When your manager cannot give you any direction
August 20, 2020 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Can more clear communication with my manager help solve this?

Hi all, I work in the communications department of a small organization. My job involves:

- Writing a high level strategy
- Creating a content calendar
- Producing original content (blogs, social media posts, graphic design on Canva, e-marketing newsletters)
- Distributing and disseminating the content (social, e marketing)
- Measuring success via analytics

We don't have a comms director, and my Comms manager seems to want to stick to managerial tasks rather than strategic direction. So any time I ask questions about the angle we want to take or the messaging we want to use, they don't like providing answers and seem to just want me to come up with everything. The problem with this way of operating is that it means I will complete an assignment with no guidance (ie: write a strategy plan) and then have to go back and redo most of it once I get the feedback because they didn't think about it in advance.

I'm starting to feel exhausted by this and wondering if there is a better way. I'm also feeling frustrated and starting to lose respect for my boss (which is sad because I really like them as a person and think they have a lot of potential to be an amazing boss, and I know they are going through a lot these days what with the pandemic, having a kid at home, and the large workload.)

My ideas so far:
- Stop asking questions, instead just fill in the blanks myself and just go forward and do all my work, send it to my boss for edits and hope they don't make me redo everything.

- Address this issue with my boss in a diplomatic way. How exactly would I phrase the request that they strategically think through the assignments they give me instead of just randomly coming up with ideas with no forethought?

- Is this normal in a Communications team for things to run like this and I'm just not used to it? Has anyone successfully changed the communication pattern with their manager to be a more productive and efficient process?
posted by winterportage to Work & Money (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Could you talk with them about how this leads to you spending time redoing work, and suggest a workflow where you send them an intermediate result (say, a outline of a strategy) for approval prior to continuing work on the assignment?

ETA: you don't need to go into the details of how they don't seem to be thinking about things in advance. Just something like "I've been looking at the current workflow and I've realized I spend a lot of hours redoing these assignments. Let's set up a system where we can decide on the final direction before I go full steam ahead preparing a detailed presentation."
posted by trig at 8:01 AM on August 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Own the inputs. If you're going in the wrong direction with what you're producing, what conversations and relationships are you missing to have the context to produce the right things for the org? Talk to your boss's peers, build your own relationships with them, and get what you need.

Your boss may just be an iterator for producing work. I feel your pain on that front, and it's led to me leaving a job as I'm much more of a one-shot get it right type.
posted by bfranklin at 8:03 AM on August 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

I've been there and it's not entirely intuitive! Stop putting a ton of polish into first drafts. Do a very rough outline with a couple of bits of sample text - possibly more than one if you have different possible ideas - and send them along as "here is a direction we could go, what do you think?"

The chunk of the work that is clearly being allocated to you is that of pitching ideas. So work on getting your pitching process down to something that is a reasonable amount of effort, and that you feel ok with refining/discarding after your boss looks at it. This is something you can totally discuss directly with your boss! You could absolutely say "I've been trying to send you more polished stuff before you've signed off on the direction, and that is clearly not efficient. So I'm planning to write pitches that are a little less polished but should give you a clear idea of the direction. Does that work for you?"

Especially if your boss is slammed, giving them a list of stuff to go "No, no, yes, definitely no, ooh great idea" to is much easier for them to process rather than expecting them to come up with the finished plan before giving it to you to execute. The upside is, it is much easier and faster for you, too, once you've gotten your flow down.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:03 AM on August 20, 2020 [21 favorites]

You sound like you occupy the perfect role to get all the arrows in the organization. In anything except actively healthy organizations, the person who voices the big ideas gets that unique combination of little direction and eager criticism. That’s because they’re the organizational scapegoat; everyone else gets to lower their organizational risk by being seen publicly leveling criticism. That entails not offering substantive direction in advance, because that increases their risk of being entangled in the criticism.

I too had an likeable, intelligent boss who went dead when any substantive tasks needed to be performed, because he was just weary of the politics and the assignment of blame. It was easier for him to either offer indifference or actively advise me not to try to fix what needed to be fixed or invent what needed to be invented. There were so many institutional incentives to avoid that work, and no rewards.

People in organizations do most of their work to defend their own safety, usually unconsciously. They just want to keep their jobs and not be picked on. I never found a satisfactory solution to this dilemma. I like fixing and inventing things, and I like the big picture. Eventually I found myself shunned — not actively; no one told me I was an asshole. I just didn’t exist and neither did my work. I was a hot potato.

I wish I had an answer to this. I never found one. I freelance and I know my work offers lots of surface area for criticism, and that no one will take on giving me clear direction. But at least I’m not stuck within those organizational settings and can (mostly) shake them off.
posted by argybarg at 8:04 AM on August 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

I've been in that position myself and I get what you're saying.

I would suggest the following:

1. Yes, talk to your boss, calmly and professionally and at a pre-booked, good time, as suggested by restless_nomad, about getting the right input earlier.

