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My nontechnical boss wanted me to start an important project. I wrote a good plan. I know the technical area myself to an intermediate degree. I've discussed the strategy with several experts in order to be sure I haven't committed any errors. My boss knows that. I also proposed a solid, realistic organization and time plan. 

Then my boss started to question every point of the plan. First, the technicalities. He doesn't seem to understand the technical setup but rejects everything and in a very inconsistent way. He doesn't even give me a chance to answer his doubts. He says: "we won't do [technology] because that's not the way to go" and ignores my questions. Then my choice of the team members - he proposed new ones and ignored my questions and arguments that they have 0 experience on this type of project. 

At this point, I don't understand why he does that. It's the behavior of a child who wants to have it his own way although his own way is wrong. If he gave me any arguments, even arguments such as "I subjectively don't like working with [technology A]" or "My boss asked me to do B", I would understand, but he doesn't. I'm starting to think he simply does that in order not to agree with me and massively distrusts my judgement. The thing is: my performance has been assessed as excellent, so I don't understand that.

What position should I take in order to insure myself against his accusations after the project fails? Of course, he's my boss and he makes the decisions. However, his decisions will make the project impossible for me to complete. I have written him several times about my concerns and I don't think I can do that anymore, he doesn't react well to my questions. But he does tend to blame others for his mistakes. He now wants me to attend a planning session "if I want", but "if I wanted" this would mean trying to enable something that shouldn't happen at all.

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The CYA

As @sf02 said - the coverage element is to document everything. An easy, non-argumentative way to do that is to send confirmation updates to your boss about decisions that he's made that affect your work. After any meeting when this happens, write him a confirmation email with:

  • The change the boss articulated.
  • Your assessment of the impact to the project
  • Your assessment of potential risks
  • A timeline for when the change will be instituted

Do this in the form of meeting notes, for example:

Notes from meeting Sept 19, 2020: Attendees: boss_name, your_name, etc.

Summary:

  • boss_name directed that the project be done in Technology B. - Technology B is a less well-understood alternative and will require additional time to learn and implement: estimated to add 2 months to project completion. - Technology B poses the additional risk that it may not work with System ABC. Team will investigate that up front to minimize the risk. We expect to communicate that back to this group by XX date. - Change is instituted immediately, as we need to use the chosen technology next week in schedule item 123.
  • ... next item from meeting.

In this way, you ARE getting your 2 cents in, in a way that he didn't let you during the meeting, but you are overall following his direction, and not being insubordinate. Being able to do a write up after the meeting, you also get a chance to make sure you phrase your concerns very clearly and very technically, and keep the personal opinion out of it.

How to Soften the Documentation

Based on comments on this post, I figured a small addition may be helpful. A memo coming out of absolutely nowhere that narrates the decisions made, the tradeoffs and the risks can come across as anywhere from abrasive, through passive-aggressive to even potentially whiny. Because written word has no tone, it's very easy to misinterpret.

If you're really completely done with your boss and don't care to try to smooth the relationship, then this section is irrelevant. Otherwise, I recommend pulling a few ideas from this list to bridge and soften the CYA emails:

  • Mention to the boss either in a 1:1 or in a meeting where this sort of decision is being made that you want to be the note taker for the group. Commit publicly to taking notes of key decisions and sending them out in written form (of your choosing) after the meeting. Mention that as a key implementer, you will be taking the time to make sure you've traced down any impacts not raised during the meeting and will note them.
  • Mail ALL stakeholders, not just the boss, and adjust tone - it's not "you are right, he is wrong" it's "here what the decisions were, here's what we anticipate the follow-on impact to be". Just changing the pronouns can make a big difference.
  • If the boss objects that all this isn't necessary - stick to the fact that for YOU it is. As a key stakeholder, you DO benefit from well-written notes and well documented decisions. And keep your time on this reasonably small - writing a decent set of notes can take an hour the first few times, but once you build the muscle, it's likely to take 20 min or less.
  • solicit input - just a "any updates, additions or concerns -- please mail be by COB and I will update my memo" - can make it a lot more friendly and a lot more in service to the group.

This may all be good relationship theater - you may hate the guy. But even so, doing the actions conveys a path towards trying to maintain good will.

Even when there is no contention in a team - I adore people who can take these sorts of notes reliably and regularly -- they come in handy so often!

