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How to handle a boss who shops the work around? (day labourer styles)

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Had several bosses who setup teams and roles and responsibilities and then ignore them and give out a task they want done quickly to whoever puts their hand up and will promise it to them fastest.  Please note they've given all the teams plenty of work to do - i.e. left no capacity in the team for interrupt tasks.

It's a good Machiavellian boss move because:

  • they can ignore any other work they've given you as priority (i.e. no arguments from overworked underlings)
  • it publicly demonstrates their boss power
  • it keeps the teams at each others' throats so the boss will never face a united front
  • they can overwork the teams and save the budget so they will have a project underspend or can add resources late in the project if they're in trouble on the schedule

I always think of the day labourer scene where there's guys standing on a corner waiting for work and the boss turns up in a pickup and randomly points to 3 of them.

There's a couple of ways they frame this play:

  1. Give you a task and then say (oh its more important that you work on blah), and give it to somebody who promised them quick turnaround
  2. Frame it as a quick thing (so it can't go to you because you can't make their arbitrary deadline)
  3. Throw the meat to the dogs at a meeting - "can anyone here get that done?"

It's particularly annoying when you're the team lead for obvious reasons.

selffriend has reacted to this post.

To me, I think in many examples you're giving, you're dealing with value-takers/character disturbed individuals.

That is why I recommend you to listen to/read "Character disturbance" by George K. Simon. So you can start to have grasp on the manipulative techniques. By labelling them, it's easier to understand what they're doing and mount the appropriate counter-measures.

Here I see two:

2. Minimizing

3. Divide and conquer

They are annoying because these people are dishonest and manipulative and it is an aggression because they do harm you. So the anger you feel is legitimate.

So my advice for long-term growth would be to start to recognize and categorize these individuals, learn their beliefs and mindsets. THEN, you can counter-act or let it go.

Example: my bosses who take tasks from me and frame me as disorganized or ineffective or incompetent. Well, I frame them as controlling by saying out loud: "it's you who decide", "if you want to do it, you're the one in charge". I acknowledge their leadership while letting them do the work.

So I win either way, as long as I'm not taking it personally (previous mistake), because:

  1. Either they let me do it: I win
  2. They do it: I win

I'm in for the long game. If they tell me I'm ineffective or incompetent, then it's the opportunity to ask them questions about how I can improve. So it frames me as someone willing to improve, it reinforces our relationship and I learn about their expectations.

The value is in the learning. If you can improve, that is what matters the most. You will have many different managers either way. Let's say they think you're an average worker: let them think that. It's alright, don't let your pride get caught in it. If you're in a shitty organization why would you care about their approval?

I don't anymore. All I want to do is learn, improve and get the f##k out of here. All you need is credentials from them to move to the next organization. That is my opinion.

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don't wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other” - Epictetus


Transitioned has reacted to this post.

Thanks John - interesting book.  I've bought a copy.  I agree that the more you can set aside your ego the happier you will be.  It's an interesting contradiction, similar to Zen and the martial arts.  I think most of us here are at heart Buddhists but here we are learning the weapons.

The challenge I have is I'm a contractor and have to play the short game while I'm there and many places do keep score.

My overall aim here is to learn ways of moving people towards more collaborative frames and if my back's to the wall, tactics for when you have to counter.

I'm posting a lot of the repeated bad behaviours I've seen here over years for my and other's education.  They don't all happen every gig and even the bad people aren't bad all the time.  Some of them were a lot of fun to have a drink with, you just wouldn't want to share a lifeboat.

Matthew Whitewood and selffriend have reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewoodselffriend

So John s kindly contributed some insightful analysis on categorising these behaviours and good mindsets for the long game.

From a leadership perspective if these are tasks normally done by your team you have to be seen to stand up.

So anyone got any thoughts on the tactical side?

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood

Hey Transitioned,

From my interpretation of the scenario, the main issue is that the boss is taking man-hours and attention away from you by distracting your teammates to report to you to do other tasks.

I'm not sure who are the exact stakeholders and who your final deliverable will be measured by.
It sounds potentially complex as you have alluded in other threads.

I think that you have mentioned that, due to your short-term contract, you may have less trust and social capital with your teammates under you as well.

My Thoughts

If you have a main stakeholder that you are reporting to and have the trust of, I think he could help in getting the buy-in from your teammates.

Once you get more buy-in from your teammates, you could have a conversation with them that they should focus on the tasks you assigned.

Setting Up A Kanban Board

One way to prevent people from flooding your team with tasks is to showcase that you have currently too much on your plate on a Kanban board.

Trello is a simple interface to do this.
Jira is slightly more advanced.

So there's Do, Doing, and Done for the simplest workflow.
Maybe you could let everyone know that, under the Doing column, you can only have 5 ongoing tasks at a time.
This will allow your teammates to say no to outside tasks as well.

One question is whether your teammates are trying to politically align with these bosses who distract your team.

I think that there needs to be backing from a higher stakeholder/authority on this.
It will be good if the person you are delivering to for this contract is also an authority figure.


selffriend has reacted to this post.

Thanks Matthew.  All excellent thoughts and you're right darnit - I wasn't precise with my description. Should have called out the assumption that this is a pattern of behaviour rather than one-off.

Yes those side door to the team scenarios you called out definitely do come up.  I agree trello all the way (or similar) and no work done that isn't on the board (aka come in through team processes).

In this case I was more focused on the interplay between teams and 'grey tasks'.  E.g. I'm the team lead for the analysts and the boss gets a Project Officer (admin person) to do an analysis task (potentially a quality issue).  The 'can anyone in the room help with this' scenario is likely to be at a project team meeting.  That's the boss turning the heat up and seeing what boils to the top.

Matthew Whitewood and selffriend have reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewoodselffriend

Calling El Capo - @lucio ?


The answer may well be this is the perogative of a boss so suck it up princess.  I ve seen this one enough times that I would love to hear people's thoughts.

selffriend has reacted to this post.

It's an interesting case, Transitioned.

How have you handled it so far, or do you have any ideas on how to handle it properly?

Share your input first, so we know better what's worked and what's the environment like.

One idea off the top of my head:

  • Assertively take what's yours, reject what's not yours, remind everyone -and the boss- of your area of responsibility: let others play that game

For example, when he asks for a task that falls into your category, you raise your hand and say "hey mr. X, we decided our responsibilities on our kick-off meeting, right? That's my responsibility, so it naturally falls on my team".

If you have a team, instruct them to only take tasks that fall under your responsibility.

If anyone takes anything that should be yours, get territorial: they are impinging on your responsibility.
Remind everyone that's your responsibility and nobody should take it.

It's the equivalent of drawing boundaries: if you do it a few times, people will learn what's your area of expertise, will not try to push on your stuff that's not yours, and will not try to take anything away that belongs to you.

And the boss will start getting the message that he can't treat like anyone is doing whatever, because you're not playing that game.

Transitioned and selffriend have reacted to this post.
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

I agree.  I think it's an example of needing to stand up for the team.

And let the chips fall where they may.

I ve had a couple of experiences.  Stood up to a very dominant boss earned his respect, he s one of my referees.

Stood up to another more manipulative boss.  She override me.  Her justifications were the end result was good and it was good teaming.  Basically she d got what she wanted and didn't care how anyone felt about it.   Lost my trust.  I got a new job and resigned shortly after.

So it see it as balancing protecting territory with promising results and acknowledging boss power.

How about?

"We ll take that.  It's our area and what we re setup for.  Big boss if it's a priority we ll shuffle the work to turn it around."

I m hinting we ll press pause on some work to attend to his fire















selffriend has reacted to this post.
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