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Why James Comey’s Obsessive Note-Taking Is A Smart Strategy For Surviving Difficult Bosses

Taking detailed notes isn’t just a way to cover your tracks. These experts explain how the former FBI director’s methods can also be used to advance your career.

Why James Comey’s Obsessive Note-Taking Is A Smart Strategy For Surviving Difficult Bosses
[Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images]

If you have ever worked for a manager who is quick to change their mind or are hard to pin down, you probably weren’t too surprised to learn that former FBI director James Comey had been writing notes after his discussions with President Donald Trump.

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“If you suspect something might be up with your company or if you have a bumpy relationship with your boss, it’s a good idea to take notes during meetings,” says Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Associates. And, if it’s awkward to take notes because the meeting was a hallway discussion or a one-on-one over lunch, spend a few minutes afterward writing down what happened. Then send those notes to your home email address because, if you’re let go from your job, you probably won’t have access to your office or work email to collect your files, Halpern says.


Related: How to Finally Stop Taking Useless Notes At Work


While most employees think of contemporaneous notes as a means for covering your tracks with management, they can also help improve your performance by keeping you focused and accountable. Here, six job coaches outline how to use notes to advance your career.

State The Facts

Your notes should include the date and time of the meeting and whether it was the weekly staff meeting, a one-on-one meeting, or a hallway conversation, Halpern says. Simply state what was agreed to, next steps, and who is accountable for each action item. You don’t need to include a minute-by-minute account of who said what. “If you just include facts, it’s much harder to refute it,” she says.

Get Buy-In From Your Boss

Employees with challenging bosses should make it a habit to email their manager a recap of their meeting to confirm assignments and deadlines. “You want to make sure the points you think are important, and your boss also thinks are important,” says Tracey Gritz, productivity expert and owner of The Efficient Office.

Because managers don’t always respond to email, consider sharing your notes at the end of your meeting. “I will turn around my notepad and show my boss what I heard,” says Melissa Hook Shahbazian, an innovation coach and graphic facilitator at Lime. Point to your notes and ask, “Did I hear this correctly? Is this the amount of detail you want me to include in the report?” she says. “This acknowledges that you heard that person and it shows that person you are dedicated to understanding his or her meaning.”

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Gain Clarity When Priorities Shift

When your boss moves up a deadline or changes his mind about what to include in a report, it’s tempting to pull out your notes and exclaim, “But that’s not what you said on January 3.” Job coaches agree that’s not a wise career move. The purpose of the notes isn’t to prove that your boss likes to contradict himself but to gain clarity about an assignment without sounding defensive. “It’s not about playing gotcha,” says Caroline Stokes, a certified executive coach and founder of Forward.

Don’t take the change in direction personally or look at it as criticism, Gritz says. Instead ask questions to get a deeper understanding about why your boss changed her mind but be careful not to sound defensive or angry. Stokes recommends asking, “Do you remember when we spoke on May 1? Can you help me understand how we got from that point to this point?”

Another way to approach your boss about a change in direction is to acknowledge there has been a shift, confirm the change, and then add that you will need to realign your priorities to meet the new deadline, Halpern says. She suggests telling your boss, “If you’re saying the deadline is now June 5, I understand that the priority has changed, but, if I’m going to meet that deadline, I will need to let the due date for one of my other assignments shift.”

Remind Others Of Their Commitment

If you’re waiting for your boss or a coworker to provide critical information for your report and the deadline is fast approaching, you can use your notes as a gentle reminder, says Tracey Adams, founder of ThriveOn Seminars. Email them your meeting notes with a message stating, “I want to recap what we agreed to at our meeting and make sure we’re still on the same page.”

Provide Context

 Contemporaneous notes can keep an entire team on track by reminding staff about the history and evolution of a project, says executive coach Danielle Beauparlant Moser, principal and practice leader at BLT Careers. Being able to provide context about a long-term assignment is great way to increase your perceived power at work, Halpern says. “You will know what happened while everyone else will just remember it.”

About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, parenting, and food and drink. Her articles have appeared in Daily Worth, Men's Journal, Eater, SheKnows, and Yahoo Parenting.

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