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I've been working at a large Fortune 500 organization for about 2.5 years. Everyone in the company has weekly one-on-ones with their manager for at least 25 minutes.

Over that period of time I have noticed that this weekly slot is not always used productively by my manager and he does not prepare for these meetings.

Often the time is used to:

  1. pry into my personal life
  2. give unsolicited advice about non-work related things
  3. play therapist about non-work related things

A concrete example was when my dentist said I needed braces. I informed my manager that I had a healthcare need (he might need to know about my ongoing appointments?), and he tried to convince me that I don't need braces, etc., and that I would be spending thousands unnecessarily. Also, he thinks that because there was a death in my family, that I will move away and quit the job when I have reassured him that my husband and I have no intention of tearing our kids out of the local school just to move to keep a relative company.

I don't value his opinion about these topics and find it to be boundary-violating and intrusive. There is a bit of a parent-child dynamic that I don't appreciate. I have given feedback, but there isn't any lasting change. He even complains about not being able to delve into my personal life/choices during subsequent one-on-ones.

I don't trust my manager that he will prepare for one-on-ones or use the time effectively. How can I change this situation?

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    If you bring up topics, but don't actually care about he's involvement, don't bring them up. Many people want to help solving issues/things when somebody talks about it and not only listen to what's being said. For me it sounds like you are not aware of this and your manager does not realize he don't have to involve in this to "help you"
    – CrazyFrog
    Oct 29, 2023 at 13:05
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    Hey @CrazyFrog, I have to inform my manager about absences such as dental appointments and bereavement leave to quality for them. He then takes it upon himself to pry/dig deeper than that. e.g. I had to tell him that there was a death in a family to qualify for bereavement leave. When I got back, he then wanted to pry into my personal feelings about the death - I did not bring the topic up myself. Oct 29, 2023 at 13:33
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    Something to note - that isn't an answer in-of-itself but perhaps he's asking about these things because he's observed a drop in your workrate/output/morale/behavior and is concerned - now, obvious caveat - it's none of his beeswax (see other answers about volunteering too much info) - however, it's plausible it's coming from a place of genuine concern of your work performance. Oct 29, 2023 at 19:18
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    @DanielR.Collins Needn't be sexist. Maybe he's just slightly more interested in OP than in other colleagues. Maybe because they've been there the longest, because they tell funny stories at social gatherings, because the manager is genuinely attracted to OP (which is not sexist in and of itself!) -- there are a thousand reasons for not treating team members equally.
    – arne
    Oct 30, 2023 at 5:30
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    @user1261710 it's clear your manager crossed some boundaries, but CrazyFrog has a point about volunteering info. You may have to notify them about a death for bereavement leave, but need not mention that the funeral is far away (causing his anxiety about you moving away). You may have to notify him about dental appointments, but you surely don't have to tell him what they're for. If you notice your manager refuses to change his behavior, hold your cards closer. It's unfortunate that this may come down on you, but if he won't respect boundaries don't give him the opportunity to cross them.
    – Aubreal
    Oct 30, 2023 at 14:37

8 Answers 8

5

The answer no one wants to hear, that I hate to give, and which implies the privilege of easy job motility, which isn't as realistic for everyone as some people like to make it sound:

Start looking for an exit strategy

...if you don't like what's going on, because you have a ton of warning signs that more directly and strenuously pushing back on it isn't going to end well.

Also, he thinks that because there was a death in my family, that I will move away and quit the job when I have re-assured him that my husband and I have no intention of tearing our kids out of the local school just to move to keep a relative company.

So, as someone who has dealt with her fair share of sexist crap in this industry, I have to ask if this is an attitude he'd take towards the male members of the team/his reports. Because it seems pretty suspiciously likely to be bias motivated.

I have tried to do that and he complains saying that he feels like he does not know me even after working together for 2+ years and that people might not warm up to me in the future if I don't overshare.

That's some bizarre bullshit. We're at jobs to work, not to have everyone else in our business. It's perfectly possible to be very surface level friendly and have a nice time and great professional rapport with everyone else on a team while sharing basically zero personal details.

If you really want to explore avenues of trying to deflect this first

... what is something that's not actually personal to you in terms of how you feel about it, but can sound personal to an outside perspective? Something like a hobby that you don't feel overly intimate about, etc. Sports teams or athletes you follow, if you're into that. Some algo or pattern you came across and find interesting. New games/big name movies that have come out that you're curious about (but not necessarily ones you play/watch). "I heard about this and am curious" is always a great way to get other people talking if they are interested, without having actually shared anything about yourself (although related questions ARE likely to relevantly occur then).

