Some people just aren’t very good at communicating. We live with that awful truth every day in all parts of our lives. But when your boss doesn’t communicate, it can be absolutely maddening!
OK. Let’s be honest with each other. Most people are TERRIBLE at communicating. Yet communication is the most important part of any interpersonal relationship. And that includes our work relationships.
Successful communication isn’t easy
Getting two people to truly hear and understand each other is a monumental challenge. Perhaps you are trying to work things out with a boss. Or with a mate. Or even with a customer service person at that soulless bank that bounced your rent check.
In my own consulting practice, no matter what I’ve been asked to help fix, no matter how dire the funding problems or the need for technological enhancement, the real problem is always communication in some way. Luckily, it’s also the biggest part of the solution.
Successful communication is difficult. Assuming someone is actually trying to communicate, the process involves two basic things: sending and receiving. Unfortunately, what you think you are sending, or what you meant to send, isn’t what the other person is hearing.
Why is communication so hard?
There are numerous reasons for this. There can be language barriers, an unwillingness to listen, lack of familiarity with the concepts, and/or internal filters stemming from prejudice, disinterest, dislike, etc. Or the person just thinks very differently than you do. And you aren’t connecting no matter how many times you repeat what you’ve just said.
In law, the concept of a valid contract is based on complete understanding and agreement of terms. Basically, what the party of the first part (you) agrees to, must be fully understood and agreed to by the party of the second part (them). The sent and received messages have to be mirror images of each other for the contract to be valid.
Great care must be taken to insure that there is mutual understanding. And it’s worth the extra time and energy to make sure that real communication is taking place. Unfortunately, in everyday life, people rarely take the time to ensure that others really hear things the way they are meant.
What happens when your boss doesn’t communicate well?
Many bosses assume their staff knows what they need to know. But this is often far from the case. To further complicate the already difficult communication process, many bosses don’t bother to keep their staff fully informed. And some keep their staff almost completely in the dark.
So there you are, trying your best to do a good job, with only bits and pieces of what you really need to know. And some of those bits and pieces aren’t even what your boss meant to communicate in the first place. Not that most bosses can be counted on to realize that.
In addition, there are those bosses who make an effort to communicate what they want to say, but they use methods that make it impossible for them to get feedback or to communicate effectively. Therefore, they can’t in fact tell whether the message was received and understood as intended.
Still your boss can still hold it against you because they told you what to do. They are the boss after all. And is it their fault you misunderstood? The answer may be “yes,” but that won’t help you one bit.
Bosses who use distancing techniques
One boss I know only spoke to employees in groups — and never participated in any one-on-one direct communication. Whenever he had something to share, even if it actually applied to only one of the staff, he called a few staff together before broaching the subject.
When employees tried to speak to him individually, he would be polite, but he always found ways to end the exchange as quickly as possible. He was using distancing techniques. Avoiding intimacy of any sort in work relationships is a form of defense. Sadly, a great deal of important feedback is lost this way.
The ironic thing is that these bosses, no matter what their distancing technique, don’t realize they are often defending against people who really want to help them. As difficult as it may be, it’s worth attempting to find a way to break through their defenses, since what works best is to establish a one-on-one relationship.
If your boss shows signs of a fear of intimacy, respect his needs. Make sure you keep your approaches friendly but business-like to maintain some comfortable distance. But don’t give up trying.
Bosses who cut off communication
Another boss I know held a weekly meeting for her key staff, but she structured it in a way that provided her a forum to cover only things she wanted to talk about and left little room for the others to contribute.
In fact, when they tried to speak, she cut them off quickly and went on to her list, which was always long. She loved lists. Rarely did she actually share things her staff needed to know to do their own jobs. Nor did she allow her staff time to exchange information about their own projects, even though their projects actually were interconnected at some points.
In effect, her structure minimized true communication. And yet she felt good because she made time in her extremely busy schedule for these regular staff meetings. Meanwhile, because of her one-way style and because her staff felt it wasn’t worth mentioning, they never told her about their frustration. (More lack of communication.)
E-mail attacks in the night
In contrast to the “boss doesn’t communicate” style, another boss I knew used kamikaze e-mail attacks as his management style. He smiled at his employees during the day, but at night after everyone left, he spent hours writing lethal e-mails that told his staff what they had done wrong and what he expected them to do.
In the morning, people came in, checked their e-mails, and often sat dumb-founded by what they read. One staff member who never heard a word of criticism during the day found an e-mail telling her how unacceptable her work was and how she’d better improve or else.
When the employee tried to talk to her boss in person, the boss was always too busy. He would say, “You read my e-mail and know what I expect.” Then he’d smile and say something reassuring, until the next e-mail attack.
What to do when your boss doesn’t communicate
In the case of the boss who held those “listen to me” staff meetings, it would have been worth approaching her with some ideas for change. But since real communication involves the other person’s ability to receive what you are saying, you’d need to find a reason that hits home.
Just announcing that you’d prefer better communication wouldn’t address the critical question: What’s in it for her? Make sure you think of a reason that resonates with her, not just with you.
For instance, tell her about a specific time when better communication among your peers might have made a difference. Then ask for her help in facilitating greater exchanges of information, issues, problems, etc. during these meetings.
This way she doesn’t hear it as criticism of her management style, and you’ve managed to shift the nature of her meeting from “listen to me” to “let me listen to you.” If she gets positive feedback from such a change, this could begin to help influence the way your boss interacts in general.
As for the e-mail manager, he most likely has interpersonal issues that require more professional intervention than this article can address. But still, it pays to make the effort to begin regular in-person chats with him.
I’d suggest NOT bringing up the e-mail attacks until you’ve established a connection and some trust. Clearly your manager doesn’t like confrontation and probably uses distancing as a self-protection mechanism to avoid personal attacks. So you won’t get anywhere by telling him what he’s done wrong. He’ll just set up more defenses.
A few more thoughts
If your boss doesn’t communicate well (or at all), there is usually a way to help open up communication at least to some degree. But it takes a lot of patience and understanding on your part. By showing you are truly on the boss’s side, you can gradually start to offer suggestions (rather than criticisms).
But it is up to you to make sure you are really trying to help and not just trying to get back at your boss. Or prove you are the one who’s right. Your approach makes all the difference. People can usually tell if you are sincere. And they can sense whether you are helping or attacking.
Even if their intuition alone isn’t cluing them in, your choice of words and attitude will eventually give you away. So begin any attempt at improving communication with the idea of helping to find a solution for all — and hopefully not diminishing anyone in the process.
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