Can you help me communicate better with my possibly ADHD boss?
October 26, 2020 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I find it hard to get him to concentrate on more than one issue at a time – so if I send an email with three questions in it, he may only answer one of them. I feel like I am nagging having to repeatedly email the same questions to get a clear answer. I don’t think he is doing this deliberately/maliciously, and with other tics in his behaviour I wonder if he has undiagnosed ADHD. Can you recommend approaches that will help me get and keep his attention?

I know we have very divergent communication and organisation styles, and that it shouldn’t be my job to ‘manage up’, but that’s where we are, and I’m getting really frustrated at having to ask two or three or more times for him to answer or acknowledge basic/uncomplex questions.

I try to manage this by only emailing one query at a time, but sometimes that just isn’t possible, e.g. if I write: “Can you check that the attached is the final version that XX has seen, and add your paragraph to it so I can send it off this week?”

I will get “Looks great, thanks a lot for sorting this out!”. He will not have added his paragraph to it, and often won’t have actually answered my question (i.e. has it been seen by XX), which, from experience, makes me anxious that he hasn’t actually read the question properly (this has happened many times before).

He’s always apologetic when I come back to him about things and I genuinely don’t think it’s deliberate. I have raised the issue of communication styles, and he always says that what I do is fine and is unable to suggest any better ways for me to ask him things, and he is never critical of how I raise things with him. So I assume that he just has issues processing multiple requests. Is there anything I can do to frame it so they are more obvious? I’ve tried bullet points, lists, numbers, separating them as much as possible, bold, follow up phone calls, to no avail. Help?
posted by AFII to Human Relations (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would you be willing to be more direct about the problem? "I'm asking you for multiple things and you are only getting back to me about one or two of them and then I have to ask you again".
posted by rglass at 9:06 AM on October 26

If he is that inattentive, he's not paying attention to you for what you do to matter all that much. You're probobly better communicating by phone then following up with email in this case, to reinforce what was said. Maybe try to consolidate all your stuff into one phone call a day for brevity purposes if possible.

Do you do any type of one on one meeting with your boss, that would be a time to check in on those to do items, and keeping a list for the well would make both of you're jobs easier I think.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:06 AM on October 26 [2 favorites]

Email isn't working perfectly. On a regular basis - daily, every 3 days, weekly, whatever, send an email with hte questions really clearly listed. Not in the body of text, more like
The Fitzwalter job is going as scheduled, to keep it on track, I need to know
1. Who is managing the printing? ______?

Pat and Lee on my team are requesting vacation time for Thanksgiving, which needs your approval
2. Do you approve Thanksgiving time vaca request Friday, 11/27 for Pat and Lee _____?

I'm in a bit of a tangle with Production. Group A can't move forward without documentation from Group B, but that manager, Terry, is on sick leave, and the group is really backed up. Can we discuss that by phone, and maybe you can help me sort it out? I'll call tomorrow morning if that works.
3. Phone meeting tomorrow morning okay? _____

Then you call within 2 days and get all the questions answered. I d.on't know why people can't answer more than 1 question by email, but it's extremely common
posted by theora55 at 9:08 AM on October 26 [11 favorites]

I'd be more likely to ascribe his behavior to being (overly?) busy and trusting you as an employee. As time becomes limited for many managers, they often focus their time on the issues that are high priority and/or high risk. Although this is not a great behavior, it makes sense from an organizational perspective. If they are in a situation where they have to leave something unaddressed on the table, many managers will prefer to leave highly trusted/low risk employees unattended to than a pressing issue that really needs their input.

If I were in a hurry, I could see myself skimming your question about the "final version" as "[c]an you check [...] the attached [...] so I can send it off this week?" Essentially there are three statements in that one sentence - why you need something, a question to him, and when you need it by.

I realize you stated you already tried bullet points, but if I were him, I'd much prefer something like:

"Question: is the attached document the final version that XX has seen?
Ask: could you send me your paragraph about XYZ?
Need by: this week"

In the extremum, I've found some managers move to a "only address issues right in front of them" mode. That's really not a good thing, but one technique I've used is to book a 15 minute meeting with them in order to get what I need. Those sorts of managers tend not to pay too much attention to meeting invites and just blindly accept them, providing meetings as a last option.
posted by saeculorum at 9:08 AM on October 26 [6 favorites]

One possible way forward here is to agree in advance some stuff where you don't need his detailed input - he delegates responsibility to you, and you make decisions & tell him the outcome.

