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Communicating with a scatterbrained boss

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in Your Office Coach

Question:  “I work for a manager who thinks I can read her mind. She will come rushing up to my desk and say something like, “Did he come pick it up?”  Because I have no idea what she’s talking about, I ask what she means. Then she looks at me like I’m an idiot for not understanding. This happens all the time, and I’m starting to get really irritated. How do I deal with her weird communication pattern?” —  Not a Mind Reader

Marie’s Answer:  Although your boss might seem like a complete space cadet, she may simply have a nonlinear thinking style. These freewheeling communicators often drive more structured people crazy.  Here are some suggestions for coping:

•    Recognize that your manager’s brain works differently than yours. Because nonlinear thinkers rapidly jump from one idea to another, they sometimes make remarks that seem completely off-the-wall. However, they also tend to be creative people who can quickly grasp new concepts. 

•    When your manager asks a puzzling question like, “Did he come pick it up?”, don’t say “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  Instead, calmly reply, “No one has picked anything up today” or “John picked up the budget report.”  Then wait to see if her next comment clarifies the situation.

•    If your boss has other redeeming qualities, try to view her mental gymnastics as an amusing personality quirk. This shift in perspective will simultaneously decrease your blood pressure and increase your job security.

Given that you work for this woman, you do need to control your irritation. Otherwise, your relationship will deteriorate and so may your career. 

For additional tips on interpreting people’s behavior, see Understanding Work Style Differences.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

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cathy robles September 8, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Say your bosses name is susie smith. I would say, “gee, if forgot my susie smith decoder ring today” and smile. if you have a good working relationship with her, she will laugh and realize that you have no idea what she is talking about.


Danielle Kenyon September 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Depending on a lot of factors, this could possibly be an indication of some sort of illness…hope she’s just the wacky creative type!


Red September 2, 2009 at 4:56 pm

I’ve had several bosses who were non-linear thinkers. One was so bad, our office personnel actually had a term for the out-of-left-field comments or questions she would ask. We called it “JoAnne Short-hand” (her name was JoAnne). Some of us were better than others at decyphering her remarks, so we all tried to pitch in and help each other. Quite frankly, when she came into our area, we all came to attention, primarily because of her habit of screaming and yelling at us (we called that “getting JoAnne-ed”). In the long run, the easiest way to deal with someone who thinks differently than you do, is to think before you answer. Marie’s suggestion for answering the question indirectly (“No one has picked up anything, today”) is perfect. You’ve given her the answer she needs, without ruffling her feathers, and hopefully, avoided getting irritated, yourself.
Never forget who is the boss, and who is the assistant (support person). Your job is to support the boss, so she can do HER job.


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