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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Tips for Dealing with an Indecisive Boss

If you’ve ever worked for someone who can’t make up his or her mind, you know how frustrating an average day on the job can be. An indecisive boss creates a unique challenge for you as an employee: It’s tough to build your experience and portfolio when your manager’s mind changes with the wind. So how do you deal when your supervisor won’t stop wavering and make a damn decision about work and assignments that affect you?

Actually, there’s quite a bit you can do to help and get things moving.

If you’re going to overcome an obstacle, it helps to understand what you’re dealing with so you can approach it optimally. Likely, one of two things is behind your supervisor’s indecision: his own indecisive boss or fear of failure. Yes, your department head (or CEO, or whoever is in charge) may be equally—if not more—indecisive than the person you work under, which probably makes it hard for him to make a confident decision, let alone any decision at all. Factor in insecurity and a worry about failing, and it’s no wonder you’re forever waiting on concrete direction.

Once you have a grasp of the hurdles your manager is dealing with, do your best to keep her on track with the following tips.

1. Ask Questions

One approach to pushing past a stuck spot is to ask strategic questions that’ll ultimately help your boss clarify the next step. If you inquire as though you’re trying to elicit information to help you do your job, your supervisor will have a hard time leaving you hanging. The questions you pose will vary by your industry and the specific project, of course, but the broad examples below will give you an idea for how to get started:

  • What is our primary goal?
  • What is our biggest priority? Why?
  • Who are we responsible to? What evidence do we need to demonstrate efficacy?
  • How hard is our deadline? What happens if we don’t deliver on-time/in-budget/within expectations?

By discussing priorities, client expectations, and potential ramifications if a project doesn’t go well (i.e., a decision isn’t made) you’ll aid your boss in working through potential snags while being mindful of why it’s important to move forward. You’ll also arm him or her with a logical argument if she needs to sell it to her own indecisive leader.

2. Offer a Proposal

Another way to help a supervisor “see” past indecision is to propose the course of action you wish to pursue. And I don’t mean simply saying, “I think we should do this!” Put together something concrete and well-reasoned and present it to him. It might be a detailed project outline, mock-ups of print materials, a written justification that cites relevant research, or anything else that’ll help your supervisor visualize a clear path to the desired outcome. By doing this prep work, your boss won’t have to muddle through different options; you’ll have done the hard work for him.

Not only will this approach help alleviate your manager’s fear of making the wrong choice, but it’ll arm her with a strong argument to use higher up the chain of command if necessary. This maneuver has the subsequent benefit of demonstrating what a proactive, solution-focused team member you are.

3. Address it Head-on

It’s possible your boss doesn’t realize that she wavers so much, or how much distress it creates for her team when she does so. This person might be in charge, but he or she’s also human, subject to the same personal blind spots as the rest of us. So if you’ve tried more subtle approaches to addressing indecision with little progress, it might be worth a face-to-face meeting so you can lay your frustrations out on the table.

As always, avoid accusations and finger-pointing. No human in the history of the human race generally responds well to hostility. Focus on the work, the hurdles that the indecision creates, and what it is that you need from your supervisor. Be clear that you are eager to find a way forward that allows you to be more productive.

Remember to incorporate concrete evidence when possible. For example, if you use an app like Toggle to track the time you spend on projects, you can bring that data to your meeting and show exactly how time-consuming frequent changes in direction—or the lack of any direction—really are. Multiply that time by your hourly rate, and you have even more substantial evidence pointing to the expensive cost of indecisiveness.

4. Maintain Perspective and Your Reputation

Sometimes an indecisive boss will be an indecisive (maddening!) manager, no matter what you do. Remind yourself that you can’t control everything or everyone.

If a project stalls out because he can’t decide how to address an obstacle, he’s the one who’s going to have to face it and figure out a way to keep things moving forward. To avoid any finger-pointing, be sure to document your attempts to be proactive and decisive. If necessary, calmly address your efforts to move past the problem, without including inflammatory remarks or accusatory details. Have a suggestion for how to proceed, and you’ll continue to present yourself as a solution-and-action-focused professional.

Remember that no matter how indecisive your boss is—and no matter how he or she responds to your efforts to address said indecision—you are not powerless. Take control when and where you can, and make sure other key people in your organization are aware of your efforts. When your manager is busy agonizing over a decision that hinders your productivity, look for other tasks to focus on. A simple, quick mention of your accomplishments in conversation or via an email exchange lets others know that you’re action-oriented without being obnoxious or negative.

If your boss’s indecision leads to a complete stand-still in your work, look for opportunities to collaborate across departments. Take a stroll or pick up the phone to chat with your contacts around the company. When, during those conversations, an opportunity arises for you to offer your support on something, jump on it. Your determination to be productive and add value to your company will open doors for you, even if your manager stays in his or her own revolving door of indecision.

Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.