Maybe start with the tedious crap that you're both clearly bored with your having to ask him every time? Then build out from there.

In the good version, this path maybe leads you towards more recognition / higher pay / promotion. In the bad version, you do his job as well as your own, while he takes credit & you get exploited. Check which one would apply in your workplace before you commit yourself.
posted by rd45 at 9:22 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]

@rglass I have almost word for word said "I'm asking you for multiple things and you are only getting back to me about one or two of them and then I have to ask you again" - he is apologetic and says it won't happen again. Then it does.

@theora55 I tried shifting from prose to numbered lists like you suggest, it doesn't seem to make a difference (if anything, it seemed to make it worse, like I was overwhelming him).

I should probably clarify that I'm an academic, so maybe boss/employee is making it sound more hierarchical than it is. I'm tenured, so is he, but he runs a course I teach on so is technically my 'line manager'.
posted by AFII at 9:25 AM on October 26

I try to manage this by only emailing one query at a time, but sometimes that just isn’t possible, e.g. if I write: “Can you check that the attached is the final version that XX has seen, and add your paragraph to it so I can send it off this week?”

I have ADHD and although I would be able to parse this email, it actually isn't as clear as you may think. Cramming multiple requests into a single sentence is not ideal business communication, even for neurotypical people.

I would have written simply:

Is the attached the final version that XX has seen?

And upon receiving a response, replied back:

Great - can you add your paragraph to it, so I can send it off this week?

For a boss without the problems you outline here, I would just do one email with bullet points like:

-Is the attached the final version that XX has seen?
-If so, can you add your paragraph to it so I can send it off this week?

But this may not work in your situation.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:25 AM on October 26 [13 favorites]

Put it in a table format with the columns labelled

-Issue or question details
-Type of response needed (detailed answer, confirmation of action approval, sign-off, whatever)
-(Boss's name)'s response

Higlight the response column in a pleasant but bright colour and say - could you fill out your response to each open issue or question? I know you're busy so I've put all the details you'll need, deadlines, etc. so all you need to do is fill in all the fields highlighted in pink'

And if that doesn't work then you've got the kind of boss you need to go around, over, or through.
posted by cilantro at 9:30 AM on October 26 [2 favorites]

I want to add - my previous line of work involved regularly soliciting complex information from a bunch of different people with different places in the hierarchy, different work styles, different first languages, different local office cultures, etc. There is NO WAY to devise a perfect method of phrasing information that will work for everyone. There just isn't. So his inability to parse emails the way you write them is not necessarily a him problem or a you problem, it's just a style mismatch. Try not to get too invested in the idea that he's Doing It Wrong, even if that's how it feels to you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:32 AM on October 26 [14 favorites]

This is normal. It happens to me all the time with a variety of people. It's a lot more widespread than you're imagining.

All I can offer is that instead of sending one email, send three, each with one question in it. Yes, it's annoying, and sometimes ends up being a bit contrived, but if he can't cope with long emails (and most people skim read emails in my experience) you want ones with a couple of sentences in where his action is clear. You can send them out quick fire and see if that works, no need to wait for responses, and if that fails fall back on the question-answer-question style.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 9:36 AM on October 26 [12 favorites]

Right, so you introduce the questions in the email, get the answers by phone.
posted by theora55 at 9:54 AM on October 26

Have you tried asking him what works for him instead of pointing out it's not working well and just getting an apology?

It would be nice if he would just do the thing, but if Option B is to find out how to make him do the thing from the expert in doing so, it'll let you get on with your work.

Set an in-person meeting for this, get in front of a whiteboard, and sketch out what he says works for him.

