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Work Smart

Two Ways To Handle A Hopelessly Indecisive Boss

Some bosses can't make up their minds to begin with. Others keep changing them. This is what you need to do.

Two Ways To Handle A Hopelessly Indecisive Boss

[Photo: Flickr user Wesley Nitsckie]

Some bosses are more decisive than others, but not all indecisive bosses are created equal. Here’s how to subtly manage two of the most common types of managers who aren't great at swift, sensible decision making.

When Your Boss Keeps Overcommitting

Overcommitters are nice people who can’t refuse anyone and then find they have no time to follow through. If your boss is an overcommitter, they’ll agree with whatever anyone asks of them because they hate to argue.

That can be a problem. By pretending to agree in order to prevent a fight or a fuss, overcommitters promise too much or promise to do something they don’t really agree with. Overburdened and unable to handle it, they put off action and break their promises. They don’t mean any harm, but you resent the way they’ve messed up your timetable and failed to come through with whatever you were depending on.

First, it helps to think critically about what you both may be thinking. Maybe your inner monologue goes something like this:

My boss keeps breaking promises. I end up looking foolish because I'd reassured my staff that our boss would have an answer for us today about the holiday schedule. She’s always disappointing us. All that agreeableness is a phony facade. I’m losing respect for her. What’s worse, how can I ever trust what she says she’s going to do?

Then try to imagine what your overcommitting boss might be thinking, too:

I’d like to agree to the team’s request, granting permission for them to leave a few hours early on Friday before the start of the holidays. But I’m concerned about getting out the quarterlies on time. Maybe we’ll need those extra hours to finish up. I know I promised them an answer today, but I’m going to have to give this more thought. What can I do to keep the team from getting upset?

Your goal next is to help your boss make decisions without feeling threatened by unpopularity. Bosses who overcommit make trouble for themselves when they take their eyes off their priorities and become too concerned with pleasing everyone. You can move them to action either by removing a piece of the challenge or offering additional options.

  1. Claim the problem as your own. When you sense your boss is stuck on the horns of a dilemma ("Should I please the company or please my workers?"), remove one of them so she no longer has to choose. Step forward and accept the problem as your responsibility.
  2. Bring the priorities into focus. Offer to help find some ways for you boss to do the right thing. It’s possible to carry out your manager’s responsibility to the organization and, at the same time, lessen the anticipated negative impact on subordinates like you. Study the situation, examine everyone’s needs, and then offer your boss some potential solutions. You can probably negotiate a win-win compromise.

Here are a couple options for what you might say:

I’ve been thinking that the request we made for extra hours off on Friday might have put you in an awkward position. How about my kicking around some ideas with my staff on how this could be managed and still stick to our original schedule?

My staff suggests that they can finish the quarterlies by working late on Thursday, substituting those extra hours for time off Friday afternoon. Is that okay with you?

When Your Boss Keeps Changing Their Mind

Maybe it’s not that your boss overcommits, it’s that they can’t stop changing their mind—like a chameleon. This type of manager is changeable and indecisive, and they waver on their decisions.

While overcommitters break promises in the name of harmony, chameleons go back on their word because of their insecurity. Sometimes bosses like this are incompetent. They may have been promoted beyond their capabilities. Rather than admit they don’t know what they’re doing, they delay deciding what to do. They say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, deliberately muddying the waters.

Other times, bosses who keep changing their minds are just looking for the absolutely perfect decision. They think they’ve found it, then discover a flaw in the chosen option and reverse course again. Organized types (who plan for every contingency except individual idiosyncrasies) find it particularly infuriating when they believe the boss has settled an issue, only to find it wasn’t settled at all.

Here’s what you’re probably thinking:

I’m supposed to be my boss’s go-to person, but I’m finding it very difficult to help him. He seems unsure of himself, so he waffles on his directives. The Fenton deal was typical. Last week he wanted to proceed with the contract full steam ahead. This week he tells me to cancel our meetings and stop the negotiations. It’s impossible to get anything accomplished like this.

And this is what your boss may be thinking:

I thought when I took this job it would be an easy transition. After all, everyone knows that managerial skills are transferable. The problem is, without knowing the history and politics of this division, I really have to
be terribly careful not to make a horrendously costly error. Right now, I’m not sure which staff people I can trust.

Your goal is to expedite decisions so that issues that have been left hanging can finally be resolved. To do that, you need to make a special effort to earn your boss’s confidence.

  • Refine the content of information. Even if your boss isn’t new to this job, fill him in on essential background data. But don’t provide more information about a subject than what he needs to decide. Analyze, then summarize. Suggest solutions instead of just laying out problems.
  • Negotiate the level of information. Does your boss really have to make all those decisions? Can she delegate responsibility to you for signing off on specified types of actions? In your discussions, stay calm; you’ll be more persuasive that way.
  • Monitor the flow of information. Keep close track of deadlines. Set reminders or calendar alerts to flag your attention (well in advance of deadlines) about the status of your projects. If you don’t wait until the last minute to check progress, you can usually avoid gridlock.

Here are a few ways to phrase it:

As you know, we’re looking at three alternatives: [Concisely summarize each of them.] It seems that the second option is best for us at this time because [explain your rationale]. Does it strike you the same way?

As you know, I’ve been working on this for a while. Wouldn’t it help ease some of your burden if I okayed the first two steps and you gave final approval on the last three?

Bosses who vacillate can be helped by receiving clear, concise, pertinent information. They’re not supposed to be experts on everything. Recognize the areas where your boss needs some extra support, then supply that vital information in a form they can utilize, and you’ll quickly earn their trust.

You’re not your boss’s keeper. How bosses choose to act is their own responsibility, so don’t complain about the delays they cause or make excuses for them. Your aim is to help keep things flowing as best you can. Your boss may have been selected to head your project because he or she has certain talents that aren’t obvious to you.

When bosses cause delays, you can assume they’re probably afraid of failing or feel threatened. You’ve probably felt that way, too, at some point, so try to empathize. Then try to offer whatever information they’ll need to make good, solid, final decisions. When they do, you’ll both be better off.


This article is adapted from Working with Difficult People: Handling the Ten Types of Problem People Without Losing Your Mind by Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Cooper Hakim and Muriel Solomon.

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