Is there anything more frustrating than trying to give someone what they want, only they keep changing their mind? This can be particularly difficult to navigate when that person is your boss.
There’s a power dynamic involved, and of course you want to impress your boss and deliver the results they’re after. But how can you do that when they keep changing their mind?
Let’s talk about ‘managing up’ – where you learn to manage your relationship with your boss.
You might need to do what we call “managing up.” Many people recoil when they hear this expression, envisaging a power-struggle or other conflict-heavy situation. But managing up does not mean telling your boss what to do, being insubordinate, or trying to turn the tables of the boss/employee relationship!
Managing up is about effectively managing the relationship with your boss. You support them and do everything you can to make working together as smooth and pleasant an experience as it can be.
So what are some of the skills you need to work well with a boss who keeps changing their mind?
Effective listening, also known as active listening, is how you make sure that you’re really, fully understanding what your boss is asking for. If you don’t, you’ll be at cross purposes. They’ll think they have communicated their instructions clearly and be frustrated that you seem to have misunderstood. You’ll think you have understood them properly and be annoyed when they seem to be changing their mind or moving the goalposts.
Active listening involves giving them your full attention, facing them and making eye-contact. You should listen with an open mind, hearing what they’re actually saying instead of what you think they might be saying. Don’t interrupt, don’t try to impose your own suggestions until you’re asked for them, and pay attention to nonverbal cues such as body language. Then, when they reach a stopping point, ask any clarifying questions you need to make sure you’ve really understood. Your boss would much rather you clarify now than guess and end up completing a task the wrong way.
This is a trick used in interpersonal relationships all the time, but it’s just as effective for the workplace. The trick is to repeat back what the speaker has said in your own words, to make sure you’ve understood. You don’t have to be sneaky about this – say that’s what you’re doing, if you want to!
In practice, it might sound something like this: “Just to make sure I’ve understood the instructions correctly, you want me to check over the month’s sales figures with Jane and compile a one-page report ready for the staff meeting on Friday?”
At this point, your boss should let you know if there’s any key aspect of their instructions you’ve missed, or confirm that you’ve understood properly.
Speak up if something changes
A good boss won’t be annoyed with you if you speak up, as long as you do it respectfully and professionally! You’re allowed to ask for clarification, especially if instructions seem inconsistent or contradictory.
“When we met last week, you asked me to complete this task in this way. Am I understanding correctly that something has changed since then?”
You might hear that something has changed for genuine business reasons, that you misunderstood the initial instructions (see above!) or, yes, that your boss (or their boss) has changed their mind. It’s annoying, but it happens.
If the change creates a problem for you, you can speak up. If, for example, you’d started working on something and will now need more time because you’ve got to start again, or if you’ve already sent a piece of the original project to a client for approval, let your boss know.
Part of your boss’s job is to support you in doing your job to the best of your ability. That includes supporting you through unexpected changes of plan.
Proactively ask for support and help
If there’s something you don’t understand or need help with, say so! Your boss isn’t a mind-reader and won’t necessarily know you’re struggling – unless you tell them. Asking for help is one of the best ways to ensure we meet someone’s expectations.
This could be in the micro sense – “please could you just check over how I’ve set up this spreadsheet to make sure I’m on the right lines before I plug all the data in?” – or in the bigger picture sense – “I’d love to be able to develop my skills more in using this software. I saw there’s a training session next month, would you be happy for me to sign up?”“
Proactively working to improve your work output and develop your professional skills will help hugely in building a positive relationship with your boss.
Offer to help them
What can you do to make your boss’s life easier?
This isn’t about kissing up or trying to get into their good graces. When we all help each other, workplaces run much more smoothly and everyone has a better time at work.
If your boss seems overloaded with work but you have some capacity, offer to take something off their hands. If you have expertise in a particular relevant area, ask if they’d be open to hearing a suggestion or two. Be mindful of their schedule and workload – maybe don’t grab them to ask them a question as they’re about to head into a Board meeting, unless it’s truly a matter of life and death! Try to problem-solve yourself (by asking other colleagues, looking up resources on the internet, etc.) before you go to them with a non-time-sensitive issue.
Remember your boss is human!
Your boss is a person, and people are imperfect. Your boss will sometimes have bad days, make mistakes, or do things that are really annoying and frustrating. It happens! Get to know them a bit as a person if you can. Cut them some slack when they mess up. Go above and beyond as often as you can. Hopefully then they’ll do the same for you.