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When Your Supervisor Goes Back on Their Word

A little over a year ago I was promoted at work and presented with two options, one of which entailed leading a scientific program that I had spent more than two years developing with my supervisor. I declined the other choice because of the opportunity to lead this exciting new program.

Shortly after I declined the other option, my supervisor pulled a 180. She decided to lead the program herself for at least a year. Since the other option had now been filled, I was stuck. I decided to make the best of the situation. Fast forward a year and I am still trapped in a supporting role. I have the experience and knowledge to lead this program, but I can’t seem to get my supervisor to let go. How do I gently broach this conversation with her? I worry that if I broach it poorly, she may unconsciously penalize me on performance ratings that would impact my future career development.


Dear Stuck,

Yuck. I’m sorry about your violated expectation. You made a choice based on assurances and trust. That trust has been violated. Now what? I offer some thoughts on three topics:

  1. What you should learn from the past
  2. What to do in the present
  3. How to manage your future

The past. It sounds as though you failed to address your violated expectation when it happened. You moved quickly from “She decided to lead the program herself” to “I decided to make the best of the situation.” The missing step is “I asked her why she was not keeping her commitment to let me lead.” Some things you should have handled better include both addressing the broken promise and asking for a new commitment—this time a more formal and enforceable one. If someone promises to let you lead and you declined another opportunity in order to do so, you are fully within your rights the day they change the deal to say, “That was not our deal. If you are breaking the deal, I’d like to know how you will make it right with me.” The burden of justification was on your boss, but you failed to address that fact, so the fact was lost. You’ve now talked yourself into being in a petitioner role rather than an aggrieved party role. That’s you undermining you.

Let me elaborate on that for a moment: I worry a bit from the tone of your question that part of what’s going on is that you see yourself as weak. You think you have no bargaining power. Someone who asks how to “gently broach this question” and ruminates about the boss “unconsciously penalizing you” sounds to me like someone who thinks they are beholden to the boss and holds no cards. Is that true? Are you a poor performer? Do you contribute little to your organization? Is all your social and career capital dependent on maintaining the good graces of your supervisor? If not, then…

The present. You need to bolster your psychological power. Before addressing anything with your boss, address it with yourself. Take out three sheets of paper and write out three viable and attractive “Plan Bs” you could pursue if you don’t get satisfaction in your current job. This may take some time, research, networking and courage. But do it. You’ll know you’ve finished this step when you read the plans and say, “This sounds kind of cool!” Don’t stop until you do.

The future. When you’ve finished developing options, you’ll feel differently about a conversation with your supervisor. The conversation should be straightforward. First, lay out the agreement you had when you accepted the position. Remind her of her assurances that you would lead. Don’t do it in an accusatory or punishing way. But don’t be apologetic, either. Simply express your recollection of the agreement with any evidence you have to support it. Continue with the change of plans she unilaterally announced and how that affected you. Then (in whatever way is true for you) establish mutual purpose with something like this: “I want to lead this project. And I want to stay in this organization. However, if you don’t have confidence in me leading, all I ask is that you be honest about that so I can know where I stand. If I have work to do in order to gain your trust, I need to know that so that I can either get to work growing or move to a place where I fit better. Again, my first preference is to work this out. Do you see the way we got here differently? And how do you see me and my options here?”

You have no obligation to “gently broach this conversation,” as you say. You can do it confidently, respectfully and directly. And your anxiety about consequent “unconscious penalties” will disappear if you do the work needed to reassure yourself of your own value and options.

Please let me know how you proceed. I hope you’ll take the steps needed to have the career you deserve. Readers can offer input in the comments.


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9 thoughts on “When Your Supervisor Goes Back on Their Word”

  1. Kathleen Schomaker

    Appreciate the respectful empowerment of Joseph Grenny’s comments.
    Concerned that not all weakness derives from individual reluctance; powerful market forces often overwhelm personal inner resources,
    Nevertheless, this is great guidance on how to marshall those inner resources to personal advantage, growth and development.

    Many thanks!

    1. Joseph Weru

      One can also use those powerful market forces if they have positioned themselves through hard work and see themselves as exceptionally resourceful to widen their options.

  2. Kay Moughler

    Get promises in writing! I have been verbally promised a specific role for the future as well as other things under my current leadership that have been pulled away, changed, etc. When I respectfully inquired about the failure to follow through I was told there was no recollection of that conversation, or that things changed and I wasn’t owed an explanation about why they changed. Ultimately I learned that nothing stated by leader(s) is to be taken too seriously and that they are not necessarily trustworthy. I survive by deciding how to invest my time and energy into said promises (not at all at this point) and succeed solely on my own merits. My organization does allow anonymous feedback annually of our leadership, so that is an opportunity to safely voice concerns.

  3. George R Wilhelmsen

    I think Mr. Grenny’s advice was spot-on, and a good way to start the discussion.

    This may have been driven by someone higher in the organization who lacked confidence in the candidate, and her manager who did not have the gumption to support the candidate in this proposed role.

    Changes like this are seldom (in my experience) because the manager wants to. There are always exceptions to any situations, of course.

  4. Barbara Pilarcik

    A wise woman once said to me, when things are looking bleak, to remember to say YAHOO! You Always Have Other Options! Do the Plan B’s and then you will have a much better sense of your YAHOOS in life.

    1. Rachel

      What a great mnemonic- I’ll definitely be sharing YAHOO!.

  5. David Benjamin

    A Similar thing happened to me in the past.
    As a hardware Engineer I wanted to move into a new role as a software developer. I had made my desires known to my boss but to no avail.
    So I looked outside the organization and found found that role.
    When I raised my plan to leave with my boss, he promised me that there was no need for me to leave, he could arrange it. So I turned down the other offer.
    After many months past I was still in my current role, when I raised it with my boss he said “the situation has changed and that there was no opportunity for me for that role I wanted anymore.
    About a year latter I found another opportunity elsewhere. I gave my 4 week notice for resignation. My boss approached me and ask why?
    I told him I wanted that other role. Again I was told that there was no need to leave it can be provided for me right here. I could not trust in any promises. So I said, I will withdraw my notice of resignation once I’m in that new role!
    After four weeks noting had changed and this time I got out!

  6. T

    Working out the Plan B’s helps you look at best and worst case scenarios and figure out what you will do as a result. Once you look at those possibilities and know you have a plan you will feel empowered and prepared – it is amazing how much more confident you will feel when you know what your options are. I’ve been through a similar scenario and wound up having to implement my plan B, which included leaving a job I really enjoyed. My new job was a great blessing for me and 25+ years later, I still look back on that experience as a great (and positive) turning point in my life!

  7. Reka Domokos

    I found Joseph’s response to this extremely useful. Unfortunately, I can see myself in “Stuck”.

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