Q: My boss is not a communicator, and I am at a loss for how to deal with it. You know the phrase that "you don't know what you don't know." Well, I can't ask questions if I don't know what to ask. I like being allowed to work independently, but I'd like guidance occasionally. I hesitate to tell her this because she's insanely busy -- too busy to even say "hi" if she passes in the hall. The crazy-busy work atmosphere pervades the department, so I don't feel comfortable asking co-workers, either. I'm the newest one in our office, and I think it's important to follow their lead. Any suggestions?
A: You're astute to observe the work environment and follow suit, as long as you can succeed at completing your assignments accurately. Don't assume your boss is not a communicator just because she doesn't engage in conversation, including the peripheral polite talk that sometimes takes place in offices.
Your boss may be consumed by her job and doesn't want others to disrupt her focus. She seems to be successful at setting the pace since her employees know to not interrupt her or slow her down with polite chatter. Everyone has a different learning style, stress tolerance and concentration levels. It's no different from the way certain actors are known for their intensity or superficiality.
Your boss may operate at an optimum level by not expending energy speaking to employees when she's "on a mission," having turned this work style into a habit, unaware of others' needs. Whatever her reason for not communicating verbally, your goal is to do your work correctly, and asking questions may be necessary to accomplish this.
Seeing as your co-workers have adopted the boss's work style, email your question to the most appropriate co-worker. If you are ignored or receive an unhelpful response, you now have more information about the company's culture. Then email your boss asking the same question, explaining you first asked a co-worker. Going to a co-worker first shows that you respect your boss's time but also that you don't want to guess at the information you need.
When joining a new company or transferring to a new position at the same company, it's important to adapt to the attitude and work styles in the department, but not at the risk of doing a poor job. Your work product is your credential, offering your boss a qualitative and quantitative way of assessing your value. Though most terminated employees are fired because of personality problems and clashes with management, errors on the job can be counted and recorded in your personnel file. When a potential employer checks your references, your employer can reveal quantitative reasons for termination. Professionally managed human resources departments ensure its managers know the labor laws, but companies lacking experienced managers often lack this knowledge. This doesn't mean employees should focus on what goes into their HR files, but employment termination is a reality to consider.
You've already identified a discrepancy in work and personality styles between you and the others in your department. If you don't take action to resolve this, you might decide to leave sooner than you had planned (ideally with a new job lined up first) or you could eventually be fired.
You need information for you to do the best job possible. Holding back on asking for what you need is risky because you have a 50-50 chance at succeeding or failing when you guess at what you must do. Mistakes could lead to termination, and excuses won't matter. You may feel uncomfortable trying to get what you need, because it brings attention to a problem, but you must do it. The ultimate question to consider is how long you will be happy or can even tolerate working with people with dissimilar work styles outside your comfort zone.
Lindsey Novak's weekly column, "At Work," can be found at creators.com.