How To Stand Up to Your Terrible Manager—Without Getting Fired

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S1: When I worked with Reed Hastings at Netflix, I remember saying to him, you know, I need to have a conversation with you right now and I need you to be my boss. You’re not paying attention right now. So when you have a minute to actually talk to me about what’s going on with me, let me know. And, you know, and I remember him changing his body language and looking me in the eye, I go, OK, I’m here.

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S2: Welcome to How To. I’m a science writer. David Epstein. Difficult managers are the worst. That’s why you should all become freelance science writers. You’re your own manager now. But really, we’ve gotten a lot of emails from people struggling to navigate workplace drama and our listener this week, she’s at her wits end when it comes to her new boss.

S3: Hi, I’m Shirley and I work at a pretty progressive software company.

S2: Shirley is a product manager at a Silicon Valley startup. She was pretty nervous to talk with us at all. And so we changed her name and details about her company because she was concerned that her colleagues might hear this.

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S3: I really love my job. I love the company that I work for. However, the relationship with my manager is a little bit strained, so we’re not on the same page.

S2: Shirley joined the startup in its very early days, and she loves the culture, the unlimited vacation days, the focus on just getting stuff done rather than traditional metrics like clocking hours in the office. Is there like a best day that you can think of in your time in this job?

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S3: I think it was the constant understanding that if I were at a Google or a large software company, my job function would be very, very small. Whereas I have ownership of a lot of things.

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S2: I twice gone from big companies to startups, and you realize you can actually impact the direction of the organization as a sort of person at these smaller places. What about what about a worse day?

S3: Recently I got promoted and my manager told me that I didn’t actually. It wasn’t warranted. I didn’t deserve it, but I was his

S2: manager when we’ve been

S3: talking about. Yes, so that was probably the worst day, which should be a day of celebration for most people.

S2: Went out of his way to say, like, just see, you know, I don’t think you deserved it. We’re like, yeah, sounds crazy.

S3: It was like just, you know, you don’t deserve this.

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S2: Shirley isn’t the only member of the team who isn’t feeling supported by their new boss, and she feels a little guilty about it.

S3: You know, our team has grown and I brought more people onto this team and now they’re not having a great experience. I do feel a little bit responsible.

S2: Have people change teams are done anything like that because of him? They’re trying

S3: to.

S2: OK, so there’s like a passive aggressive move afoot.

S3: Yeah, there has been no, like, hard confrontations about anything.

S2: The idea of confronting your boss is daunting. It can be even more difficult when many of us are still working remotely, but we have the perfect expert to give surely advice. Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix, that he helped transform Netflix’s work culture through methods that not only enabled the company to become the streaming giant that it is today, but actually paved the way for the rest of Silicon Valley.

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S1: All of us have been in this situation where it’s like, who is this person they hired to be in charge of us? They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

S2: On today’s episode, how to deal with a Bad Boss and get back to work culture you enjoy. Stay with us.

S3: If you’re busy like me, going to the video store is half time with Netflix, just make a list of the movies you want to see. And about one business day, you’ll get three delivered to your house. Keep them as long as you want,

S2: but that might be one day back in 2009 when Netflix was still sending DVDs through the mail. So quaint, Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO, shared a PowerPoint presentation online. It was a very basic set of one hundred and twenty seven slides, no fancy graphics, not even fun fonts.

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S1: I said to him, God, why did you do that’s the ugliest document known to humankind and you’re going to scare away all of our candidates. And he said, only the ones we don’t want.

S2: The PowerPoint talked about hiring high performing employees, encouraging radical honesty and focusing on freedom and responsibility, letting people take time off whenever they want, for example.

S1: And it was a document that we used for onboarding. So whenever we hired 10 or 15 people read and I would get in the room with them and we showed them the slide presentation,

S2: the PowerPoint went viral, racking up millions of views. Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg later called it perhaps the most important document ever to come out of the valley.

