Ask the Conversation Doctor

Episode 3: My boss yelled at me for coming to his office too much

 

Dear Doctor:

I’m a designer in New York at a pretty fancy firm (first job out of school!). I just started on a new project that comes with a new project boss. It’s stressful. We have a lot of deadlines coming up, and also things change pretty quickly, so I’ve been going to his office a lot to make sure I’m not making mistakes or missing anything. I thought I was being proactive.

Well, I guess that wasn’t the right thing to do. The other day, I was going to my boss’s office to ask him a question and met him as he was coming out the door. And he freaked out. He started yelling and told me I couldn’t come into his office asking questions twenty times a day and that he couldn’t hold my hand all the time. (For the record, it’s nowhere near twenty times a day.)

Now I’m embarrassed because I know my coworkers heard him yelling and they probably think I’m stupid and inexperienced. And I’m afraid to ask him more questions but I really don’t want to mess up.

What should I do?

“Abe”

 

The diagnosis

Hi, Abe!

I’m sorry you get yelled at. Your whole situation sounds really stressful. I see two major issues – and there’s only one you can really take action to fix.

The root problem here is a clash in your communication styles.

Everyone has their own Communication Profile, but we almost never think or talk explicitly about them. In the workplace, two major components of your Communication Profile are:

1.    What communication channel you like to use for a particular purpose

2.    How frequently you prefer to use that channel

For almost all of human history, we had only one real communication channel: the face-to-face conversation. Then came letters, and then telephone calls, and now we have a whole range of channels to choose from. For example, at many workplaces you can:

Talk in real-time: 1) Speak face-to-face, 2) Video call, 3) Call on the phone

Send a message: 1) Leave a voicemail, 2) Email, 3) Message or post on Slack

Message in real-time: 1) Text, 2) Instant message

Good work communicators match the channel to the message.

Something that’s more urgent or requires a lot of bandwidth may be best handled with a face-to-face conversation, video call, or phone call. These all take place in real time, and require that someone pay attention to you at that moment. They are the most demanding, but also can be the most efficient, especially since we communicate so much additional information with our faces, bodies, and voices.

Texting or IMing, if an option at work, also show that time is a factor, but are a bit less intrusive. And email and Slack messages leave the timing up to the person responding. Text-only channels can be less efficient – it’s easier to misunderstand people or to miss things –  but they also let someone respond at a time that’s good for them.

Good communicators pay attention to what channel people prefer. Unfortunately, we almost never talk explicitly about our Communication Profiles, so we usually have to intuit from clues. If someone mutters about how much they hate voicemail, then you know to send an email instead. Back in the day, I had a much older VP. She’d respond to my email questions, way later than I wanted, by coming by my cubicle and answering them because for her, email wasn’t a thing yet. So even though I preferred email, I learned to stop by her office to ask important questions. It was annoying, but at least I got my answers on time.

As you have seen, problems can arise when we clash in our communication preferences and someone ends up feeling overly burdened, forced into a channel they don’t like to use, or both.

That covers the first problem. The second major issue you’ve described is that your boss responded inappropriately to you. Even if he was irritated, it wasn’t right for him to raise his voice and yell at you, and it especially wasn’t right to yell at you in the hallway so your coworkers could hear. This is bad management. And it’s a problem you can’t really fix beyond managing your own responses to him. 

The prescription

You need to work with your boss to set up clear communication guidelines for the future. This is actually a good thing to do any time you have a new job or new manager, but for you it’s now urgent.

First, think through what kinds of information you need from him. Can you sort it into categories? Deadlines, project scope, things you don’t understand, etc.

Once you’ve sorted it into categories, consider who is the most appropriate source of information. Is it always him? Or can some things be answered by co-workers or by research you do yourself?

Now that you know what you should be getting from your boss and him alone, think about the best communication channel for each category. For example, how time-sensitive is it?

Finally, think about ways to synthesize your thoughts so that you’re not just pinging him with questions every time they come up for you. This is a great way to be respectful of other people’s time and thought processes.

You can now you can email your boss with a concrete set of suggestions for how and when you would like to communicate about the project and ask him for feedback on these suggestions. The goal is to end up with both clear guidelines for moving forward and buy-in for future interactions.

A final word of caution: I’d recommend keeping a paper trail of interactions with this particular manager. Someone who thinks it’s acceptable to yell at an employee, especially in a semi-public way, may also think it’s ok to throw you under the bus at a later date. Make sure you have a good record of your questions and his answers. You can work to be pleasant and professional with this guy, but don’t trust him to do the right thing.

 

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Want to ask your own questions about workplace communication? Send an e-mail to wertheim@worthwhileconsulting.com and put “Ask the Conversation Doctor” in the subject line.

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim is a linguistic anthropologist who has been researching and teaching about language and culture for twenty years. She works with businesses to improve their communication culture.

 

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