How do I stop my manager blocking my career development?

This week’s problem

I have a manager who does not support my professional development. I asked other senior managers for feedback and based on what they told me, I have spent my own time and money on professional training and activities to improve my soft skills. When my manager heard about this, she started giving me negative performance reviews, saying I am not “focused”, even though she did not have examples. What can I do? Anonymous

Jonathan’s answer

You sought senior management insight on what training and development they considered you would benefit from and went ahead to create (and fund!) your own programme. Annual reviews should assess both your performance and your development, the second leading from the first; it seems your manager focuses mostly on the former.

If you take your manager’s reviews at face value, have you considered that she may have a point? Perhaps in your efforts for personal training, you have become less focused and are not performing your tasks at the level she expects of you or for the team. In other words, perhaps you are both right.

“There’s a strong tendency for managers to be task focused; however, there are three key elements of effective leadership: achieve the task, build the team, and develop the individuals,” says John Adair, best known for developing an action-centred leadership technique.

Against this three-element model, it appears your manager feels you are prioritising self-development over task. At your next meeting, you could address her concerns about your performance directly, to identify why she thinks you are not focused.

You could explain you have been taking on training, based on senior management advice, but acknowledge it might have distracted you. Ask her advice for suggestions on how to improve; if she could provide some examples, it would be helpful for your understanding and give you something specific to change.

Without being too heavy-handed, you could in your next discussion describe that in your training you have come across Adair’s leadership programmes and that these fully acknowledge the importance of achieving the task, while also developing people and the team.

Adair says: “The manager could see this as a partnership between herself and the individual, in this case to help the reader develop her skills within the team and deliver the tasks.”

Trevor Vanstone, of Perspective HR, which provides HR services and support to organisations, observed that with a broader view of team leadership, the manager could be getting more from you. “The manager’s attitude may also not be helping team cohesion,” he adds. “More broadly, the manager’s lack of support could negatively affect recruitment and retention.”

As Adair observes: “Recruiting and retaining talent is key for organisations.” If you pique your manager’s interest, leadership training could accelerate her career too.

Readers’ advice

You need to move sideways within the company and get away from underneath this manager. If it is feasible, do this in a subtle manner while retaining cordial relations with your current manager. digitaurus

I was in a similar situation and just kept plugging away until an opportunity at another company came up. It wasn’t a huge step up, but I was better equipped to assess the company culture and structure before I signed on. Marlone

Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email: