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I work in a quality control department for a manufacturing facility and report to the quality manager. Some days, my boss will be in a very bad mood due to having a lot of quality issues simultaneously, a particularly frustrating problem, or issues that cost the customer a lot of money. Understandably, this all comes with the job territory, but it can lead to a few days in a row (usually once every three weeks or so) where my boss is very irritable about nearly everything.

Oftentimes there are things that need to be brought to his attention during this time, and cannot be put off until after the stressful period is over (due to urgency, time constraints, etc...) My boss is usually an awesome guy, and he gets along really well with everyone in the department but during these times it is best to leave him alone whenever possible.

Since we are in a smaller department (8 people) I usually just approach my boss to talk to him in person, and this is the way that he prefers us to inform him of things (We don't usually communicate via email because our offices are all right next door to each other). It is worth noting that he doesn't get angry at any of us he is just irritable in general. He doesn't take any of this out on us, it is just very uncomfortable to bring additional issues to him when he already has a full plate. I try to avoid bringing things to him until I have done all of the background work and prepared a few solutions, but usually these kinds of issues can still be expensive to resolve.

What are some ways to approach my boss with an urgent problem, when they are in a bad mood?

Note: Others in the department have expressed the same concerns with me and I know that I am not the only one affected by this.

Also, what are some ways that I can bring to his attention that his mood effects the entire department?

An example would be that we bring another issue to his attention and he responds with something along the lines of "What the h*** happened now?" or "Does anybody know what they are doing around here?" (referring to the people out on the manufacturing floor that made the error).

Note: During these times I shelf anything that is not urgent until after he has resolved the major problems on his plate that are causing his irritability.

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You mentioned "During these times I shelf anything that is not urgent until after he has resolved the major problems on his plate that are causing his irritability."

From your manager's point of view, perhaps the system is working? I'm not suggesting its a conscious decision (it might be!), but "At least in these situations lukebeast887 doesn't bother me with other stuff and just handles it himself - so that's one less thing on my plate, and thank god I can rely on lukebeast887 to handle it" would be a good thing - from his point of view.

it could be a good thing from your point of view too - in which case I suggest your problem is "how to make my boss more explicitly acknowledge, I am taking this responsibility for him?" - or it could be a bad thing - "My boss leaves this to me, but he really shouldn't, that won't end well for any of us". Only you can decide.

Anyway I think the key is to talk to him about this when it is not a pressure point. Ideally it'd be on his instigation, say, end of year review. But if that's not imminent, go to him and ask for a word. "Sometimes I handle situations because I think you'll prefer me to. But I'm not sure if I got it right. We're in a difficult business so I sure as hell don't want to add to our problems! Can you help me out here? E.g. last month I did X, was that OK?"

If you think you can handle it and want him to say "yes, good job, and here's a bonus" pick an X that went well. If you don't, pick an X that went badly, in your opinion, so you can make it clear "I'm on your side, and we both know X didn't go well, let's fix it."

  • This brings up a good point that maybe there isn't really an issue, per se, just the perception that there is an issue. My boss is on vacation this week, so hopefully he will come back relaxed and low-stress for a while. – lukebeast887 Aug 13 '18 at 20:08
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Your boss isn't going to change.

When he's in a bad mood, there's no way to bring him additional bad news that won't result in a reaction like you've noted before.

However, the bright spot in this is that you understand that it's not about you. He's not angry at the messenger, he's angry at the facts.

So what you can change is yourself - your reaction to his bad moods. You know it's not about you rationally, but it's affecting you emotionally. Treat it matter-of-factly, don't apologize, and don't take it personally.

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As a general rule, if someone isn't handling a problem very well, it means the problem is exceeding their capacity to cope with it. You can deal with this in either or both of two ways: By reducing the demands the problem is imposing on him, or increasing his capacity to deal with it.

You say your manager is generally a good person, just not under stress, so some of my suggestions are going to assume he's willing to cooperate with you in addressing this problem. If he won't cooperate, you might be out of luck, but given your description I think cooperation is likely if you ask nicely.

Variations on your current approach

If you aren't doing so already, providing the strengths and weaknesses of each of your solutions, as well as pointing out what seems the best and why, would reduce his stress a little. The less he has to think about it, the better. Try to focus on external details as well, rather than internal ones. He likely doesn't care whether the transistor tester needs a 5v power supply or a 7v one. He just wants to know how accurate they are, what the throughput is, and how much they cost. Cut out any details he doesn't need to worry about so he'll have more energy to focus on the ones he does.

Be prepared with something else of importance you can do for a little while. This way, once you've told him about the problem and your suggested solutions, you can offer to go work on the alternative thing for a little while and give him some time to get the other disasters under control long enough to think about yours.

