Managing Up: What to Do When Your Boss Is a Less-than-Great Communicator

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We often talk about leaders as particularly great communicators, able to share information, persuade doubters, and inspire employees with ease and finesse. (Or if they’re not there yet, they’re at least working on it.)

But what happens if your boss is a not-so-great communicator?

A recent report from The Economist Intelligence Unit dug into communication barriers in the workplace, finding that communication barriers lead to delayed or incomplete projects, low morale, missed performance goals, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lost sales.

If you’re the weak link, you know there are plenty of ways to improve your own communication skills, and if your colleagues are struggling, it may be easy and appropriate to offer support. But when it’s your boss that’s dragging you down? That’s a more difficult situation, and it may be up to you and your colleagues to pick up the slack.

3 Ways to Overcome Poor Leadership Communication by Managing Up

1.   Set Goals at Every Opportunity

Whenever you can, whether you’re in a one-on-one check-in with your boss or a larger group meeting, set goals for the interaction and share them with your team. You don’t have to be formal about it. Just offer up a quick, “So we’re trying to accomplish X, Y, and Z today,” and then gently hold the leader (and the rest of the team) accountable for staying on track. That way, you’re more likely to accomplish what you need to accomplish and come away from the interaction with clear solutions, answers, or next steps.

2.   Act Like an Echo Chamber

Miscommunications often result when the speaker thinks he’s being crystal clear and the listener thinks he understands perfectly, when in reality the speaker’s understanding of what he’s conveyed is different from the listener’s understanding of what he’s heard. To mitigate this risk, confirm what you’ve heard every time you think there’s even the slightest possibility your boss is miscommunicating. “So my understanding is…” or “What I’m hearing you say is…” are both good ways to give your supervisor a chance to hear what you’re hearing and make any adjustments and clarifications necessary before you get to work.

3.   Ask Why

Often, by the time you’re hearing from your boss, he or she has been through a long thought process to make whatever decisions he or she is sharing and craft the related message. Your boss is bringing a lot more context to the table than you are, so if you disagree or don’t understand, ask why. Finding out more about what led to the conclusion at hand may give you more clarity (or a good opportunity to offer alternatives).

It may be tedious to do extra legwork in service of clarity, but given the consequences of poor communication in the workplace—on morale, reputation, and the bottom line—it’s worth it to step in and pick up the slack.