The issue is the manager doesn’t provide clear expectations or direction, and often changes his mind, leading to conflicts and misunderstandings, as well as delays in projects.

Example 1: A finished project was approved by designer, stakeholder, art director, and manager. A co-worker with seniority with the company, but completely unrelated to the project, casually walks by and provides feedback criticizing the project. The manager agrees with the feedback and decides the entire project needs to be redone. The project timeline gets extended and it must go through the entire design, review, and approval process again.

Example 2: (Day one) After a long and drawn out discussion, the manager states that from now on it is critical he reviews, with employee, all the tasks assigned to that employee in order to explain each task. Employee provides documents for review; they schedule time to review for Day Two. (Day Two) At scheduled time, the manager cancels the meeting and doesn't reschedule. He says that he has reviewed the tasks himself and employee should go ahead with the work. (Day Three) Employee begins work on tasks. Manager gets upset that the tasks weren't reviewed with him before work began, and questions why the employee is doing the work in a certain way (differently than he would have done it). When directly asked for clarity on which process the manager wants to follow, the manager either doesn’t respond at all (written), gives a conflicting answer or claims his original request had a different intention (verbal).

This is a very frustrating experience. Multiple team members have expressed frustration about how the manager communicates, specifically about unclear or changing expectations. It can be difficult to get a straight answer. It's not clear how to “manage up”, or communicate with a manager like this.


HBR has a few articles, classified under "Managing Up", and they have one specifically one about managers that with give conflicting messages. https://hbr.org/2014/11/when-your-boss-gives-you-conflicting-messages

  • What are you with respect to this manager? Is he your manager? Are you his boss? The answers you may get depend greatly on this – DarkCygnus May 10 at 21:09
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    @DarkCygnus The question is written from the perspective of the manager’s subordinate. That is who the advice should be for. – user70848 May 11 at 0:44
  • Thanks for clarifying :), so this is a subordinate who is uncomfortable with his/her's manager's way of doing things. My answer still applies as I wrote it considering both cases – DarkCygnus May 11 at 0:47
  • Maybe I'm missing something but I don't see why you can't have a simple clarifying discussion with him. "Hey boss, before I start, would you like to review X prior to A, B, C milestones?" – dwizum May 11 at 19:38
  • @dwizum In one instance the manager wants to explain X to the employee, and come up with the milestones. In the other, the manager wants the employee to come up with solutions to X, and is ambiguous about milestones. – user70848 May 12 at 3:47

A manager's job is, well, to manage.

Unless you are his superior, you should let your manager to his job; otherwise you are in no position to make him change the way he carries out his job.

You could express your concerns with HR (something I wouldn't recommend), or with your manager's boss (ideally if you get other people to back you up), but either of these options has to be carried out carefully, as HR has to lean in favor of the company's interest, and going over your boss's head is something not always recommended.

Now, if you are his superior, then you are in a position to manage him (careful not to start micromanaging). In such case, you should convey your request clearly to this person (one-on-one meeting perhaps), where you specify the changes you wish to see. After this, you can proceed based on how things change (or not).

Sounds like your manager wants to be "consulted" for every decision. Frankly, if in one sprint he wanted to review everything, then did you not follow it as a guideline and get it reviewed in the subsequent sprints? If you did and he refused to review, then you should document it in a email and go ahead. If he did not ask and you did not go to him, he has got a reason to go bananas if things don't go as planned.

The right way to handle such things is documentation. The processes have to be documented. In between, you will get challenges, like new processes being put in. Then the manager not following the processes. I think you should ask for his review / approval over an email. One of my projects used to assume deemed approved if no one replies within 48 hours. You could follow the same strategy. Of course things will still not be perfect, but your manager will get the hint and be more careful in communication.

Regarding conflicting answers, again, create minutes of meeting and publish. If the manager goes back on his word, show him the Minutes. Politely tell him that you documented your understanding, if it was incorrect, it would be really helpful if he could correct them so that mistakes don't happen.

  • Yes I think the manager wants to be consulted on every decision, or be involved in every stage, but doesn’t know how exactly to manage that or know exactly what he wants. I think he also realizes that being involved at every stage is counter-productive, because it slows down the speed of work. So instead of clarifying, the result is conflicting statements and frustration. – user70848 May 12 at 3:50

The manager's job is to manage, your job is to perform according to his direction. I don't think it'll be a winning battle to try to "manage" him in the sense of directing/changing his behavior.

Which leaves us in a fairly classic case of misunderstood/poorly communicated expectations. Luckily, there are some tried-and-true steps you can take to handle this:

  1. Ask for clarification before you begin the work. This can be simple: "Hey boss, would you like to review A or B at steps X, Y, or Z?" Give him options, don't just say "what do you want" or "what should I do." Ideally, put this in an email, and mention it if you're doing a daily standup or any other kind of regular work review. If he answers, acknowledge the answer and then do it.
  2. If he doesn't answer, or gives conflicting advice, default to the more-communicative option. If this is a conflict about which things to review, then present him with an opportunity to review each thing, as appropriate. Yes, this may seem like overkill, but you're giving him the benefit of the doubt, and it doesn't have to halt all work. If he goes along with this, great. If he doesn't...
  3. If he corrects you (ie asks for more/less review opportunities) then - right there in the moment - ask for clarity on the future. "Ok boss, I'll make sure you have a chance to review X. On our future tasks, would you always like to review step X? Or is this a one-time review?" This way, you're putting the ball in his court and establishing an expectation of how you will behave in the future, so you don't have to repeat this whole process again.

Usually, after a few times through the cycle, a pattern will emerge, at which point you can ask for confirmation of the pattern. If no pattern emerges, make it a point to raise the question in the broader context - ask him for a meeting to discuss review standards, or however would be appropriate in your context.

Basically - in summary - don't wait until he's telling you that you're wrong. Ask upfront. And if that doesn't work, and he still tells you you're wrong, take advantage (right there on the spot) and ask for clarification on the future.

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