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How To Cope With A Disorganized Boss

You can protect your career, and your team, even if your manager is constantly dropping balls.

How To Cope With A Disorganized Boss
[Photo: Flickr user Ally Aubry]

An ineffective boss might get fired. So might a bullying boss. A disorganized boss, however, can linger in an organization causing trouble for years.

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He can be perfectly nice, so no obvious alarm bells go off. The work gets done, but only because everyone reporting to him works around the clock before deadlines. “Having to deal with conflicting priorities can be extremely stressful,” says Richard Wellins, senior vice president of Development Dimensions International and coauthor of the new book Your First Leadership Job.

Unfortunately, the modern workplace isn’t exactly helping managers on the organization front. Copious emails and changing conditions mean that “it’s much easier to become disorganized even if you’re not a disorganized person,” says Wellins. If you’re laboring under a disorganized boss, here’s how to make life better for yourself and your team.

Offer To Help

Some disorganized bosses simply have too much on their plate, and haven’t yet mastered the skill of delegation. So ask to be delegated to. Wellins suggests saying, “I’d like to help you be successful. I see that as one of my roles. Are there things I can help you with, where I can add value to what you need to get done?”

Schedule Regular Meetings

In high-functioning situations, no one needs a meeting to report that she’s still doing her job. If you have a disorganized boss, though, “regular meetings can minimize chaos in the workplace,” says Wellins.

Michael Lee Stallard, a consultant, speaker, and author of the new book Connection Culture, suggests making these “W3” meetings: figuring out what, who, when. Take notes on these answers. “I’m a big believer in getting them in writing,” he says. “That brings clarity.”

Ask For Exactly What You Need

If your boss is a bottleneck to your team achieving its goals on time, then don’t wait for information or approval to come to you. Go in with a list of exactly what you need. Try not to leave without getting it.

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Embrace The Digest Format

One reason bosses get disorganized is that they have five teams cc-ing them on every email. Propose sending one daily email with the highlights. Even better? Reach an agreement with your boss’s other direct reports to do the same.

Be An Example Of Organization

If your boss’s disorganization stems from stress, then “trying to step in and be a supportive confidant, as much as your boss will let you, will really help,” says Stallard. Your boss is probably not trying to drop balls, so being the ball that never gets dropped will help you become a trusted colleague. People also tend to reflect those around them, so being extremely organized yourself can set the tone.

Have Backup Plans

In the workplace, as in chess, the masters think a few moves ahead. Your boss has given you a deadline. What would you do if he moved it? If you need some vital piece of information and your boss doesn’t come through, how else will you get it? “Sometimes you can work around the boss in ways that will help the boss,” says Stallard. It isn’t fair, but you can keep performing even without the support you want. Finding other trusted mentors in your organization is a wise move in general. A broad network gives you options.

Consider Direct Feedback

We all have weak spots, and your disorganized boss might be trying to improve. If you sense that this is the case, you can bring up what specifically would help you. If the situation seems hopeless, though, you may eventually need to enlist help from higher up. Company leaders generally do want to know when there’s a problem somewhere down the line. “If team members don’t communicate, there goes the company,” says Jenny Ta, CEO of Sqeeqee, a social commerce platform. So “don’t be afraid to knock on my door. If you’re afraid to knock on my door, write it on a slip of paper and slip it under my door.” That’s preferable to whole teams walking out the door because they can’t stand the stress.

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About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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