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S1: There’s nothing in there that’s wild or crazy. It’s all pretty much straightforward, logical and true. What’s different about it is it’s the hidden stuff that nobody says. We dress everything up with all these stupid management. And it’s basically most people still operate their companies under command and control as if we’re a bunch of factories. And the smart people at the top and the not so smart people are at the bottom and we have to make rules so that they don’t screw it up or sue us. And we’ve done it the way we’ve done it since the 60s or 70s. And we’ve done it so often that we now call it best practices. I mean, I’m loving what I’m doing right now because, you know, I’m on podcasts with people talking about what’s happening in the pandemic. And they’re like, Patty, you talk to so many people who’s doing it right? Like nobody, nobody.

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S2: These days, Patty consults with companies giving advice on how to create stronger work cultures, run more effective H.R. departments and just be better leaders in general. And that’s why Patty is here to help Shirley with her new boss.

S1: Have you ever met this person in person?

S3: I have not.

S1: Hmm, that’s hard, you know, because there there are there are dynamics to these conversations that happen in person that don’t happen electronically, particularly if you don’t know somebody very well. And a couple of months was he hired as a peer?

S3: You know, he was hired as a manager.

S1: What did people think he would bring that wasn’t there already?

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S3: Structure. Hmm. He definitely brought a lot of this person to do this. And this person should be in this role, which was helpful definitely in the beginning.

S1: A lot better. Watch what you wish for.

S3: Yeah, for sure.

S1: For sure. And now everybody’s bristling against the structure. Yeah.

S3: Yeah. The language back has always been like I’m in charge, so I make the decisions. Oh. So that really rocked me the wrong way.

S1: Yeah. It’s hard to be so early in a company and help create it and then watch it change. To be honest with you, reprogramming was one of my my least favorite jobs at Netflix was taking the person who had been the director at Amazon and undoing him. Right. So my perspective is leaders come to companies and their only reason to be there is to create great teams that do fabulous work on behalf of the customer on time with quality. And so if you can internalize that’s his job, then you can think about how you’re going to talk to him about perhaps changing his behavior on behalf of the customer, on behalf of success of the company, on behalf of the team being effective. Do you have one on ones with them?

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S3: We do. They’re kind of awkward. You don’t really talk about anything.

S1: What do they have an agenda?

S3: They do not.

S1: You can control that,

S3: yeah,

S1: right, I mean, you can say, hey, at our next one or one, I want to talk to you about how I think we could be a more effective team.

S2: Do you think Shirley should, like, get, you know, talk to teammates and see if they’re on the on the same page or just go?

S1: I think Shirley should represent Shirley and Shirley should hopefully have a good experience or a terrible experience. And then Shirley should go back to her teammates and say, you should try this, too, because when he hears from each individual teammate a similar pattern, he’ll say this is real if Shirley’s representing everybody else than Shirley is just whining.

S2: So here’s our first rule, when your boss is being difficult, speak up, but only for yourself before you go to the higher ups, create a time to speak directly with your boss about ideas you have that could allow the team to be better or the work to be better on behalf of the customer that set up gets your point across and it allows you to come off as a responsible, thoughtful employee advocating for a more effective outcome when it comes to Shirley’s situation. Patty says she ought to approach it as she would any other task she works on as a product manager.

S1: So this is a product, right? I mean, I’m serious. Take everything you know about your craft and apply it to this. And this is for the rest of your life. If you can be the person that is the fixer and not the finder. So problem finders are useless, to be honest with you, I tell this to managers all the time, like, you know, the people who goes, yeah, that’s screwed up. This is not helpful at all. The people who say that’s screwed up. And I’ve got a couple of ideas about how it could be better. That’s a helpful person.

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S2: So here’s our next rule, be a problem fixer, not just a problem finder, it’s hard to do, especially when your boss is the one creating the problems. Why should you have to fix something that someone else messed up? But you are, after all, a part of this team. And we’re talking about how to make the best of an unpleasant situation, putting in the extra work now of coming up with potential solutions that will help you in the long run.

