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So my manager called me out in an email to quite a few stakeholders on a software development project, asking me why I hadn't gotten something done she earlier told me to get done.

The thing is, if she had read the entire email chain since the point where she asked me, she would have clearly seen another stakeholder telling me to hold off on doing this task for good reasons. This email chain happened within the course of a day. How she works, I think, is she ignores email most of the day, and at the end of the day (off hours) hurriedly catches up and replies as needed.

So what I have here is an email I need to reply to, and I basically need to say to my manager

"Hey 'Suzie', if you had actually READ your email, you would know I don't have to do XYZ. Stop blaming me for something I didn't do!"

That's what I want to say, but obviously not what I should say.

How should I reply in situations where my manager has made a clear mistake, called me out as a result, and my reply-all will possibly throw her under the incompetent bus? I'm concerned if I don't correct this in email to all the stakeholders involved, I'm going to be the one looking bad in their minds.

  • 3
    Comments are intended to help improve a post or seek clarification. Please don't answer the questions in the comments. These can't be easily voted on as the best answers, and they may inadvertently prevent other users from providing real answers. Please see How should I post a useful non-answer if it shouldn't be a comment? for more guidance. – Lilienthal Feb 16 '18 at 17:12
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    How often does this happen often? This is a very different situation if it's the 2nd time versus the 20th time... – Mehrdad Feb 17 '18 at 7:01

14 Answers 14

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There seems to be either a communication problem or an overreaction here.

To begin with, email chains are not at all an effective means of communication, even within the course of a day. When the mail chain grows longer than about 4 mails, it is hard to keep track of who said what to whom, and what was the conclusion reached.

Asking for the status of a task that she thought you were working on is not "calling you out as incompetent". You do not specify exactly what she wrote in her mail, but I suspect you are upset because she chose a tone similar to "I asked you to do task X, why haven't you done it yet?" Instead, she could ask for the status in a more neutral tone:

What's the current status of task X?

This would ensure that you don't look like an idiot even if you were supposed to work on task X, since you could just respond with the status. It would also avoid the current situation, where she looks like an idiot. Even better, she could have asked you the status in person or over phone/skype, and avoided putting dozens of stakeholders in cc, which only makes it look like a big deal.

Nonetheless, be the bigger person, and don't get into a mudslinging match with her. My preferred approach would be to talk to her and explain why task X was put on hold/cancelled and then send a polite "as discussed" mail as other answers suggest. With this approach, you can avoid further back and forth over email, which would happen in case she has additional questions. The dozens of stakeholders in cc aren't interested in knowing who was right, they will instead take notice of the communication problems within the team.

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+200

Hi Suzie,

Stakeholder A actually asked me to hold off on that because of [good reasons] (see below).

Based on the details you provided, I don't see any evidence that this was an attempt to call you out as incompetent and even if it were, no good will come from shooting back at her with an abrasive retort. She might've just missed a detail in a long chain of emails, which is a common-enough occurrence. This is why I recommend a quick, neutral reply referencing the chain of previous discussion. If you want to make it even more abundantly clear what you're referring to, you could highlight the response from the stakeholder who asked you not implement the feature.

Office politics aside, you're both there to please the stakeholders and, ultimately, to help the company make more money. My advice would be to focus on these goals and not worry so much about who's right and who's wrong in every situation.

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    Possibly even "It's a bit buried in the chain, but [stakeholder] asked me to hold off..." – T.J. Crowder Feb 19 '18 at 10:12
31

Hi Suzie,
Please see the attached email, as you can see, Bob told me to hold off on this. Sorry if you weren't CCd on this. Let me know if I can clear anything else up for you, thanks!

Include the original email as an attachment to the email thread. This makes it plain as day that she WAS CCd and didn't read it. It covers your butt, shows her to be the idiot, and makes you look helpful.

