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I have this coworker (although he has a director title and I am a PM) who orders me during meetings with vendors and says "you do this" "you do that", even though he is supposed to be in charge of making decisions in his area.

We both report to the COO of the company, but it looks like he thinks he is my boss. I was requested to help him but not necessarily work for him. I have coordinated some work for him with another employee, but he needs to approve and then send it to the vendor for implementation.

He will email me back and say "email this to so and so", which he could have done easily by forwarding the file. It is very subtle, and everyone has started noticing it. I just don't know how to confront him. I don't mind helping him, but I get frustrated with his attitude and my inability to confront him.

How do I stop a director from ordering me around at meetings and via email?

  • Thank you all for suggestions. Lively discussion is also appreciated and interesting. It provides me with different point of views. It is also funny that you all assumed I was a man. :-) I am a women and my boss the COO is a women. The Director is a man. It looks like it is not just gender issue as you all could relate to it have ideas to handle the situation. Thank you so much. – Guest1 Aug 13 '14 at 20:57
  • Sorry to be devils advocate a "director" is normally much more senior than a PM maybe if you are peers you need to agree a title change with the COO. – Pepone Aug 15 '14 at 19:19
29

Step 1 Talk to your boss, the COO. Ask him/her if you are peers with this director or not.

If the COO acknowledges that you are indeed peers, this is a good time to bring up the issues you have with the director delegating work to you as if you were a direct report. Mention specific issues and allow your boss to help you form a strategy of how to deal with it in the future. Most likely, your boss will talk to the director and remind him/her that you are a peer and not a direct report.

On the other hand, if your COO tells you that you are indeed a direct report as the director suspected, you should mention that wasn't what you expected, since you both report to the COO.

At that point, you'd need to accept your current situation as a report of the director.

Either way, confronting the director is not the proper way to handle the situation. Take a step back and let the COO determine your response. And let the COO help you handle the situation. This is a textbook reason why bosses exist--to handle disagreements.

  • 4
    Be prepared with specific instances before you go into the talk as he will almost certainly ask for them. If he says strongly you are not the person's direct report, he may ask you to handle it yourself. In this case, go talk to the guy privately and remind hinm that the COO says you are not his direct report and that you have other priorities besides his project and remind of the specific areas you are to be providing help on. In this case when he emails you a task outside those areas, turn it down and send it right back to him and suggest that this is his sphere of responsibsility not yours. – HLGEM Aug 13 '14 at 20:04
5

As you move up in an organization, this type of behaviour can be expected. When there are two employees both reporting to the same executive (especially C-Level executives) there will always be a bit of jousting. If the director is "managing" you publicly, they are doing so because they question your reliability due to past-performance, lack of knowledge about your ability, or purely political reasons.

First and foremost remember that your ability to handle this situation without involving the COO will positively impact how the COO views your performance.

Second, respect the difference in your company rank. They are a director because they have proven to someone they can handle the responsibilities. In many organizations, the director is seen as a legitimate executive rank. Be careful how you interact with them. Directly and publicly confronting this person could be a career limiting mistake.

Third, complaining without a huge volume of proof that shows the director has some sort of emotional or psychological issue will show your lack the soft-skills to handle this on your own (e.g. progress in your career). It will take the COO time to assess the situation, and they may be perfectly happy to accept that this director is publicly managing you.

So, how do you handle it? Politically is really the best answer at this level. Your strategy should be to show your value and reliability to the director. You can show this by:

  • Spending time ensuring your work is of a high-degree of quality.
  • Investing your personal time with them, and talk to them about work, personal life, basically anything that will allow you to establish a common thread.
  • Showing that you are a reliable partner. Be the person they can count on to get work done.
  • Focusing on both of your successes. It's very difficult to politically damage someone who is actively helping you progress in your career.

It's been my experience that many PM's don't want to engage in company politics. Unfortunately, when you report to a C-level executive, this is going to be part of your job from now on. The most basic rule of thumb for positively navigating company politics is to:

  • Always assume positive intentions when you interact with folks,
  • Always ensure your moves benefit the corporation, and
  • Document everything (PDF emails are great ways to remind folks what they agreed to do).
  • 1
    I think this answer and the ones along the same vein of "handle it without involving the COO" are valid, but only once the asker knows for sure whether they are peers or if it's a boss/subordinate relationship with the Director. I don't think it's a waste of the COO's time to quickly ask the reporting relationship between the three of them. Once that relationship is firmly decided, that will dictate the further response to the Director. – Garrison Neely Aug 15 '14 at 14:40
3

As others have suggested, I don't think you should go to the COO first. You two are next in line and should act like professional adults who can figure-out how to play together on your own. Nobody likes being micro-managed, so you have to take some responsibility and learn how to manage yourselves.

Find a time when you are clear-headed and not emotional (right after one of these meetings would be a bad idea.) and setup a private meeting with the Director. Let the director know you are embarrassed at these meetings because it sounds like he is ordering you around instead of asking for your help. He may not be aware that it sounds so harsh and may apologize and correct himself.

If the director gives any indication that these tasks are part of your job, let him know that you will not comply unless you are told to do so by your boss. If this still comes under dispute, this would be the time to go to the COO and clarify your role. In some ways, it seems a little silly to waste a "C-Level" executive's time deciding who sends email to vendors. Hopefully, it won't come to that.

