Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Sometimes, especially when you work in an environment where tensions run high and decisions get both made and executed quickly, your supervisor might have a tendency to give you different directions on an assignment that don’t quite match up.
In other words, one moment they want one thing from you, and the next, they recommend something else entirely. Here’s how to get the answer you need.
Cut them some slack
Andrew G. Rosen, founder and editor of Jobacle.com, writes in U.S. News & World Report about how you should do this to hypocritical people at work. While his advice seems to pertain to relationships between coworkers, you could also apply this specific point to interacting with your boss when they give you contradictory instructions:
“Don’t judge too harshly, as there will be times in your life you change your mind on something you once said. Not only is life a long and unexpected journey, but it is your right to change your mind. These are your feelings and you are entitled to them, no matter what they are.”
Under your circumstances, you should generally be understanding of your boss for many reasons — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for clarification where needed.
Help them understand where you’re coming from
Len Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and author, and Charlie Kiefer, an MIT professor, author and founder of Innovation Associates, write about how to talk to your supervisor about what’s going on in the Harvard Business Review.
Referencing and later expanding on the situation where employees get contradictory messages on how to perform at work (which they refer to as being in “a double bind”), they later continue:
“Talk to your manager about the bind you feel you are in, and have him help you navigate that specific instance. Bring it up in a lighthearted way, for example: ‘OK, so I need to do something and not do it at the same time time. Can you give me any insight or advice on how to pull that off? Or how to balance the two? Or trade them off? How have you navigated this kind of situation successfully in the past?’ Helping you is your boss’s job, and hopefully he will be a good coach.”
Be direct about what’s going on
“While the contradictions might seem obvious to you, your boss might not perceive them without your help. Be honest and explain that you feel like you’re getting instructions that conflict. Use your notes to give specific examples. Once you’ve proven the contradictions exist, ask your boss for advice on how to handle them, such as ‘What do you recommend I do to pull both of these off at the same time?’ or ‘How would you prioritize these yourself?’ It’s OK to use some humor here to prevent your boss from becoming defensive and shutting you down! And ideally, don’t wait to point the contradiction out. Bring it to their attention as soon as you notice it and ask them to clarify their intent and preferences.”
The clearer you are, the closer you’ll be to your answer.