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    Should he REPLY ALL so he shows everyone he's not incompetent or just to his manager to save himself the grief from embarrassing his manager? – Hannover Fist Feb 15 '18 at 17:05
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    @Mister Positive: maybe, if OP decides to take it that way. You know, other people read their email and already know the manager is in the wrong. No point in showing poor communication skills and risking your job over some perceive face-loss-battle you will regret tomorrow. – Daniel Feb 15 '18 at 17:56
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    @MisterPositive: Mmmm that's highly context-dependent. If there is a conversation between three or four people and you just randomly drop people off the distribution list halfway through, you are not going to be liked. It actually looks like you're trying to be underhanded or sneaky or to go around certain people. Don't do that. Of course if you're trying to start a side conversation with just one of them, then fine don't REPLY ALL for that. – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 15 '18 at 23:27
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    @HannoverFist I think that depends on your relationship with the manager (and the higher ups). If the manager is throwing you under the bus in public, then there's probably some office politics you may not be aware of. I'd personally drop the "as you can see" starter part, but still reply to the group saying the work wasn't done per Bob (see attached, etc etc). Assertive, not aggressive. (And think of it as an impromptu interview to get transferred into someone else's department and away from a manager who shoots first and reads emails never.) – Allen Gould Feb 16 '18 at 16:20
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    Openly expecting competence of managers is good for the company. If someone is willing to put you on the spot in front of everyone they have no grounds for complaining you responded with the truth. – Lycan Feb 17 '18 at 11:52
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Step 1: Look for a new manager

Seriously. Bad managers exist because people around them enable them. If your manager cannot be arsed to catch up on the facts, and is willing to throw you under the bus as a result, then they do not deserve the benefit of your labor. If you quit her team, that will be a huge wake-up call, and may even get her demoted or fired (or sent off to "truck maintenance", as an old friend of mine would say). So look for another team in your company, if you like the company, or somewhere else, if you don't.

Step 2: Hold your manager accountable

Sorry, but I disagree with the advice to "be a bigger person." Everyone in the office deserves respect, and if you don't demand this civility from everyone, then the sociopaths in the office will come to dominate, because everyone will accommodate them. Answering her question precisely and dispassionately is fair to everyone. Put yourself in her shoes. If you had just called out one of your reports for not getting something done, and they said: "I did not begin that task because Stakeholder X asked me to wait, as indicated in the email thread below" would you say: "That's cheeky and inappropriate!" or: "Well, I guess I had that coming. Fair enough."

Stating the facts in the same venue in which the question was asked is both correct and appropriate. If you reduce the reply scope, then other people will wonder if you even bother to reply to your manager when she emails you. If she chooses to transact over email rather than in person, then let her assume the costs and risks of that choice. If she wants to avoid putting her foot in her mouth, then she can come and ask for your status in person, to avoid public embarrassment. As a manager, she should be well aware of these trade-offs, and coaching you about these communication options.

If she is clueless about communication, then she shouldn't be a manager to begin with. Coaching her in communication by switching the channel to private merely demonstrates a mismatch in skill sets.

Step 3: Escalate

Many people will say this is going too far, but the fact is, your manager made a poor comm choice. She needs to be coached by her manager on how to communicate with her team in a respectful and motivating way. So visit her boss and mention the episode. Explain that you understand everyone is busy and doesn't always have time to read every email thread in detail, but that you would appreciate the basic respect of not assuming you are a lazy slacker in front of a bunch of other people. Your boss' poor comm skills are ultimately a reflection on her boss, and so that person needs to know that your boss needs some coaching or counseling. After all, it is the job of a senior manager/director to coach managers.

That person will either be a jerk and say you need to keep your head down, in which case you should accelerate Step 1; or they will thank you for the feedback and hopefully give your boss advice on how to manager her team better. Watch carefully for the reaction/response, because it is your responsibility to judge everyone in the management chain above you for their competence. If your job is miserable, it is your own fault. Make sure you enjoy your job by making sure everyone around you is doing theirs well. If the management chain is rotten all the way up, then you need to jump ship, or suck it up. Easy options.

