my boss keeps asking me why I didn’t do work that I’ve already done

A reader writes:

My company is small but has grown pretty fast in the last year, and management is having some growing pains. They are swamped with information and sometimes miss emails, meeting invites, project updates, etc. My manager will frequently email about things that I have already taken care of (and CC’d her on). I wouldn’t mind filling her in again, but her tone always implies that I shouldn’t have to be asked to do this. And I don’t need to be asked! I’ve done it and she’s failed to see it.

She will also sometimes follow up with me in-person, for example asking me to please be sure that next time I update the tracker site in a more timely manner.

When I explain that I did that, I feel like she takes it as me being defensive. I have tried offering solutions like, “I filled out the form when the deliverable went through, like always. Should I start sending you an email as well so you’ll be in the loop?” She always says that I should keep doing it the way she originally asked me.

I’m getting sick of constantly being asked to prove in triplicate that I’m doing my job. I know I’m being thinned-skinned, but it is making me feel like I’m not trusted. (She has never had any direct feedback about my communication skills when I’ve asked.) Is there a way for me to ask if the default assumption could be that she missed an email, not that I dropped the ball? Or is there at least a way to ask how to get the information to her the first time without sounding like I’m being defensive?

It sounds like there are two separate issues here: first, that she’s frequently asking you about things you’ve already taken care of, and second, the tone implying you’ve dropped a ball.

The first one — the fact that she wants updates — isn’t necessarily a problem. You’re always going to know your work more intimately than your boss will, and it’s pretty common for there to be a certain amount of “remind me where X stands” and “can you take care of Y?” (when you already took care of Y last week). That’s just a function of your boss having other priorities she needs to juggle and not having room to track your work as closely as you track it yourself. But on the other hand, if she’s routinely checking up on things that are a basic, ongoing part of your job, that’s a problem (assuming that you’re not new and that you have a strong track record in that area).

For the rest of this letter, I’m going to assume that the situation is the second one, meaning that it’s a problem you’ll need to address. And certainly if she’s using a tone implying you’re in the wrong when you’re not, that’s a problem too.

Here’s what I would say if this were happening, and what I would want an employee to say to me in your shoes: “I’ve noticed that you’ll sometimes ask me why I haven’t done something that I actually already did. I know you’re swamped, so I definitely understand that you’re not tracking all my work the same way I am. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m letting things go undone! I don’t want to sound defensive about explaining I’ve already done something, but it’s really important to me that you know I’m on top of my work and that I’m vigilant about not letting things fall through the cracks.”

Then, depending on how that goes, say this: “Sometimes it sounds like you’re assuming I haven’t done part of my job, when it’s actually just that my email about it got buried in a bunch of other emails. I’m not asking you not to exercise oversight over my work, of course, but I’m hoping that as a default you trust me to do the parts of my job that I’ve built a strong track record in. Particularly with the parts of my job that are routine — things I’m doing every day or every week — would you be open to assuming that I’m on it and handling things the way we’ve agreed I will, unless you see something to the contrary?”

Also! Take a look at what systems you have in place right now to keep her in the loop about your work. Often when a manager is micromanaging or swooping in unnecessarily, it’s because they don’t have the right systems in place to get them the information they need to manage appropriately. You might find that being proactive about, say, sending your boss a weekly bulleted list of where projects stand (including smaller things like “sent the info to Jane that you asked me to give her”), she’ll feel more in the loop and will ease up on some of this. I realize she’s already missing emails so this may not help, but it’s worth thinking about whether there are places where you could do this kind of thing. And even if it doesn’t help with specific incidences, it might help in a macro sense by demonstrating to her that you’re on top of your work in general.

{ 128 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. bookartist

    An itemized list of completed tasks is great, but a project management tool might also be helpful – your manage can just check the project and see what tasks have been completed or not, plus your team overall would have a single source of truth for all projects. Of course a PM tool requires upkeep but given that your company is in a growth phase it might be time to put one in place.

    Reply
    1. HMM

      Definitely – or if you don’t want to train your boss on a whole new system, a shared Google spreadsheet suffices. I use this with my interns sometimes – we set it up so that at our weekly meeting, we include tasks for the upcoming week, when they finish it, they can check it off the list, and I can review their work when my schedule permits (usually once/day or 2-3x/week, depending on the volume of work and how high it is on the priority list.)

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      1. Competent Commenter

        That’s exactly what I’ve recently started doing with student workers. I realized I wasn’t doing a good job of giving them work, especially all the tiny little things that I really need to pass off to someone else, because I couldn’t remember if I’d given it to them, or worried that they wouldn’t do it soon enough (my work is time-sensitive). A Google doc was a revelation. It’s set up as a table. I add new items in red at the top, the student changes them to black when she’s read them, and when they’re complete and I see the check mark I move those rows down to a separate page of completed work. I realize there are more sophisticated and better methods but this has been so reassuring for both of us. It’s as much about managing me as it is about managing the student.

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      2. Breda

        AirTable is an app (for computers & mobile) that does roughly the same thing but with more sophistication – you can do checkboxes, attachments, and dates that are viewable as a calendar. I’ve been using it mostly for my own organization, but I can see how it would be REALLY useful for interns.