Keep the conversation going, like when you send her a less-polished thing, "as discussed, this is very rough so that I can get your input early in the process, but I could use your feedback on X, Y, Z specifically, not formatting/copy/etc." If you find she can't divorce herself from launching into the specific feedback, you may have to find another way eventually, but it's worth trying.

2. When I went from 'pure' editorial to comms/marketing, I was a bit taken aback at how much waste and redoing of things was happening. Like printing posters twice because someone didn't like the picture and didn't look closely the first time. (!!) It took me about a year to grasp that...when the core work of an organization is something else and communications is on the side of that, often there isn't a deep expertise in the organization on what it takes to put good comms out - not just to communicate effectively, but also to have an efficient workflow. A trained editor knows how to break a page down to look at the layout, the branding, the visuals, the hed, the dek, the copy, etc. A trained musician in an arts organization, say, looks, sees the right colour, and then is shocked later that they missed the title, and want you to change it on a dime. (Except they don't say that, they just freak out.)

Which is basically to say, you probably will end up redoing more work in your current job than maybe you have in the past, at least until you've had years to train everyone around effectively. I think coming to terms with that a little will reduce your stress.

3. Sometimes my mantra is "I'm here to be paid." I mean, I'm very very bad at not caring about results and efficient systems and things like that. VERY BAD I almost quit my job over a similar thing just this morning. But at the end of the day, if the organization is set up so that people do work twice and no one can change that, you can just accept that you are getting paid to do it twice. Hopefully it doesn't come to that but again, it might lower your stress level a bit right now.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:26 AM on August 20, 2020 [8 favorites]

I want to nth the people who've suggested bringing work to them earlier before it's complete for iterative review. If I'm doing a large document, I try to get my manager to look at the outline, and at a first draft that is 80% complete but still has glaring holes in it, before delivering a more finalized draft later. By 80% complete, I don't mean 80% finalized, I mean, 80% of the document is actually written, and 20% of the details are still just section headings or bullet points. None of the document will be finalized at this stage. I leave questions and notes for myself and for my manager all over these drafts -- both to make it clear that I don't consider them completed work and to direct their attention to areas where I want their input. People are much better at giving feedback when they have something concrete to react to than they are at setting direction based on vague ideas.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:42 AM on August 20, 2020 [5 favorites]

I would propose a strategic plan -- five year vision, target market position, strategic assessment (e.g. SWOT analysis), candidate goals and objectives, etc. drawn as much from the existing organizational culture as possible (like, stuff already written down by management.) Feel free to take vague generalities and make specific pictures of what that looks like X years in the future.

Then I would write a communications playbook -- audience analyses and personas, target themes, channel strategies, design choices, key phrases, tones, etc. that flow from your proposed strategy.

Then shop *that* around for iterations and changes. Once everyone signs off, there's your strategic direction for individual comm assignments. You may still get feedback on individual assignments, but you can use that feedback to converge your playbook/strategic plan to something accepted in your organization.
posted by cross_impact at 1:12 PM on August 20, 2020

It might help you to reframe your task, i.e. you are not being asked to come up with a perfect plan, but rather to think things through and bring them to your boss for their reactions. They will then focus on your work and the two of you collaborate to get a final product. You're not failing if you need to do things over.

I agree with the advice that bringing your ideas to them earlier in the development phase will make this easier.
posted by rpfields at 4:15 PM on August 20, 2020

I heartily second restless_nomad's input. I also would note that you have an assumption in your question that the fact that you need to go back and redo work is a problem. Now, if it is frustrating and demoralizing to you, that is enough for it to be a problem - but don't automatically assume it's an issue for your boss. They may simply appreciate that you do it.

So, the opportunity is to first find out your boss' perspective on the rework, and then pitch this as an efficiency improvement. Come up with some agreed upon and concrete steps to your process. For example:
* Initial assignment meeting - winterportage e-mails meeting notes with key deliverables
* Direction options - winterportage writes up options for strategic direction and sends them through. winterportageboss has 48 hours to respond, otherwise winterportage will proceed with drafting a concept document
* Concept document - winterportage creates an incomplete draft demonstrating the strategic direction selected for distribution to winterportageboss and associates. No further work is done until feedback on the concept document is received

Keep it simple, remember, this is for your boss to manage you, not for you to understand how to do each step of your job. If you can lay out the whole process from start to finish in about 5 steps with their input in a few of them you are probably on track.

Since they already seem to react better to the concrete things you create, this will give them a chance to react to the process you propose. Then you'll be sure you are on the same page and understand how much rework is simply considered part of the job.
posted by meinvt at 5:11 PM on August 20, 2020

Don't ask "What strategy should we use?" or even "Should we use strategy X?" The first one is too open ended, the second one is too easy to just say no without providing an alternative. Instead use 2 (or max 3) options and, if you can do it tactfully, present them as though it's a given that you're going to use one of them. This is usually pretty effective at getting people thinking and prompting them in make concrete decisions. "We need a strategy for this poster. Which should I use, X or Y?"
posted by anaelith at 5:37 PM on August 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

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