Equally, there's just getting into talking on something even if it's something that you think literally no one else will want to hear about. It can honestly be better if it IS something that no one else will care to listen about, if you don't actually intend to share anything that might be relevant about yourself. If your team meetings devolve into chit-chat at the end, consider talking about it randomly when there's moments where that would make sense. There, you've shared something "personal".

But either way, you don't have to make close personal friends to have work friends who know next to nothing more deeply personal about you from outside of work, but are still definitely a form of friend and quite amicable.

Digging on this by a supervisor has a lot of nasty warning signs, it's not really appropriate with the related power dynamic, and his posturing around his doing it only makes those warnings much stronger. Sure it could be "innocent" other than disgustingly patronizing on his part. But it could also not be, and regardless it's honestly inappropriate behavior.

You don't mention yourself feeling anything in that direction, so maybe it's nothing. But reading what you've relayed has discomforting aspects to read. Maybe I'm just over sensitive from being tired of dealing with related kinds of crap when I just want to work, myself.

Do you know what's going on with the rest of your team and your manager?

Is the frequency of your 1 on 1 meetings the same as the rest of the team? If you feel up to it, can you feel out some of the other people on your team on how your manager interacts with them, and whether he prompts them for personal details?

Where's HR on this?

Do you even have real HR wherever you are working? (having, myself, worked at one place where "HR" was the marketing director's girlfriend, hired for the position literally because of their relationship, and she had no authority while equally maintaining exactly zero privacy for anything divulged to her)

Before you consider things like escalating "my supervisor is being creepy personal" to HR, even if they are even at all decent, one solid strategy that's open to you is that you should NOT be telling your direct manager these things if they make you uncomfortable. Tell your HR rep. First. Before talking to your manager (be aware this may turn into him expressing hurt that you "went around him", even if it's an entirely appropriate way to handle these types of things in many places). Then tell your manager that you've already communicated the details with HR so it's all taken care of. If pressured, simply say they're personal and you're not comfortable discussing them further.

Over-emphasize your discomfort. Are you capable of guilt tripping him without actually divulging details? Whatever it is that you're not sharing with him, keep it very vague but over emphasize how badly impacted you are by it and how it's a terrible thing but equally imply it's not something that would be socially appropriate to be asking someone to share, much less to heavily pry on. For example, with the death in the family, saying something like you just need the space to grieve and can't deal with talking about whoever died, and acting shocked that he's now talking about you leaving and other things when you're focused on just coping with your grief and the healing process and he's just making it harder for you by not letting you have your space you need for that, when things like leaving are the farthest thing from your mind. Or whatever fits your personality.

Regardless, if he still presses on wanting details even simply at the point where you've said you already went to HR and you're not comfortable discussing it more, you really do need to consider whether taking his behavior to HR is going to end at all well for you, and I'd strongly recommend having an alternate exit ready even if you DO think it will. At which point, you may as well take other opportunities if they appear. Fighting a potentially bias related dismissal sucks, and even if you have a union representing you and end up either in arbitration or with an adequate settlement offer, you're unlikely to end up with anything actually truly adequate to the stress and professional derailment, compared to just getting out ahead of it blowing up. Especially if it's something where it's not immediately obvious/empirical, but is simply some behavior that "happens" to fall into related bias avenues and you can't seem to get to shut down.

Either way, keep track of these conversations with him. Take notes during your 1 on 1 meetings, if you don't already. As in, take notes not just of the relevant work things, but of the patterns of behavior and specific incidents related to your manager. Get in the habit of carrying a notepad or note taking device and using it, if you're not already. There are definitely worse habits to have, so something positive at least can come of it all!

Again, maybe he does this to all of the team. But maybe he doesn't. And regardless, you shouldn't have to do your manager's job for him, without having his position or a comparable one to doing that kind of work. It's one thing if doing the work will get you the position or some similar upward/forward motility. It's another if he's just going to mooch off of your work and then claim credit to whoever manages him.

You certainly could, hypothetically, go up the chain with "wow, did you know the person supervising me is really crap at his job and keeps digging into my personal life and pressuring me to share more about it?" but... what would you expect to get out of that? Other than a suddenly bad performance review and put on a PIP that's suspiciously lacking tangible review measures, before being told you haven't made adequate progress?

It's horribly unfair to be stuck in this position, with these options. Who knows, maybe simply taking a firm stance with him on "sorry but that's too personal and I'm not comfortable discussing it" and shifting the conversation will work. But it sounds like you've already tried pressing him to back off and he hasn't. Maybe you weren't direct enough? But it kind of sounds like you were, given what you've said of his responses on how he "does not know" you.

