Bosses who contradict themselves.
This can be a really annoying type of person to work for. In mild forms, it just seems like they are slightly confused. In really bad situations, these bosses seem totally deranged and malicious. If you have a boss who will tell you to drop everything and work on X and then come back and ask why you aren’t working on Y, you are dealing with one of these bosses.
In most cases, these types of people aren’t outright malicious; they just have a very short memory, no clear goals, and are very unorganized. You can usually improve the situation by putting their statements in writing. For example, if your boss comes in and asks you to drop everything and work on X, write it on your whiteboard while they are there watching. For bigger items, you might follow up with a memo or email.
In some cases, you might want to draft their instructions and get them to sign off on it. Obviously, this is only worth while if it is something substantial, but having a plan or procedure that your boss has signed off on can be a powerful tool for you. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean your boss can’t ever change something. You just want to make sure that when they make a change, they realize they are making a change.
Generally, you don’t want to be heavy handed about pointing out that your boss is contradicting him/herself. Don’t beat them over the head with what they said previously, but just casually mention their previous position or directions as part of clarifying what that are saying currently. For example, if your boss gives you one procedure on Monday and comes in Tuesday with a different procedure, saying something like “OK, so does this replace the process (pulling out your notes or summary email you wrote) you gave me yesterday or is this a one time process?” This isn’t confrontational and asks a legitimate question that will help gently point out to your boss that they are contradicting themselves.
In some cases you may need a little more leverage to help encourage your boss to stick with their decisions. You can do this by making your boss’s decisions public. This only works on decisions that impact more than just yourself. It isn’t going to help you to broadcast every task your boss asks you to do. However, things that impact more than just one or two people are perfect for this treatment. You follow the same type of procedure as above to write a summary of your boss’s directions. Once your boss has agreed with them, distribute them to other people that they impact. Better yet ask your boss to distribute them. You might email your boss with your summary and say something like “This is the new policy as I understand it. It might be helpful if you sent it out to the whole team so we are all on the same page. Please edit or modify anything that I may not have gotten right.”
Your boss gets to look organized (for once) by actually putting something in writing and it makes it much more difficult to change their mind because “everyone” knows what they said. If nothing else, it makes it much more difficult for them to forget.
If your boss is truly deranged and malicious, none of these techniques will work, but you may be able to use them as a litmus test to see if there is hope or if you should consider moving on to a less erratic work environment.
Other posts on dealing with an unorganized boss:
Originally published on December 14, 2005.