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    Looking for a new manager is not an option if OP works for a small shop. Also I fear most the incompetent managers because, in general, it means they get here by being good at politics – jean Feb 16 '18 at 11:54
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    Usually one does not get to choose to change their manager (more often it's the other way around). – dashofpepper Feb 16 '18 at 12:26
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    As a note: depending on the individual manager, the "be the bigger person" approach may allow the manager to grow. No name-calling, no blame-game, just a solution, and the chance for her to reflect on it afterwards may do wonders. Sadly, too few managers learn from GOOD managers in the first place. How do we end up with good managers, then? Lead by example while we have the luxury of not having the responsibility and pressure of management! Only works if a manager is willing to improve of course! – Layna Feb 16 '18 at 13:07
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    This is excessive. The bloody nose the manager will get when OP cuts nd pastes the hold-off email will be more than enough to correct the manager. Ever watch the Suze Orman show and every single relationship-money problem gets a "break up with him" answer? that. The idea of severing every relationship that is imperfect presumes relationships are cheap. They are not. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 16 '18 at 17:01
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    @jean Very true. I suppose I'm over-simplifying for brevity - trying to "fix" the manager isn't going to happen, so it's better IMO to spend that energy on the job search (even if it takes time), and just detach a bit from the bad management situation. – Allen Gould Mar 5 '18 at 22:51
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Pick up the phone

...or better yet, see your manager in person.

First, if you turn this into a public fight, it will alienate your manager and reflect poorly on you both. It is normal and reasonable to want some sort of public vindication, but you can't let that short term goal undermine your long-term work environment*.

Second, you might be wrong. Stakeholders have all sorts of opinions. Many of them are good, many are...not. Generally, you can figure out where the most important direction is coming from by figuring out who signs your paychecks. If a stakeholder says "jump" and your manager says "don't", your feet should stay planted on the ground. Whether this is idiocy or top cover depends primarily on how well you and your manager communicate (and nothing says you can't also be an advocate for jumping, if jumping is the right answer!).

At the same time though, your tasking is often going to be nebulous things like "make the stakeholders happy" or "do what those guys say". In that case, you may be juggling competing demands. Worse, some of the demanders may go to your manager if they think that will get what they want. If your manager hears only one side of the story, he may have a skewed view based on that, and may go charging off to take care of it.

So, how do you fix these things? Communication. What medium is best for communication for situations like "why did you throw me under the bus, jerk?!" depends on your goals. If you want to fix it, make it as personal as possible. Face to face and in private is best. Next best is skype or voice. I assume this is what you want. (If you want to document it for a grievance or to file a lawsuit or something, email or snail-mail is best. But I assume you don't want that.)

So, what do you do specifically? Call your boss. Ask whether this is a good time to talk for ten minutes (or as long as think this will take). Then talk about your feelings with a lot of "I" statements†. Roughly:

Hey Boss, I have a problem. Bob and Fred said to frobulate the juicer clockwise, but Sue strongly objected and argued for counterclockwise frobulation. They took the discussion offline, and I have been waiting for them to get back to me with frobulation requirements. I think [clockwise/counterclockwise/waiting for them to hash it out] is best. I notice you just responded to the discussion with an email asking why I haven't frobulated yet, and I want to chat briefly about what you're looking for.

When you understand what Bosslady/Bossman wants, talk about how they want to respond to the email. If they misunderstood the situation and it seems appropriate, you can ask them to send out a follow-up. More often though, you'll end up sending out a short summary something like:

Boss,

Following up on our offline discussion, I will [move forward with clockwise frobulation/continue to wait for input from Sue/some third thing].

Third: embrace the kabuki. Imagine if Sue says "raterus, stop frobulating!" and then three days later emails your manager "Why did raterus stop frobulating??" Your boss may be irritated enough at Sue to (publicly) ask you to explain (publicly) exactly why you stopped frobulating. Or there may be no complaint, and Boss is just setting you up with a deadline so that you have the leverage to demand that Sue and Bob come to some agreement on frobulation. Or some other goal entirely. The point is, even if it is devious political maneuvering, it may well be meant to support you. Obviously, this goes better if you either know and trust your boss very well, or communicate regularly and clearly with her (preferably both). But talking offline lets you get a sense of this, and respond accordingly.

  • If this is part of a pattern of your manager throwing you under the bus, or if you're leaving next week and don't care if everything burns down behind you, the answer might be different. Since you didn't ask about those scenarios, I didn't address them. Even there though, the low-key approach is still often better.

† This can be grating for listeners, but it strongly avoids confrontation. "I have a problem, and I need your help to resolve it." is much harder to react angrily to than "You screwed up and you have to fix it!" Often, it means the same thing, but the framing makes a huge difference‡ .

‡ If you think this is beneath you, I'm sympathetic. Really, I am. Mitigated speech is tiresome and feels dirty. All I can say is: Is this a situation where you want to get weird pissing contests for no good reason, or where you want to solve your actual problems?