The Relationship

The ideal outcome would be for the project not to fail. A big contributor to that is to have a trusting relationship with your boss. You don't have to like each other but you need to treat each other with enough courtesy that concerns on each side can be voiced and understood.

Sometimes the throes of a project meeting are not the right place for this. It sounds like in meeting after meeting, this guy has made you pretty frustrated. My advice would be to book a private meeting with this guy and talk the issue out. The issue is not really any particular one of these changes, but the overall pattern that the boss is making a unilateral change, in area where you have a degree of subject matter expertise, and he's neither offering a reason, nor giving you a chance to represent your perspective and concerns.

I'd start with something like:

"There's been friction between us on this project - have you felt it too?" .... (pause while he thinks & responds) "On my end, it feels like there were several cases where you insisted on a change in the project that poses risks that I'm seriously concerned about, but you won't explain why nor listen to my concerns... what's going on?" .... (again pause & listen) "Well... to me it feels like you don't respect or trust me, and I am concern that if we don't explain our concerns and listen to each other, this project will go fairly badly... what can we do to have a better pattern?"

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    There is no use in documenting, that will only come across as hostile. And depending on the end of the project nobody will have sympathies to „I told you so“ arguments. Better get out of the position/project if you can’t agree with it. – eckes Oct 3 at 15:52
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    I agree with @eckes. Documentation might work in conflicts with peers - and even then not always. I'm sure the way to document things you're proposing would land me a serious conversation with HR very soon - for creating a hostile environment. And with superiors? There's no way it would help. And the script you included... My boss is very hierarchy-conscious - I think my description conveys that a bit. I don't think he would ever accept me talking to him like that. – donkey_345 Oct 3 at 17:25
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    @eckes I profoundly disagree. I don't know where you work, but I've never been in a company where I could "get out of" a project, nor ever (in 25 years) been in a company where I've seen or heard of it being possible! You have the project you've been assigned. End of. So you need to manage it as best you can. – Graham Oct 3 at 20:51
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    @eckes ... As for documenting this, you've clearly not worked in ISO-9001 organisations or had to deal with requirements traceability. All decisions taken in meetings must be documented, without exception. And following on from that, the OP has a duty to report any impact on risk/quality/timescale, and in fact would be negligent not to. The "CYA" section of this answer is simply correct as fact, not even as opinion. (This with my ISO auditor's hat on.) I'm not so keen on the "relationship" part, but the first half is spot on. – Graham Oct 3 at 21:00
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    ISO certification has absolutely nothing to do with blame from management – eckes Oct 3 at 21:06
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Don't let yourself be set up for failure. If you know it will fail and have tried to get it on track without success you need to evade responsibility for rubbish.

This probably means declining to head the project or quietly job searching, but either way something needs to be done. Covering your back is all good, but when it fails that just looks like rationalisation. It's a far stronger message if you quit or decline involvement.

If you want responsibility you have to take it. Stop the weak arguments and tell him that you don't want to be in the lead if it's done that way.

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    Very yes to the last paragraph. The whole question is posed with a pre-supposition of CYA. Figure out what the furthest threshold you can drag success from is, and don't do the project if that's crossed. – Mad Physicist Oct 4 at 16:36
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    Exactly this answer. Don't accept a job that is not set up for success, simple as that. If you decline the project and that starts a more honest conversation about why, even better. – wberry Oct 5 at 0:19
  • In OP's bosses eyes, the boss will feel he has won (it is a war, isn't it?), and OP will be seen to be incapable of doing the job. OP is already involved. Too late. – Tim Oct 5 at 7:56
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    @Tim I don't see that. – Kilisi Oct 5 at 9:02
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    @Tim: OP's boss can feel whatever he likes. Technical experts are rare theses days, and having no-one to successfully lead your project is quite a hollow victory indeed... – Heinzi Oct 5 at 11:15
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What position should I take in order to insure myself against his accusations after the project fails?

Document everything!

Make sure you have clear and concise documentation of your plans. Any doubts or requests that your boss makes, you need to also make sure that they are documented. If he is relaying this information to you verbally, make sure that you send a follow up email listing everything that he verbally told you and ask him to confirm that this is what he wants.

If the project ultimately fails, at least there will be a clear record of what was done and the probable reason for failure.