S1: I just went through this situation with my daughter, and her manager is really kind of a crappy manager. And we’ve been talking about it for years. And I’ve been saying, you know, you’re a professional. If you don’t want to work for this person, then don’t. But she’s not going to get better unless somebody says, hey, this isn’t working out. And so in the end, she just left the company, left her business, and so did everybody else on the team. She goes, well, maybe now she’ll realize I’m like, no, she won’t write. She won’t realize anything. You know what? She gets a brand new team that everybody’s not complaining all the time. So surely you already said, I need to figure out whether I should stay or whether I should go back. If that’s the place you’re at, you have nothing left to lose. Right, if it doesn’t get better, you’ll leave, so your only option if you stay is to try and help it get better, right?

S2: But what happens if it doesn’t? When we come back, we’ll workshop the conversation surely ought to have with her manager and we’ll make a backup plan in case the conversation doesn’t go well. Stick around. We’re back with our listener, Shirley, and our expert, Patty McCord. Shirley loves her job and she’s proud of helping the startup grow, but she’s also exhausted from dealing with her difficult new boss, so much so that she’s actually considered leaving the company. But before she does. Patty says she should try a few things to fix it, starting with offering her boss some solutions directly. Sometimes that’s not immediately well received. As Patty knows firsthand,

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S1: Reed and I did another software company before Netflix where he was the CEO and he’d never been a CEO before. And so, you know, he was just wrong. And so I would say to him, and it may be that here’s some good advice for you, Shirley. I would say you didn’t ask me about this decision that you made, but if you had, I would have said, I’m not sure that’s the best decision. I might have coached you to do something differently. And here’s what I would have recommended you do. And Reid would look me in the eye and say, not that I didn’t ask, you know, seriously. And so I’d think, OK. And over time, I would be right most of the time. Right. And I never, ever, ever said I told you so. And a couple of years. And he would come in and say, I’m thinking about a decision, but I want to run it by you because I’m not sure I’m thinking it all the way through. How long did that take? Years, which is why you asked me to come to Netflix.

S2: So and obviously, even when he was sort of dismissing you with well, you noticed I didn’t ask you. You were obviously gaining some space in his head because he started saying, you

S1: know, I gotta tell you, it’s not that it wasn’t terrifying and it’s not that I didn’t do it, you know, many, many times when I thought, should I go tell him this? I had this conversation because I think he might fire me. Hmm. Right. I mean, I absolutely had, like, an empty box in case he was like, you know, I don’t need you anymore leave. But I but I knew he could do better.

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S2: Shirley says she actually did approach her manager directly once before about a hiring decision. He’d been planning to fill an open position just above. Shirley was someone he knew from a previous job, but the rest of her team wasn’t on board.

S3: The other people on the team did not have a good experience during their interviews. It was personality. It was the type of work that he had been exposed to, his approaches and his strategy on how to solve problems. It did not align with what the team was looking for. And my manager said, I’m the leader, I’m the manager, and I’m going to hire this person anyways. Hmm.

S2: Sounds like he doesn’t like getting challenged a whole lot.

S3: Yes. So this situation actually didn’t actually play out because the candidate could not join our team, thankfully. But yeah, I was pretty direct and I said this sends a clear message that. Your team’s opinions do not matter,

S2: so, OK, so that didn’t sounds like it didn’t go great. Can we try, like, workshopping this a little bit? One of the conversations that you want to have, how did you think you’d be more useful for you to play Shirley? Because Shirley can sort of guess how her her manager might respond a little bit. Yeah, yeah. OK, so, Shirley, what do you think would be the most useful conversation for you?

S3: What do you think maybe about this open position that’s still open?

S2: So, OK, so Patti, you’re you’re Shirley. OK.