2

This doesn't have to be a bigger issue than it is. The simple solution to the problem is to communicate with the director. Your boss, the COO, asked you to "help" the director, but it sounds like it wasn't quite clear what kind of help you were specifically asked to give. Your roles were not clarified.

There are many ways to help someone. One of those ways is to contribute to a goal they're responsible for meeting. Another is to manage a relationship with a vendor or to communicate with a vendor. Since help could mean a plethora of things, you should clarify what that help involves by openly communicating with both the COO and the director.

Here is how to approach them:

  1. Ask the director, directly, but not passive aggressively, if he/she would like help answering any questions that the vendor might have. After all, you're here to help. Since you did the work, it's likely that you are in a better position to answer questions than the director. If the director says that, no, he/she will handle questions, then suggest that the director send the email so he/she will be the recipient of replies.

  2. If the issue is that your own work might suffer by taking on the additional work, then again, clarify with the director. Let the director know that you have work you'll need to catch up on and ask if there's a specific reason you should personally handle the email communications. The director will either give you a good reason, in which case, you talk to the COO for clarification, or the director will handle the emails personally.

  3. Clarify what kind of help you should provide by seeking guidance from the COO. This isn't an inappropriate thing to do. Communication eliminates confusion and misunderstandings. Here's an example of what you might ask:

"I want to make sure I'm balancing my tasks appropriately. How much help do you want me to give the director? For instance, should I be handling email communications with the vendor, if that's what the director needs?"

There are ways of clarifying these points without making them sound like complaints. Your goal in conversations with either of these people should be open communication, with the purpose of clarifying your roles and getting everyone's expectations on the same page.

1

Any suggestions?

You need to try and learn to confront people who you believe are taking advantage of you.

One gentle way to start would be to reply to his emails with something like "Sorry, I'm busy at the moment." You should also copy the COO on these replies, so there are no surprises on her part.

If this persists, and if the Director asks why you aren't doing what is being asked, say something like "Sorry, Dan Director, I've been requested to help you, but as you know I still have my own work to do for Cathy COO. Perhaps we could talk with her together and see if our working relationship should be re-prioritized?"

If you feel that it's still necessary, you should have a private conversation with your boss (the COO) to confirm your understanding of the reporting relationships. You could ask for suggestions about how to handle the Director's requests.

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    I think it's very important to have that conversation with the COO first, before you start any kind of confrontation, subtle or not. But otherwise, good answer. – DJClayworth Aug 14 '14 at 13:37
  • @JoeStrazzere - "why you aren't you aren't doing" What??? – Donald Aug 14 '14 at 13:41
1

If you and I were discussing this over coffee I would ask you, is it the task that you object to, or the tone? Take the example of emailing something to somebody. I can think of any number of reasons why I ask someone else to email something instead of me:

  • I don't want those people to have my email address and then randomize me for the rest of time when they want to ask something or report something
  • The other person is best placed to answer questions that occur to the person getting the email
  • I'm about to be away and won't even see replies to that email
  • The other person is the official contact and it might confuse people to get an important document from someone else

Now, these reasons may not apply in your case, but the task vs tone issue is, had the director said to you:

Since you're the chief point of contact for that team, and they expect communications from you, I think it would be best if you sent this document along instead of me. I also know you'll handle any responses from them better than I could.

Would you still be annoyed? Are you irritated that this person is not doing certain things, or that this person is treating you like a personal assistant and just handing you tasks?

There are two ways things can change in the future - the director can stop assigning you tasks at all, or can assign them more politely, including with more information. It's possible that the latter might address issues with the tasks as well as with the tone, if it hadn't occurred to you that there were non-selfish non-lazy reasons for this behaviour.

So, how to get these tasks assigned more politely? Do nothing in front of clients or people who report to either of you. But when alone, or with your mutual boss, consider replying (verbally) to one of these with:

(least aggressive)

Can you explain why that's something I should be doing rather than you?

(somewhat stronger)

Isn't that something you should be doing?

(definitely stronger)

Pardon me? (Or Excuse me, or however you clarify when you might not have heard correctly) Are you tossing me your tasks without so much as "please?"

(needs to be done with humour, could be the start of a fight, but might light a lightbulb in the director's head - sub ma'am for a female director

Yes sir, I'll get right on that sir, when do you need it by? And would you like a coffee with it?

If you apply these consistently I would hope that either the delegation would lessen or would come with more information, assuming you are in fact peers. It's also possible it will come with praise that the other meeting participants hear each time, which is also good. If you're not peers, you'll be told so in a hurry (and you may not enjoy the telling, that is the risk here.)

If these things only happen in email or in front of other people, then I would suggest waiting until immediately after the meeting or walking down the hall to the office and saying

I didn't want to say this at the time because X was there, but sending that email, isn't that something you should be doing?

(or whatever rejoinder you would have chosen.)

0

If I were you, I would sit down and talk with him. It sounds like the expectations around your working relationship weren't defined. He appears to be under the impression that you work for him and are to "follow his orders" and your impression is that you're working together.

You could also talk with your COO and ask him what his expectations were of you two working together. That might be good information to have in your back pocket with when you do talk with the PM.

More often than not these types of misunderstandings are due to a lack of clear expectations and communication. Sometimes it is someone being an asshole but more often than not it's just as simple as a misunderstanding.

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