Question: For the past three years, I’ve worked for a manager who is a brilliant engineer but has absolutely no people skills. While I admire my manger’s technical expertise, it’s his lack of communication that’s a real problem. Here’s just one recent example: This past month I devoted my time almost exclusively to a “hot” project he said was his highest priority. I turned it in about a week ago and haven’t heard a single word since. Has he read it? Is he pleased or disappointed? Was it important after all? How does his boss feel about it? What’s the next step? Instead of moving on to another assignment, I’m still looking for some sort of response and closure on this one. When I asked for feedback, he said, “Right, we’ll have to get together on this,” but so far there’s been no meeting scheduled. How do I get my boss to communicate with me?
Answer: A non-communicative manager can be a real problem, but not an insurmountable one. Before you write him off, see if you can train him to offer the feedback you need and desire.
While part of any supervisor’s job description includes effective communication with his or her staff, managers are rarely promoted because of their people skills. Technical expertise and seniority often are the main selection criteria. Consequently, many bosses are superb in dealing with complicated tasks but mediocre or poor in their day-to-day interaction with their employees.
Typically, professionals who have little communication with their bosses tend to think the worst. They wonder why their manager is avoiding them. Perhaps lurking in the back of your mind is a concern that your boss hates your project and is too upset to discuss it. Catastrophic expectations run rampant in a communication void.
While it’s possible that your boss is unhappy with your work and reluctant to confront you, that probably isn’t the case. Managers with poor people skills avoid unpleasant conversations, and they’re equally uncomfortable offering praise. As a result, their subordinates often feel puzzled about where they stand.
It’s also natural to assume our colleague’s priorities match our own, especially when we’re told, “This is a hot project.” However, your boss is probably involved with a variety of hot projects and yours has likely become lukewarm compared to others. He may think that since you’ve completed your report on time, the project is a “done deal,” and he can concentrate on other more important matters. He doesn’t understand your need for closure.
You’re probably right that your boss won’t change on his own because he doesn’t have the inherent skill or insight. But he can improve his communication style with some diplomatic but persistent coaching from you.
The key to modifying his behavior (and yours) lies in asking for what you want. If he doesn’t know what you want, how can he give it to you? By taking responsibility for initiating contact with him (i.e., setting up a de-briefing meeting), you will get his attention and feedback and polish your communication skills in the process.
Here are some possible solutions for your specific problem:
- Take the initiative and schedule a meeting with your boss to discuss your project. You’re entitled to his attention, so don’t feel embarrassed or pushy about asking for it. Also, it doesn’t have to be a long meeting. If your boss’s schedule is booked, maybe set a time with him to meet you during his lunch break to discuss.
- During your meeting, tell him why it’s important for both you and the department to have closure on this issue. He may be amazed that you need this meeting, but should understand if you spell it out.
- Give him a list of questions in advance you want to discuss so he’ll have some time to prepare answers. Let him know that you really look forward to talking over the project results.
- Prepare an agenda for your meeting. Include the questions you gave him as well as some observations and insights you’ve gleaned from your research. Have several options in mind for where to go from here.
- If your boss seems a little perplexed about how to conduct the meeting, help him by following your agenda. If he has one of his own, run with it, but be sure to cover your important points as well.
- Ask for both positive and negative feedback. Don’t be content with, “Your report is good.” Find out specifics. What’s good about it? What can be improved?
- Be sure to thank your boss for his time and reiterate the advantages of your discussing the report. Verbal reinforcement should help him see why a project debriefing is essential.