Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, discusses what to do with a boss whose instructions seemingly change with the direction of the wind.
My boss keeps changing the goal posts on me. Last week I was told Project X was his main priority. This week he asked me “Have you finished Project Y yet?” When I explained I had not, because I had been working on Project X, he acted as if he had never heard of it.
When a boss changes priorities on you it can lead you to second guess your own abilities and asking yourself if you made a mistake. The sad truth, however, is that many bosses are not very good at communicating the details of what they want.
When a boss tells you: “Make sure you finish Project X by Wednesday” the subtext may be: “I also want you to finish Project Y on time, even though it may mean you have to work all weekend.”
So the first thing you should address is your communication with your boss. Are you both clear on what you have been asked to do? Try reflecting his instructions back at him – “So, just to confirm, you want Project X on your desk by Friday, even if that means delaying Project Y until next week. Have I got that right?” Don’t be put off if he acts surprised – you are being responsible and ensuring the job gets done. If you are still concerned, confirm what you have agreed in an email.
It may be that your boss constantly changes priorities because he doesn’t think ahead or have a plan. In that case you may need to put in some effort to keep him on track. Do you understand his role and his targets? His priorities should reflect the firm’s priorities. In the long term, however, if you are working for someone who is not making use of you in the best way to achieve the firm’s goals, you are probably headed for disaster.
Perhaps it is your own role that is the issue? Is it unclear what is expected of you, and do you need to seek some time with your boss to clarify this?
Alternatively your boss could have challenges that you don’t know about. If you want to continue working for him, helping him meet those challenges is going to be essential. Keep him informed, so that he sees you as an ally. Suggest solutions to problems. Alert him to deadlines. If he seems indecisive, try summarising the options and making a recommendation. He may value your help and you could develop a good working relationship.
The worst possible scenario, but also the least likely, is that your boss is doing this on purpose. Consider his other conduct. If it is part of a pattern of conduct that humiliates or intimidates staff, he may be a bully. But even so, trying the options above, and importantly, documenting what you do and his response, is the best first step, before you have to consider making a complaint about his conduct.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org