When you're at work, it's hard dealing with coworkers who can't respect your boundaries. It can be nearly impossible to have any clear path to dealing with it when it's a manager and the level of impropriety can still be claimed to be innocent, because if it is in any way malicious or coming from a problematic personality/behavioral aspect, trying to more seriously push back can easily result in effectively retaliatory circumstances with highly negative professional repercussions and little means of proving that they stem from that.

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    I don't understand how walking away without even trying to make the other party aware of the issue at hand is a good strategy. You can always walk away when attempts to remedy things have failed. Nov 1, 2023 at 15:30
  • During a Christmas lunch last year, he asked a female subordinate if she 'lies' with her boyfriend when they visit relatives. Nov 6, 2023 at 12:46
42

How to give feedback about unproductive 1:1s with my manager?

Is your manager asking for feedback? You don't seem to like "unsolicited advice", so don't give any.

If you don't think your manager is effectively planning for this 25 minute meeting, you do the planning. Bring your questions to the meeting and ask them. I'm guessing it wouldn't be hard to fill those 25 minutes enough to avoid the chatter that you dislike.

You don't like the "parent-child dynamic", so don't let it happen. Take charge of the meetings yourself.

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    I have tried to do that and he complains saying that he feels like he does not know me even after working together for 2+ years and that people might not warm up to me in the future if I don't overshare. Oct 29, 2023 at 16:11
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    @user1261710 The fact is your manager might just want to be buddy-buddy and know you well. Some people like that, some people find that intrusive. Politely push back on this as much as you can, but ultimately this might be a personality thing and not be completely fixable. It's your decision at that point to put up with it or find a new boss / team / job, depending on how annoying you find it. Oct 29, 2023 at 20:40
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    "You don't seem to like "unsolicited advice", so don't give any." Seriously? The answer is that anyone who doesn't like receiving unsolicited advice should never offer any (direct or indirect) feedback of their own? Which also completely ignores that the OP is complaining about unsolicited advice regarding completely irrelevant things. An entirely reasonable preference, which therefore excludes them from offering directly relevant feedback and advice? Honestly don't know how this has so many upvotes. It's just ignoring the problem and blaming the employee.
    – aroth
    Oct 30, 2023 at 2:21
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    Yes, there is a difference between advice, solicited or not, and feedback. This isn't about offering advice, it is about pointing out to the manager that their behavior is unpleasant to the OP. Nothing to do with advice at all.
    – terdon
    Oct 30, 2023 at 9:27
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    Not giving unsolicited feedback is terrible advice. You should always give people open and honest feedback about their work. The key there being "about their work". Feedback for the manager about 121s is directly work related. Trying to talk the OP out of getting braces isn't. Oct 31, 2023 at 11:24
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You mentioned "boundary-violating" but you're overlooking the fact that you're volunteering so much information. When you have a medical concern, tell your boss ONLY that you'll be out for a medical concern - the rest is none of his business. Same for your bereavement. You are literally opening the door for him to patronize you. Forget what you think he "should" do, because that hasn't worked. You will have to be quite more decisive about what you share.

I think your one-on-ones could be approached in a similar matter. If there's something you need to get out of them, maybe you need to steer the meetings instead of assuming that he's going to do that. The conversations he has with you about your personal life seem to indicate he thinks you're not the best person to direct your own life. You have 25 minutes a week to put forth some initiative and change that impression.

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    That makes sense but because there are berevement leave policies based on the relationship e.g. 10+ days for a parent vs 5+ for a friend, you do have to share something. Oct 29, 2023 at 15:48
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    @user1261710 Can you not just say which bereavement leave policy you're invoking, in that case?
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 29, 2023 at 19:32
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    @user1261710 I agree with wizzwizz4. For bereavement, you still disclose as little as possible. An aunt, an uncle, grandma, cousin. Don't say where they lived. Don't say how it happened. Don't say how old.
    – Xavier J
    Oct 29, 2023 at 23:04
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    @pizoelectric Even better: _______ is not something I discuss at work. "Uncomfortable" is subjective and may invite a "why not" response.
    – Xavier J
    Oct 30, 2023 at 18:49
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    You should be able to say "my dad died" at work without having to think about it, especially in the context of taking bereavement leave, which I gather is part of the employment contract. The correct answer from a manager in anywhere of the Western world is "I am sorry for your loss" and that's it. Given that the OP is a foreigner, not telling the manager where the funeral is will not change anything. Oct 31, 2023 at 16:32
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There are two separate questions here, both of which have been partially answered:

(1) Your manager is taking an intrusive interest in your personal life.

