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How to Cope with a Colleague Who Can’t Cope

Is it really possible to do good work with managers who are unwilling to accept and absorb bad news? What can you do if you’re the subordinate, colleague, or boss of someone who’s 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 of terms or implementation requirements to the imagination. Whether all this effort is worth it in the long run — that’s another question.

Starting from the Top Down

If an avoidant manager reports to you, you’ll need to become more 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 — and how the staff is being treated — than would normally be necessary at your level.

Consider more of a “hand-in-hand” approach in which you manage the specifics of goals and plans together, instead of the more typical discussion and delegations with 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 taking or processing feedback, or who seems to make a lot of pronouncements without generating much output, 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 and the organizational culture. After that, you can feel free to help your colleague out, but only up to your personal level of tolerance. Give brief, kind, direct feedback and recommendations — not just sympathy. Don’t focus only on what’s gone wrong; instead, provide specific reminders about what still needs to be done and what will work best.

If it turns out that you observe multiple, repetitive scenarios involving this difficult colleague with no apparent improvement, 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 respond to anything but good news? Your role is not an easy one.

First, make sure that you understand what qualifies as “bad” news — and resolve any problems you can from where you sit in the org chart. Through dint of effort and savvy, you may be able 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 influence without having to go directly through your manager.

Getting your work done is crucial, of course, but in the long run, if 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,


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