How to make one's boss a better communicator.
May 5, 2006 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything I can do to make my boss a better communicator?

I have recently become middle management at a private high school. I always knew the lines of communication were poor here, but now that I am a little further up the totem pole, I can see just how bad they are. Furthermore, I realize that the major culprits are my pantheon of bosses.

I am not in a position to do anything about the big boss or bosses of other departments, but I may be in a position to help my immediate supervisor, the high school principal.

My supervisor regular pronounces the names of students wrong at assemblies, holds "morale building" events that come across as condescending (thus having the opposite effect), forgets to tell people about decisions he's made until the last second (causing everyone to scramble), fails to let his own administrative assistant know when he's made decisions that she needs to follow through on, "interprets" information from the President when he communicates it to the faculty (which means that the President is always having to come down and correct the information) and, worst of all, literally will not talk to the middle school principal about anything (some sort of male/male pissing match).

Worst of all, he believes he is a great communicator and can't understand why nobody ever seems to know the things he knows.

The Department Heads have spent the last few years trying to live with this, but are on the verge of open revolt. The kids think the poor guy is a joke. Many folks are hoping he is given the boot.

I am savvy enough to recognize that he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He is the school president's good friend and hand picked person. Since we're going to have to live with this guy for at least a few more years, I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to improve the situation. It is in the best interest of our students and our faculty - indeed, it is in his own best interest.

One last thing - he's a very sensitive guy and has a reputation for being vindictive.

Should I just go up to him and (in a much more diplomatic way than this) say "dude, you're a terrible communicator?"
posted by Joey Michaels to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is the kind of person to whom you cannot explain the problem.

I would recommend against trying to take it up with him, even diplomatically, and would instead recommend highlighting as much as possible to those around him how incompetent he is. Do this of course in a covert and subtle way, taking no one in as your confidant. You will have to be devious. Remember, this is for you, your colleagues, and for the children.

Another possibility is implicating him in a minor scandal.

Whatever you do, the most important thing is that this gets back to the parents. They are the ones paying the bills, and they are the ones the school president has to please.
posted by poppo at 11:59 AM on May 5, 2006

It might be both painful and counterintuitive, but can you start instituting regular department or school meetings? (Like, weekly?) My company is battling a lot of the same issues, and more frequent meetings, where people are required to update everyone on what they've been working on, have helped tremendously in dealing with those managers who are like that.

It's annoying to have to sit through the meetings, yes. But it does tend to help eliminate those last-minute edicts-from-on-high.

Maybe also get the President involved in these meetings, so he can talk to y'all directly withouth having to make special trips?
posted by occhiblu at 12:29 PM on May 5, 2006

Does the phrase "unskilled and unaware of it" ring any bells? This guy is not just a poor communicator (defined by lacking skill); he is an incompetent communicator (defined by lacking the ability to correctly evaluate his own failings). Unfortunately, poppo's solution(s) is (are) pretty darned passive-aggressive, and unless you want to spend the next several years of your life becoming a Mean Girl, I can't recommend it (them).

It sounds to me like you (unlike poppo) genuinely want to help your principal get his work done, which means you need a way to show him specific communication failures and teach him better techniques. That said, if he's also touchy and vindictive, you need a way not to get sacked/tarred and feathered/challenged to a duel while you're doing it.

Can you drop him a note anonymously now and then, briefly discussing a particular incident, explaining the harm in terms that he cares about, and suggesting a better approach? (Anonymous email, maybe?) Pick your battles—start out at low frequency, and use the incidents that best illustrate a meaningful but straightforward problem, before taking on any of the really tangled stuff.

Can you enlist all of the department heads, and I mean all of them, to do likewise so it'll be complicated to trace back to one scapegoat?

Failing that, can you collect grievances, analyzed as discussed above, until you've got at least one from every department, and then send the whole thing to the school president and ask that he talk to him about it? Or take it to the parents? Keep in mind that the more public you make it, the more important it is to present a unified front, so it never looks like one person has built an empire in order to pursue a feud. That's a quick way (a) to get no help from the parents, (b) to get sacked, and (c) to provide an excuse for further squelching of helpful discussion.

Or can you accidentally light him on fire and body-check him out the window of his own office?

On preview: occhiblu raises a good point.
posted by eritain at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2006

Managers need managing by their subordinates, too. If you (and your co-workers) are willing to be proactive, you may be able to at least avoid some frustration. Some of this stuff is more fixable than others:

Just correct him on the names (privately, of course.) Suggest better morale-building events. Encourage your co-workers to do the same.

Follow up with him on every issue, preferably with written memos listing said issues. If he gets tired of all the correspondence, he can fix it by keeping you all in the loop better.

I'd stay away from the issue with the President and other Principal...sounds like a can of worms that you don't want to get in the middle of (to egregiously mix metaphors.)
posted by desuetude at 1:15 PM on May 5, 2006

Best answer: The most useful thing I learned in college was in the administration office, not any class, and it was the power of the phrase "I don't understand." It's useful on several levels. I learned it as a way of dealing with inconsistency and irrational requests - when forced to explain something that makes no sense many functionaries would just bend the rules or make an exception, anything to avoid vocalizing that they were full of crap.

With poor communicators it was useful since I could say "I don't understand - you need me to frim the frabble?" which gave them an opportunity to re-explain something that wasn't clear. By restating the request/fact in different words (and presumably better words since you're the better communicator) you give him the chance to riff on how you put it. It's also very non-judgemental since you're saying I don't understand, not that he isn't explaining well.