The best way to shut that down is to stop volunteering personal information that you don't want to discuss in detail, so that he can't pry. Don't tell him that you are going to the orthodontist, just tell him that you have a healthcare appointment. Tell him that you need leave to go to a family funeral, but don't talk about how your relatives are distraught and need support. Just imagine it from his perspective: "126710 is telling me all of this personal information, it would be rude for me to not take an interest in it." Now that the cat is out of the bag, practice in a mirror or to an empty video call some ways to shut it down. "No, my family has everything under control." "No, I've consulted a few doctors, I am confident I know everything I need to." If he keeps prying, get more assertive: "No, that's not appropriate to discuss in the workplace." (That line works especially well for health care appointments."

Anecdote: We had a group call and I was telling my teammates about the joys of a colonoscopy (particularly the preparation thereof) which I had been out for the day before. Then my boss joined the meeting, and I just shut it down, "oh, we were talking about my healthcare procedure." It doesn't matter why, I just didn't want to explain myself to him. And he knew not to pry.

(2) You don't feel weekly 1:1s are a good use of your time.

My new manager increased 1:1s from every other week to every week, and it's really tough to fill all the time. I keep a list for him, and during the week when things come up that I want his input on, but not necessarily immediately, I add them to the list. I also use the time to show off things that I've been working on, gripe about bug reports I've filed, ask advice on professional matters (the big one recently is "which of these two professional certifications should I be working on in my in-service training time?")

tl;dr: My strongest advice is to (a) fill up the time, (b) make sure that you regularly ask his advice on things that are within his professional scope, and (c) practice deflecting him when his questioning gets too personal.

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  • "No, that's not appropriate to discuss in the workplace." or maybe "I'm not comfortable sharing more about it."?
    – rrauenza
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:12
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    @rrauenza normally I'd agree to start with that phrasing but OP indicated in another comment that the manager "feels like he does not know me even after working together for 2+ years and that people might not warm up to me in the future if I don't overshare." The manager is purposefully trying to push OP out of their comfort zone, stating that she's not comfortable won't be enough to stop him.
    – Aubreal
    Oct 31, 2023 at 13:17
  • I was thinking that "not comfortable" is actually a stronger statement in the context of HR. "You are making me uncomfortable with these questions." More direct and less passive aggressive.
    – rrauenza
    Oct 31, 2023 at 23:08
10

It doesn't matter who started the personal sharing and the assumption that it was you and unsolicited is unhelpful. If you're done with it, you're done with it. The other answers have suggested that you steer the conversation more actively, but they didn't say how. Politicians have known for a long time that most people are fundamentally stupid. They have a 3 step method which works really well.

First, stroke their ego: "What a great question." "Thank you for your well wishes." "These meetings are always so valuable." "I always feel more productive after we chat about work." "You're so inspiring."

Second, address the question without answering it: "It's a medical thing - it'll be every week." "I'll be using my bereavement time." "Oh, you know kids!" "I feel so lucky to be able to forget about all that when I come to work." "That's so sweet."

Third, and it's critical that you don't take a breath between the second and third steps, re-direct: "Now what were you saying about this structure?" "Perhaps you have some wisdom about how to get city planning on board here." "Can you decipher what this co-worker is trying to say here?"

And finally, know how to make an exit: "What a great meeting. I know it's a bit early, but I want to get this down before I forget. Thank you!" "Did you have anything else on [the project you're working on]?" "Thank you so much for your help! [while standing up to leave]"

It is rarely in your career's best interests to advise your manager about their performance, but you will be neither first nor last "managing up."

7

Perhaps one solution is not to offer the information in the first place - at least not in that context. I get the impression you're mentioning teeth and deaths to begin with.

25 minutes per person per week sounds considerable and overly-frequent. It may be that your manager is just wondering what to fill the time in with, and is taking your cue in discussing a variety of personal events.

If you stop this and then find there isn't anything to talk about at all, once you've run through a brief checklist of your own job activities that are working as normal, then just invite your manager to wrap the meeting up.

Perhaps also you would need to explicitly address that the one-to-ones are being planned to be overly-long, and less time would be more appropriate for your role and current responsibilities.

Many managers are ineffectual and end up blindly following corporate formulas - such as "25 minutes for everyone in the company" - rather than responding intelligently to their own particular circumstances.

