(By Jacquelyn Smith)
“Maybe he or she isn’t organised, but perhaps they are really good with customer service,” Brooks says. “Maybe they are a creative thinker and come up with great ideas, or they have an ‘in’ with the higher-ups for some reason that can benefit you, or they’re pleasant and able to roll with change. By starting with some positives, you will be in a better frame of mind to handle the challenges of their disorganisation.”
We all have our moments of “multitask overload”–especially managers. But working with a perpetually disorganised boss can be exasperating and even detrimental to your workplace productivity.
“You may feel like you’re spinning your wheels,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. “There can be many false starts if your boss hasn’t thought through a project or the resources required for it; if he hasn’t set priorities well; or if he can’t get back to you because everything appears to be in disarray. And if you follow orders based on a disorganized initiative, a chaotic domino effect can occur within your department.” This work style can negatively affect your sense of accomplishment and performance, she adds. “And it can bring down an entire team.”
Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, agrees. “It can be extremely frustrating to deal with a disorganized boss, because their disorganization often trickles (or even pours) down on you. It can hurt team morale, and it reflects poorly on everyone.”
When the boss is disorganised, it can lead to partial project requests, misinformation, missed or wrong deadlines and “general messiness,” she says. “All of those can cause balls to be dropped, and then ensuing stress and rush to pick them back up again.”
Katharine Brooks, executive director of the office of personal and career development at Wake Forest University and author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, says the word “disorganized” can mean several things. “It could be a failure to see the big picture and approach issues strategically; difficulty remembering important deadlines, meetings, projects, etc.; or failure to set goals and prioritise what is important for the office.”
Productivity coach Casey Moore concurs. She says in the workplace, “disorganization” takes many forms. One, she says, is what she calls “the searcher.” “This supervisor can’t find the objects or information she needs when she needs them. She frequently wastes time looking for keys, emails, digital files, etc.—and she wastes money replacing lost items and wastes energy (and more time) re-creating documents or other work products. She usually has a cluttered desk and email inbox,” explains Moore, the author of Stop Organizing, Start Producing. “You and your colleagues will likely be dragged into time-consuming searches or scrambles to re-do or replace what isn’t found. You may have to exercise caution about what you give your supervisor because it may be lost and/or forgotten.”
“The improviser” is another type of disorganised boss. This supervisor doesn’t plan ahead. He may be adept at reacting and improvising on the spot, but eventually you realizes he’s covering his tracks, not blazing a trail, Moore says. “He requires his team to reinvent the wheel over and over because there’s no time to fine-tune processes when you’re always behind the curve.”
If this is your boss, you and your colleagues likely perform too many fire drills: rushing to meet deadlines, struggling to fix easily-preventable mistakes, and missing out on opportunities that require a modicum of foresight.
Moore says the third type of disorganised supervisor is “the constrictor.” This boss doesn’t delegate, she says. “Her reasons vary from altruist (‘protecting’ her team) to arrogant (only she can do it ‘right’); from fearful (of letting go) to flummoxed (unable to identify exactly how others could help). The result, however, is always the same: a bottleneck that slows everyone.” This type of boss’s subordinates probably feel frustrated by her unresponsiveness, the lack of challenging goals and the subtle implication that she doesn’t think you they handle the work, Moore adds.
The fourth and final type of disorganised manager, according to Moore, is called “the hesitator.” She says this supervisor can’t make decisions and move on, much less stand by them. “He avoids deciding until forced, second-guesses himself (and you), and then changes his mind again. No decision is firm.”
In this case, you and your colleagues most likely operate in a state of maddening limbo. “You wait and wait, nag and beg, only to be undermined when he later overturns a decision you finally acted on. Eventually, you disengage–first from your department’s goals and then from the company’s mission. Why invest your hopes and energy when your hard work may be tossed out by a decision to change focus or course again?”
Moore says when your manager is unable to provide effective and timely actions and responses, you and your team remain stuck in “productivity prison.”
Here are some tips for working with a disorganised boss:
Focus on your boss’s strengths. “Maybe he or she isn’t organised, but perhaps they are really good with customer service,” Brooks says. “Maybe they are a creative thinker and come up with great ideas, or they have an ‘in’ with the higher-ups for some reason that can benefit you, or they’re pleasant and able to roll with change. By starting with some positives, you will be in a better frame of mind to handle the challenges of their disorganisation.”
Put everything in writing. “Some managers can organize their thoughts more clearly by reading or typing their responses,” Taylor explains. Try putting your thoughts into emails, with clear “to dos” for your boss. “Verbose voice mails or vague texts will make matters worse,” she says.
Prioritise. Start your conversations with the most important items first in case the discussion veers off. Never overwhelm a disorganised boss with too many items at once, Taylor says. “Mention in person and in writing the next few items that need to be discussed so you’re covered.”
Be a problem solver. Look at where and how your boss’s disorganization most impacts you, and evaluate if there are ways to improve that, Sutton Fell suggests. “For example, if your boss doesn’t respond to your emails and then says she didn’t get (or lost/forgot about) them, start requesting confirmation that she has read them, and include clear time and date requests. Then follow up if you don’t hear by that deadline.”
