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Ask Sahaj: How do I say no to my needy manager?

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
4 min

Dear Sahaj: My manager relies on me quite heavily and has looked to me as her right-hand person. I’ve found myself having to follow up with her often for work she isn’t getting done or decisions that need to be made that are affecting my work. My colleagues have now started cc’ing me on emails with her as a way for me to follow up with her to ensure tasks get done. Another colleague asked me if I believe my manager sees me as her little sister. We’re both Asian American women in corporate America.

How do I say no or push back to allow her to take more accountability in her leadership role while not feeling like I’m jeopardizing our relationship?

— Managing My Manager

Managing My Manager: There are blurred boundaries with your boss, and to change the dynamic of the relationship you’ll need to be aware of how and why that is the way it is.

Are you expected by your manager to do more work or are you taking on more work voluntarily? There’s an important distinction between what is explicitly expected of you and what you have taken on yourself.

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If your boss expects you to take on more work, you have a couple of options. You could set up a meeting and review your job responsibilities to get on the same page. This is a chance for you to bring up all you do beyond your role — and how you feel about it. It also gives your manager a chance to discuss her perspective. For instance, maybe she’s trying to give you opportunities to take on more responsibility as a sign of trust and respect. Either way, this should be explicitly discussed so neither of you make assumptions that lead to an unhealthy work relationship.

If there is a decision process that you don’t feel your boss manages well, and it impacts your work, you can say something like: “When we don’t have a decision on X, it’s difficult for me to focus on Y. Can we discuss a way to streamline this process?” Alternatively, you can come prepared with a solution to propose to your manager.

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Need advice?
Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. She’s given advice about setting boundaries with your parents, friends who keep mispronouncing your name, and relationship problems.
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Think about how your culture and family dynamics impact who you are at work. In some Asian households, there is a hierarchy that can condition someone to avoid conflict or make it hard to speak up to superiors. You can be respectful and firm. Ask your manager where you should be prioritizing your time. By asking for guidance, you can choose collaboration without feeling combative — a common concern for anyone who fears speaking up. Regardless of how you approach this conversation, there may be pushback and you’ll want to come to terms with that possibility.

If you are taking on more work than you are expected to, and your manager is contributing to this, it may be time for you to ask for more compensation or a different title. You have to decide what extra work leads to the next goal in your career, and what extra work you shouldn’t be doing at all.

If you are taking on extra responsibilities voluntarily, address why. Is this rooted in perfectionism? Do you fear appearing lazy? Are you experiencing impostor syndrome? Many Asian women I work with, including myself, tend to think being grateful to your boss means you can’t speak up. Remember: You can set boundaries and be good at your job.

You may want to also explore the conditions that have led everyone to expect you to be a go-between with your manager. You could stop replying to emails if they are meant for your manager, or tell colleagues they should email her directly. This can sound like, “This sounds like a better question for [manager], I think you should email her.” By removing yourself as a buffer, your manager becomes accountable for what she does or doesn’t do.

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Finally, I want to address the colleague who asked if your manager sees you “as a little sister.” This makes me wonder if she treats you differently from your co-workers. If so, you need to talk to her about this, so you can set boundaries around a professional versus personal relationship. If she’s not treating you any differently, it’s possible you’re experiencing biases at work because of a shared racial background with your manager, and I’m sorry for that.

It sounds like you’re at a point where you feel resentful or where your career satisfaction is low because of your relationship with your manager. At the end of the day, you will need to change your dynamic with her for it to be healthier and more appropriate for you in the workplace. And if you can’t get to that healthier place, it might be worth considering other opportunities.