Leaders always have a lot on their minds, so perhaps they can be forgiven if they occasionally mistake a date or time, or don’t remember asking you to stop or start something. But a pattern of repeated or even periodic forgetting can have a negative impact on your work — and on you.
For example, it’s disruptive if you and your boss have agreed to a particular sequence of events or a set of priorities, and you’re tootling along, getting things done, when suddenly she wants to see a report that isn’t due until next week.
Protect Yourself by Taking Notes
Recently a mid-level leader expressed some concern that her boss was forgetful about assignments and commitments. She wasn’t sure how to remind him or correct him without sounding oppositional, but she was worried that her boss would think that she was being forgetful, inattentive, or even incompetent.
I suggested that, in addition to taking detailed notes about whatever she and her boss had agreed to, she should refer to her notes and review the salient points before she left any meeting or conversation, particularly about timing and dates. The goal is to confirm the particulars and demonstrate a practice of taking notes. I told her that she could also offer to send her boss the notes, or automatically generate a follow-up email emphasizing all the important specifics about commitments and timeframes.
This way, when her boss asks for something that isn’t done yet, she could say, casually and without any heat, “Oh, don’t you remember? We said we would send that out on Thursday, after the full report is available.” She could also add, courteously, “You may remember we went over those details and I emailed you about them late last week.”
Be a Stickler Rather than the Weak Link
My client’s natural inclination was to protect her boss’s feelings and say, “Oh, I thought you said we shouldn’t send that out until Thursday,” but I advised her against it quite strongly. It may seem counterintuitive, but for a naturally helpful, non-oppositional person like this mid-level leader, using this approach not only won’t work — it could backfire badly.
While what my client wanted to say was true, and she was avoiding the appearance of being in attack mode by saying it so politely, this generous positioning actually carries the implication that the mistake was the mid-level leader’s, not the boss’s. Ultimately, it would most likely be damaging to her credibility.
If your boss has a habit of forgetting, and each time it happens, your response is to say something that implies that you were the inaccurate party, over time, your boss will come to believe that you’re frequently mistaken. That’s not what you want!
Better to develop a reputation as someone who’s a little bit of a stickler by taking notes, confirming, and following up by email. This set of practices will also position you as reliable and accurate — and ensure that you’re the one making the correction rather than being labeled as someone who gets things wrong.
Onward and upward,