Keep things simple. You can help out your boss, and consequently yourself, if you make your needs and projects easy to follow. “Choose clarity over complexity,” Taylor says. “Don’t be vague in any of your communications.” The last thing you want to do is add confusion to his overwhelmed state.
Develop teams and/or committees. “Work with your colleagues to develop small teams to accomplish goals and deadlines,” Brooks says.
Taylor agrees. She says disorganization can often be the result of a manager who is unwilling to delegate. “Offer to head a committee on one of his large projects to simplify his workload. You’ll have a less stressful boss, and at the same time, demonstrate your leadership skills.” Bosses appreciate reliable “go-to” team members, and if they’re otherwise good managers, they’ll want you to take on more responsibilities. “It may take time to build this trust, but it’s well worth the effort.”
Clarify before you delegate. Don’t follow confusing orders blindly and spread the confusion to your coworkers or staff. “If, for example, your boss often gives you a ‘top’ priority twice in the same hour, you’re better off getting clarification first as a routine response,” Taylor says. You might be able to help your boss prioritize by reminding him, “The staff is focused on meeting that 5pm deadline for xyz. Should I tell them to stop now?”
Treat your supervisor as you would a valued client. Be respectful and manage the interactions, Moore says. “Use reminders, flags or lists to follow up on work you put in your supervisor’s court, like emailed questions and documents submitted for review, to ensure they don’t slip through the cracks. “Keep your originals of everything.”
Manage interruptions. Schedule meetings, instead of barging in whenever you need something. Your boss will be better prepared and less likely to be disorganized and distracted, Taylor says. “If you need your boss to review something, try to mitigate outside intruders by speaking with her admin first. If your meeting is critical, ask if it can be held in a nearby conference room to avoid the steady parade of coworkers that stalk her office. When appropriate, hold the meeting in your workspace instead of hers.”
Offer your assistance when you can. “If you know a project is coming up and it hasn’t been discussed, set aside some time to meet with your boss and ask how you can help,” Brooks suggests. “Ask what needs to be accomplished with the task.” Moore agrees. She says you should ask your boss to delegate specific projects or parts of projects to you. “Then knock them out of the park while keeping her in the loop.”
Plan ahead. Ask your boss in advance for three key points he wants to make in any major meeting, and have an agenda prepared the day before. “Review it with your boss and get feedback in advance,” Taylor recommends. “Spend a few minutes on the way to the meeting to discuss the strategy. If you called the meeting, begin it by stating its purpose. When the tangents start to launch at the meeting, make sure you have some great segues to bring the conversation back to the agenda, such as, ‘Yes, your idea will be great in the next project phase, which is under agenda item four.’”
Be concise. Know how to prepare an executive summary and don’t ramble on in meetings or emails. “Disorganized people can only digest small bits of information at a time, and it has nothing to do with intelligence,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen Ivy League, highly successful executives whose organizational skills are lacking, but who are otherwise considered near geniuses in their fields.”
Plan your days accordingly. If your boss regularly asks you to help him find misplaced items—or last-minute “emergencies” tend to pop up throughout the day–schedule time in your daily calendar for that, Brooks says. “Give yourself an opening so your boss’s crisis doesn’t become yours.”
Offer to help with job descriptions.Disorganized bosses can wreak havoc in your department if roles are not clearly delineated, Taylor says. “Offer to help create or revise job descriptions if possible, to avoid chaos and territorialism. The worst that can happen is that you get a ‘no thanks.’ The best thing that can happen is you won’t let disorganization spread to employee assignments that cause confusion and conflict.”
Respectfully (and carefully) confront your boss. “Share your concerns with your supervisor as soon as you can,” Moore says. “Don’t wait until you’re ready to explode or burn out.” Explain the impact of his lack of organization on (in this order): the work, the organization as a whole, this particular team and the supervisor himself. This approach makes the feedback less personal.”
If the direct approach fails and your company culture allows it, bypass your supervisor when possible, she adds. “Apply the old adage ‘It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,’ especially permission that would probably be denied.”
Research and suggest tools that might help your boss be better organized. “Look at project management software that helps track tasks and calendar items, for example,” Sutton Fell says.
Moore suggests creating visually-stimulating calendars of scheduled events and deadlines, as well as process flow charts, to raise awareness of what’s coming on the horizon.
“You can also suggest one or two (no more) specific actions he can take, such as hiring a productivity coach,” she says.
Be a sounding board. “Your boss may be so disorganized that he vents about all the things he has to do,” Taylor says. “You can diplomatically help him think more clearly when frustration and stress take over. By being a good listener, showing empathy and offering an objective perspective, you’ll not only become an indispensable confidante, you’ll make your own work life easier.” For example, you might try: “Wow, you have a lot on your plate…so it sounds like the biggest crisis is X”; or, “Hmm, it seems like the xyz project could wait until next week, unless you had Ann help you; or, “Maybe I could help with the xyz account since that’s top priority.”
“Fortunately, you can be proactive and help your boss see the ramifications of a dysfunctional team,” Taylor concludes. “If there’s something in it for your boss or any coworker, you can usually change behavior. As outcomes improve, your manager will likely see the wisdom of thoughtful planning and organization.”
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”