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    That makes sense. I did have to tell him about the death to qualify for bereavement leave which I needed. It seemed to spiral out of actionable work items to my personal feelings though etc. Oct 29, 2023 at 11:28
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    @user1261710, it sounds like, above all, your manager is just patronising in his mentality, and therefore proceeds from that to dispense patronising advice. I assume there must be something of an age difference. It might be appropriate to interject at times "you have to remember Bob, I'm a married woman with children myself", to emphasise your own adult age and level of serious responsibilities. Don't be drawn on your feelings about personal matters like deaths - "oh well, it's one of those things". (1/2)
    – Steve
    Oct 29, 2023 at 13:01
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    And curtail unwelcome commentary, such as on vanity choices about teeth - "I'd rather I make my own decisions.". These interjections are best reinforced with a knowingly wry smile, rather than expressed pugnaciously. Once you've imposed a clear work-related agenda for discussion, as well as established the habit of closing the meeting once that agenda is concluded, then hopefully there will be an improvement in the content of what gets discussed, and fewer detours into irrelevant personal chit-chat. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Oct 29, 2023 at 13:01
5

All previous answers seem to focus a lot on how to change the manager, while what you should do is change the meetings.

The next time you receive this meeting invite (or a day upfront if it's a "repeated event" in your agenda) you reply the following:

Hi Boss! To make optimal use of our meetings, I suggest we assemble a list of topics we would like to discuss. That way I can prepare myself accordingly. Here's mine:

  • Retrospec on the meeting with Customer Bob
  • Discuss the implementation of the feature in our software of Customer Cola Corp

If you have any more things you would like to discuss, feel free to add them!

Make sure you not only reply this to the email, but also add this to the description of the event itself (if possible).

By doing this you make sure that the meeting will only tackle these topics, and then you can just leave. It's very unlikely that your manager will add topics such as "Discuss Employee Erin's braces" or "Give funeral advice on deceased relative".

If the manager moves away from the topics, you can always ask to get back on topic. (Unless he asks a different work-related question of course. Because even if it's not on the agenda, he still has the right to ask anything work related during his meetings)

As other answers have stated before already: Under no circumstances should you entertain his probing. If you have a medical leave, just say you have a medical leave. If you have a funeral to attend, just say you have a funeral to attend. And nothing more than that! It's none of his business. The more you divulge, the more you invite him to talk about.

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  • It took me a long time to break the habit of giving people more detail than they actually need. It's an important skill to develop not just for situations like these but for talking to clients/customers. When my client asks about a bug we figured out and are fixing, I don't explain everything about it, I just tell them how to avoid it until we get them a new release. In the same way, I'm taking a day off because I have an appointment or I'm not feeling well. Most people won't pry; those that do get a "Why do you ask?" which helps me focus on only the detail they need.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 31, 2023 at 12:55
  • @ColleenV it's not a bad thing per sé. Day-to-day chit chat is part of life. And since work is part of life, it's also part of work. But everyone decides for themselves where to draw the line. If people start to pry, you are entirely in your right to draw that line even deeper. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to ask, nor is it wrong to share some details about your personal life.
    – Opifex
    Oct 31, 2023 at 13:17
  • Of course not, but giving too much detail invites people into a discussion you might not want to have. Chit chat is a skill that has to be learned for some of us.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 31, 2023 at 16:45
1

First of all: Weekly one-on-ones are quite excessive and consume a lot of time. So the first thing I’d try is tell your manager that you are quite busy, already have a lot of meetings and ask if they can cancel the regular 1:1 completely (don’t say that the 1:1 is a waste of time and that you hate it). Didn’t work for me, but at least my manager agreed to make it bi-weekly as a compromise.

Second: Set up an agenda, bring up points you want to discuss. If there is nothing to discuss from your side, tell your manager beforehand and ask if they can cancel the meeting.

Thirdly: Inform them about your absences (doctor’s appointment, sick leave etc.) via e-mail. That way the manager has a harder time trying to make conversation about it. It’s also nice because you have a paper trail (you can prove that you told your manager early enough about your absence, as required by most laws). My manager actually requires me to do it this way.

Fourthly: I don’t know how to word this nicely, but are you maybe overreacting a bit? It’s conceivable that your manager just wants to make small talk or is actually interested in your health and well-being. Lots of people are on a friendly basis with their manager and even do things in their free time together (like going for a hike, or cycling). To me it sounds a bit like social awkwardness and insecurity on your side (which – if they notice it – might even make your manager try even harder). In my experience knowing a bit about the personal life of your colleagues makes interaction much easier and more pleasant. We are not machines after all. If you don’t want to engage in small talk you handle it just like anywhere else in life: Try to keep the conversation short, don’t volunteer information and try to change the topic.

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    I think these measures don't take the bull by the horns and are likely to be ignored as a result. Nov 1, 2023 at 15:28

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