Today’s workplaces are fast-paced and often unpredictable. Your boss may be pulled in so many directions each day that it’s hard for her to keep commitments to meetings with direct reports. And, frankly, when things get crazy, it’s easier to cancel a meeting with someone who reports to you than a peer or more senior leader.
But when your boss cancels meetings and phone calls with you regularly, you can begin to doubt your value or even feel resentful. Lack of connection with your boss can also impact the quality of your work due to missing information, and even hamper career progress by shutting down mentoring and knowledge of department needs and new opportunities. Gaining access to a hard-to-pin-down boss is a critical part of learning how to manage up.
A tough conversation
Coach to executives at Google, Microsoft, Venmo and others, Alisa Cohn, writes in Harvard Business Review
that this situation calls for a candid, if potentially awkward, conversation with your boss. Consider these strategies to develop a dialogue that helps build the relationship and positions you as someone ready to take the initiative to increase her contribution.
- Try to be objective. Frequent meeting cancellations, often at the last minute, can do a number on your ego. Start with a deep breath, take a step back and try not to take it personally. Look at patterns in your boss’s behavior that demonstrate frequent cancellations with others as well and give your boss the benefit of the doubt that she has more on her plate than she can handle.
- Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. Take note of what demands your boss is currently facing, large projects that may not be on target, severe financial pressures, or increasing demands, especially if there has been a change in upper management. You don’t want to be so focused on your own needs that you appear clueless about larger issues she’s facing.
- Get a meeting on the books. There’s a certain irony here in trying to schedule a meeting with someone to talk about how they keep cancelling meetings, but you will have to do your best to get – and stay – on her calendar. You might offer to meet before or after normal business hours, tack ten minutes onto the end of a regular department meeting, or forego lunch if you can get 15 minutes together. Demonstrating your flexibility to meet whenever she can squeeze you in will also show this is a high priority.
- Start the discussion with the right tone. When you’re finally face to face, offer sincere thanks and get right to the point. You might start with a direct and respectful statement such as, “I know you are especially busy right now and I really appreciate this time. I’m concerned that having our meetings canceled frequently is decreasing my ability to plan my work appropriately and be of greatest value to you and the team. Is it possible you could commit to our weekly meetings moving forward, or would there be a better approach for me to more regularly get your feedback?”
Equip yourself with several suggestions that could work for both of you, such as scheduling a weekly phone call while your boss is commuting to or from work, agreeing to less frequent meetings that are consistently attended, or perhaps alternating weekly in-person meetings with email touch bases. The key is to find out if there is anything keeping your boss from meeting with you other than her own demands and then to explore alternatives that will give you the access and insights you need to perform well.
- Offer assistance. If your boss is canceling meetings simply because she is overwhelmed, consider ways you can share the burden and increase your skills and visibility at the same time. You might offer to run the weekly department touch-bases in her absence and provide summary notes afterward to keep her in the loop. Or you could provide the background research she needs to present a new initiative. You might take her talking points and build a PPT for her. Or offer to ghostwrite a first draft of a report. If you can plug into areas where you have talent, you will decrease your boss’s stress and increase your value.
- Make an honest assessment. Finally, if the conversation with your boss, and a little sleuthing with others in the department, uncovers that you are the only one whose access has declined, you face a different challenge. Speak directly with your boss about any perceived shortcomings and then work to improve, correct her misperceptions, or even explore other career options. It’s even possible you might learn that your boss sees you as a self-starter who is ready for greater independence. It’s best to know the truth so you can respond effectively.
Finally, Cohn makes clear that some bosses are simply chronic cancellers and not likely to change. “In that case,” she says, “you can pre-plan for the cancellation and have a backup in place for other tasks to be done, just in case they do cancel the meeting.”