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How to Handle an Unpredictable Boss

Posted by | February 25, 2015 | Communication, Workplace

Via QDT : How to Handle an Unpredictable Boss

If you work in the corporate world, you’ve probably experienced this. Just when you think you’ve got your workload under control, your manager gives you two new projects. They’re probably both top priority, too.

Is it your boss, your company, or the industry? Before you assume that your boss is just being whimsical, try to understand where the new priorities are coming from.

A friend of mine who works at a large software company as a program manager shared this story with me.

Her team had been working nights and weekends to release some big new features before the competition did. One morning her manager called the entire team into a meeting and completely changed the priorities. They were angry and it hurt the team’s morale. They all immediately blamed the boss.

But, it turned out that the product had been sold to a competitor! The shift in priorities wasn’t because they had a bad boss, it was because of a bigger change in the strategic direction of the company.
What to Do When Your Boss Shifts Priorities

When priorities suddenly shift, always start by assuming the best of your manager. If your manager typically makes good decisions, then it’s best to assume that you (or even your manager) may not have all of the information (or may not be able to share the information) that explains a sudden shift in priorities. This is particularly true if you have a good working relationship with your manager. It’s important to trust that changes are likely in alignment with the strategic direction of the company and that you simply aren’t privvy to the information that explains it.

This isn’t always the case, but it’s a good starting point. If, however, as John explained, the priorities are constantly changing and it’s impacting your productivity, then you need to address the issue with your manager. In fact, your manager may not even be aware of the impact of his whimsy.

So how do you approach this?…

Tip #1: Be Cooperative

This topic must be approached with caution and forethought. Instead of saying something like, “Well, what about all my other projects? I don’t think I can add more to my plate right now.”

Try this instead: “The new project sounds really interesting. Can we talk about what it’s going take to complete it?”

Think of it this way – instead of saying that it can’t be done, say “Here’s what I need to get it done.” It puts a much more positive, collaborative spin on the situation.

Tip #2: Clarify Priorities

Make it a habit to go through your work projects with your boss regularly. This gives your manager the opportunity to make changes.

It’s your job to ask the right questions:

  • Is this our new top priority?
  • Should I finish my other two projects before I start this new one?
  • Is there someone who can take over a couple of my projects so I can focus on this one?
  • If you need me to work on all the projects at the same time, then we’ll need to change the deadlines for each of them.

The idea is to help your manager understand the realistic impact of the new project they’re assigning.

Tip #3: Put it in Writing

Document your projects, deadlines, and priorities and have your boss sign off on them. Anytime there’s a change, write it down and have your boss sign off again. Keep a paper trail or an email trail. Having an active, documented committment will help everyone to understand and remember what’s already been agreed on.

However, even if you follow all this advice, you still may need to confront your manager about the constant shifts in priorities.

Be careful. Don’t attack your boss with words like “whimsical” or “indecisive.” Simply state the facts. Say that you’ve noticed that your work priorities have been changing from week to week (and if necessary you can bring your documentation of these shifts) and as a result, you’re not accomplishing your goals. Say you’d like to accomplish the goals not only for you to be more successful, but to also help your boss be more successful. Again, the idea is to show the impact of the shifting priorities, not point fingers or complain.

Oh and about multi-tasking – my sister, Deborah Boehm-Davis, happens to be a psychologist who studies dissruptions. It turns out that no one really multi-tasks – they just switch from one activity to another. There is now hard science to show that multi-tasking doesn’t work – it’s less efficient. Maybe you can send him some articles that explains the myth of multi-tasking.

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