And seconding just scheduling meetings to ask him the questions and get answers. You can send the agenda in the meeting request.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:56 AM on October 26 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I think you have to augment with not-email. If you can schedule a time for a meeting or call and bring a stack of tasks and sit there (in person or virtually) while they process things, that might be the most reliable way to get things done. My department head is perpetually overwhelmed and her inbox is an unmanageable catastrophe, and whether she sees/reads and email is really up to chance, but it always got done if I got physically in her office with the thing. Sometimes I'd email it, she'd pull it up in the meeting, and we'd go over it. Now that usually requires technology, but it still works.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:58 AM on October 26

Run your request through a grade level checker. Make sure it's written at no higher the 6th grade reading level.
posted by aniola at 10:03 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]

phones & other meetings I can't do physical meetings because of Covid. I've tried phone calls but it doesn't seem to fix things - I find it hard to keep him on track as I'll ask something direct and he'll start to answer, get distracted, and go off on a tangent and it's a job of work to get him back on track. Again, this might be about managing my feelings but I find it aggressive to have to interrupt him repeatedly and ask over and over the same question. He no longer chairs any meetings because every one agrees that he can't keep to an agenda and they literally take three or four times as long when he's in charge.

asking him directly what he wants as I've said a couple of times, I have absolutely, unequivocally asked him directly how he would prefer me to communicate. He always says that I'm doing fine, he'll pay more attention next time.
posted by AFII at 10:03 AM on October 26

I've run into this a few times as a graduate student with various senior academics. I came in with a team consulting background, being used to lots of definition of everything, regular checkins, etc. Some of the academics I was working with would unconsciously (I believe) subvert that, bring in outside topics, never answer questions, never complete the work I was expecting for them after they agreed to it, etc. This is part of what I really disliked about my experience in academia.

I taught a class with someone like this once. It was a mess, even after we had a blow-out definition of who was responsible for what and I told them I would be ignoring everything that was not on my list. The students would still come to me since I would answer emails, and DEFINED DUE DATES for assignments (the lack of which was causing huge anxiety for the students). I would always get a "you are way better at this than I am" and "yes, yes, I'll do that", with the same results as you are seeing (none). We ended the course saying that I would *never* teach a class with them again.

What ended up working best for me was working around the academic as much as possible and only going to them when something COULD NOT be done with out a signature, or something; and then we did it as live as possible i.e. "could you sign this now and send it to me?" over the phone or in person. Otherwise, I went about my business, assuming I wouldn't get anything helpful from them anyhow and it wasn't worth the frustration.
posted by chiefthe at 10:27 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]

Given that he trusts you and/or prefers to rely on you to do stuff, can you switch your approach to:

1. Explanation of Matter
2. Your proposed solution, draft text, whatever.
3. Notification of when decision must be made/implemented and that unless you hear back from him differently by Date/Time, you’re proceeding as detailed in 2.

If needed for CYA purposes, you could require read receipts for your emails. On important stuff, re-forward the original with “Reminder” in the header.
posted by carmicha at 10:41 AM on October 26

"I'm tenured, so is he, but he runs a course I teach on so is technically my 'line manager'."

As a female academic, I am begging you to stop tolerating this scam, and to try to stop your department from tolerating it as well. The tenured male academic who just cannot possibly attend to details, and so consistently avoids responsibility that then falls on his colleagues who just happen to be younger and more female is a plague that maintains the persistent inequities of academia.

This person has clearly demonstrated their incompetence for running a course in the context you are portraying here. He should be removed from that role, or you need to be teaching more independently.

This is not an issue that can be solved by writing the perfect email. I'm sure his claims that he just can't pay attention and do his job are very nice and charming. Decide what work you will do (if that includes aggressively managing him so that things get done and your own teaching and student relationships don't suffer, then so be it for this term) and then detach yourself some any scenario where you rely on him. Make his incompetence his issue to deal with, not yours.
posted by ewok_academy at 10:54 AM on October 26 [31 favorites]

If you need him to sign off on something, you can say something like... "If I don't hear back from you by xx date, I will assume that you have no comments, and will move things forward."

Do you know how he usually reads his emails (phone, tablet, computer) or does he listen to them? Emails that don't seem to be very long on a computer can "appear" to be much longer on a phone, for example.

