What Your Manager Doesn’t Tell You
8 things that are left unsaid from managers and what they mean
Managers keep a lot of secrets from you—not necessarily intentionally, and rarely ever maliciously. They of your immediate purview, and many times, for various reasons, they hold back from sharing these things.
I have flipped back and forth between being a manager and an individual contributor since around 2003. Having experienced both points of view, I want to provide some behind-the-scenes perspective on the things your boss might not be telling you. There is usually important context behind what your manager says—or doesn't say—so keep that in mind the next time you hear one of these responses.
“Many things are beyond my control, but I can’t share them with you.”
I remember a time when I was asked to do a major reorg. I had to split my teams into multiple pieces and place them with different groups. I didn’t want to, but my instructions were exact, and they came from the top, so there was very little wiggle room. Regardless, I still had to deliver the message as if it were my own decision.
My teams gave me a lot of flack for supporting the move, but my job was to land the reorg despite my personal feelings. The restructuring was so massive and complex that any cracks could have caused the house of cards to tumble down, so I had to keep the communication very siloed, even to my own leadership team.
This made the process even more difficult since I could not be transparent with anyone about everything. It was devastating to have to break the news to person after person, team after team, especially since I disagreed with the decision. I had to look hundreds of people in the eye and sell them on something that I myself didn’t want to happen. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my career.
Someone told me early on that being a manager meant being good at being a “sh*t umbrella.” I had no idea what that meant until I had to grapple with layoffs, reorgs, and performance plans.
Sometimes, that is what your manager is going through. When they withhold information—especially information about events beyond your team—they may be shielding you from something that they can’t tell you, even though they wish they could.
“I am uncomfortable talking to you about promotion.”
Most managers hate talking about promotions, but often, they have a very specific reason. In many organizations, promotion is a black box, even for managers. They are often afraid to make you an implicit promise they can’t keep, and they would rather say nothing than be wrong.
On the other hand, sometimes managers don’t talk about promotion because they know you'll be disappointed by the answer. I have been in this situation multiple times: my reports often excelled in their roles, but they lacked the skills they needed to progress. They weren’t ready, but they also weren't ready to hear that they weren't ready. This put me in a really difficult position.
I wish managers were more upfront about these things, but I can also understand their reluctance. These uncomfortable conversations can make the relationship feel very fraught, so a lot of managers just avoid them rather than confront them.
“Your career success is not top of mind for me.”
It's important to remember that this is not personal. Most managers have multiple reports on their plate. It can be a challenge to juggle that alongside their own day-to-day responsibilities. Unfortunately, what ends up being neglected is often their focus on your career success. They aren't intentionally ignoring your growth; rather, they are trying to manage everything that's coming their way.
Managers, for all their strengths, are not superhuman. Even the best boss has a limited amount of time and bandwidth, which is why you are responsible for your success. Yes, a manager can be a great guide and support, but that is not a given. Being proactive and taking the reins of your career will be critical to your long-term growth. That means advocating for yourself and working alongside your manager to move in the direction you want to go.
Don't wait for someone else to do something for you when you have more control—and more incentive—to do it yourself.
“I don’t keep track of what you do on a day-to-day basis.”
Most of the time, when I've managed people, I've had half a dozen or more reports. Again, it can be really hard to keep track of what everyone is doing on a day-to-day basis.
We tend to assume that our managers know everything about what's going on with our work. But our work probably makes up only a small fraction of their mindshare. That's why you must be prepared to answer questions, fight for resources, and unblock yourself when necessary.
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