Crucial Skills®

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When Your Boss Suffers From Short-term Memory Loss

Dear Justin,

Short of writing down every word, how do you communicate with a boss who repeatedly gives input or instruction “on the fly,” but then later cannot recall what he approved or instructed? Often this input comes up rapidly or in response to other issues.

Dealing with Short-Term Memory Lapses

Dear Dealing,

I’m not sure you’ll be able to prevent these situations from happening. As you said, they often come up rapidly or in response to other situations. So, I suggest turning “on the fly” discussions into catalysts for something more solid, rather than let them remain isolated conversations on some topic. Let me explain.

Documentation Is Underrated

Given our current technologies, it’s never been easier to document something on the fly, in the moment. But I sense that many people feel documenting is too “formal,” or that it might be a little overbearing to demand it of others or demand it of an interaction. I invite you to challenge this idea. Try to see quick documentation as the gold standard that keeps tasks and instructions from falling through the cracks. We often rely too heavily on our minds to remember details, and research shows our minds are terrible at short-term recall. If you want great execution and more clarity, become a documentation pro!

The Key Habit in the Moment

Next time you run into one of these moments with your boss, here is what I’d like you do. Quickly record your understanding of what needs to happen. Then, when you get back to your office, email your boss what you’ve captured. Ask them to take a minute to confirm whether they see it as you do. If they don’t, they can clarify. If they do, you can proceed. Either way, you’ve done two things: 1) you’ve gotten clear on what to do, and 2) you now have an email record to stir your boss’s memory if there is a concern in the future.

Help Them Help You Help Them

During your next one-on-one, let your manager know of your new plans and the positive natural consequences that should follow because of your new plans. Help them see how this new habit will ensure you both have clarity around assignments, experience fewer surprises, and have an easier time getting on the same page. “I know it might take you an extra thirty seconds to review my email, but I think we’ll save a lot of time in the long run. We’ll have fewer unneeded meetings, and we’ll spend less time on work you may not want us working on.”

In my experience, about ninety percent of communication problems result from misunderstandings. People rarely have bad intentions or deliberately try to deceive others. Discipline yourself to capture ideas and tasks in the moment, and clarify with the decision-maker who should do what by when.

Best of Luck,

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7 thoughts on “When Your Boss Suffers From Short-term Memory Loss”

  1. Marice Clark

    Dear Justin,

    I love VitalSmarts and all the great advice and the stories. I have been able to use the information I learn in both my work and personal life. However, I have a comment about your writing style. Well, actually many writers and journalists are now doing the same thing and perhaps the rules of grammar have changed but, if so, I never heard about it.

    In this article when you are referring to the complainant’s boss, you begin with the singular noun ‘boss’ but then continue on with the plural pronouns ‘them’ and ‘they’. According to the rules of grammar as I understand them, the pronoun needs to be singular for a singular subject and plural for a plural subject.

    I realize in this day and age of political correctness it is difficult to decide whether to use the masculine or feminine pronoun so many writers are now choosing to use neutral pronouns. However, until a neutral singular pronoun is agreed upon, a writer must choose to use ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ and risk offending someone.

    As I said, many writers are now doing this. I feel annoyed and irritated when I read these types of grammatical gaffes. It would be cool if writers everywhere could get together and agree on gender neutral singular pronouns that can be used when the gender of the subject is unknown.

    Thanks for listening,
    Marice Clark
    (No I’m not an English teacher or major)

    1. Lauren R

      Quote from “Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.” They acknowledge, however, that it is an ongoing “debate.”

  2. bean

    “In my experience, about ninety percent of communication problems result from misunderstandings. People rarely have bad intentions or deliberately try to deceive others.”

    oh BOY! you’re experience is VERY different from mine! (…a grad student in bio research)

    miscommunication is the MO of every good politician, er umm “advisor”; ambiguity ensures an opportunity to fix “mistakes” later if at all. something tells me the letter’s author (Dealing) might have to reconsider the entire relationship once the boss says “i’d rather not waste time with notes!”
    that’s part of the reason i like crucial skills so much: doesn’t matter if the boss is evil or not. responsibility/accountability is forced on both interlocutors. e.g. i think your input could be a catalyst for putting the onus back on Dealing to make sure their life isn’t being wasted in the wrong context AND give the boss real feedback about his/her behavior.

    1. Justin Hale

      Your point is well taken. I think we agree on some points. what i am NOT saying is that 90% of behavior concerns are misunderstandings. In my personal experience a huge percentage of misunderstandings in communication (aka – people getting offended, defensiveness, etc). come from people not fully understanding each others intent. There are definitely those cases where people legitimately have selfish intentions.

      also whether or not to have a crucial conversation in this situation would depend on the employee. Do i need to hold a conversation in this situation to “get unstuck? or is this a style difference and with some small tweaks in the way we work together, we’ll both be happier. If this habit on the boss’s part carried over into many other areas of how they worked together, thus negatively effecting the working relationship (which is determined by the people in this situation – not you and I), then i would suggest a conversation. thanks for the comment!

      1. bean

        you’re welcome! thanks for your interest (not sure if i got across that i liked your response BECAUSE it could be the catalyst…)

        while i think there are plenty of reasons (legitimately selfish and otherwise) to intentionally avoid full disclosure of one’s intent, i think curiosity (enough to ask even just oneself “what might be being miscommunicated here”) goes a long way to addressing the resulting detriments.

  3. Ayodeji Akinkuolie

    “Ask them to take a minute to confirm whether they see it as you do. If they don’t, they can clarify. If they do, you can proceed.”

    I refer to the above extract. Particularly the action to be taken if the don’t, Who clarifies what? If someone does not respond to an email requesting confirmation. I would ask again and perhaps rephrase the question – ‘they can clarify’ is not clear. Perhaps there is a word or two missing?

  4. marguerite Guthridge

    Justin, well done. When I was 28 (in 1976), I had such a boss, but he would forget many things. I started writing a weekly status report. I was amazed at how much his memory improved! If your reader thinks it too much trouble, then it must be easy to survive his unjustified criticism.

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