One certainty in life is that “things” don’t always go as planned. Headaches will hit you. Problems will pop up. Surprises will surface. However, when an issue suddenly spirals out of control, how you handle it with your boss can make or break your career. So make it a point to get in front of the problem by communicating what’s going on before your boss hears about it elsewhere and you end up in a “defensive” mode. This proactive approach essentially prevents surprises and gives you an opportunity to share your side of the story, including what happened, why it happened, and what you’re doing about it.
Is talking to your boss about problems something that’s easier said than done? Here are some solid tips for communicating serious issues or situations.
Develop a game plan for the meeting.
Choose the right time and place. Definitely don’t stop the boss in the hall or rush unexpectedly into his or her office and dump the news. This is not only highly inconvenient for the boss, but it also reflects poorly on you, making you come across as reactionary and even reckless. Schedule a meeting, setting a time that’s best for both of you and in an environment that’s conducive to candid conversations (office vs. lunchroom).
Consider who should attend. Is someone else privy to the problem — or part of it? Whether it’s a direct report or a front-line customer service agent, make sure any key players are invited, particularly if that will support the conversation you need to have or the issue that demands attention.
Establish your talking points. Even if you’re usually a calm, cool and collected speaker, avoid ad-libbing this conversation. A few minutes of planning your thoughts and words carefully by putting down key points on paper can help you get your message across and facilitate a smoother, more thorough communication experience.
Be effective about what you say.
Focus on the facts. This is an area in which people often fall short when it comes to communicating. They may get some of the facts, but not all the critical ones. When talking with the boss, zero in on the five “Ws” of communication: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Be prepared to answer those questions relative to the problem at hand, and you’ll likely have your bases covered.
Own your mistakes. Acknowledge and admit to the boss when you’ve been responsible for a problem or issue — and honestly own it. In the end, doing so doesn’t reveal weakness, but it supports your credibility as a gutsy, accountable leader.
Bring solutions to the table. Don’t be a “problem communicator,” or someone who dumps bad news on the doorstep and leaves it at that. Come prepared with a solution — or a few. Demonstrate that you’ve already taken the time to think of options, answers, exit strategies, and other ways out of what could be perceived as a dead-end situation. Make sure there’s at least a sense of hope when you leave the conversation.
Ask for the help you need. If you have a solution but can’t adequately implement it without certain resources or training, for example, ask for it. This shows you’re not just willing to offer solutions but will implement them as long as you’re sufficiently supported. “Help” might also mean simply asking for direction or advice. Don’t be intimidated by the boss — if you don’t ask about what you don’t know, you won’t know it.
Promise and provide updates.
Determine what they will look like. Will you send email updates? Have regular, weekly meetings? Send out company wide communications? Before you sit down to talk with the boss, have an idea about what you can do in terms of updating him or her on the issue.
Decide who needs to get them. Does just your boss need to know you’re addressing the problem? A team? The entire company? Think carefully about who should get updates, why, and any pros and cons before you start giving them.
Deliver them with consistency. When you make a promise relative to updating your boss and perhaps others about anything — just do it and stay on track.
What are some tricks to quickly pinning down the “too busy boss” for such a meeting?