I was chatting with a woman during a seminar break. “All of what you’re saying sounds great,” she said. “But my boss provides information on a need-to-know basis. I don’t know if he’s insecure or doesn’t trust me. I just spend lots of time asking for what I need to know rather than him giving me all the details at the beginning. I feel like I’m playing Mother-May-I all the time and it’s irritating as hell.”
I’ve dealt with this question any number of times. I’ve also been a victim of it. I suspect she’s right. Most of this information hoarding comes from one or two sources, insecurity or a lack of trust. Regardless of its origin, it saps productivity and fosters employee turnover. After all, who would want to work in that type of environment?
Given clear direction and the necessary information, most employees can complete assignments and make decisions without asking endless questions. After a while, they come to understand their supervisor’s style. They discover the boundaries of their authority and how decisions are typically made within the organization.
Sometimes, however, a task is delegated without the necessary information or resources. I have found this is especially true when it comes to budgets. This is the boss who assigns a task but requires the person performing it to ask for approval for even the smallest amount. Solution? Ask the boss what your spending authority is. Even the most tight-fisted or insecure boss will be compelled to give a number. If they don’t, they know it will make them look controlling or distrustful.
If, over time, that spending authority turns out to be too limited, the person performing the task can always go back and ask that it be increased. The best way to do this is by pointing out the number of times the boss has had to be interrupted to give an approval. If this becomes a nuisance for the boss, he or she might even increase it without being asked.
Another flavor of this are the bosses who delegate tasks or authority, but then interfere. They make commitments without informing the person they have delegated the responsibility to. They spend money without letting this person know. Sometimes they show up at meetings where they aren’t needed and undercut this person’s authority simply by being present. Solution? Begin with the words, “I’m having trouble.” You might say, “I’m having trouble completing the project because I’m not sure who you’ve made commitments to.” Or you might say, “I’m having trouble staying on top of my budget because I don’t know what you’ve spent.” Then follow up by saying something like, “Can you help me find a way to make sure we’re on the same page?”
No one feels comfortable challenging or trying to correct the boss. Using the phrase, “I having trouble” is a diplomatic way of saying, “Please help me by getting out of the way.” You may find this difficult the first couple of times you do it. So plan out your approach and rehearse it out loud with someone you trust. In essence, you are managing your boss and that’s okay. At one time or another, all bosses need to be managed.
Finally, there is the boss who wants to be in on every decision. This can be the most maddening since it telegraphs distrust even if it isn’t. The boss may be simply curious. But that’s not how it comes across to the employee. Solution? Say, “I’m a bit confused about how far my authority extends.” Typically, the boss will say something like, “Tell me more” in response. That opens the door for you to provide three or four specific examples where you felt reluctant to make the decision since your boss was in the room.
Once again, approaching the boss in this manner requires some planning, rehearsal and confidence. Consider the different ways the boss might react and prepare for them as well. All of this takes some effort. But the alternative is to remain this decision purgatory and no one wants to do that.
Have other dilemmas like this? Send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to help.