First-class coach: An impractical manager

My manager is very intelligent and strategic, but doesn't seem to have a very good grasp of detail.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I'm having problems with my manager. He is very intelligent and strategic but not at all practical. He's always vague when he wants something done, which is confusing for me and my team. We need specifics and details, and he never provides them. I pride myself on doing a good job, but I can't do it without more clarity from him.

A: Psychometric profiling in western countries suggests that roughly half the working population share your preference for facts and precise details. The other 50% prefer to look at the bigger picture and are more interested in ideas. Similarly, about half of us like clear boundaries in our work - as you do - while the rest like to be more flexible and not tied down to deadlines and specifics. The combination of opposite types can be very fruitful - but it can also lead to friction.

It seems you'd like your boss to provide you with very explicit expectations of what's to be done, by when and by whom. And you'd probably like him to acknowledge that you have delivered on his expectations to the letter, once the work has been done. On his side, he prefers to give you a general idea of the result he's after and allow you to use your initiative to do whatever is required without interference from him. Since you usually do a good job, he trusts that you'll continue to deliver, leaving him free to focus on the future, unencumbered by the detail, which he may find rather boring.

You are both using a style that comes naturally and feels the most comfortable. It may be possible to modify your styles, and a certain flexibility in dealing with people who are wired differently from you is the mark of a successful leader, but neither of you is likely to change completely.

Before setting out to change your line manager's behaviour, consider the following. What impact does his style have on you? How often does the way he operates have a negative effect on the task you're charged with delivering? Does this behaviour genuinely have a bad effect on your whole team, or is it principally your problem? Once you've assessed the impact of his style, you can decide if there's a good case for asking him to change. If the answer is yes, there are several possible courses of action.

One would be to create a project briefing sheet, a single page that outlines all the major requirements for the task: its purpose, the people who need to be involved or informed, the timing for the activity, the budget, any particular constraints, and so on. Then ask for a meeting with your manager and say to him: 'I'm finding that I tend to need a bit more information on projects than I generally get and this is impacting on my team's effectiveness. I wonder if you'd be prepared to start using this format in future, as a back-up to the verbal briefing?'

In case he asks for examples of things not going well as a result of a lack of unclear expectations, have a recent case up your sleeve and, without casting blame on him, describe briefly how more specific information would have helped you and your team perform better.

He's unlikely to refuse to use the form, but if he agrees to use it but fails to do so, take a blank copy to your briefing meeting and fill it in with him on the spot. If he's reluctant to adopt this more formal process, suggest you trial it for a few weeks. If it improves things, be sure to thank your boss for working this way - to you it may be the only logical way to operate, so you may not feel he deserves any praise for complying, but the fact is he will have had to change a habit of his lifetime and that's never easy.

A client of mine, who sounds rather like your boss, likes to get on with projects on his own, without updating anyone on progress. He recently realised that by reporting back regularly at critical stages in the process, he has made his colleagues feel more confident and involved. This in turn is making it more likely the project will succeed. 'As I don't personally need that continual checking back, I hadn't realised others might want it,' he told me.

Now that he understands this method of managing people more successfully, he's likely to include it in his repertoire of behaviour, even though his default position will still be to do things in a way that suits him. It's worth thinking about what your default settings are and whether it might be useful to flex them sometimes.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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