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    Documentation saves the day. Always. – Joel Etherton Oct 2 at 16:17
  • I would go beyond mailing your boss. Include a product manager or other independent manager to ensure that someone else is aware – DaveG Oct 2 at 23:23
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    @JoelEtherton: I remember once being in trouble with my project lead, who said I hadn't done what he asked for. I asked my supervisor whether I'd be off the hook if I provided documentary proof that what I'd done was in fact exactly what he'd asked for (and by implication that he was lying to avoid blame for his bad plan). I had to press her for an answer in writing, but finally she said that if I provided it, she'd take it as proof-- that I had failed to understand what he wanted. I saved that message, but only as a reminder to myself. – Beta Oct 4 at 20:14
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    @Beta I never delete anything, except for obvious spam, and even if I do to keep my Inbox clean, I never empty the Trash. You never know when something from months or years ago will save the day. – MattDMo Oct 4 at 20:40
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Manage upward

Some people who end up in management positions without much management ability believe that being the boss means they need to make the decisions.

It may be that your boss is pushing you to make changes because he feels obligated to assert his authority. Even though he doesn't understand the consequences of the decisions, his priority is to have made a decision, and in his mind, just signing off on your recommendations wouldn't qualify. He would just feel cut out of the loop, and his primary goal is to avoid that feeling, regardless of what's best for the company.

If this sounds like it describes your boss, you could change the way you discuss the project with him. Instead of saying, "we should go with A because it's better," say "A had these advantages, B had these disadvantages, but you're the boss." Hopefully you can leave the meeting with the technology you need, and he can leave feeling like he matters.

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    This is an excellent point. At an old company I did a training course on cultural differences and one point they made was that in the UK and US bosses tend to only want the things you can't fix referred to them whilst in Europe many bosses expect to make the final decision even if it's basically a rubber stamp. It's a generalisation but something like this may be going on here. – Alan Dev Oct 3 at 15:45
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    If OP understands this is their situation, they may want to learn about Duck features. – mgarciaisaia Oct 3 at 19:18
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    @mgarciaisaia did you see this link in the comments? dilbert.com/strip/2007-02-02 – Mark Ransom Oct 4 at 2:49
  • @MarkRansom I had not, but thanks for pointing it out :) – mgarciaisaia Oct 4 at 20:17
  • It's sad because a good manager would see that success of a project, looks good on them regardless of whether they made the direct decisions or not. Hiring good experts to head projects and make the right decisions for you is a good managerial move. Why sabotage that with shitty undermining? – Möoz Oct 5 at 2:12
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You already know the project will fail. On top of that, you assume you will be blamed for that.

Start escaping this situation now. This is not something you want to invest your lifetime in. You can change jobs, you can move within the company, you can manipulate the boss to let someone else be head of this project, you can be unavailable... whatever.

Until you finished doing that: A person with this specific problem usually comes with related issues, some of which can be exploited. He might forget what he insisted on,. He might be goaded into believing your idea was his idea. He might be tricked into insulting the guys above him. He might fail at a different front so badly that he has to go. He might be falling for praise and compliments. Do not suffer under his mistakes, find some "judo"-ways to use his mistakes for you.

Aside from that: The first answer (documenting everything) is spot on. But do so without making him suspicious.

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  • Alternatively making him suspicious might force the boss to consider his actions and to become more 'cooperative' if he doesn't want to be blamed for the failure of the project. – Al rl Oct 2 at 22:10
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Problem 1: Behavior

At this point I don't understand why he does that. It's a behavior of a child who wants to have it his own way although his own way is wrong.

One might say it is...Narcissistic behavior.

If he gave me any arguments, even arguments such as "I subjectively don't like working with [technology A]" or "My boss asked me to do B", I would understand, but he doesn't.

This is deliberate. By refusing to make an official stance on what his objections are, he cannot be called out on lack of intelligence, he cannot be argued with and retains a way to dodge accountability for his decisions when the project fails (by blaming and firing everyone under him).

Vagueness is a behavioral trait of Narcissistic personality types.

He now wants me to attend a planning session "if I want", but "if I wanted" this would mean trying to enable something that shouldn't happen at all.

  • If you go, you are actively complicit in driving the project to its impending failure.
  • If you don't go, when this doomed project fails, it will be because you weren't a team player.

Setting of impossible expectations is also a behavioral trait of Narcissistic personality types.

