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Are you jinxed with your supervisors?

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 8, 2010; 4:04 PM

I am in my mid-20's and on my 3rd job since graduate school. I've worked primarily in the non-profit world, usually something Communications realted. I feel I've made strategic moves and am more or less on my desired career path. However, for whatever reason I always seem to have problems with my supervisors.

My first supervisor was male and in his mid-forties. He was a major micro-manager and was notorious for running people out of his department because of it. I seemed to be on his good side and it only got really bad every once in a while. The biggest side effect was that it made me lose confidence in my own decision making, which hurt me even more when I went on to my second supervisor.

My second boss was in her early-forties. I thought she was going to be amazing (we shared the same alma mater and she had a similar career path I was aspiring for), but she ended up being an absentee supervisor, often coming in late, leaving early, or not coming in at all. She was increasingly dismissive of me until I left.

My current situation, my supervisor is in her mid-forties full of experience. She seems to be very patient, but is increasingly over-booked and subsequently cancels appointments with me and is generally un-responsive.

At first I thought I was just having bad luck with my superiors but I'm starting to wonder if it's something I'm doing wrong.

With the exception of my first supervisor, one of the general themes I can pick out is that my supervisors think I'm not as experienced as I should be. This would all be well and good if say, I "fluffed" my resume or otherwise fabricated my professional experience, but I sincerely believe that I've always been 100 percent honest both in person and on paper during the interview process, which all of them were a part of. On my end, I feel like I've either been left on my own with zero direction and guidance (supervisor #2 and #3) or have been smothered.

I always try to volunteer for tasks when I see that no one else is stepping up, complete assignments on time, I am responsive to constructive criticism, very flexible and am often described as "enthusiastic" or "positive". I've met or exceeded my goals set forth by my supervisors which puzzles me even more because if I'm as inexperienced as they say I am, then why am I meeting and exceeding their expectations?

Lately, I've been trying to ask my current supervisor if I can help with her tasks, which seems to be helping our working relationship, but I'm worried that it's going to eventually evolve into me doing all the grunt work and all the praise and credit going elsewhere.

I always get along very well with co-workers, my own direct-reports, and other directors and higher ups, what gives? How can I tell if it's me or "them"? And more importantly, how can I fix this if it is me?

Hope you can help.

What I hear you saying is that you generally enjoy productive and collegial relationships at work with everyone who does not directly supervise you. If you are on your third such unsatisfying supervisory relationship in a row, it is wise of you to ask yourself whether you could be contributing to the pattern.

I am not so sure, however, that you are primarily to blame for the dysfunction you are experiencing. One of the most difficult skills for managers to master is knowing how closely to supervise their employees. The ideal strategy depends upon a combination of factors, including the employee's ability to work independently, the nature of the job, and the complexity of the assignment at hand. Many managers make the mistake of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach that stems from their personal preferences and insecurities rather than the needs of the employee and the business. Great managers, on the other hand, have an intuitive sense for when they should approach and when they should retreat, and they leave their employees feeling amply supported without being smothered.

Your experience, therefore, is not unlike that of many employees. Ask around, and you will probably find that a lot of your friends and colleagues have the same gripe: Their managers either neglect them or place them under a microscope.

With that in mind, it sounds to me like you already have well-developed ideas regarding what you could be doing better. You recognize that the experience of reporting to a temperamental micromanager in your first job may have led you to lose confidence in your ability to execute. Your theory is borne out by the fact that, even though your resume is truthful, subsequent supervisors have questioned your level of experience. Your first job gave you access to a desirable set of professional skills, but the management style of your supervisor prevented you from fully capitalizing upon the opportunity. Because it is nevertheless in your nature to be proactive and engaged, you nailed subsequent interviews. However, your lack of self-confidence has been holding you back from fully delivering upon the promise of your impressive exterior.

It can be thrilling to be trusted with an unfamiliar and important assignment or, if you do not believe in yourself, it can also be terrifying. Judging from your self-assessment and your communication style, my guess is that you could be thriving under the supervision of a laissez-faire manager if only you still believed in your ability to rise to the occasion and sort things out on your own.

When you have been called "inexperienced," what your supervisor probably means is that you do not project the wherewithal of a mature professional. The antidote to your image problem is to challenge yourself to take calculated risks. When your supervisor gives you an assignment, start from the assumption that you are eminently qualified to complete it. Trust yourself to make decisions regarding how things should be done. Consult your supervisor only when you are confronted with a choice, such as whether to commit a large sum of money to a particular course of action, that only she is in a position to make. As you start to step outside of your comfort zone and act with increasing autonomy, you will gradually rebuild the self-confidence and decisiveness that so delighted your interviewers. As a result, you will derive greater satisfaction from your work, you will be regarded more respectfully, and the relative unresponsiveness of your supervisor will seem less important.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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