How to handle a forgetful boss or colleague with tact

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You’ve probably had this situation: Your colleague is nice and helpful. The only problem? She has the memory of a goldfish. She doesn’t remember being given an update on the report last week nor the tasks assigned to her. She remembers to attend meetings, but only because they’re in her calendar. Everything that’s not in her calendar? Not in her brain.

So how do you deal with a colleague or boss who is forgetful without lashing out at them or calling HR? We got some tips from James Choles, Corporate Training Manager for Professional Development Centre at the British Council.

HOW SHOULD YOU REMIND THEM WITHOUT OFFENDING THEM?

James says empathy is important when dealing with a forgetful boss or colleague. “They’ve probably got a million and one things on their minds and they’re not being forgetful on purpose! This empathy should then inform what you say to them, and how you say it.”

But how do you remain tactful while reminding them? He reckons the key is to make it sound like you’re not really reminding them. “If you’ve arranged a meeting with your manager, for example, and you think they might have forgotten, you could say something like, ‘Are we still OK to talk about the marketing budget at 4pm?’ Giving the topic and time in this way might also help to jog your boss’s memory.” Another way he suggests is to offer frame your reminder as an offer of help. “So, if a colleague has forgotten an important deadline you might say something like: ‘How’s the report coming along? Do you need my help with that?’”

WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU SHOULD NOT SAY WHILE REMINDING THEM?

He suggests not emphasising the fact that your boss is forgetful or disorganised, which means, avoid phrases like “You forgot to email that customer” and “Haven’t you arranged the meeting yet?” He says, “Phrases like these don’t work because they focus on the person (‘you’) rather than the issue (arranging the meeting). And when people feel they are being attacked or undermined in this way, they usually start trying to defend themselves, which can lead to conflict.” He also opines that one should avoid saying “anything that calls into question your boss or colleague’s identity, or their sense of who they are.” He adds, “Just because they’ve forgotten to email a customer, does that make them a ‘forgetful person’?”

IF YOUR COLLEAGUE IS FORGETFUL AND IT’S AFFECTING YOUR PERFORMANCE (BECAUSE THE MESSAGE IS NOT CONVEYED PROPERLY TO YOUR BOSS), SHOULD YOU LET YOUR BOSS KNOW

He suggests talking to your colleagues face-to-face and only involving your boss as a last resort. “Ask your colleague if they’re free to talk and choose a time and a place that suits you both. You could start with some informal chat, to make you both feel comfortable, and then move on to the issue.” It’s important to describe the problem as objectively as you can and give specific examples of how your colleague’s forgetfulness has affected your performance so that it doesn’t come across as a personal attack. He says, “Give your colleague the chance to respond—it may be that they have a completely different take on the issue or are unaware of the problem!” He adds, “Only by exploring both perspectives can you begin to solve the issue.”

IF YOUR BOSS/SUPERVISOR IS FORGETFUL AND IT’S AFFECTING YOUR PERFORMANCE, SHOULD YOU ESCALATE IT TO THE MANAGEMENT

James cautions, “Going above your boss’s head is always risky. Even though it may fix a problem in the short-term, it can also severely damage the level of trust in the relationship and your prospects in the organisation.”

He suggests assessing how important the issue is and whether you can solve it yourself. “If the impact of your boss’s forgetfulness is minor, and you and your team can work around it in some way, then this is probably the best approach.”

Can’t solve it yourself? Talk to your boss directly before escalating it to the big bosses, but be calm when doing so and explain how it’s affecting your performance and hence, the company. He says, “Most bosses are focused on the bottom line so this should get their attention. Try to think of a range of possible solutions to the issue, and present these during the conversation. If you focus on the future, and ways to make your working relationship more effective, then your boss should be all ears.”

This article was first published in CLEO Singapore.

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