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I currently work as a Software Engineer in a relatively small subdivision of a team of ~35 people, all of which report to the same manager (and all of which are Software Engineers of some sort). This problem is not unique to me, and this question is specifically about dealing with a manager's communication issues. M has been at the company for ~6 months; most of us have been on the team for 9-18 months (I've been here for 18 months); the team is relatively new.

Recently, we have been having problems effectively communicating with our manager, M (who is a Software Engineering Manager - a middle management position). M can be very difficult to talk to and that's causing significant attrition in the team. Of note is a sizeable language barrier that causes misunderstandings somewhat consistency, although not very frequently.

Here are a few examples of recurring issues:

  • M is extremely verbose. Meetings that should (and would) only take ~10-15 minutes can take upwards of 30-45 minutes if M is involved, because they tend to talk in an extremely repetitive manner to the point where the meeting is going in circles. Said meetings get hijacked by M constantly for conversations other than the one the meeting was originally intended for. Our standup meetings used to take 5-10 minutes, but I've seen them take upwards of 45 because M wanted to talk about whatever else.
  • M will ask a technical question and expect a specific answer. When they do not receive the expected answer, M will rephrase the question until they get the answer they want (as if the answer would change).
  • M is not a good listener. M frequently interrupts people mid-sentence to ask questions (which were about to be answered), or to speak their mind. These interruptions can be extremely lengthy (5-10 minute monologues), and often derail conversations.
  • M will say obvious things and take a lot of time doing so. For instance, they'll tell an engineer "you have to find the root cause of this bug, and change XYZ" - and take 5 minutes to do so, as if said engineer, who is unquestionably more familiar with the codebase, didn't already know that.
  • M will give their opinion on implementation details that are not user-facing, which makes little sense given the developers' markedly more mature intimacy with the codebase (M has a technical background, but does not and has never written code at the company).

As far as I can tell, however, the team's relationships with M range from good to okay (myself included).

I have tried readbacks, as suggested here, and I have also tried giving as little technical detail as possible in order to give M fewer opportunities to interrupt myself and other engineers and derail important meetings. However, I have found no success in anything other than shutting up and pretending to listen, but that takes significant time and impacts our team's communication (since the meetings get wrecked constantly), and I personally find this sort of behavior to be extremely aggravating (bordering on intolerable). To put it in perspective, if the roles were reversed and a report of mine behaved in the way M does, I would have had a talk with them about this months ago.

In light of this information, my question is: How can I most effectively get M to be more concise, on topic, and clear about what they want? Repetition, derailing meetings, interrupting people, and giving confusing and/or useless input are all serious problems materially affecting our team's morale and productivity.

EDIT: it was suggested that we schedule meetings without M. Some of the meetings that were hijacked, one of which is our stand-up meeting, did not originally include M; nobody felt like they could decline to add them to the meeting, seeing as we all report to them.

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    Today I woke up a bit unconventional, so here's a frame challenge/180 POV change: have meetings only with your team (excluding M), so you are not interrupted and it flows well and your ideas and options are well laid out. You can talk more technical there... Then have meeting (shorter I hope) with M where you summarize your findings and conclusions and possible courses of action, so M can give their input and have a say on this (it's your manager after all), but avoid wasting time. This is not an answer though, thus why I post it as comment.
    – DarkCygnus
    May 5 at 19:36
  • @JoeStrazzere All 35 report directly to M, yes. M has been at the company for about ~6 months; I've been here for about 18. Most of the team was hired before M started. All of M's subordinates, myself included, are Software Engineers of some sort (senior, lead, etc.). I'll add this information to the first paragraph. May 5 at 20:06
  • @DarkCygnus that's a good idea, but M has the habit of asking to be included in calendar meetings that they are not invited to. I think the next option in this front is to do off-the-books meetings, but that feels almost subversive and is probably going to step on someone's toes. May 5 at 20:12
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    @JoeStrazzere I got a good laugh out of that, so thanks for brightening my day a little bit. You have a good point (despite my laugh), though, and I would 100% be looking for another job if not for the fact that I am actually very happy at the company I'm in at the moment and this is one of the few pain points that stand out to me. May 5 at 20:28
  • @pliable.bantams still eccentric mode On so: "asking to be included", just don't do it lol... say "yeah sure M, however this is a technical Dev meeting. We want to pitch and discuss things before we bring them up to you, so they are better laid out and more organized, and we don't waste your time"... Or maybe you just "missed" that email asking to be included and the meeting went without M, but of course the meeting with M is still on and still on the calendar. Sounds like M is micromanaging
    – DarkCygnus
    May 5 at 21:17

2 Answers 2

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Have you considered talking to M directly and raise all the concerns (but make sure you have all the facts ready and be prepared for questions). Do raise them without emotions at play and the goal is for the betterment of the entire team of 35 and its nothing personal. Be prepared to provide suggestions, recommendations, etc but more importantly you have to voice it out.

If that doesn't work, that it one level higher to M's line manager (skip-level). The hope is that either M (preferably) or M's line manager would be able to do something about the situation.

Do take note however there are potential consequences to talking to M's line manager that M may not like, but if you're willing to take that chance - go for it. Personally I would do that, and if the company fires me for that or makes my life difficult then I'm not in the right company in the 1st place :)

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You must have one of my former bosses. I've had a Manager exactly like this. Unfortunately, there's not much that will permanently change their behavior. Speaking from experience, involving senior leadership will likely only have short-term changes as they will usually slip back into their personality baseline. My team was of a similar size and here's a few things I did to help:

  1. Reduce opportunity for discussion. There's usually a trigger that gets these personality types going. Simple questions become 30 minute answers when it should have been 5. Talk to your teammates, pre-empt questions in meetings by asking your questions to those directly involved and answer questions from people that may have for you. This requires you to be social. Some teammates will even catch on and start asking people directly as well.

  2. Take over. Part of asking and answering questions as they came up, you might accidentally become the de facto hub of the team. I ended up taking over meetings just telling him I was going to run one. I would send out an agenda and a timeline to enforce that we only had so much time to hit all the points. I ran through, left small breaks for questions to me that I would get back to. My justification to the boss was I can get answers to those questions and we can get the team back to work quicker. Compliment them to keep pushing the issue: "You've been such a great example to learn from, I want to show off what I've learned from you." The complimenting, mentor comments were the key and they sat back and watched proudly as I eliminated time from meetings. I had to unfortunately ask HIM questions to get answers so I got caught up A LOT, but the whole team didn't. People noticed and everyone was very willing to help me out whenever I needed to make up for it.

  3. Anticipate them. Its a lot of mental guesswork, but take notes, and find the other triggers that make them call meetings and try to eliminate those issues prior to them becoming a problem.

  4. Divert ALL external questions to them. You've freed up your team to actually do work, but the manager still wants to talk. Any opportunity to send outsiders to THEM, since they're the boss you know, do it. They still want to talk and answer questions, so let them be the spokesperson for the team. You've taken some of their work, its only fair you delegate everything else UP.

Its a lot of hassle, but great managerial training. I did get burnt out (I left after a year). But, for the time I was there, it helped a lot and the team noticed. It didn't eliminate the issue, but collectively we started to manage much better than doing nothing.

Good luck!

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