Reporting to an indecisive boss is challenging and frustrating. Here’s how to turn the situation around.
Managers who can’t pick a course of action, or constantly change their minds, are infuriating. You waste time, switch direction, and your credibility and reputation suffers. So how can you help a wishy-washy manager make decisions? Writing in Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight presents some strategies for coping with a chronically indecisive boss.
1) Diagnose the situation. Sydney Finkelstein, author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, says the first step is to “figure out what is behind the behaviour”. Try to have empathy. Maybe his own boss smacked him down the last time he went out on a limb; or he could be wary of your organisation’s ‘blaming culture’.
Could your manager’s inability to move forward be due to her inexperience or risk-averse disposition? Or is it possible your boss isn’t telling you how to do everything because she’s waiting to see if you step up?
Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School says: “As a subordinate, you don’t necessarily have all the information.” Indecision is sometimes defensible. “If an issue is hard and complicated, rushing to judgment is not a good thing.”
2) Build trust. If you determine that the root of the problem is insecurity, it’s your job to “lend your manager confidence” by being an “extremely competent and trustworthy” direct report, says Finkelstein. Think of it as an opportunity for you to help your boss see a way forward.
If the indecisiveness stems from the fact that the decision is complicated and the answers unclear, Rothbard recommends acting as “a sounding board – someone who’s willing to discuss and weigh the pros and cons of various actions”. Ask good questions, provide relevant, useful data, and offer your perspective.
For example, Kyle Libra was the first employee at a fast-growing software startup. His boss, ‘Charlie’, a first-time CEO, was indecisive about everything. “He wanted to be involved in every design decision, but he often changed his mind. One day he’d want us to make the buttons on our product slightly rounded; two weeks later, they needed to be perfectly square.”
Kyle knew he needed to gain Charlie’s trust, while also demonstrating that the constant mind-changing was having a negative impact on the team. He provided Charlie with analytical customer feedback that indicated the company’s product launches were well received. This reassured Charlie that the team knew what it was doing.
Kyle succeeded in getting Charlie to delegate more. “Over time Charlie saw that things were running smoothly and trusted us to make good decisions,” he says.
3) Take charge. When you have a strong opinion about how the decision should go, but your boss is still stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’, take a different approach. “Giving your boss more data to pore over will not necessarily help him move forward,” Rothbard explains. In these cases, “you need to help your boss sort through the information” and then offer “a clear rationale for your recommendation”.
Finkelstein suggests “easing your manager into empowering you”. For example, say: “I’ve been thinking about ways we could address this. Can I try one or two of them then report back?” Taking charge removes the decision-making burden from your boss. “It’s much easier for your manager to choose between two options than it is to take action versus do nothing.”
4) Talk to your boss. Depending on how receptive your manager is to feedback, it might be worth having an honest and respectful conversation about how her wishy-washiness affects you and the rest of the team. Don’t be aggressive or confrontational, says Rothbard. “Signal that you know your boss’s intentions are good. Your tone should say, ‘We’re in this together.’”
She suggests saying something like, “I’m concerned that because we said one thing in the past and now we seem to be going back on it, it’s affecting morale.” The conversation should be constructive and one-on-one, Finkelstein adds. Always “offer people a face-saving way to deal with problems”. But if your boss isn’t very open, this “could be seen as aggressive”.
For example, Kyle talked to his boss Charlie about his behaviour. “It wasn’t personal, but I tried to be as direct as possible,” he says. Once again, he used data to prove his point. “I showed him a graph of the organisation’s engineering output, and showed how his lack of decision-making was hurting their efficiency. They can’t do their jobs if he’s holding them up.”
5) Seek allies. Form a coalition of people with whom you have a good relationship and who have influence over your boss, says Finkelstein. Don’t complain – just ask for advice. He suggests: “I’m trying to work out the best way to accomplish our goals. Do you have any ideas?” If several people agree on a course of action, that’s further impetus for your boss to follow the recommendation.
For example, early in Alexi Robichaux’s career, he worked under an indecisive boss – ‘Frank’. Alexi’s first strategy was to seek advice from other senior leaders who knew him. One colleague told him Frank was passionate about product design but lacked managerial experience. That helped Alexi to understand the root of the problem.
The team soon had a strategic challenge. They had created a new product, but were limited by the available technology. Frank vacillated about whether the product was market-ready. Because Alexi appreciated his boss’s design and perfectionist tendencies, he showed Frank that the product was the best it could be under the circumstances.
After each meeting with the engineering team, Alexi sent Frank detailed updates. “I needed to show him that we had the best technical minds in the company working on this and that we weren’t being lazy; we were just limited by technology.” Ultimately, Frank agreed with the assessment and the product went to market.
6) Protect yourself. Having an indecisive boss is not only hard on your day-to-day productivity, it’s also bad for your internal reputation and career development, says Finkelstein. Without a record of achievement, “What have you got to show on your resume?”
If you conclude that your manager’s woolliness is harming your professional potential, Rothbard advises you distance yourself and protect yourself from your boss’s behaviour by developing your relationships and networking internally. She also suggests cultivating mentors in other parts of the organisation. If the situation persists, you might also want to consider moving on.
KEY PRINCIPLES TO REMEMBER
- engender trust and confidence by being an extremely competent, high-performing employee who’s willing to serve as a sounding board.
- take the lead by helping your boss sort through information and then offering a clear recommendation.
- seek out colleagues who have influence over your boss and ask for their advice on how to handle the situation.
- take it personally. Try to figure out what is behind the indecisiveness.
- be aggressive or confrontational if you decide to talk to your boss about their behaviour.
- stay too long under a boss who can’t make a decision. It’s bad for your internal reputation and long-term career development.