It may also help to print out a summary of your analysis so he can read it. Even if he decides on the spot, it can still be helpful to have it all there in front of him instead of having to juggle everything in his head.

Most importantly, talk to him like you're in control of the situation. If he sees you're stressed, he'll take that cue and get stressed himself. In contrast, if he sees you're confident and in control despite the crisis, he'll start to relax a little. Everything else might be falling apart, but at least your section of the problem is under control.

Finally, try to report on some progress every time you bring him a problem. If possible, tell him about another crisis you've addressed and how things are going well for that part of the problem now. It's easy to see all the new problems coming in, overlook all the old ones going out, and get overwhelmed. If you take the time to draw his attention to the old ones going out though, it will help reassure him that progress is being made and the crisis will end.

It might take a while for these strategies to start having significant effects, but they should all help reduce the demand on your manager. If he doesn't start encouraging your coworkers to use them too, you can share them yourself. It sounds like they'd be interested in better ways to manage their manager.

Bringing up his mood

It's hard to go wrong with an "I" statement, delivered without blame, in private, when he's in a peaceful mood.

Boss, I get pretty stressed when the manufacturing people mess up. I get even more stressed when I see you lashing out too. Even if I remind myself it's the manufacturing people you're upset with, it's hard not to feel like you're upset with me too, or like I'm making things even worse when I have to tell you about another important problem.

Keep focused on your feelings and how you're affected. No anger, no blame, no judgment, just statements about what happened and how it made you feel.

Suggesting constructive outlets

If he seems open to suggestions after the above, you might try offering some. I'm personally fond of taking a short break periodically. It might seem counterintuitive to take a break in the middle of a disaster, but stress is just as much a crisis as everything else and needs to be managed too. So here's a break suggestion:

During crisis time, take a ten minute break once per hour. Interrupt something right in the middle if necessary. Go in your office, put a "Do not disturb" sign up, close and lock the door, and just sit in silence staring at the wall and taking deep breaths until the time is up. Or lay on the floor staring at the ceiling. Maybe play some relaxing music while you're there. Try to relax all of your muscles. After ten minutes, go back out to manage the disaster again.

You might also check out relaxation and grounding techniques for more suggestions.

If your boss will agree to it, you could plan on employees reminding him to take some time and relax if he forgets and they see him getting too stressed. Be very careful to make it a friendly reminder. It'll be coming when he's in a bad mood, so it's important to be especially careful.

You seem stressed again. Are you all right? Do you need to take a minute and go recoup?

Make sure to accept his taking a short break wholeheartedly, without any negative feelings toward him. He needs to know it's acceptable to take a short break and recover, even in the middle of a crisis. Keep ill feelings down by reminding yourself that his taking a break makes him a more pleasant person to work with.

In fact, if things are this stressful, it may be worth proposing the whole department take a ten minute break every hour to keep themselves going.

Improving crisis management

I admittedly have little experience with manufacturing, but having everyone go into full-on panic mode every month seems unusual to me. If things like this happen frequently and everyone is still panicking anyway, it suggests to me that the systems in place to handle them aren't very effective and they aren't getting better. At the very least, you should have action plans in place to guide your response when things like this happen. They won't eliminate the stress, but the more organized you can make the chaos, the less stressed out everyone will be.

It may be worth taking some time during the calm to investigate what happened and why, and see if there's anything you can do to make future disasters less likely or less disastrous. Write up reports so you can examine a bunch of them all at once later and look for patterns. See if you can predict them and do some of the work early, or at least prepare yourselves emotionally.

In line with reporting progress above, you can also try to analyze the problem as it happens. Get a basic idea of what needs to be done and make a list. Add new things as they come in and cross off (but don't erase) ones that are finished. Then everyone can look at the list and see that while new problems are coming in, old ones are going out and the list is getting steadily shorter. In time, everyone will start getting used to the disaster rhythm. They'll understand that things get progressively worse at first, but then eventually peak and start settling down. The details vary, but the overall rhythm is predictable. Predictability is good for stress.

Another thing to consider is whether team members could be given more autonomy to make decisions themselves during a crisis. If your manager is getting stressed, he's probably feeling overwhelmed, so being able to distribute some of that stress to others who aren't so overloaded would be a big help.

Celebrating

People tend to forget that once the crisis is over, it turns into an accomplishment. You did it. You deserve recognition. Congratulations.

Bring in a box of doughnuts (or something similar your department all likes) the day after and have a celebration with tasty treats. Point out some notable accomplishments if you can, even if they seem a bit mundane.

