Q: My boss’s life is just fascinating. If you doubt it, just ask her! The problem is, she’s so preoccupied with her personal life that I get no direction from her.
Our one-on-ones get used up on details about her family, vacation, etc., and there’s no time to talk about me. While she is very nice in our chats, later she criticizes me for not keeping her in the loop. Help! —Tracy, 55, director, infrastructure
A: Try different ways of getting your needs addressed until you find a way that works.
There’s a power differential here, so don’t let the “nice” fool you. This is a control device, whether it’s intentional or not.
Also keep in mind that her continued failure to give direction depends on you remaining passive and not pushing her to do her job.
I know, you could argue that you shouldn’t have to push her to be helpful to you. But that won’t help you get what you need.
One simple approach is to go in to your meetings with a list. Take charge of the meeting by saying something like, “Today I have three things I need to discuss with you.” Be formal, with specific points to cover, alternatives to consider, and a decision for her to make.
If she diverts with social chat, acknowledge it and point her right back at your topic: “That sounds really fun; now, about this project …”
This approach will be particularly helpful if she’s just scatterbrained and doesn’t stay focused. Also, if she’s not an experienced manager and hasn’t had good leaders in her past, she may not know how to be effective in meetings with her team members. This approach gives her some subtle mentoring.
If you determine that this personal aspect is important to her, throw her some cookies by proactively asking about her kids, her grandkids or her dog. And volunteer some tidbit about your life to provide reciprocity.
Using email may also be effective, especially if you need her to state a preference and history suggests you should have a paper trail. In the beginning of the email, state exactly what you need from her (a decision, that it’s just FYI, etc.).
Then lay out the background, alternatives you considered, and any other information you want her to have. Be concise but thorough. Give her a timeline to respond, if appropriate.
Then take responsibility for following up in your regular meeting so you know she’s been informed.
Despite these steps, she may continue to complain about being out of the loop.
In this case, be more direct and ask her what her communication expectations are. Be prepared with examples of how you have attempted to communicate with her and make a concrete plan. Keep your tone pleasant and collaborative, emphasizing that you are just trying to best meet her needs. Then follow up with her periodically to make sure she is satisfied (or at least has no reason to fault your communication efforts).
During all of this, be sure that you are communicating fully with others who need to know what you are doing. This forestalls the risk to you that she’s an information roadblock that will make you look bad.