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How to Stay Engaged at Work When Your Manager Isn’t | LiquidPlanner

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How to Stay Engaged at Work When Your Manager Isn’t

The unengaged boss.
The unengaged boss.

We recently received a question on a LiquidPlanner blog about how project managers can get their team members more engaged. This inquiry is from the team member’s point of view.

“My project manager seems disengaged lately. How can I become more engaged to compensate for this change? I value my job and want to succeed—but I’m struggling with my manager’s attitude and lack of effort.”

It’s a valid question—one many of us can relate to. Here, I’m going to look at how to navigate that unsteady terrain when your boss or manager is, for a variety of reasons, unengaged with your team. It’s not exactly motivating when you and your team members are working hard to deliver on your projects, and it feels like nobody notices because instead, your project manager is holed up behind closed doors, in meetings, traveling, you name it. And when your team asks for feedback, your manager mutters something about your work being “highly adequate.” Without the direction and support of your boss, morale slips and it feels like your career is stagnating.

What do you do? Before you become disengaged yourself, take a moment to think about why you manager seems to be AWOL, especially if he or she hasn’t always been this way. Ask some questions around this state of disengagement, and see what might ring true:

  • Is there a personal issue in your boss’s life such as an illness or family situation?
  • Is your manager leading too many projects, and can’t concentrate on yours?
  • Is a corporate reorganization pending?
  • Is your manager’s boss disengaged and giving inadequate guidance?
  • Are there work-related storms and political turmoil brewing?
  • Do you think your boss is job hunting?
  • Is your manager burnt out?

There are a lot of different reasons why managers pull back from their teams. To help you make the best of whatever circumstances put you in this situation, here are seven tactics to try when your boss is disengaged:

  1. Reach out to your project manager.

    Approach your boss as an ally and with the openness of someone willing to listen and provide support. He might share some information with you that you either suspected or had no idea about—personal or work. In the meantime, offer some sincere appreciation and praise for the work that your boss is doing. Identify specific tasks on your boss’s plate that you can help with. This might give you a chance to try a new skill set or broaden your horizons. Keep your problem with your manager’s disengagement a subtext to the conversation. It won’t be the only time you talk. If he wants to go further, let him.

    Reach out to your manager.
  2. Reach out to your co-workers.

    You and your team members share a common challenge. If your boss isn’t in there getting you inspired to work toward goals, giving feedback, rallying the troops—look for ways to support and motivate each other. Celebrate accomplishments and work on changing the culture on your project team. Make a pact to be solution focused; getting negative will just make the situation worse. Use this time to develop some teamwork skills.

  3. Reach out beyond your project team.

    Expand your network within your workplace or among peers to get a kick of engagement, motivation and energy. Find a mentor. Seek support and career advice from appropriate sources. Invest in peer relationships, and do what you can to foster teamwork.

  4. Motivate yourself.

    Now’s the time to create the attitude and work environment you want—from within. If you’re not receiving outward reinforcement from your manager, start giving it out. Give it to your team members, give it (quietly) to yourself. If you need some tips, search for the term “self-motivation”—you may find gems that shine for your situation. Do what you can do to make a positive work. 

  5. Help your boss succeed.

    Get behind your manager’s initiatives. Learn her pressure points, and jump in to help. We all go through tough times in life—personal or work-related. If this describes your boss, then this could be time to step up and offer support and take initiative to solve problems. You never know what new skills you might learn and how this adds value to your career. Bottom line: When you help your boss succeed (with integrity), good things happen for you.

  6. Keep things in perspective.

    Your job is only part of your life—you have friends, family, hobbies, volunteer efforts, sports enthusiasms, novels, etc. Granted, for most of us our outside interests don’t help pay the bills, but they still create enjoyment and important rewards that make you a well-rounded person. And that well-roundedness is a healthy addition to your organization.

  7. Reframe the situation.

    Turn your perceived problem with a distracted boss into an advantage. Leadership consultant Karin Hurt, provides some good tips in her blog article, How to Benefit From a Disengaged Boss:

    • Pilot a new idea. Enjoy the freedom to try new things without the need to constantly explain every move.
    • Market your work. Get your work noticed. Streamline your emails and improve your presentation skills. Schedule time with your boss and others to share information and get the feedback you need.
    • Think strategically. Be an asset and work at a level higher. Consider what you’d say in your supervisor’s position. Learn as much as you can about the bigger context for your work.

As you can see, many options exist to stay engaged when your boss isn’t. You might even use this opportunity to show how versatile and necessary you are to your manager, the team—and even the organization. Most likely your manager’s disengagement is temporary and possibly due to a work or life change. But if not, you may need to take time to ask yourself if this is someone you want to continue to work for in the future.

Tell us how you’ve stayed engaged in your work when you’re manager isn’t.


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