I'd like to recognize Alice for discovering the broken plate on the roller, Bob for rushing to the hardware store for replacement screws, Cindy for courageously holding the plate on in the meantime, Dave for distracting the inspector to buy us time...

It might seem a bit silly and weird at first, but it's important to recognize that you succeeded where most people would have been overwhelmed and panicked. Anyone can succeed when things are going well, but it takes a skilled team to pull it off when the world seems about to end.

  • This is a great response with a lot of practical action items to pursue moving forward. I will say that in manufacturing, there are daily problems to solve and the occasional crisis is pretty standard. It is part of being a quality control engineer in a manufacturing industry. Especially considering that tangible products also have very tangible costs (raw materials, labor, equipment usage, etc...) so usually problems need to be solved "NOW" and can't be put off. That said, thanks for the tips, maybe our department can have a meeting with my boss to talk about the above points. – lukebeast887 Aug 10 '18 at 15:50
  • @lukebeast887: I changed the wording of that section a little to better match the reality of the situation. My main concern is how people are reacting. Chaos is okay as long as the systems in place can tolerate it, but it sounds like they need some adjustment so they can cope more effectively. Also, I always imagined manufacturing as being immensely predictable. I had no idea it was actually so chaotic. Consider my respect for QA people increased. – Everly Foxton Aug 10 '18 at 17:19
  • The unpredictability of manufacturing can be both a blessing and a curse. It allows for a lot of variety in work, but can make QA a bit of a nightmare on occasion. Especially because production typically runs 24/7 and major issues cannot be put off because they have the potential to shut down production if they go uninterrupted. Ideally moving towards a more automated system allows for higher consistency as it removes the human factor, but there are some jobs that humans cannot do. This requires high capital expenditure however. Trust me when I say no sane person works QA in manufacturing ;) – lukebeast887 Aug 10 '18 at 20:09
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Assuming your boss is not a total jerk and actually wants the team and company to succeed. While this is not always true, I'd say it is most of the time.

In that situation, any manager or boss can be expected to deal with things professionally. That's one reason why people move up the career ladder.

If there's a fact (s)he needs to know, tell her/him. Sure, sometimes it feels like everything falls apart and yet another detail makes you want to quit. But you got to stand that and face the problems. Your boss must take the new fact, compare it to all the other burning fires, prioritize it and react accordingly.

If you're the messenger of bad news, stay friendly, calm, and focused. No need to dramatize things to make them appear more urgent. Maybe start like "To me it looks like you're having a bad day already but I still think this is important enough to bring it to your attention immediately."

Regarding the bad mood in general, this is a more personal topic. It's not just business facts but emotional and interpersonal. Those things are sometimes a bit tricky, depending on how your partner reacts to criticism. As a general rule, stay with yourself and your feelings. Don't accuse. For example, after a bad-mood-day wait one or two days and then ask for half an hour to talk about a personal issue. If the two of you find the time, try to explain how you felt in a certain situation. Only talk about your own emotions and your own feelings. Those are yours, you're not attacking someone. And don't drag someone else from the team in. They can speak for themselves.

Hope that makes sense.

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If you have a lot of relevant information on the problem, rather than just approaching the boss with the problem, have you asked yourself what the solution is? What would it take for you to be able to come up with the solution? You may not have authority to enact the solution, but if you came to your boss with the problem, and maybe one or more solutions with your recommended preference among them and the reasoning for that choice, your boss would probably be really happy instead of grumpy. Instead of bringing him a problem to figure out, you've brought him a solution to a problem he didn't know he had.

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What are some ways to approach my boss with an urgent problem, when they are in a bad mood?

Honestly if your boss is in a bad mood to talk about work related tasks, then you should be looking for a new job. This place sounds like a horrible place where you cannot approach your boss about work tasks. This is assuming you're going to him/her with urgent issues and not being excessively bothersome.

  • This is an honest evaluation. However, what are some good ways to approach him while I am still working here? During any other time, he is easily approachable. The same problem occurring on a different day would be no problem at all to discuss with him, it is just when he is in a bad mood. – lukebeast887 Aug 8 '18 at 15:26
  • @lukebeast887 I think like John mentioned above that you should do as much work as you can, and bring it to the boss to explain what you need. – Dan Aug 8 '18 at 16:08
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First prepare your boss, by sending him/her a mail, an SMS, a Skype, saying:

I'm having an urgent problem. Which moment is best suited for you to discuss it?

Like this, (s)he is already mentally prepared for what's coming.

Also, explain your boss that you're willing to learn, by saying something like:

Can you explain me what I can do in future when I'm dealing with such a situation? Like this I might reduce the urgency of the situation.

So you'll show your boss that you are willing to reduce his/her workload, instead of just adding stuff to his/her big pile of tasks.

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