advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My boss has ambitions for me that I don’t share

I work for a non-profit, and I’m nearing retirement. Recently, I was assigned a new manager (my old boss left to go to another organization) who’s much younger than me (in his 30s). He’s also full of energy and ambitious, and constantly trying to “motivate” me by encouraging me to take on more responsibility and generally just work harder. The implication is that if I do, I might be promoted. Frankly, at my age I’m kind of over it. I’m really good at my job, and I’ve been a valuable contributor to this organization for years. At this point in my career, I don’t have any grand ambitions to move up in the organization. I just want to be left alone to do my work…or better yet, I’d like my old boss back! – Name withheld

Your circumstance is interesting because, on the face of it, your new manager would seem to be acting in a way that’s in the best interests of your organization.

Most people—including you, I would imagine—probably agree that one of the primary responsibilities of any manager is to “motivate” their employees. Managers are meant to ensure workers are engaged in their work, and performing at the highest possible level at all times. As the authors of The Manager’s Bible (2005) explain: “Motivating employees is what it’s all about…”[1]

The mistake your new manager seems to be making is assuming that what motivates him—namely, career advancement—motivates you as well.

If this were the case, then yes – taking on more responsibility and generally going the extra mile would make sense for you. It’s one obvious way to distinguish yourself, and prove worthy of advancement. But because that’s not what you want, your manager’s approach can only de-motivate you instead – and that in turn makes you less productive than you might otherwise be. I like to remind folks that while we might like to think we’re above it all, and that we’ll always  be the same superstar performer no matter how we’re managed, that’s just not true. The data simply does not support this.[2] Our on-the-job performance is very much a function of workplace treatment; it’s a consequence of how we’re being managed.

Through his misguided attempts to “motivate” you then, ironically your new manager is actually doing organizational harm.

In First, Break All the Rules (1999), Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman have advice for bosses like him. It’s “break the Golden Rule.”[3] That’s an awkward way to put it, but the sentiment is straightforward enough: Your manager should treat you as you want to be treated, not the way he wants. That means taking the time to figure out what his employees want from their job and workplace experience—which in your case seems to be staying in your lane, continuing to perform at a high level, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. That’s what’ll keep you happy, and at your on-the-job best.[4] The fact that he hasn’t done this, or figured out that’s what he should do, suggests he lacks the capacity to empathize.

And that’s a terrible trait to have in a manager.

So what can you do?

Well, you could literally try to get your old manager back, I suppose. Perhaps there’s an opening for you at their new organization? If you do make inquiries, I’d urge discretion, however. Any manager who has trouble putting himself in your shoes probably isn’t going to be very understanding if he learns you’re looking around.

But if you choose to stick it out, you are absolutely right to be concerned.

What may have started out as genuinely well-intended efforts to bring out the best in you could transform into something more sinister should you appear to actively resist. He will see this as reflecting poorly on him professionally, and his capacity to manage (which it does, of course, but not for the reasons he thinks). At best it’ll sour your relationship – and at worst it might prompt him to consider replacing you.

So do your best. Play nice – and when tries to get you to do more, remind him of how busy you already are (even if you’re not). More importantly, match his levels of enthusiasm and can-do attitude even as you quietly resist the workload he has in mind for you. But protect yourself too. Document your major accomplishments (if you don’t do this already, it’s a great habit to get into), and make sure your allies in the organization continue to be pleased with your performance.

Hopefully by the time any of this comes to a head, you’ll have made it to a comfortable retirement.



[1] Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy. The Management Bible. 2005 (Wiley), p. 61.

[2] Pfeffer, Jeffrey. The Human Equation. 1998 (HBS Press), p. 36-37.

[3] Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules. 1999 (Simon&Schuster), p. 151.

[4] The surest way for your manager to do this, according to Buckingham and Coffman, is “Ask. Ask your employee about her [sic] goals…” (p. 152).


  1. Bill

    “Play nice – and when tries to get you to do more, remind him of how busy you already are (even if you’re not). More importantly, match his levels of enthusiasm and can-do attitude, even as you quietly resist the workload he has in mind for you”

    That made me laugh. But it’s a valid suggestion – in the time-honored tradition of “fake it ’til you make it” but with a different, but equally worthy goal: “fake it so you can get through to retirement”. This is a survival technique but one that may very well work with a manager who doesn’t seem to have any insights into how to get the best performance from each of his employees.

    Documenting your accomplishments is great advice. I would also schedule a meeting with my new manager and his manager to have a frank, professional discussion about each of our respective expectations, with a goal to having me be the best employee I can possibly be so that can benefit from a motivated employee and minimize the disruptions associated with a disgruntled employee and / or having to hire a replacement.

  2. Derek Steel

    Alternatively, would it really be so bad to just have a frank conversation with New Manager? Just tell him “Look, I do what I do, I do it well, here’s a list of my accomplishments and day to day duties and contributions, and in terms of work-life balance I’m really not interested in pushing beyond these things into new realms.” It might not be a lack of empathy on New Manager’s part, but rather just a blind spot due to inexperience with motivations of people different from them. It sometimes never even occurs to younger people that everyone doesn’t think like them, but given half a chance they may be able to be enlightened on this point. On the other hand, if pushing people to do more is part of what New Manager gets evaluated on by *his* superiors, then of course you have a problem, and your job is probably in danger as he considers how to weed out “under performers” and replace them with more ambitious workers.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


The work needs to get done

I’m a mid-level manager who works in a time-sensitive, and relatively intense work environment. While I’m a fan of employee empowerment and do my best

Read More

To comment on a specific post, scroll to the bottom of the post’s page and submit your comment there. To search the archive, click here