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TL;DR

There is a disconnect between what my boss (Manager X) remembers and what the rest of the team see and hear. Regardless of what was agreed or discussed in the past, even when it is in writing, what he later recalls can be substantially different.

How can I hold a manager demonstrating a lack of consistency in their actions to account?

Background

Examples of the Manager X's behaviour include that he will:

  • frequently deny receiving emails regarding important topics (HR issues, project updates) then become agitated about not being kept in the loop when something goes wrong. I've never met anyone else who has so many 'issues' with lost emails as Manager X.
  • remember the outcome of meetings differently from everyone else in the room. Even when actions are written down and circulated immediately after the meeting, Manager X will dispute what was agreed at a later point in time. We've had instances where the entire team agree what was discussed at the previous meeting, only for Manager X to reprimand the team for not completing an important task that was never discussed.
  • tell other people (particularly his boss) what was discussed at meetings he was invited to but did not attend.
  • mis-remember key points from discussions, even when what he remembers is illogical. For example, we agreed to hire a consultant for £800/day, confirmed in a written quote sent to Manager X and myself. Manager X signed the purchase agreement, the consultant completed the work and issued an invoice. Manager X was the furious because he thought the agreed rate was £125/day, and consequently our team had spent over the allocated budget. After Manager X claimed to have never seen the original quote, the consultant pointed out that £125/day was less than the company pays the most junior engineers (let alone experienced consultants) hence it made no sense to ever think £125/day was the agreed rate.

We try to deal with Manager X's lack of consistency by asking for everything in writing or sending emails multiple times until you get a response. Most of the time the request is ignored, or met with a harsh "don't you trust me" or "I don't have time for that" response. This approach isn't proving to be effective.

I've been tempted to think it's an easy way for Manager X to lay blame for any mistake on another team member. But at this stage I don't really care for the reason, I'd just like to put in place an approach for making sure there's some consistency between one week and the next.

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    Does the e-mail system you are using support automatic receipts? – Patricia Shanahan Sep 20 '16 at 13:13
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    It's unrealistic to expect that anything you and your coworkers do or say will have an impact. Update your resume and move on. – Don Branson Sep 20 '16 at 18:17
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    At this stage it sounds very much like your boss is suffering from some form of mental illness. – Richard Sep 20 '16 at 22:41
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    Could you perhaps use a ticketing system for these things? Everything discussed in meetings gets written up as a ticket. Manager X needs to OK tickets. That should be a better paper trail, and directly linkable to his boss if the need arises. – Knossos Sep 21 '16 at 18:11
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    A different question - is there any evidence of a change in the manager? As in - was this always a problem, or do people who were there a couple years ago say it was different then? This could actually be evidence of an illness that needs treating, in which case addressing it could be very helpful for your manager personally as well as professionally. – Joel Sep 21 '16 at 18:39
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Playing devil's advocate for a moment before answering...

frequently deny receiving emails regarding important topics

Happens all the time when you get tons more email than you can possibly cope with.

remember the outcome of meetings differently from everyone else in the room

Also happens all the time, and usually is a sign you're overworked and burning out. (Or dumb, but usually the former.)

tell other people (particularly his boss) what was discussed at meetings he was invited to but did not attend.

Is a manager's job, assuming of course that what gets reported is correct.

mis-remember key points from discussions, even when what he remembers is illogical.

Misremembering happens, though not often when you're signing proposals.


Memory loss, as an aside, is a sign of burnout. And in the last two paragraphs of your question, you make it sound like your manager is completely overwhelmed or burnt out. (Or, your manager might be a monstrous micromanager... it's really hard to say. But my own guess is burnout.)


Which brings us to your actual question:

I'd just like to put in place an approach for making sure there's some consistency between one week and the next.

You can probably help out by making your manager's life easier instead of harder. Besides bringing up the burnout question upfront (with him or her), try to do your best to manage yourself to the point of being nearly or entirely autonomous. Examples:

  • The task itself is vague or unclear? Expand a bit on what you feel the task is, what it's for, etc. in writing, and submit that for review.
  • Next steps are vague or unclear? Expand on the DoD (Definition of Done), itemize the way forward, and submit those for review.
  • Does the usefulness of this/that new feature sound fishy? Ask about it. Not satisfied with the answer? Ask if they don't mind you getting in a Hangout with a few end-users to validate the idea's merit? Assuming they accept, then do so and report on your findings.

More generally: try to produce docs that are scannable with a short TL;DR exec summary. They should only require a minute or two of attention unless your boss wants to dig deeper, and they should beg for a yes|no type of answer instead of a sophisticated replies.