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    +1 to this. Most problems with text and email communications are down to overthinking what you're looking at or misjudging the tone. Picking up a phone is a much better way to communicate in this sort of situation. – Richard Feb 16 '18 at 20:46
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Your motivations here are to ensure that you do not suffer from your manager's actions.

This explicitly involves not looking bad in your manager's eyes for not doing the task, and more subtly, not looking bad in other stakeholder's eyes (as they might not read the entire email chain either).

But even more subtly, you don't want to look bad in your manager's eyes, full stop. After all, they will argue for your promotion, what tasks you get, the pay you receive and so on.

To the answer!

1 If you are near your manager, then pop over to their desk, and explain that deeper in the email chain you were asked not to do it. You can suggest they send out a clarifying email (not how to, just that they should). I cannot imagine that any manager would not send out a clarifying email on this point, as they now see that they look silly. You've helped cover your manager's ass, and you look good.

2 If you are not near your manager, then shoot them an email - only them - saying the same thing. It will end up in the same course of action.

3 The only time you'd respond to the group would be if your manager and you had a severe, long-lasting degredation in relationship. In which case you would just - politely - assert that you were asked not to take this action.

If this is the case, then you need to have a full and frank discussion with your manager about what your problem is with them, but that's another question altogether.

4

Same meaning, different tone.

"If you had read my email.." -> Rude and accusatory.

"As stated in email XYZ dated 1.2.3, the frood is gargling, meaning the foo will automatically be barred" -> Stating facts, and also stating where the facts are documented.

1

Respond to your boss indicating the other person asked you to wait. What's the big deal. No one is perfect. Who knows, you may actually get an apology out of it. It's not your place to just call out her error and I realize you don't want to do that.

She's already made the mistake by responding to everyone. Certainly the stakeholders realized you were told to wait and she missed it. I don't think they'll hold you responsible regardless of her criticism.

To keep your sanity, instead of worrying about how to defend yourself, think about how to help your boss. Could you have pushed this request further to the top of the email chain to make sure your boss has the relevant information? Exactly how far down the chain do you really expect your boss to read? You're probably not the only person on a particular project she has to be concerned with. Make your job easier by making your boss's job easier.

This may require a meeting to see how you can help and prevent this from happening in the future. Communication is key. These things happen and I'm sorry it happened to you. Brush it off.

1

Slight variation of most answers.

Hello Suzie,

As Bob mentioned earlier today:

"hold off on doing this task for good reasons!"

Best regards, raterius

Set Suzie as "To", the others as CC. Send it as quickly as possible.

If she was truly rude in her e-mail, she will be the one that looks silly.

If you misunderstood her tone and she was not rude, no harm done.

The short message and copy-paste quote shows that you have your priorities right and focus on getting work done rather than spending half a day appologizing and clearing out a minor misunderstanding. (And perhaps a little bit that you are slightly annoyed over the situation.)

DO NOT be cheaky or rude - she is the one that made a mistake and objectively and somewhat politely pointing out the mistake will make everyone realize that.

1

Consider posing a question in a response to all the recipients

For example:

I moved on to other tasks following the previous e-mail where I had been informed that it's no longer needed. Should I resume work on this?

This response shows that you are doing your job as directed; it doesn't imply any kind of accusation of negligence or incompetence - it raises a simple clarification without raising anybody's blood pressure or creating drama.

By including the question, you're encouraging a follow-up to re-affirm your previous instructions to stop working on the task, and that you are indeed working on the right thing. (either from her, or from whoever asked you to stop working on the task before - it doesn't really matter who answers you.)

As other posts have mentioned, there's nothing to be gained by pushing the issue; a response such as this covers your standing in front of the other recipients on that e-mail without directly raising any concerns.

This seems like a relatively trivial matter. Mistakes, misunderstandings and miscommunications do happen. Ideally, small issues like this should simply be handled with minimal fuss.

Of course, if this kind of thing does happen frequently, and you end up sending replies/questions like this all the time, then anybody seeing how often you're sending responses such as this would realise that you're just trying to get on with the job as best you can.

Issues related to the competence of other people in your organisation would typically be dealt with invisibly. For all you know, her manager may have already asked her to be more careful before; this wouldn't be something you're ever likely to hear about.

