What's your Problem?

My manager has zero communication skills...

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I am currently working closely on a long-term promotions project with a senior manager. The problem is that her communication skills are dreadful. During meetings she rambles and contradicts herself, and it's never clear what exactly she wants people to do. My colleagues and I waste significant amounts of time trying to decipher her continual e-mails. Her first language is English, and she is very temperamental. How should we deal with a boss like this?

A: I don't want to sound defeatist, but there may not be any way to deal with such a boss. Authority and indecisiveness are a lethal combination: they leave underlings confused, frustrated and impotent. Parents infuriate their children when they snap: 'Because I say so!', and refuse to elaborate. Not, of course, that a boss would use these words - but even to six-year-olds, it's an abuse of authority. Your boss is clearly doing the business equivalent.

If sanity is to be preserved and success made likely, project leaders need to display at least two key qualities: clarity of purpose and consistency in approach. This doesn't mean sticking stubbornly to a predetermined programme; it means keeping the team informed and involved, with every change of direction clearly communicated and comprehensibly explained.

By the sound of it, this boss of yours is temperamentally quite incapable of displaying either clarity or consistency. And as long as she enjoys the seniority that has been bestowed on her, there's a limit to what you and your colleagues can do about it. Six-year-olds can't unilaterally exchange their parents.

Presumably, however, even your senior manager has a boss up there somewhere. And sooner or later, surely, someone must notice that this long-term project is failing to make the progress it should.

Meanwhile, my only advice is this. After every rambling meeting and confusing e-mail, do your joint best - as you already do - to make coherent sense of what she has said. Then turn it into a short minute and forward it to her with a polite note: 'Martha - this is what we think was agreed. Please amend if we've missed anything. Otherwise we'll work along these lines.'

I agree, this is not ideal. But until her unsuitability is spotted from above, it's the best I can think of.

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