Getting Things Done QA

When Your Boss Suffers From Short-term Memory Loss

Dear Justin,

Short of writing down every word, how do you communicate with a boss who repeatedly gives input or instruction “on the fly,” but then later cannot recall what he approved or instructed? Often this input comes up rapidly or in response to other issues.

Dealing with Short-Term Memory Lapses

Dear Dealing,

I’m not sure you’ll be able to prevent these situations from happening. As you said, they often come up rapidly or in response to other situations. So, I suggest turning “on the fly” discussions into catalysts for something more solid, rather than let them remain isolated conversations on some topic. Let me explain.

Documentation Is Underrated

Given our current technologies, it’s never been easier to document something on the fly, in the moment. But I sense that many people feel documenting is too “formal,” or that it might be a little overbearing to demand it of others or demand it of an interaction. I invite you to challenge this idea. Try to see quick documentation as the gold standard that keeps tasks and instructions from falling through the cracks. We often rely too heavily on our minds to remember details, and research shows our minds are terrible at short-term recall. If you want great execution and more clarity, become a documentation pro!

The Key Habit in the Moment

Next time you run into one of these moments with your boss, here is what I’d like you do. Quickly record your understanding of what needs to happen. Then, when you get back to your office, email your boss what you’ve captured. Ask them to take a minute to confirm whether they see it as you do. If they don’t, they can clarify. If they do, you can proceed. Either way, you’ve done two things: 1) you’ve gotten clear on what to do, and 2) you now have an email record to stir your boss’s memory if there is a concern in the future.

Help Them Help You Help Them

During your next one-on-one, let your manager know of your new plans and the positive natural consequences that should follow because of your new plans. Help them see how this new habit will ensure you both have clarity around assignments, experience fewer surprises, and have an easier time getting on the same page. “I know it might take you an extra thirty seconds to review my email, but I think we’ll save a lot of time in the long run. We’ll have fewer unneeded meetings, and we’ll spend less time on work you may not want us working on.”

In my experience, about ninety percent of communication problems result from misunderstandings. People rarely have bad intentions or deliberately try to deceive others. Discipline yourself to capture ideas and tasks in the moment, and clarify with the decision-maker who should do what by when.

Best of Luck,

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