S1: Hey, Mr. Manager, I’m glad we’re having this one on one. And as you know, I sent you that email before that I what I wanted to talk about was this open position, because it seems like it’s something really important to you. And I don’t think when the last person came in, it worked out very well. So let’s talk about how we can maybe work together, more work with the team, more to figure out what the right experience is for interviewing and getting the right person here on the job.

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S3: Cool, I know two people from my last job, and they would both be a great fit here and I know that they can deliver.

S1: OK, so are you know, actually, I know a couple of people, too, would you be willing to talk to anybody outside of your last company?

S3: Sure, but we need to just move really quickly.

S1: OK, well, if that’s true, you know, that’s that’s kind of a change from the way we’ve done things before. And I just for me, that’s going to make me feel like you’re you don’t really care what might work for me. I mean, I don’t mean to criticize, but it seems like you’re not really concerned about how that might affect the members of the team. Can I ask you a question? I mean, do you think it’s the wrong team that you have? Are you really think we should hire somebody to to put a new team together? I just need to know for me and my career and what I should do.

S3: Yeah, I need people who have just done this over and over again, and I know that they can do this. So that’s what I’m looking for. And everybody on this team just needs more years under their belt.

S1: Oh, that’s interesting. So can I change the subject for a sec? Are you talking about me?

S3: I might be.

S1: All right, so maybe we should have a different conversation then, because I get it, if you think that this is the wrong team to go forward or you don’t think that I should be the right person on the team, but if that’s true, it’s only fair that you tell me now so that we can work this out and not wait to hire somebody whose job it is to swap me out.

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S3: Sure, yeah, I’m getting out of character now, but this exact conversation has happened many times.

S1: What does he say?

S3: He’s like, we want to groom you to become the leader, but I think in this this

S1: what a crock of shit.

S3: I know, I know.

S1: So why isn’t he grooming you to become the leader leader? He’s hiring a leader. So give me a hairstyle. Give it to me now.

S3: Right. So that was really reassuring that everything Patti was saying was what I was saying. So I’m not totally off base here.

S1: Oh, oh, oh. Surely when I when I talked to huge groups of women, here’s what I tell them, OK, when you’re when your company does employee engagement survey, they didn’t put a ring on it and interviewed with other people is not cheating on your husband. It’s time for you to start interviewing. OK, it’s time for you, and here’s why I want you to do that, you’re a talented person who clearly has experience creating great stuff and so do not stay in a place where you’re not going to be appreciated for that. But the the reason why interviewing is a good idea is, A, you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, whether you like it or not. B, it’s an opportunity to tell a stranger what you want. Right now, you’re really caught up in figuring out how to tell this person what he wants to hear. I mean, whatever. So so go talk to strangers about other opportunities. And what you find out sometimes is maybe the grass is greener on the other side. Yes, right. So what I want you to do is I want you to go interview, because if you decide to stay, you’ll know why. Right? Right. If you decide to stay, you’ll say, I can get through this because the product’s great and the teams great. The company is great. And I believe in the mission and I think he’ll come around. But this isn’t about him at this point. It’s about you and your success.

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S2: So here’s our next rule. Start interviewing you don’t have to be 100 percent sure that you want to leave. But like Patty said, applying for other jobs forces you to articulate what you want and need to a stranger and to yourself and reminds you of your own value. And then if you do end up staying, you’ll be more secure in your decision. Shirley, is there any. I was just thinking back to my own career, at one point I was stuck as a sort of fact checker at Sports Illustrated and ended up interviewing outside of it, even though it’s where I want to stay. And it felt disloyal to me at the time. In retrospect, that seems ridiculous for me to even think. But at the time, that’s how it felt. It turned out to be one of the most important things I did, as Betty suggests. But I mean, you’ve been with this organization since it was small. Do you have any sort of personal hang ups about interviewing like I did or.

S3: No, probably not as much as you had. I do have a little bit there, but I do realize that we all have to.

