What You Don’t Want to Hear from Your Boss: “That’s Not How I Would Do It”

Colorful speech bubbles I still remember the sting of those words from my boss many years ago when she was reviewing something I put together for her. I stood in her office staring at her grimace while she looked over the paper I handed her. She looked at me and said, “That’s not how I would have done it.” Then, she told me how to redo the work I just spent hours on. She fixated on the formatting of the document I worked on, and I felt that her comments were all super nit-picky.

Of course, we all have to be prepared and willing to take feedback. Plus, it is always easier for someone to give specific feedback as a reaction to something that is already done. Yet in this situation, I was frustrated and demoralized since I felt my boss was making changes just to change them and shape the project in her own image.

I could have avoided this whole situation by asking the right questions up front. When you receive a request to do something from your boss, you should first make sure you understand what she wants. And, even more importantly, understand why she wants it done at all. Treat your boss like your client, and see if you need any more information on the Why, What or How of the request.

What you ask will depend on the project and your boss, but here are a few questions I should have asked my boss to help me manage her micromanage-y, perfectionist tendencies:

  • Do you have a format in mind?
  • How long should this be?
  • How will the document be used?

My questions would have focused on the how (how should it look and how will it be used) since I already knew she was often concerned about appearance and formatting. The answers to these questions would have warded off the issues that came up later. I could have also said things like “would you like this to look like the memo you did last week?” or thrown out some examples  for her to react to.  

Also, it would have helped to know that this was an important document to her and that she was going to run it by upper management for final approval. She wants to look good — heck, who doesn’t —  and she was going to be darned sure that the document I wrote made her look good to her bosses. Or, at least, she would make sure that the document didn’t make her look bad!

Asking these simple questions who have helped me understand my boss’ motivation and the main requirements she was placing on me. There is no better way to ward off a micromanager than to clarify expectations and also understand what scrutiny they feel they are under.

You can ask these questions in an email, request a meeting with your boss or just ask in passing if the opportunity to do so comes up. Don’t delay in getting clarification.

To make sure that what you think you are supposed to do matches what your boss expects you to do, you can send an email summarizing your discussion and outlining what you are working on. This email lets you confirm that your assumptions are correct and gives you the chance to ask any more questions. For example, in my situation, I could have avoided grief if I wrote my boss saying something like: “I’m writing to follow up on your request for me to draft the email to the board about the recent survey. The document should be 5 pages. It will start with an executive summary and then I’ll break down the research methods, responses, analysis, and main findings. I’ll get it to you by Friday so that you have a chance to review it before you send it to Bill for his final review.”

With that email, I would have clarified my boss’ expectations, made my life easier by avoiding what my boss would have perceived as errors, and also helped to build my relationship with my boss by showing her that I listened and would deliver work she could trust.

If in doubt, ask! If you can manage your boss’ expectations, you will be one step closer to getting control over your job instead of your job (and boss) controlling you. 

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