Boss Says I Don’t Communicate

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about failure on a project: I have been working my ass off doing everything I can think of to not screw this project up. I am worried about my performance living up to his expectations.

Today I was called into a meeting regarding the progress I am making on a project that I have recently been assigned. Before I get into what took place at the meeting let me give you a little background information. I am in manufacturing and I have been placed in charge of a new piece of manufacturing equipment. The company that manufactured the machine has sent a technician to install the machine and ensure that all of the bugs have been worked out. The technician has been here for 5 days and the machine was running fine and producing quality parts.

Well I signed the release papers for the technician so he could have permission to leave. Now the machine is having some issues. When I arrived at the meeting my boss is present and the HR manager. I sit down and my boss unloads on me about how I should never have released the technician because the machine is having issues. He told me that I should have told him that the machine was having issues before I released the technician.

He told me that I don’t communicate with him enough. He also questioned my desire to be in the field of manufacturing. Which I believe was completely off topic. I explained to him that I am new to this job and that I have never been through the process of proving a new piece of machinery, which he knows.

I also pointed out that he never once sat down with me to tell me what was expected of me during the whole process. He also never asked me once about the progress I am making. I would expect at least daily meetings but there were none. He admitted that he is partly to blame for not getting more involved. He admitted that he sometimes forgets that new employees like me need to be coached. He explained that his process is to present someone with a general idea of what he expects and then walk away from it. That is fine to do with an experienced individual but I think he dropped the ball with me.

I have been working my ass off doing everything I can think of to not screw this project up. I am worried about my performance living up to his expectations. I cannot afford to lose this job. What advice can you give me regarding my relationship with my boss? I would like to communicate with him effectively. What do you make of the HR representative being there?

Signed, Can’t Afford To Lose

Dear Can’t Afford To Lose:

Signing off that a machine is OK and then learning it has problems is not unusual. The fact that almost every car company has recalls of cars after they have been used by customers is evidence of that. One GE plant, in which I did team building for 18 months, had purchased a huge expensive machine from Sweden and for months after it was installed they couldn’t get it to do the job for which it was bought. So, you have learned that releasing a company’s technician should be tentative and one in which your boss or others also should be involved.

This is to say that incident and stressful meeting with your boss should be viewed as a learning experience, for you and for your boss. Now you two have spelled out more explicitly the formerly unspoken rules of boss-bossed communication, and that is not a finished process. Establishing those rules and living by them can take time and be on-going, depending on the type of job and assignments. And that can and probably also will entail rules/policies of communicating with coworkers, and maybe suppliers, other departments, and customers.Hopefully your “don’t communicate” meeting and the more general questioned “desire to be in the field of manufacturing” will be understood as a process and affirmation of you as one committed to adding value in every way possible. I don’t know quite what to think about your tag on question:

What do you make of the HR representative being there? But I assume that the boss had invited him/her to be present because this was an important meeting and he would be seen as him doing his job should the company have difficulty with the machine on down the line, or possibly with you. You might ask your boss about that why HR was present, but not make a big issue over it.

The important outcome of this is to now get the machine producing as it should and to follow up on keeping the communication channel open and effective. I advise work groups to take time out to hammer out do and don’t communication rules, such as he and you discussed: what coaching he gives when and how often, what you do to provide feedback that you understand.

One outcome of such rule-making is an appreciation of the ambiguity of language and an elevated awareness that misunderstanding is the rule rather than the exception. Once that is articulated those involved are more attentive to how they give and take instructions and there are fewer assumptions that that everything is clear. Also there is less mumbling about who’s to blame and the working relationship is enriched and respect for one another is maintained.A boss/bossed and a workgroup’s time in communication rule-making is well spent. One of the most important rules is from time to time to review how the rules are used and/or should be modified.

In a recent question I repeated the bit of advice eight times to “Be present in body and mind” to emphasize that one’s commitment is best expressed and re-expressed in an on-going mindfulness. I’m sure that will be a result of the encounter that prompted your question to Ask the Workplace Doctors. Probably your company, like many others, has or is involved in efforts for continuous quality improvement, total quality management and/or lean management. Such efforts almost always entail team building. And team building engages employees in attitude and process. I predict you will find this whole experience one that more closely engages you in your total operations and that you will think big; plant-wide. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and the means making yourself, your boss, and your work group look good.

Follow Up: Thank you for all of your advice. Looking back on my meeting yesterday I am glad that the meeting happened because it enabled the communication barrier between my boss and me to start to crumble. I was really on the ball today. I sent him countless emails and had countless conversations with him regarding the progress of the machine. Overall I am feeling more confident in what I am doing. All because I increased my communication level with my boss and my coworkers. It seems so simple when you step back and look at it. I was also very proactive in contacting the manufacturers of the machine. We are trying to get fixes in place for all of the bugs that need to be worked out. We will get them worked out one way or the other. Depending on how this process goes I believe my company wants to send me to Indiana to do the initial run-off of the second identical machine.

My immediate goal is to show them that I am up to the challenge. I need to instill confidence in my boss so he will trust me enough to handle the responsibility. If I don’t my time at my company may be short lived. My company is striving for perfection. We are all receiving training in Six Sigma. We are also supposed to complete some kind of personality test that is supposed to tell us how we communicate with people. It can all be overwhelming at times but each day it gets a little easier. It is a steep learning curve and I think my company will stick with me but you never know. Sometimes its hard to read people. Again thank you for your advice. What books do you recommend reading on the subject of workplace communication?

Response: This is good news. I hope your boss-bossed communication continues to prove positive. You two probably will come to an understanding about what needs to be clarified and cleared that is appropriate for assignments. Do continue your willingness to learn, and from time to time it would be nice to get an update on what you are doing.

P.S. I failed to respond to your question regarding books on workplace communication. If you send your address, I’ll send you one I wrote after on-sites interviews about quality efforts all across this land. There are many good books, but you don’t need many. I like Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success. Also your Internet is rich with resources such as the Susan Heathfield’s newsletter. I’ll forward one of hers.

My associate workplace doctor Tina Lewis Rowe has a site with excellent practical advice and she mentions books she likes. Just click on her name on our home page to access it. Scanning our Q&As is another way.

More Follow Up: I would love to have a copy of one of your books. You may send it to ______. I welcome any new information I can get my hands on. It is my opinion that information allows a person to view every aspect of a situation from many different points of view.  However I am finding out that the more I learn the less I know. It sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? I will do my best to keep you updated on my progress as time goes on. I apologize for cutting this reply short but I really have to finish up some estimates for some of my customers. I failed to mention that I do some outside sales for my former employer on a part time basis. But I don’t plan on doing this for too much longer. Thank you for taking an interest in me and my job. I really do appreciate your time.

William Gorden