1

If she wrote it in a reply-all email, everyone on the email thread is going to know your manager didn't read the email carefully. Otherwise she would've seen the other person telling you to hold off on completing the task. Ultimately, she's made herself look bad. Either send her a note separately or a have a short verbal discussion, or reply-all asking her to review so-and-so's response and provide clarity.

If she replied to you separately, just send forward the email with the other stakeholder's information and tell her you need more clarity.

If the other stakeholder is someone who has no authority to direct your work, then you should discuss the task in-person/phone with your manager before proceeding with the task. Even though the other person doesn't have the authority to tell you what to do, they made good points and everyone else will want to know why you did the task given their reasoning. Then you can reply-all to the group and say you discussed, and you're going to do the task due to XYZ reasons.

0

Never add salt.

The idea of getting testy in an email response is an understandable but erroneous one.

It is always a mistake to add rudeness and testiness to an email conversation. The medium already tends to amplify emotions; even a little can become "more than you meant" and suddenly it's out of hand and your rudeness is now the center of the show. Don't go there even a little.

This cuts both ways: if somebody else adds salt, and you do not, then it's their salt that everyone notices. You can help that along a little.

Do answer to all

The boss's comments did disparage you and harm your reputation. Do you get to answer that? You bet. Precisely as hit "reply-all", and say

...Because of this

relevant email with excerpted headers included here

And then entire email thread still attached below that. Don't CUT and paste the relevant email from the thread below, COPY it and paste, so it still lies in its original place in context.

You notice how terse the above commentary is. All the better to not add salt, and let the boss's salt be the topic of conversation.

Also to arrest any complaint by the boss that you are trying to make them look like an idiot, which is a risk if you say more than the bare mimimum to introduce the quoted mail.

Pride is a huge erroneous zone for people, it invites mistake. It is so tempting to say more.

  • Good reasoning. I'd be wary of terseness looking like brusqueness though. – fectin - free Monica Feb 16 '18 at 21:52
0

1) Explain situation

As other answers said, something in the line of

Hi Suzie, I didn't do this task because X told me to hold on.

2) Offer Help

If I misunderstood, please let me know what do you want to do about this and how should I proceed

3) Prevent Further Issues

In order to prevent future confusions, may I suggest we use a collaborative project tool such as Asana or Trello or (whatever)

Pack all 3 of this in an email (you can modify it if you wish) and send CC everybody. This way, everybody will see that you didn't cause the mistake, yet you're willing to help fix the issue and you also think in advance. Plus, you do all this without any added friction and in a respectful, professional way

-4

First, calm down.

You got a task from you manager and you did not do it - you will have to accept some of the blame. The least you could have done is to inform her directly if that task is delayed somehow.

Don't assume you manager is following every conversation she is cc-ed in.

Do not throw her under the bus before an audience. It is very probable that you will hurt yourself more than her.

If you have come to accept that, it is time to answer to set the record straight.

IF you want to do it by mail, start with an apology that you did not deliver on time. Then calmly state your reason. Ask what you could do to improve communication on such incidents in the future, or make suggestions of your own, if you have some.

This may seem like an admission of guilt to you - but to your co-readers this will actually make the impression of someone competent and responsible, without offending your manager. If your manager is really disorganized, people will notice for themselves. No need to call it out and get into a battle you may very well loose.

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    What is the point of the OP CC'ing the boss? The boss needs to read emails from his subordinates. ( Not DV'ing ) – Mister Positive Feb 15 '18 at 17:44
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    Often policies of coping everyone in don´t allow to follow every conversation in detail. Then, the only point is, that it is researchable in the inbox in case of trouble. Just assume an oversight and seek for a solution instead of creating additional problems. Will benefit the OP much more in the long run! – Daniel Feb 15 '18 at 17:53
  • I agree that the OP should probably share some of the blame. If a "stakeholder" asked him to put his assigned task on hold, he should have been more proactive in keeping his manager updated as to the change in plans. There is also the possibility that the manager's task has a higher importance which the "stakeholder" doesn't realize (or care?). If the OP had informed the manager before switching the task, maybe she would have resolved the conflict differently. All said and done, you are paid to do the task your manager asks you to do, and not what some "stakeholder" asks you to do. – Masked Man Feb 15 '18 at 18:20

protected by Jane S Feb 16 '18 at 22:00

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