Maybe you'll educate him in a judo sort of manner, or perhaps it'll eventually dawn on him after the umpteenth time that he's not a great communicator. Could you propose a class on better communications for all the managers, maybe saying you feel like everyone isn't up to snuff but most are embarrassed to admit it so if everyone goes none of those folk who don't recognize their inability will opt-out?
posted by phearlez at 1:22 PM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Also, it sounds like while he's bad at communicating, he *wants* to think that he's helping. One way of getting the info you need *and* making him feel great is, in some ways, to act like an imbecile.

"I'm not sure I quite understand X, Y, and Z. Can you go over that with me, just so I'm sure I'm not missing anything?"

"I apologize, I seem to be confused about [that totally last-minute unexplained project]. How should I go about getting everything done that needs to happen?"

These work best if the guy's also a bit of a control freak, though. And I'm saying just get in the habit of asking them, even when you think you have a perfect understanding of what's going on, because the point here is to make *him* get in the habit of clarifying his ideas.

But I still think the best idea is weekly meetings, attended at least once a month by the President, and then reinforced by your asking a looooot of questions of the principal when things seem to be gearing up for meltdown.
posted by occhiblu at 1:23 PM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

On non-preview, what phearlez said. Don't be afraid to sound like a fool around these people, because they will not see you as incompetant but instead as delightly open to their superior knowledge.
posted by occhiblu at 1:25 PM on May 5, 2006

The key rule when dealing with managers that can't handle criticism is to never confront them directly. Target those below them, but closest to them. When he screws up, target his assistant first. Place all the blame on her and put her actions under scrutiny. If possible complain to him directly about his assistant. You can get most executives to shape up by roasting their assistants to their faces. They quickly grasp what's really going on and change their behavior.

If the assistant can't be scapegoated, then target the other department heads. If you have to, target yourself. Accept full responsibility for a screw up and then when people ask you why you screwed up, the truth will come out.

The goal is simple: you have to draw as much attention as possible to the screw up without mentioning his name directly. Eventually, he (or his superiors) will be be forced to investigate what went wrong and will independently arrive at the conclusion that the real problem is the manager that you carefully failed to mention.

Put stuff in writing. Get in the habit of writing emails indicating that you're concerned about so and so. Once you have a nice collection of these sweet "you fucked up, please don't do it again" emails you'll be able to establish a pattern of fucking up on his part. Next you can distribute a memo to everybody, not just him but the other dept. heads, and ask them to figure out how to break the pattern of fucking up. Again, the key is to target him indirectly. By asking everybody to examine the solutions, you'll shed light on his incompetence without directly targeting him.
posted by nixerman at 1:26 PM on May 5, 2006

I agree with the "I don't understand" comments. You need to appeal to his need to be in charge and make it seem that he is helping you with your needs. Use lots of manipulative phrases like Of Course, I know, As usual, as in "Of course, we'll need x resources to accomplish y, and you'll be able to help us get those resources." "I know you like to do the student awards, and of course the students appreciate you taking the time to do them. Do you have a moment to review the names?"

Put as much as possible in writing, for your benefit and his: "I know you appreciate clear communications, so I've put the details of our meeting in writing." "I know you appreciate communication, so here's the status on the z project. I'll check in with you tomorrow about the zzz I need from you to finish it."

When you see a good idea for a useful morale meeting, send it to him with a note "I know you're always looking for ways to improve morale."

If you approach him directly, I think you're screwed, and an anonymous note is unlikely to be effective, but might create backlash. Figure out what he does well, and praise him for it. You need to make sure he doesn't see you as critical, as well as promoting his good ksskills. Don't discuss this with other staff, there is always somebody ready to sabotage you.
posted by theora55 at 2:07 PM on May 5, 2006

Nixerman, to borrow from occhiblu's advice, I really don't understand your strategy. Making enemies with your boss's assistant helps how?! How does getting him to roast his assistant show him his own incompetance? How does taking the blame for a screw up get the truth to come out?
posted by desuetude at 2:10 PM on May 5, 2006

Another strong vote for 'don't blame the assistant'. The admin is in the same position as Joey Michaels: working directly with someone who can't communicate, and who is witholding information they need to do their job well. Why not make her your ally? You don't get executives to 'shape up by roasting their assistants' - follow that advice and you can get a good assistant fired.

On topic - if your supervisor mispronounces the names of students, why not have the person preparing the agenda spell the names phonetically? Additionally, can the events at the assemblies be delegated to someone who has a better grasp of morale building? Or if they're not working as intended, suggest cancelling them entirely.

The issues of your boss forgetting to tell people his decisions, not letting his admin know when she needs to follow up, and inaccurately interpreting information from the President can all helped by documenting, documenting, documenting.

Use project management tools, memos, monthly meetings - whatever it takes to capture what needs to be done, who needs to do it, when it is due, and to whom the person responsible for each portion will report when the item has been completed. Include the President and the middle school principal in this documentation, and follow up regularly.

I don't envy your position in the slightest - best of luck to you.
posted by Space Kitty at 5:07 PM on May 5, 2006

Could you suggest that he, or school management in general, adopt the GTD approach for managing your work? Since a lot of what you mention are little things falling through the cracks, maybe he just needs some help organizing all those little things (like, "Tell assistant about X before next Friday").
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:06 AM on May 6, 2006

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