Don’t Let Your Boss’s Poor Communication Skills Hold You Back

If your boss is terrible at communicating, you don’t have to deal with the fallout. These strategies will help you get the information you need.

Don’t Let Your Boss’s Poor Communication Skills Hold You Back
[Photo: drante/iStock]

Poor communication is costing you in more ways than you probably realize. But it might not be your poor communication that’s the problem.


A recent Economist Intelligence Unit study found that communication barriers like lack of clarity, pointless meetings, and even differences in communication styles are wreaking havoc on productivity and efficiency. Forty-four percent of respondents said such issues delay or derail projects, while nearly a third said they cause low morale. A quarter attributed poor communication to missed performance goals, and 18% said a failure to communicate caused lost sales, sometimes totaling well into the six figures.

Related: How To Communicate With People Who Disagree With You

It’s one thing if the finger is pointed at you—there are plenty of ways you can shore up your own ability to ensure others hear and understand what you say. But, what if the perpetrator of murky directives is your boss?

Of course, you can ask questions, but you must know what to ask, business leadership coach Cheri Torres, PhD, author of Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement. Try to clarify directives and expectations without unduly challenging your boss or making them feel threatened or inadequate, which can make it even tougher to get direction, she says.

“Don’t throw the boss into further panic and fear, but instead seek clarity and information from that person, and putting it in the context of, ‘I really want to do a good job for you and for the department, so I need this information in order to do that,'” she says. And to help get the information you need to succeed use these tactics.

Identify The Disconnect

Identifying the root of the disconnect can make a world of difference in how you communicate with your boss on a regular basis, says Brian Kelley, vice president of employee experience at McLean, Virginia-based Sage Communications. Take note of your boss’s interactions with others. Do they have a tough time communicating with everyone? Are there traits that get in the way of clear communication? Understanding different communication styles, especially those typical of introverts, extroverts, and various personality types, can also be helpful to understand where the gap is.


“Anytime you have a poor communicator in a senior position, it’s a great opportunity to manage up and really work with your superior to make sure that they understand your needs for solid communication and the specific ways that you can really communicate with each other better,” he says. Kelley urges his direct reports to tell him what they need from him to better do their jobs. If your boss is open to that kind of frank communication, it could be enormously helpful, he says.

Related: How To Avoid The 5 Most Common Misunderstandings At Work


Understanding the thought process that led to this project or request can help you better understand what is being asked, says executive coach Judith E. Glaser, and author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. One way to do that is to “double-click” when your boss gives you direction.

Let’s say your supervisor tells you to take on a project. They’ve obviously thought through why they want you to do so, and they’re in a state of conclusion, Glaser says. But you may not agree with the directive and may need help understanding why you’re being asked to take on the project, as well as what the point of it is. Asking about what led up to the decision to execute this project or take on this task can get you more clarity about the context and expectations, she says. That’s double-clicking, Glaser says.

“A lot of times we don’t get context from CEOs, we get conclusions. With conclusions, you miss out on a lot of the pre-thought, where the [employee] might be able to get in and make some adjustments to make it even better. That’s what they want to do, get into the conversation, into the thought process,” she says.

Reframe, Refocus, Redirect

When you’re having conversations with your boss and don’t feel like you’re getting what you need, try stating the question in a different way or sharing your understanding of what’s being said, Glaser says. Respond with, “So, what I understand you’re asking me to do is . . . ” or, “What I hear you saying is that you want me to . . . ” and fill in the blank with your perspective. That will allow your supervisor to understand what you’re hearing in the conversation, she says.


Related: 6 Ways To Communicate With More Authority

“When you’re not getting what you want, try to reframe it, say it in a different way, or connect it to something, a new word that might activate the opening of a conversation,” she says.

Get Clear About Priorities

If you’re still having trouble getting detailed instructions, context, or feedback, try to focus on priorities, Kelley says. What matters about the project? What is the purpose? What will a successful outcome look like?

If you can get a clearer picture of the desired outcome, you may be able to figure out how to make that happen, Torres adds. Some bosses may try to test your problem-solving ability and resourcefulness by giving you the broad strokes of a project and allowing you to figure out how to get it done.

“Some bosses don’t give real clear instructions because they are anticipating or expecting or hoping the person will make decisions about how to do things on their own, but they assume that, rather than say that,” she says.

And if you’re feeling lost on a project or not sure you’re moving in the right direction, arranging check-ins along the way can help ensure you don’t get too far off track, Kelley adds.


Find Other Stakeholders

Finding coworkers, colleagues, and even other senior-level people who can help you get the direction you need is another good strategy, Torres says. If your boss isn’t clear about direction, they may also not be clear about who else is involved in the project. Ask around and work on gathering information from people who can provide it, she says. You may also get valuable feedback about how other people have found ways to communicate effectively with your supervisor, she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books