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    To be fair to the OP, even if it is burnout, the manager's response is completely inappropriate. The proper response to burn out is to make it clear to your boss that you have too much work on your plate and figure out a way to lessen the load, not get angry at or blame the people you manage. Good to consider the possibility, though. +1 – jpmc26 Sep 20 '16 at 23:03
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    Re: the 4th point, it's irresponsible for a anyone to report (with ann appearance of authority) what happened in a meeting if they did not attend. They can pass along recorded minutes, but reporting on the event without actually being there amounts to hearsay and something will be miscommunicated. – alroc Sep 21 '16 at 10:48
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    Making mistakes is human. Denying that you have made a mistake when one is clearly pointed out to you is incompetence. – lambshaanxy Sep 21 '16 at 11:40
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    @jpatokal - Incompetence, or full blown exhaustion... For all we know OP's boss might be an overworked nervous wreck that's in dire need for some vacation, and needs help from a shrimp. (Also, we only have OP's version of what happened.) – Denis de Bernardy Sep 21 '16 at 12:38
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    I also need help from a shrimp. – Jonathan Hartley Sep 21 '16 at 19:09
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For someone like this, where common practices such as getting things in writing or confirming receipt are not working, there is not much to do. It sounds like you already have plenty of documentation (e.g. signed purchase order with the 800 pound / day rate) of his behavior. I think at this point you need to initiate a discussion either directly with him or with his boss about his behavior and how it impacts your work.

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    And before any conversation, make sure to talk to your coworkers, since this affects them too. You don't want to bring a large group of people into a meeting, otherwise it feels like you're ganging up on him, but you can say "coworkers A, B and C all agree with me". Just make sure ahead of time that they will back you up if confronted about it. – David K Sep 20 '16 at 14:39
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    Make sure your coworkers actually have your back and aren't going to bail out like wimps. – ZaxLofful Sep 20 '16 at 17:23
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    Ganging up seems the right thing to do here. Don't act alone if you're not the only one with the problem. – reinierpost Sep 20 '16 at 17:32
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    ... initiate a discussion either directly with him... I'm not confident that he'll stick to whatever is agreed in that discussion. Go to his boss directly (but as others have pointed out, maybe the uberboss is either unwilling or unable to fix the problem) – rath Sep 21 '16 at 8:29
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    I might also include HR in the conversation. It is possible that the problem manager is not deflecting but honestly doesn't remember these discussions/emails. If you can phrase the discussion such that you are not only concerned about your team's ability to perform their jobs but that the team is also concerned about the manager's health, that might be more well received. – DanK Sep 21 '16 at 15:55
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Document everything, and CC manager X's boss. For important emails, send it with receipt requested, so you have the proof. Start CCing his boss on even trivial emails so that this erratic behavior becomes apparent.

If he reprimands people for things not done that were never mentioned, escalate.

The real problem is that his boss needs to start holding him to account, the only way to do that is to help his boss build a file on him. Again, document everything, and make sure his boss is kept in the loop.

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    CC'ing the boss's boss on anything, especially trivial unrelated things, does not sound like a good idea.. It sounds like there is already plenty of evidence (e.g. signed purchase order at 800 pounds / day) of the boss's behavior. – Eric Sep 20 '16 at 14:11
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    Contact the boss's boss, yes. Pro ide evidence at that time. Don't cc unless s/he tells you to. – keshlam Sep 20 '16 at 14:41
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    The real problem is that his boss needs to start holding him to account, +1 for that bit, not that it matters. If the boss's boss hasn't done so already, he probably never will. There's a reason this manager is able to get away with this kind of ridiculous behavior (like going 6+ times over budget and excusing it by claiming to have hired a consultant without getting the bill rate), and it doesn't reflect well on his boss at all. – HopelessN00b Sep 20 '16 at 18:30
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    @HopelessN00b you'd be surprised at how good sociopaths are at blamestorming, and how good they are at keeping their bosses in the dark. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Sep 20 '16 at 19:14
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    @AaronHall The boss is already making life miserable. I was in this situation once, got the SOB terminated. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Sep 20 '16 at 20:35
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While getting things in writing is good, just asking for things in writing is not good enough. There are 2 more things to do:

  • Understand why things are put in writing. It's to resolve simple misunderstandings, but if the problem is more than just a simple misunderstanding - as is the case in your scenario - the purpose of a written record is so outsiders can come in, read the written records, and have an idea what's going on; who to believe.

  • If you either don't get things in writing, or the things in writing do not match events as you experienced them, you need to put things in writing yourself. Send a short email:

    As discussed, [summary of discussion], [summary of actions you will perform], [summary of actions recipient is expected to perform].

    And when you write things down, you write down not just the original agreement, but you also write down how the boss changes his mind, and you write down his statements that contradict your previous records. No need to spell out that the boss changes his mind or that he contradicts himself, writing down the boss' new decision or the boss' new claim is sufficient.

If there are repeated misunderstandings which are not resolved by showing the written record, chances are there is a medical condition causing memory loss - some of which are life threatening - so you absolutely must contact HR with a medical concern. Don't try to save reputations by avoiding HR when someone's life is at risk.

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