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Dealing with disengagement: strategies for managing the manager

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

VPS Graduate alumni and committee member Alice Moore spoke to the GRAS Committee and compiled their best strategies for managing the manager.

It’s a story we’ve heard all too often – a Grad enters a new rotation bright eyed and brimming with enthusiasm only to realise their new manager doesn’t have the time or energy to fully engage with their new graduate. This can be particularly prevalent late in the year as managers are burnt out from the year, ready for a holiday, and have less energy to engage with rotating grads who they know won’t be around for long. Our guess is that this scenario might even be compounded in 2020 which we all know has felt like about 10 years (and 26 rollercoaster rides) crammed into one.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, or maybe you’re a former-grad starting a new role and you just want some tips to get the best possible start with new management – never fear, the GRAS committee is here! We’ve compiled our very best tips and tricks to help you manage this situation and make the most of your rotation.

1. Think about what it is you want to achieve and have that conversation with your manager

Often in our grad rotations we’re asked approximately one hour into day one: “So what would you like to achieve in this rotation?” While it's great that managers ask this question of their grads, usually at this point we’re still trying to work out what on earth it was that our new team even does. For me, it usually wasn’t until about two weeks later when I’d started to know names, roles, teams and even some acronyms that I started to form some kind of an idea what it might be good to achieve in the role.

Whether they never asked what you wanted to achieve in the first place, or they asked and you didn’t have the answer until two weeks later when they’d checked out – ask if you can put some time in the calendar to have the discussion. It doesn’t have to be a long discussion, but the key is to be clear about what you want, how it fits into the work program and what action or support you need from them. For example: “I would really like to improve my data analysis skills in this rotation and I think I could do this by assisting Jenny with monthly market data report. Are you happy for me to reach out to Jenny to do this?”

Obviously, some decisions won’t always be entirely in your hands, but if you have a disengaged manager, there’s a good chance they will appreciate your initiative if you clearly identify something you’d like to achieve.

2. Be the driver of the regular catch up

When it comes to regular catch ups with your manager we’ve heard it all: from managers who schedule, cancel and reschedule to managers who don’t schedule one at all.

In our experience, the key is to be the driver of the catch ups. Make it easy for them by scheduling it in yourself, keeping it polite by offering to reschedule if the time doesn’t suit. If your manager is time poor, it also helps to keep it short. Often 15 minutes weekly is easier than an hour once a month.

When it comes to catch up time – the number one rule is to always have a clear agenda. Don’t expect your manager to drive the agenda just because they’re the manager. Turn up with clear and concise updates about your work, any items you need guidance on, and anything you need them to do. Be open about what you need from them - most managers will assume everything is going swimmingly if you don't say anything. If you’re finding yourself with a lot of spare capacity for extra work, be upfront and tell them that. It was likely their decision to hire a grad in the first place, so they must want you there for a reason!

3. Ask them how they want to work with you

Having a conversation with your manager early in the piece about how they want to work can save you a lot of headaches down the line. Do they prefer questions by teams message, email or phone? Do they want to be cc’d into everything or do they want a weekly email update about the status of certain projects?

Asking these kinds of questions helps you understand how your manager works which in turn, gives you the best chance of encouraging meaningful engagement in their preferred communication style.

4. Get to know the work going on around you and put your hand up

If you’ve raised with your manager that you have some extra capacity and they haven’t suggested any solutions, don’t give up and sit on your hands!

Take a look around you at the different work going on. Talk to your team mates to understand their work better and any suggestions they might have. This will help you to identify where you can offer a hand, progress a project that’s hit a road block or add value where a gap wasn’t even identified before.

Don’t be afraid to take responsibility for a task or identify improvements on an existing task. Instead of just seeing a problem, use your initiative and decide to be responsible for solving it.

5. Know when you need to escalate it

Unfortunately, we sometimes get to a point where we’ve tried and we’ve tried (and maybe even cried) and yet we’re just not getting anywhere. Don’t beat yourself up but don’t give up either – this is when you need to escalate it.

The beauty of being a grad is that there are so many supports in place. Don’t hesitate to have a chat to your graduate coordinator about the challenges your facing. One grad we spoke to for this article went to their grad coordinator about a challenging management situation. This led to the graduate coordinator speaking to the director who was able to facilitate the grad doing work across multiple teams as well as directly assisting the director.

That’s a wrap from us GRAS-ers! Are you going to try one of these strategies? Or do you have one of your own? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Do you have an idea you’d like to contribute to the GRAS Blog? We would love to receive your submissions! Email them through to for your chance to get published!

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