While there is a school of thought that says to put your three questions in the first paragraph of your email, I think that in your situation you are probably better off sending one email per issue. In addition, you may want to consider the timing of your emails. In this case timing means both the time of day and whether you send emails as issues come up, or whether wait to send the next email after you received a response from the last one.
posted by oceano at 10:58 AM on October 26

Since you've tried all the right first and second steps already--trying other formats, following up, directly saying "Hey this happens, can you please not?"--then you have two avenues left to attempt to deal with the problem:

1. Go back to him and say, explicitly, "We've had this conversation several times and nothing has changed. It's impacting my work [this way]. It's [frustrating/upsetting/disheartening/whatever feels appropriate] that we've discussed it a few times and it's still happening. What can we do?"

2. Go to THEIR boss/line manager/supervisor and say basically the same as above.

The impact is an important part, especially if you're going over their head, so it's clear that this isn't just a personal working style squabble but a real problem.

I'll caveat that I know that may not be as effective in academia as it is in a traditional professional office setting, but those are pretty much your only remaining options other than just ignoring it and continuing to cope with the way things are, or quitting.

But as others have said, this is a more common problem than it seems like it should be, so quitting and finding another job--especially in academia, where professional human communication norms are not generally enforced--may not actually remove this problem from your life.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:58 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]

Make e-mails readable in a glance with all requests bulleted.
Assuming boss reads draft but not e-mail, put the list on the actual draft/proof in huge red type:


Then when boss reads neither the proof nor the e-mail, reply to “Looks great, thanks a lot for sorting this out!” with

"Great, thanks so much! I can send it out as soon as I get the final paragraph from you and confirmation that this is the draft XX approved!"

Boss'll send back "Oops, sorry--yes, XX approved this draft," to which you reply,

"Great, thanks so much! I can send it out as soon as I get the final paragraph from you. Nearly there!"

And you just do that every time. Some people will eventually figure out that it's faster to actually read the first e-mail and the first proof the first time; most will get a little bit better; some diehards will need the multipronged pronging every. single. time. Just be really really happy that your boss is the "oops, sorry" style boss and not the "I failed to approve this arbitrary project I threw at you and now I'm angry at you about it" style.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:30 AM on October 26 [2 favorites]

I think probably the 'hapless academic' is your real answer.

However I've worked with bosses like this, sometimes fairly extreme ones, and this is my One Cool Trick:

Set up a spreadsheet or a table with everything you're waiting on from them.

Label everything you are waiting for with WAITING FOR YOU in BOLD RED LETTERS and sort it with those items at the top.

Send that list when you get a half response. Put anything after that

So in this case:

Subject: ACTION REQUIRED: Overdue Paragraph

First section of email:

Project Name
1. Final Paragraph Added - OVERDUE - WAITING FOR YOU (but make this red)
2. Confirmed version - done

Dear colleague, as you see above I am waiting for your final paragraph and we are about to miss our deadline. Please send me your paragraph as soon as possible. (Or whatever is appropriate.)
posted by warriorqueen at 11:43 AM on October 26 [1 favorite]

As another female academic, I would like to second everything ewok_academy said. I know you've already marked it best answer, so you clearly have recognized how right it is, but in case it needs saying again: it is so, so right.
posted by dizziest at 12:24 PM on October 26 [3 favorites]

Many, many, many emails I get (and write) could be edited down by half. It sounds like that would be helpful here.

“Can you check that the attached is the final version that XX has seen, and add your paragraph to it so I can send it off this week?”

"Please add your paragraph if XX has seen this and it's final."

Of course this is just one example, but in yours you asked two questions and made a request. The rewrite just gives him one deliverable. Since he's the one who knows whether XX has signed off yet, he'll either add his paragraph or tell you it's still in review.
posted by headnsouth at 12:38 PM on October 26 [1 favorite]

This happens to me all the time, by which I mean nearly every email I send, and a with variety of different people. Here is my strategy:

I try to keep the explanatory text as short and clear as possible (a short paragraph for each question)
I put all the explanatory text together at the top (rather than having a blurb prefacing each numbered question)
I summarize a numbered list of the questions, simply stated, at the bottom
I fully expect that they will answer only one of the questions
My follow up email will say simply "I also need answers to the following" and I will list out the remaining questions, again numbered. Repeat as necessary.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:56 PM on October 26

I have worked with many people with untreated ADHD. I'm finding a lot of the above replies to be low-key appalling. Managers and bosses need accommodations the same way other humans do. Neurodivergence isn't limited to people with asshole employers.

