Reader Question: How to Raise Work Quality Issues to Your Manager

A reader asks:

I need advice on discussing work quality with my manager, but it’s our department’s collective work quality that I have a problem with.  After 20+ years as a software engineer in a large variety of industries and companies, I am now an IT business analyst on a team that does back-end software, not client facing.  I am very familiar with the business concept that quality only has to be good enough, not gold-plated, so that’s not my issue.  My issue is that my team has a very immature sense of what constitutes “good enough.” They use excuses for putting out poor quality:  it’s not client-facing so doesn’t have to be pretty, everybody here has a technical background so it doesn’t have to be easy to use, etc.

Over the year and a half that I’ve worked here, I’ve watched very carefully for indications of what the other departments think of us and our work. Everybody is diplomatic, but I clearly see that they think we’re “THAT team” — the team that’s hard to work with, that doesn’t document our systems, etc.  So I’m pretty sure my feelings about our work are justified — we could do better!  And as the person who gathers requirements and interfaces between my developers, the quality assurance folks, and the business folks, I feel this also reflects very poorly on me professionally.  I’m very embarrassed by our software.

How do I convince my manager that we need to improve?  I know I need to couch it in terms of how we could be better and be as positive as possible.  I’ve tried, but he keeps using those poor excuses.  I’ve tried using my work to improve things surreptitiously, for example by writing better documentation, but feel thwarted in that, too. They design the software for their own convenience, users be damned.

How do I discuss this with my manager without making him defensive?  So far, our 1-1 sessions have been entirely him coaching me on how to be a good business analyst as if I was fresh out of school.

You can try, but you should be prepared for the possibility that you might not be able to do anything about this.

The thing is, if your manager hasn’t seen this on his own or isn’t concerned about it, it’s likely that the problem lies more with him than with your team. Yes, your team are the ones actually producing the mediocre work that is concerning you, but your manager is the person presiding over all this and giving it his stamp of approval. In fact, the very nature of his job charges him with evaluating the team’s work and deciding whether it’s meeting a sufficiently high bar. And from what you’ve described here, it sounds like he thinks everything is just fine.

That said, you can certainly approach your manager and make a case for specific changes and improvements. When you do, don’t frame this as a general “we do middling work and need to do better” stance, since that’s likely to put your manager on the defensive. Instead, explain the feedback that you’ve heard about your team and make specific suggestions about what could be done differently.

Those specific suggestions are going to be key. Tell your manager exactly what you think could be done differently – including how and why – so that he has specifics to consider and react to. And even if you have a dozen things you’d like to change, you’ll probably have better success if you start with just a few key proposals. After all, implicit in this conversation will be the message that he’s not running things well enough, so you want to approach it with some emotional intelligence and give him some room to save face. (And while you may not want to do that on principle, it’s in your best interest – people often react by blaming the messenger when they’re not given the opportunity to save face.)

If you try that and it doesn’t get you the results you want, at that point you’ll face a choice: Accept that these issues are unlikely to get resolved under this particular manager, or decide that you’re willing to escalate your concerns. The latter can be full of land mines, but if you happen to have the ear of a higher-up who you know to be reasonable and likely to be concerned about this kind of thing, you could consider speaking discreetly with them about your observations. Proceed with caution, of course, because this option can backfire. You only want to do this if you’re confident the higher-up will handle it well and give you some cushion from any fall-out with your boss.

Good luck!

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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