How To Talk About Productivity With Your Boss

Do you blame your boss for your inability to get more done at work?

One of my core productivity principles is to stop checking email all throughout the day, and to turn off the vibrations, dings and other notifications we get with every new message. Shelby told me, “I can’t turn off my email notifications, because my boss will think I’m not working if I don’t respond to him within five minutes.”

Poorly run meetings are huge time wasters, and simple steps like starting on time, having an agenda and using a count-down clock can work wonders. Arvin explained. “But my manager is the one running them so I can’t do anything about it.”

And in response to “know your one thing” Hussain said, “I’d love to identify my ‘most important daily task’ but my supervisor changes her priorities constantly.”

I’m sure many people will blame their boss or other circumstances as an excuse that ensures they don’t have to feel accountability for their own time, actions and output.

But let’s assume it’s true. Your manager really is time inefficient and may even be an old school command-and-control style boss.

How can you talk to your boss about new productivity strategies? How can you “manage up”? How can you talk in a way that your boss will listen?

When I asked my newsletter subscribers to give me their true stories of “managing up,” I was shocked at how many negative stories I received in response. Many thought it was a hopeless task.

Lizette Breytenbach worked in professional service firm that supported retail stores. She wrote:

“It was the most frustrating experiences of my life. I didn’t get fired, but I was told that if I can’t handle the pressure, I should get another job. When I tried to explain that I am just trying to improve the process for everyone, I got the ‘hysterical woman’ speech. And I was calm and completely under control. In my opinion, if your boss doesn’t have a clue about management and doesn’t understand productivity himself, you’re wasting your time.”

Another woman I’ll call “Natalie” shared her frustrating encounter with her boss:

“When I’ve brought up the demands of the workload, versus the time I have to do it in, she didn’t even pretend to be empathetic… I was so mad in this meeting; I was shaking. I started to explain, but felt like I banged my head on that wall long enough. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m already leaving, I would have quit on the spot.”

Luis provided remote support for a boss who just reverted to his old ways:

“I had a boss that would be picking on me every five minutes, even asking me to respond to emails immediately when I haven’t even researched correctly for a response, just because he wants to look good to the customer. I had to ask him very politely that I needed some time to respond appropriately instead of immediately–and he understood, but after a while he was doing it again.”

So is it hopeless?

Fortunately, among the many responses of failed boss encounters, I did receive several examples where people did have success discussing productivity issues with their managers. Based on these responses, I’ve outlined some guidelines below.

First, pick the right time to talk with your manager. Be sensitive to the broader issues going on in the organization and the emotional state of your boss. We all have good days and bad days. Some of us are morning people, others would rather do meetings in the afternoon. Ideally, bring up your issues during your normal one-on-one status or project meetings. If you don’t have those, just email your boss asking if there is a convenient time to meet to discuss some new productivity ideas you have.

Second, pick the right place to bring up issues on your mind.Despite your best intentions and tact, it is likely that your manager will see your suggested changes as a critique on her current operating style. If she’s open-minded, and you have a good relationship, she should welcome this feedback. But to minimize the chance that she’ll become defensive, don’t bring up your ideas in public, in front of other colleagues. It’s best to bring up your ideas in a private one-on-one meeting.

Third, be mindful of your manager’s communication preferences. Some people like to talk in person, while others seem to prefer email and written communication. Some like high-tech gadgets; others are old school. Joey shared with me how he and his boss use a software program to manage projects and tasks:

“My boss and I schedule a weekly one-on-one so that we can review my Trello board. Practicing task input through Trello does two things. One, I am able to manage my tasks individually on a macro and micro level. Two, my boss can also manage my productivity visually without wasting time in describing every detail for each project or task.”

Fourth, focus on the goal, the mutual win. Remember to put the focus on the improved outcome you are seeking. Consider these sample conversation starters:

  • “I’m curious how quickly you expect me to respond to your emails… would one hour or less be OK? I’m thinking about processing my email hourly, that way I can shut if off while I’m head down focusing on that presentation due this Friday.”
  • “How would you feel if I muted my phone and turned my email off from 9 to 10 a.m. each morning? I’d really love to just focus on my prospecting phone calls during that time…”
  • “Can I grab you for five minutes to review priorities? I’d just like to review my current task list with you and make sure I’m clear on when you’d expect each item to be completed.”

Fifth, use a question instead of a confrontation. Instead of having an official “sit down” meeting to discuss your bosses productivity challenges, you may want to try responding to individual problems as they happen, in a very non-threatening way. Irene worked for a large telecommunication company and her supervisors expected immediate action to all emails. She developed the habit of automatically asking to clarify expectations. She explained:

“I answered them with a quick email back with an educated guess at a realistic ETA might be (e.g., ‘Is tomorrow by lunch time soon enough?’) The answer usually came back as ‘yes’ or they provided a more specific time and date — usually a couple of days out. Very rarely was the deadline within the hour or even the same day.”

Jody was an HR professional reporting to the GM of a hotel. Her successful method was to ask a question with a touch of humor. She told me:

“Every once in a while he would give me one too many ‘drop everything and do this’ type assignments. I would just ask him which of my ‘drop everything’ jobs he wanted me to do first and what jobs I was not going to be able to get to that day. He was always good to stop and reevaluate… I truly think it just never occurred to him that he had given me more than was humanly possible to do.”

Remember, be wholehearted. I received great advice from leadership expert and author, Jim Trunick, who offered:

“Actually, managing up is treating your boss like your best client, a loved family member or best confidante. Then our words flow and sound appropriate as counselor, advisor or therapist. Boss mistakes, like our own, often come from dynamics others don’t understand. Be sensitive, and assume positive intent in boss actions, and maybe we’ll learn along with shaping a more positive discussion.”

And don’t get discouraged by the stories of all the “bad bosses” out there. There are also plenty of leaders who rely on their team members to challenge them. Phillip is one such leader:

“I try to install that ethos within the team that ‘Yes’ is not always the right answer. More of, ‘No, not right now as I have these tasks currently — unless you wish me to drop one of these and reprioritize, then the answer becomes yes.’”

If your manager is standing between you and extreme productivity, don’t assume things will never change. Rather, seek to proactively partner with your boss so they can benefit from your improved productivity, too.

Kevin Kruse is the author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management and “The Millionaire Day Planner: A Free 1-Page Planning Tool.”

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