Emailing isn't working. It clearly is not the best way to get your three questions answered, which makes it very time inefficient. Try something else. You can email voice messages. You can set a time for a bi-weekly phone call. You can do a 15 minute Zoom. When there isn't a pandemic, you can sit in one another's offices.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:58 PM on October 26

Yeah, all the responses here about email formatting are hilariously pointless. I have ADHD. Do you know what makes me do something? Set up a meeting with me and force me to give you feedback in the moment.

Again, this might be about managing my feelings but I find it aggressive to have to interrupt him repeatedly and ask over and over the same question. He no longer chairs any meetings because every one agrees that he can't keep to an agenda and they literally take three or four times as long when he's in charge

Yeah, no. If it’s so bad that he can’t chair a meeting then you should have no compunctions about cutting him off, laughing and saying “Anyway...” or “Getting back to the agenda...” or “Right, so returning to question X.” You have to aggressively facilitate these conversations or they will just be a waste of time.
posted by leedly at 2:00 PM on October 26 [3 favorites]

OH no, good god, he needs to go. Sorry about my previous comment. In my rush to type what I know (which is a shitload) about this tendency among bosses, I did not read the clarification that included the worldchanging detail that in fact he's not your boss boss but merely a fellow academic with some seniority who happens to be male and thus has the idea that it's fine for him to constantly delay work only he can do by trying to shove it onto other academics who can't do it merely because the other academics happen to be women. I agree with ewok-academy that whether or not this guy is fully aware of it, his absent-minded professor act is a scam designed to allow him to shirk work he doesn't want to do and deflect the blame for the undone work onto other people. I support whatever scorched earth techniques will work against him.

As staff I have no power to do anything about this shit, but I also have no skin in the game. (It's their publications they're never going to see published, after all.) It's still irritating, though, because they're thanking me all the time for work I've done that they've paid zero attention to. So I do like to keep thanking them in return as effusively as possible for their thanks-packed and useless e-mails. It gives me a tiny bit of comfort that they might eventually guess that all the "Great! Thanks so muches!" are insincere. Each "Great! Thanks so much!" is like one of the little match girl's matches. I delight in typing them.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:33 PM on October 26

Non-ADHD spouse of an ADHD-er here. I suspect my boss has it too. No matter how you format your email, parts of them will slip through the cracks. Synchronous communication is your friend. Send the email to give them a heads up about the topic but talk to them on the phone/Zoom/Teams/Slack no more than 4 hours later. Real-time communication will get their focus on you, hopefully long enough to get your answers or next steps defined.
posted by matildaben at 11:02 PM on October 26

Maybe taking the exchanges outside of email would be better for you both. This may be extreme but maybe something like Zoho Desk or a private google group. You could post your asks & have all your back & forth on the app/group & mark topics as closed when you have all the info you need. It may keep him more accountable.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 6:09 AM on October 27

I would add an extra step to my email communication process with this person.

1. In the initial email, number and offset any questions he must respond to.

2. If he does not respond to all the questions, immediately hit "Reply" and say: "Hey ____ you haven't addressed all the numbered questions, please respond asap." (Resist the temptation to do any more work e.g. highlighting the parts he has not addressed.)

3. If his response is still incomplete, reply again in exactly the same words and cc his boss, your boss, and everyone else connected with that project so that they are all informed about his intransigence. Repeat until he responds to everything, but I bet he will respond with alacrity to the cc gambit.

To me, the priority in solving your situation is that your extra effort should be minimal (no setting aside extra time for phone calls, no wasting time sending ever more elaborately formatted emails, etc). A secondary priority is to expose his incompetence so you can build your case that he should not be in charge of this anymore. The cc gambit achieves both goals easily.
posted by MiraK at 10:52 AM on October 27

Hi! I have ADHD and think it's lovely you are working to make communication easier for a colleague who might have it. Now that you've done that, I'd just like to say:

Your job is over.

It is HIS job to manage his ADHD so he can perform his job duties. Not yours, and not his mommy's. Now that you've offered to work with him, you.are.done. Do what you need to do, and not an ounce more. I can't second ewok_academy's comment enough.
posted by jessca84 at 9:41 PM on October 28

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