ask a boss

I’m Treated Like a Boss But I’m Not One!

Dear Boss,

About six months ago, my team hired a new person, Penny, to help with my workload. She’s my age and we have the same salary; I’ve been at the company for several years. We’re both at the same level, technically, but I trained her and essentially became her manager without the authority. I suspect the only reason I’m not actually a manager is because it would require giving me a raise. Our manager, “Jane,” is chronically busy with many different projects and perpetually absent, so most people in our department see me as the person in charge of Penny.

Here’s my issue: Penny is just … not very good at some of our work. People come to me (and not Jane) when they have issues with her. Other managers lecture me on how to help her improve or tell me when colleagues have complained about her work.

For example: One of our tasks is to create and distribute a collection of monthly reports to other departments. I used to do all of them, and I taught Penny how to put them together so she can take over. The problem is, she’ll consistently make mistakes, and then seeing numbers for the month are “bad” will declare, “Jane is not going to be happy with this!” Then I’ll walk her through how to figure out the issue, and it’s pretty much always a simple mistake that she made in the report. This has happened so many times. Sometimes she shares the numbers before checking for mistakes, which (1) causes people to freak out and (2) means we have to circle back and say stupid things like, “Sorry, we made a mistake, sales were actually down 8.7 percent, not 87 percent.” I say “we” because I’m always the one who ends up stepping in to fix it.

I don’t mind helping Penny out because she’s nice and we get along. Ordinarily I would just let her mess up and take the heat, but since people see me as the “head” of this project, I also get blamed for mistakes. She doesn’t take feedback or direction well, and she doesn’t see me as an authority. Sometimes I ask her to do something and she doesn’t do it. I don’t think it’s deliberate on her part — I think she thinks I’m “suggesting” things, since in her mind I’m not in charge and don’t make decisions about what should get done when and by whom (which I guess is technically true).

I’m at a loss for how to approach this. I don’t want to try to “pull rank” or lecture her, and I’m worried that if I do she’ll just get upset and think I’m on a power trip. 

You’re in an impossible position.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether your boss has put you there or whether you’ve inadvertently put yourself there — but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Your position is impossible because you can’t be responsible for a co-worker who you don’t have any authority over. In your case, lots of people seem to be treating you as if you’re responsible for Penny’s performance, when in fact you don’t have any real power to do the things that position entails: You don’t have the authority to give her assignments, or provide her with feedback, or ask her to make changes to her work, or tell her to check her work more thoroughly … and you definitely don’t have the authority to impose any consequences if she ignores your feedback and suggestions. That means you can’t be responsible for her work, any more than I could be responsible for yours.

Sometimes organizations explicitly create this kind of “manager with no actual authority role” — assigning people to accomplish things through other people without giving them the authority they need to do it. But in your case, it doesn’t sound like your manager explicitly set things up that way. It sounds like it just happened by default because she’s not around … and maybe because you were conscientious and stepped up to fill that void. But when stepping up means stepping into an impossible role, it’s rarely the right long-term decision.

So I think there are three potential conversations you could have here. One is to try talking to Penny about this directly. Since she was hired to assist with your work, and since you’re leading the projects she’s working on, it’s not totally out of line to say to her, “Because I’m leading these projects, I need to be able to give you feedback or specific directions. When you don’t incorporate that feedback or follow up on things I’ve asked you to handle, it puts me in an awkward position — because I have to step in and do it myself or correct your work. I’m not your manager, but I am leading these projects, and I need to be able to count on you to carry things out the way we talk about.” It’s possible that she genuinely hasn’t realized this, and that spelling it out will help.

But that option relies on Penny agreeing to do things that way, and I’d rather see you get the authority you need (and the money you deserve) instead of having to rely on Penny’s good will. The second, and better, option is to talk to your boss, explain what’s been happening, and ask if she’d be willing to formalize the authority that people seem to expect you to have. Since you’re functioning as Penny’s unofficial manager anyway, it’s not a huge stretch to propose making that official and asking for a raise. Giving you the formal power to manage her work might solve all of this. (Of course, that assumes you want to manage Penny. Managing is stressful even with the best of employees; managing someone who’s not performing well can be a serious headache. You’re not obligated to volunteer for that if you don’t want to do it.)

If you don’t want to manage Penny, or if you don’t think your boss will go for that idea, the only other option is to stop taking responsibility for her. I know you’re worried doing that will backfire on you since people think you’re in charge of her work, but it’s far easier to correct that impression than it is to try to manage her without any authority. If you go this route, when people come to you to give feedback about Penny, you’d say something like, “I agree, that’s really problematic. I’m Penny’s peer and am at the limits of how much I can intervene, but I really encourage you to talk to Jane about this. It’s important for her to hear this feedback.” That way you’re conveying both that you’re not empowered to handle this and that someone else is.

You should also talk with your boss about the problems in Penny’s work, the efforts you’ve been making to try to coach her, and the fact that you’re at your limits of what you can do since you’re her peer. It’s possible that Jane doesn’t realize the extent of the problems with Penny’s work because you’ve been stepping in to problem-solve. Or maybe she does, but figures that you’ve been handling it so her attention isn’t needed. (That would be bad management, but it happens.) When you have this conversation, don’t pull any punches — be direct and transparent about what’s happening, and explain that your attempts to coach her haven’t been successful because she understandably sees you as a peer and resists taking direction from you. I’d use the words, “I think she needs to hear this from someone with authority” and perhaps “my sense is that she needs closer supervision than she would accept from me.” You should also mention that other managers have come to you repeatedly about improvements they want to see Penny make.

This might feel like throwing Penny under the bus, but it’s not! It’s giving your manager crucial information that she needs to manage your team, and which she might not have right now. It’s also letting her know about something that greatly affects you, and it’s giving her context that she’ll need to understand what’s happening once you step back. The tone of this isn’t “Penny is awful”; it’s “Penny is trying but needs more oversight and support than I’m empowered to give.”

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

I’m Treated Like a Boss But I’m Not One!