The “Clueless” Boss
Q: My boss doesn’t seem to have a clue about what I do, or if she does know about it, she sure doesn’t seem to appreciate it. How can I tell her what a great job I’m doing?
A: Yes, she does know and yes, she does care. The problem, however, may be your boss doesn’t value your contribution in the same way you do. For example, you are immersed in your portion of a project. You’ve done everything asked of you on time if not ahead of schedule. As far as you’re concerned, your efforts deserve high praise. Your boss, however, is focused on the entire project, some parts of which may be behind schedule and others that may be proving difficult to complete because of unforeseen obstacles.
That doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. Instead, you can initiate a conversation with your boss specifically about what you’ve accomplished and seeking her feedback. Before you proceed, however, make sure that you are comfortable receiving feedback because it’s always possible that some aspects may not be as positive as you expect. Asking for feedback is an effective way to open a dialogue with your boss, which will give you insights into how your contribution is valued—as well as what’s on your boss’s mind. There could be developments afoot that you know nothing about, which are causing your boss to appear “clueless.”
Here’s a true story: Henry was working overseas for a U.S. company, reporting to a boss who was difficult to work for because she was demanding at times, yet uncommunicative regarding the job he was doing. Discouraged, Henry thought about seeking a job outside the company. Instead, he took my advice to initiate a dialogue with his boss to solicit her feedback and make sure his priorities were aligned with hers. There was a little improvement after that, although his boss was still distracted. Then suddenly, she was promoted—and Henry ended up with her job! Had he left the company, that opportunity would have passed him by.
Now there are times—although I’m convinced this occurs in the minority of cases—when a boss is truly clueless. Assuming that you’ve taken a good, long look in the proverbial mirror, and you’re sure that you haven’t imagined this or perpetuated the problem in some way, there are two basic strategies for dealing with a disinterested boss.
One is to go to H.R., assuming that there in someone in that department who can be your trusted advisor. Your purpose is not to complain about your boss, but rather to get some advice on how to elicit feedback, as well as learning opportunities. Although H.R. won’t tell you, chances are they are well aware that you’re dealing with a disinterested boss, and will lend a sympathetic ear. If it’s any consolation, your co-workers probably have the same experience with your boss, although don’t resort to the gossip mill to find out. This is a time to make doubly sure you’re acting professional at all times.
Another way to deal with a clueless boss is to include her boss on a three-way conversation about the project you’re working on. This conversation cannot be personal; this is not about you or your boss. Rather, the discussion is about the project that you’re working on, reporting your progress to date, and getting advice and feedback on certain other aspects of the project. Keep your questions and comments squarely on business and productivity issues to diffuse the emotions. Your boss’ boss will pick up on the fact that you aren’t being mentored and guided, without you having to say a word.
Whether your boss is clueless or just preoccupied, remember it’s all about performance, not personalities. The more you keep you focus on what you’re doing and how you’re contributing, the more likely you will be to find others to guide and champion you.
The Extraordinary Career features proven success strategies and advice for recent graduates and young professionals from William J. White, who draws upon a successful corporate career, including as Chairman and CEO of a New York Stock Exchange-traded company. Bill is now Professor at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, and author of the career book for young professionals, From Day One: CEO Advice to Launch an Extraordinary Career.
Got a question? Email Bill White at email@example.com