When your manager isn't supporting you, build a Voltron

In my years of coaching managers and individual contributors, I’ve routinely heard the following complaints about their bosses:

It can feel tremendously frustrating to expect a particular kind of support of your manager, and have them fail to deliver it, or even acknowledge it. In my own career, I’ve had plenty of manager bad-fits: folks who were good executors but not good at managing people, folks who gave me little-to-no constructive feedback (more on this phenomenon), folks who prioritized supporting their peers over supporting their team.

Here’s the bad news: no one person will ever be able to manage you the way you want or need.

They’re human. They have multiple objectives and responsibilities. They probably don’t have all the relevant training or experience. They probably haven’t gotten clear feedback. And they’re still growing and learning, just like you.

But here’s the good news: there are a plethora of people out there whom you can lean on to find the variety of support you need.

Develop your manager crew

When I had to fire someone for the first time, I had no idea what I was doing, and my manager was unavailable to help. He had been tasked with a lot of unrelated responsibility, so he was absent from my support system.

However, I was attending a group coaching program called Dens, developed and facilitated by Paloma Medina. Each Den consisted of 6-8 managers from across the company, of varying levels. We practiced “Vegas Rules” (what happens in Den stays in Den), so we had formed a trusting bond with each other, and I asked them for guidance on this termination.

One person was great at roleplaying difficult conversations, so he helped me repeatedly practice what I wanted to say. One person gave solid advice based on their own experience. One person was a phenomenal listener, and he gave me quiet space to share and process how I was feeling. This experience taught me the value of having a diverse group of people to lean on when you encounter a management challenge.

Build a diverse crew

I’ve been adding to that list of supportive manager buddies ever since. I consider them each a facet of what an imaginary unicorn manager would be (or a Manager Voltron).

For example, when I’m stumped and my normal tactics won’t work, I reach out to Rafe who has a completely different management style than my own, to see how he might approach the same challenge. It blows my mind every time.

Or when I encounter an executive-level problem I’ve never seen before, I reach out to Meri, who will give me tips based on her own experience, as well as things she’s seen others do, and any pitfalls she’s witnessed that I should look out for.

As you grow your support network, continuously be on the lookout for people who:

And so on. The best part is, you’ll be able to transfer the new skills you learned from your crew to other parts of your job in the future.

Do your homework

If you’re asking someone for support, identify what you need before you meet, and go so far as to write down questions in advance and identify what else you’ve tried to solve this problem. Make good use of their time.

When you chat with your crew, spend no more than five minutes in “venting” mode, unless this person is explicitly there to let you vent for a while. People want to actively help, and it’s draining to listen to someone else unload for longer than five minutes, with no opportunity to move into problem-solving mode.

Find a coach

Sometimes what I need most is to process how I’m feeling—the internal pieces of a challenge—and I often need help from someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race (except for caring about my own development). That’s why getting a coach is the best thing that’s happened to my career.

My coach cares about me. She is eternally gifted at listening and pushing me, and also gives me space to be quiet and safe.

I’ve been coached through changing my name, which is a gendered professional experience that none of my male peers had dealt with. I’ve been coached through dealing with layoffs and leadership changes that left my support network rocky. I even leaned on my coach when I was dealing with a surprising and awful breakup, because we take our whole selves to work, and I was struggling to keep it together.

I sometimes feel guilty leaning on the same people over and over, so I’ve learned how useful it is to pay someone to coach me. It’s a relief I can’t explain.

If you don’t have a coach, ask your company if they have professional development funds you can use for one. Ask your peers for coaches they’d recommend. (Or hire me to be your coach, as I specialize in coaching managers!)

Support your support system

I’ve built this manager crew by being there for them, too. Support can’t be one-sided; I routinely help someone else roleplay a difficult conversation, process their management dilemma out loud, give feedback on their communication style or resume, etc.

Start these relationships by offering to listen over coffee, or giving them some space to vent. You may not think that you can do much to help, but I promise: just creating an inclusive and safe space for someone to share what they’re struggling with is a gift.

Ask if they’d like advice, or just someone to listen. Honor their response.

Tailor your work with your manager

Your manager is still a part of your support system, even if they’re being less than helpful. Continue to ask your manager for what you need that only they can do: “Hey Katie, I’m aiming to move forward with this budget. Could you please review it and email me back by Friday, so I can inform the other teams involved?”

Without dissing them, let your manager know that you’re leaning on others to get your problems solved. Your manager should be kept up to date on where the challenges in your world stand, and though it’s easier to just keep an absent boss in the dark, you’ll miss out on getting credit for taking care of yourself and solving some problems.

I like to remind people of Paloma’s Ground Rule #2: Stay curious, because every person is a universe:

“When we approach humans as complex vast universes, we create better conversations: Curiosity immunizes us against vengeance, arrogance, stubbornness and other types of dead-end discussions.”

Your manager, as infuriating as they may be, is a universe. Remind yourself whenever you feel frustrated or angry about it that humans are each complicated and fascinating, and there’s more going on in each other than we could ever know or see.

Lara Callender Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Follow me on Twitter, read my blog.

I champion engineering management as a practice, help people get comfortable giving presentations, and believe it's important to celebrate career achievements with donuts.