wisdom

How to Handle an Avoidant Colleague

Is it really possible to do good work with managers who are unwilling or incapable of accepting and absorbing bad news? Last week, in Stop Suppressing Your Staff’s Potential, we saw how a manager like this might face the possibility of change. But what if you’re the subordinate, colleague, or boss of someone who is avoidant at best, and downright passive-aggressive when things are going badly?

I’ve worked with overwhelmed, deflective, and (just a few) downright destructive managers at multiple levels in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations of all sizes. To be successful with them, you must be exceedingly concrete and specific, provide detailed follow-up and evidence-based documentation, and never leave definitions or terms of commitment and implementation to the imagination. But whether all this effort is worth it in the long run is another question.

Starting from the Top Down

If an avoidant manager reports to you, no matter how conceptual or patient you may be, you’ll need to become more single-minded and dogged about details — and edge closer to micromanagement than you ever wanted to. It’s not enough just to consider whether the results you see are on par.  You’ll have to learn more of the minutiae about how the work actually gets done than would normally be necessary at a higher level.

Does this individual consistently support and sponsor good work that serves the organization? Are other employees — whether peers or subordinates — feeling supported? Or are there unnecessary barriers in their way, confusion about whether and how decisions are being made, or repeated incidences of blaming?

Consider more of a “hand-in-hand” approach in which you manage the specifics of goals and plans together, instead of the more typical wide-ranging discussions followed by periodic milestones. Stay in close touch, and be sure to maintain your own tickler files or checklists so you aren’t taken in by puffery or dog-and-pony presentations that are meant to impress you without disclosing how things are actually going.

This level of concrete follow-up may be outside your normal management style, and frankly, it may exhaust you, but without it, you probably won’t be able to verify whether passive-aggressive or avoidant managers are actually creating value — or merely coasting on the input and impact of others.

Peer Pressure

If you have a management colleague who isn’t processing or taking feedback, or who seems to be floating around making pronouncements without doing a lot of work, you may feel annoyed or frustrated — but your team is probably suffering even more deeply.

Your first duty of care is to help and protect your staff. After that, you can legitimately lend an ear and even a shoulder to your colleague — but only up to your personal level of tolerance. Give your colleague brief, kind, direct feedback and recommendations — not just sympathy. It’s best to be fairly terse and targeted. Don’t focus only on what may have gone undone or been done imperfectly; instead, provide specific reminders about what still needs to be done.

If it turns out, however, that you observe multiple, repetitive scenarios involving this difficult colleague that affect different subjects and individuals, and yet this person does not seem to do better, it only makes sense to go and consult with your boss on whether the difficulties can be resolved at a higher level.

Up from Under

And if it turns out that you work for someone who doesn’t seem to take in anything but positive messages? Your role is not an easy one.

First, make sure that you understand what classifies as bad news — and resolve what problems you can from where you sit in the org chart. Sometimes it can be possible, through dint of effort and savvy, to bring enough value to your manager that you earn a little extra attention and leeway when you do have to deliver a downbeat message. Another tactic is to seek out partnerships at your own level wherever you can. That’s a good way to understand what is going on in the rest of the organization and build collaboration and momentum without having to go directly through your manager.

Getting your work done is crucial, of course, but in the long run, if you can see that your boss is not coping well with reality, or is too much of a roadblock to your own progress and development, you may need to consider finding a way out of the organization — or at least, out of this team.

Onward and upward,

LK

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