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Confused about my role. Am I paranoid?

Dear Office Politics,

I have been at my current job for over a year and can say that I really enjoy the type of work I do (civil engineering). However, I have recently become confused about what my role in the company is. For the past year, I have gotten nothing but praise for doing a good job as a project manager.

When one of the company’s senior associates decided to expand his department (municipal engineering) into the city that our office is in, my boss immediately volunteered me to help him do business development/marketing. I was very interested in the assignment and agreed to do the work. A few months later, I learned that not very many of the other managers support the decision to expand into other markets, let alone form a new department. I get the feeling that my boss (who is a VP) isn’t too enthusiastic about this either. Based on conversations that I was involved in, I learned that the company was looking to hire someone to do business development for another department (environmental engineering) who could, if possible (according to my boss), market for the work that the municipal department would do. When I heard this I told my boss that I was confused about what they would need me for if they hired this person. I told him that I was unsure of what the goal was for me in the company and that I wanted to be sure of what my reward was for working on developing the new department. He said that depended on me and that the goal was to make me the project manager of the projects I win as well as make me the head of the department when we get a substantial number of projects for that group. Considering what I knew, that seemed a little backwards.

The second part of the equation is that they recently rehired another engineer who was beginning to do business development and marketing before she left. The announcement was that she would develop a traffic department and would be the manager of those projects as well as the head of that department when it grows. However, since she has returned, I’ve noticed that a lot of the conversations regarding the work that I am supposed to be developing have included her. The problem I have with this is that the assumption is that she is doing the business development and not me. I almost feel like an extra in the conversations. And because our potential clients overlap, she has to deal with my clients and even spoke with me about me being the main contact with these people. But again, when we discuss setting up meetings, people question if I have to be there, but directly ask her if she is going.

This may be paranoia, but it would seem to me that my boss doesn’t really care about developing the municipal department and has already decided that he has a way of getting that work through other channels than according to the senior associate’s plan. On one hand I feel caught in the middle because I can’t walk away from it since it would probably signal a problem in the organization. And on the other hand, I feel like I’m being set up to fail (whether intentionally or unintentionally). I’m being told that I will head up a group that is getting no support and even being “cannibalized” by other departments who want to market to its clients.

I really do like the company and my boss and don’t want to make waves. Oddly enough, I like the engineer they rehired and respect her too. My concern is that I am being shoved to the back with little consideration, despite the good performance from the past. What do I do?


peter garber

Dear Confused,

I understand why you are confused – I am too! You have been given very mixed signals about your role in the municipal engineering project. On one hand your boss volunteered you for this project and then later advised you that if you developed the projects that you would become the department head for this group. That’s what you’ve been told. But what you see happening appears to be something quite different. The rehired engineer seems to be the heir apparent for this new work as part of her other assignments. Either one of two things is happening: Option 1- Someone (probably your boss) is reluctant (afraid?) to tell you that you are “out” as far is this new project is concerned; or Option 2- There really isn’t a plan or vision for how this work is to be done and by whom and that these decisions will be determined by who steps forward to do this work.

If the first option is the case then you need to have a meeting with your boss and ask him point blank what is really going on with this project. Do this in a professional manner and make it clear that you are asking so you know where you should put your efforts. There is really no sense in your duplicating the work that the rehired engineer is doing. If you are to go back to your previous duties and let the rehired engineer do the municipal engineering project- so be it. You need to know where you stand if this indeed is the situation so you can make better decisions about your future with this company.

On the other hand, if you believe that the second option is what’s really going on then it might be a good idea to begin by sitting down with the rehired engineer and discussing your dilemma. It is possible that she might be experiencing the same confusions as you and wondering what her role is supposed to be concerning the municipal projects. You need to come to some kind of understanding who is to do what concerning this new project and how you can effectively work together to everyone’s benefits. Once you come up with a plan go to your boss(s) and let them know what you plan to do. If they don’t have a plan of their own (which apparently they don’t) they will readily accept your collaborative plan for making this project successful.

It seems to me that the only way to determine which is really going on is to go to your boss again and have a preliminary discussion to the first option described above and say just what you have in your letter: a.) You don’t want to walk away from this situation because it wouldn’t look good for the organization; and b.) You feel that you are being set up for failure because you are being told that you are to head up a department that nobody is interested in and is being cannibalized by other departments. Your boss’s response should tell you if option one or option two is really the case. If he offers little or no encouragement about your involvement in the municipal engineering projects it is option one. If he does encourage you to continue to be involved and active in this project-looks like its option two.

Good luck and I hope that this advise helps you be less confused about your situation at work! Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Peter Garber, Author

Peter R. Garber has worked as an HR professional for over 25 years and is the author of many business books including: Winning the Rat Race at Work and 100 Ways to Get on the Wrong Side of your Boss.

  1. One Answer to “Confused about my role. Am I paranoid?”

  2. I’ve found on several occasions that middle managers have a tendency to either discuss plans with subordinates prior to obtaining final approval from their superiors, or they discover that a plan that was previously approved has somehow changed at the last minute. Then, when the original plan is altered or not put into practice, they try to avoid losing face by not “coming clean” with the subordinate about the fact that they were overruled or spoke to them too soon.

    If you elect to approach your supervisor directly to request clarification, do so cautiously, keeping in mind that your benign desire to understand what is really going on may be wrongly interpreted as pointing out the supervisor’s weakness or lack of influence in the situation. In other words, you may make the situation worse for yourself instead of making it better.

    In order to avoid this pitfall, you might consider beginning the conversation with something along the lines of, “You know, I really thought you made a good decision to move me into the marketing position. But it seems like my understanding of the original plan isn’t what’s shaping up ‘on the ground’. Are you aware of how things have changed?”. An approach like this validates your boss’s decision-making ability by showing him that you have confidence in him, and will likely serve to disarm him enough to allow him to be transparent with you about what really happened.

    By integragreg on Aug 13, 2011

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