This boss archetype is so common, I bet you’ve already thought of a few people who fit this. This is not a boss who has resigned, but a boss who is resigned. Aka, their declare their powerlessness way more often than is appropriate for someone who theoretically is supposed to be a helper to you.
We have this type of boss in non-profits and arts orgs a whole lot. Mostly because few managers in these biz structures have any sort of management training so they don’t really know how to advocate for their direct reports or manage those above them. (Sidebar: I am terrible at managing up, so I understand this dilemma.)
This is the boss to whom you bring a problem and all they can say is something like, “Yeah, I know it’s hard. It’s a tough situation.” Or, “Yeah, it’s confusing. I get confused sometimes, too.” And then…nothing. You look at them like, “Yes it is. Can you use the power of the fact that you are my boss and maybe, idk, HELP ME OUT???”
Nope, you are on your own.
They will oftentimes cite power above them. “Yeah, that’s what the board decided.” Or, “That’s how Karen wants it done.”
Basically, they rarely, if ever, acknowledge they have power to change a situation.
A resigned boss in action
I remember a few years ago watching a hugely strenuous process for one of my clients, a middle manager in a larger organization. When I saw their manager in the wild, I asked how the process was going for them.
“It’s really hard,” they said. “I haven’t really seen my kid or my partner for months.”
“Is there something you can do? Maybe take a pause and check in about how to save some time and money?” (Me, attempting to help my client.)
“Not really. The Artistic Director and Managing Director didn’t give us enough time to plan so we’re stuck until we’re done.”
They were not “done” for another 6 weeks. Aka ample time to take a pause and find a way to make life easier for everyone.
This is the problem with “resigned” bosses. They are often unaware of their ability to shift anything. They think their hands are tied long before they actually are. Or they don’t actually want to change things for their direct reports because they align more with their managers.
This is an unfortunate reality of all middle managers: They choose a side. Either they do their best to make their boss look good, often at the expense of those they manage, or they work to support their direct reports, sometimes by pissing off those they report to. Because while we’d love for middle managers to remain a conduit between those they report to and those that report to them, the truth is that they largely are forced to find a group to be loyal to in order to survive.
So what’s a person to do with a resigned boss?
First, if you bring a problem forward like “I don’t know how to get all my work done” and they say something obnoxious and unhelpful, simply say, “So what would you like me to do about this?” or “How can you help me figure this out?”
Put the burden of problem solving back on your manager. If you have exhausted all reasonable efforts, it is now up to them to find you more resources or redirect your work so it can be done within the constraints they have created.
If they respond with something about how their hands are tied and try and throw it back to you, the best way to respond is to reiterate your problem and say, “I’m happy to check in about this in a couple of days.” They will likely think this means you’re going to go back to trying to get your stuff done without the tools you need. And you will, but then return in a couple of days, present the problem again. Repeat this process, documenting it along the way until they either budge from annoyance or you have enough information to escalate it.
What if I am a resigned boss??
If you are this manager, I’m sure you’re saying something to yourself like “But sometimes that is all I can do!” or “When I say ‘It’s tough’ I’m trying to be empathetic.”
I know. You’re a good person. You’re not trying to cause a problem for your workers, but you are.
Most people can solve problems for themselves. If you give them a space to vent and maybe offer a couple of suggestions, they can usually figure out an option that will work for them.
But sometimes your workers need more resources like more time, more bandwidth, or more help. This is when you need to get all the facts together to make a compelling case to your manager. If you need your direct report to help you make that case, ask them. They might be the best one to describe the technical problem that is happening. Ask them questions about what would be helpful and really examine if you have the resources already available to help. Can you shift their workload? Can you find them more time by offering up some overtime or someone to help? And if you they need a particular thing that you just don’t have and need to buy, see if there is a temporary alternative or a way to shift some spending priorities to buy the thing.
Resigned bosses are people who are in over their head and not really ready to lead. They get in the positions they’re in because those who hire them don’t want push back or don’t do the work to find someone who can actually manage. If you’re dealing with a resigned boss, keep bringing the problem to them so they have to solve it. And if you are a resigned boss, you can get help! The nice thing about moving out of resignation is that it’s relatively simple once you overcome the inertia your position is in.