If you intend to continue working under this individual, you may want to do some independent reading about how to cope with Narcissistic personality types. They are extraordinarily difficult to work with, and lack of understanding always leads to the unwary (like yourself) being cruelly exploited.

Problem 2: Pecking Order

My nontechnical boss's wanted me to start an important project.

I wrote a good plan.

Then my boss started to question every point of the plan.

My performance has been assessed as excellent, so I don't understand that.

Your immediate boss is threatened by you. You are rising through the ranks through demonstrated competence. He has clearly gotten by on vagaries, intimidation and taking credit for other peoples' successes.

As long as this appears to be your project, and you stand to get the recognition for its success, he will continue attempting to sabotage or derail you.

You will not be able to "argue" with him, period. Get that idea out of your head. It does not matter how well-founded your arguments are. It doesn't matter how weak or illogical his own are.

A strong argument could be made that masks prevent the spread of COVID. Since he would not get credit for the idea, a certain world leader refused to promote this solution. Instead, he tried:

  • Denying/downplaying the existence of COVID,
  • Presenting his own vague/bizarre solutions (malaria pills! inject bleach!),
  • Withdrawing from the WHO,
  • Restructuring the CDC,
  • Suppressing expert testimony,
  • ...and generally sabotaging all mitigation efforts that have proven to actually work.

And look where it got him. He fought acceptance of someone else's solution so hard it may yet kill him. That is how far these types will go to make sure they get the credit for success-- sometimes even trying to take credit for resolving problems of their own creation!

It is important to him that he gets the recognition for the success of this project. If he can't get the validation he feels entitled to, he will see to it that nobody gets it and you are instead condemned for its failure. People like him really are that childish. They take to positions of greater power like leeches to blood.

If you can re-present this to him and sell it in such a way that if he listens to you, he will come out of this with a promotion, you will be given a blank check to run this project however you please. You'll have to give up any claims of credit for for it...but that is a predictable outcome when you are subject to a pecking order.

(Don't make the mistake of thinking doing favors this will net you a powerful ally. It will not. Once your project succeeds, he reaps the accolades and the "high" of validation wears off, you will be considered disposable again.)

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I'm starting to think he simply does that in order not to agree with me and massively distrusts my judgement.

This might be the case but it probably isn't as simple as that.

Are there any reasons why your boss might not trust you? Poor performance or previous bad judgements could be the reason, but more often this kind of mistrust is based on some kind of political judgement, where they feel that you have or will threaten/undermine their position.

If there is no clear reason for mistrust then it probably isn't mistrust per se. More likely they are finding information elsewhere and then assigning it more value than your own input. This could be information they read online, something their boss has passed on to them, or even something they heard in the pub.

What should you do about this? ... the other answers go into plenty of detail. I just wanted to give you some insight about how the situation might have come about in the first place.

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Somehow, you seem to "conveniently provide" all sorts of justifications for your bosses' behavior – other than the possibility that his point-of-view just might be a bit more experienced than yours.

Why don't you start by ... asking him?

Because, by definition of the command-structure, it will be his "ass that's in a sling," not yours, if the project winds up as you predict.

But ... "what if you are wrong, and he is right?"

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    OP says boss is "non technical" and that he already tried asking for justifications. – speciesUnknown Oct 3 at 8:34
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    @speciesUnknown I don't think either that this answer on its own is complete or balanced, but it's an important point that is otherwise missing. +1. Even more so because even if you are totally right, if you can document everything from a point of humble open-mindedness that will make you look even better in the end. Plus if you are wrong after all it won't make you look bad. – Nobody Oct 3 at 13:19
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    The OP directly stated that the boss is non technical. He also directly that he asked for an explanation and did not get one. Those 2 points of the answer are invalid. – speciesUnknown Oct 3 at 13:40
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If these settings are exactly as you stated, you should decide what you want to do There are two ways:

  1. start looking for another job and keep quite, documenting every command of your current manager in order to cover your behind, an leave as soon as suitable position found.

  2. Go over his head to the bosses bosses boss with original plan, changes of your current boss and reasoning why it sets project to fail. Truth be told, even in this situation there is a good chance you would have to look for new position, but will have less advanced notice But there is a chance it may work, even thou your manager relationship would be ruined any way, seems like it kinda already is

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