S1: You know, and it was it’s your company here, one of the first 10 people. You know, I just saw on Facebook today this woman that I loved, love, loved, who is one of the first 20 people at Netflix, I loved her. She didn’t really have a job. To be fair, she was funny and smart and worked hard. And eventually I said, you know, I love you to pieces, but you don’t actually have a job. And we really can’t afford not to have people have jobs that are skilled jobs that get stuff done that we really need to be done. And you’re getting a lot of stuff done. I’m just not sure it’s really important. She left in a huff. I mean, she came back to pick somebody up one time and I walked by her in the parking lot and she rolled up the window and I thought, oh, that’s too bad right now. This is 20 years ago and I’ve seen her since then. And I’m like, are you still mad at me? And she said, No, I stopped being mad at you five years ago, but I was mad at you for a full five years. But the reason she felt so terrible was it was her company. How dare we say goodbye to her as I since she was part of the beginning. And what I learned that I didn’t do well with her was to say we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you. Mm hmm. So I kind of leave you with this. This is my other thing is you want to create an organization that’s a great place to be from. And if you if you leave, then you want to make sure that you take with you everything you did and everything you contributed. You helped make the company the kind of company that this guy and his cohorts are going to go run, if that’s what’s going to happen.

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S3: OK, I like that,

S2: but you obviously know the founders, if you were there, and it is very, very small. Is there any either use or responsibility if you think this is someone who is really going to dismantle important parts of the company to go above and say, look, just so you know, you might want to keep an eye on this, or is that just tattletales? And I don’t know.

S1: That’s that’s I would save that for the exit.

S3: Yeah, OK. That’s what I was planning.

S1: Yeah. Otherwise, it is tattletales. You know, they took the risk on him and they didn’t take the risk on you, so there’s money in the game as far as the company’s concerned. Yeah, I think the best advice I would give you is give yourself some time parameters. You know what’s not working, what is working, you know, two or three things jot down. You know, I always say fold it, put it in a drawer. Don’t look at it. And a month later, open it up and say, has anything changed? So that’s how you are in the problem solving product creating role in your organization. You’re the product. What would you do?

S3: Yeah, time constraints and measure it. Exactly. And it doesn’t work. Then you kill it.

S1: So that’s helpful. You know, that’s what I say. I was always the the PM for for culture at Netflix, because the thing that I learned from people who do your job really well is that if it doesn’t work, you throw it away. Yeah.

S2: So here’s our final rule, when deciding whether or not to leave, evaluate your job the way you would any project at work or even another employee, jot down a few things that are working in a few things that aren’t, then set a deadline at least a month and go back to it, see if anything’s changed. If not, take what you’ve learned, the good and the bad and move on to something new.

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S1: When I left Netflix, it was because I wasn’t the right person moving forward. Hmm. You know, absolutely was not. The company was switching to being an original content Hollywood producing company. And I’m a Silicon Valley tech guy. Mm hmm. I was not the right person. And, you know, it made me sad. I was there 14 years. Are you kidding? It will always be my company. But, you know, it’s fine. So what I want to change is I want to change the idea that that’s shameful. Yeah. So there’s no shame in moving on. You move on.

S2: And I guess we should all want that, right? Like a fish and talent markets. Why?

S1: Why not? You should want it as an employee. You want to be in a place where you can make a difference. Hmm. You know, Shirley, you go forth and you do amazing things. Right. And and I think that the biggest lesson we both learn from this conversation is, you know, use your expertise on what you know, how to do to create value in your company, to create value for yourself.

S3: Thank you so much. You’ve been so helpful.

S1: Good luck saying thank you. I don’t know how it goes. And, you know, I got your back.

S2: Thank you to Shirley for sharing her story with us and to Patty McCord for all her great advice. Be sure to check out her book, Powerful Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. If you like this episode, look for our past episode, how to get that promotion you deserve. Do you have a question about office politics or some other question? Send us a note at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And finally, I hope you’ll consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on how to. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to Slate Dotcom. How to plus. How TOS executive producers Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg is probably watching Netflix and Chill. And I’m David Epstein. See you next time.