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      1. Anon anon anon

        Yeah. I’ve found that project management software can be cumbersome at times depending on what it’s used for. It works well for teams, big projects, and record keeping. It’s great for identifying patterns in your work, like how long it’s taking you to do things and what areas need improvement. But it’s a big application to open up and sort through every time you need something. It can be clunky. I like Google Docs and similar things when you just need a list you can get to quickly.

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        1. Competent Commenter

          Me too. I tried and quickly abandoned Asana with our last admin because even though I’m tech savvy, I can easily get visually overwhelmed and it was just more than I needed or wanted to learn. That wasn’t completely the fault of the program, however. The admin was trying to hide that nothing was getting done, right up until they quit unexpectedly (and to our relief).

          A Google doc is just so simple. No room for extended tools, but no room for obfuscation or hiding things, either. :)

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          1. Liz

            There are some very user-friendly tools out there. We’ve been using Teamwork.com for the last 6 months and we love it!

            Reply
      2. Karen D

        Yeah, there are some times when the operating assumption on the part of the manager is “You’re just a slacking slacker who … wears slacks” and no amount of evidence to the contrary will make a dent.

        And if it sounds like the voice of sad experience speaking, well … yep.

        The fact that OP routinely emails Boss to say “task X is complete” and boss routinely ignores those emails is really distressing, because there’s no method that is as clear and accountable as email. I tried the Google Docs thing with my former boss and he pretty routinely implied that I was somehow trying to game him with that. (Google Docs existed in the realm of Strange Magic to him, seemingly.)

        The best I have is kind thoughts and sympathy for the OP. Working with someone who is constantly suspicious and undermining is SO demoralizing.

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        1. Marty

          Except that an avalanche of email can easily bury the “done”. It’s better to create a single up to date location where the status of all tasks can be seen at a glance.

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    2. Koko

      Agreed! I personally love Basecamp, but it is a paid service. Trello is a nice free alternative.

      I would never, ever be able to keep track of all my sole direct report is doing if every single task on her plate didn’t have its own Basecamp thread where all of the assets and conversations are grouped together. I can tell at a glance how many and what projects she’s working on, and if I need to know where things stand I can click in to a particular project to see.

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      1. Elfie

        Yeah, I was coming here to say I use Trello for projects where I am a contributor, and also for my own personal tasks (and also at home shared with hubby; Trello has changed my life!). It’s basically a To-Do list with columns that you set up, so I have Not Started, In Progress, Completed, and Blocked (that’s for tasks that you’re waiting on someone or something else, so there’s nothing you can do about them until that thing happens). I work in IT, so we’re supposed to be Agile, but you don’t have to go full Agile to use Trello. You can use it basically however you want it; I am so disorganised that I need something to keep me on track, and Trello works beautifully for me.

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    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      It sounds like OP is using tracking software (or a similar site): “for example asking me to please be sure that next time I update the tracker site in a more timely manner.”

      The weekly emails worked well for me when I had a micromanaging boss. It didn’t make him less micro-managey, but it did change the tone of how he interacted with me to follow up about items.

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    4. Anon anon anon

      I agree. Or even a shared Excel doc or Google doc. You can color code things so she’ll be able to quickly glance at it and see where everything stands. Use different colors for done, not done yet, in progress, and “Help!” / “I have a question.”

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    5. Anon!

      Depending on the issue with the boss the project management software might not be any better. We use Trello and a straightforward set of To Do/Doing/Done lists and I’m still constantly asked whether or not I finished something!

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    6. Marty

      Alternately, consider a kanban board. Put three, (or more) columns on a whiteboard, one for pending, one or more for in progress, and one for done. Then write tags on yellow sticky notes, and move them from pending, to working, to done as you complete them. Now, when your manager asks about a task, show then where it is on the board.

      You might want multiple columns for “in progress” if your workflow includes multiple in progress steps. The point here is to create an artifact in the work area which your manager can look at to understand the status of your work so she doesn’t have to ask you what is happening with a task.

      Another thing that is useful is to come up with a way to mark anything that is blocked, obstructed, or needs someone else’s input. That way it can gain attention.

      Reply
  2. stefanielaine

    Maybe making a weekly bulleted list, printing it out, and handing it to your boss or leaving it on her desk might be a better way to keep her in the loop if she’s too overwhelmed to keep on top of her email? Some people might find that intrusive, but maybe it’s something that OP could offer when she discusses this with her boss.

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    1. Samata

      I think printing it out might be the best solution if the OP can get buy in from manager. This will probably alleviate a lot of frustration on both parts.

      Reply
  3. Dr. Speakeasy

    Since your boss specifically asked about updating the tracker system. Are you sure that your updates to the system are going through to her? Perhaps there is a bug/error somewhere in that system.

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    1. Ama

      I do think it’s worth checking in about that. I once acquired a new boss who got extremely frustrated with me because she thought I was ignoring half her emails. It turned out that she was assuming my email address was firstname.lastname when, due to there being someone else at the company who had my same name, mine was f.lastname. So emails I initiated and that she replied to got through just fine, but emails she initiated were going to the wrong person (why that person couldn’t be bothered to reply and tell her she had the wrong person, I’m not sure).

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    2. Anonymous Educator

      This is for sure something to look into. The boss could just be being a jerk, but it could be that neither party is in the wrong. OP: I entered it in the tracker system! Boss: It’s not there! Both could be right if the tracking system itself is malfunctioning.

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    3. michelenyc

      My first thought that maybe your notes are unclear in the tracking system. I had this issue with my assistant and once I explained what I needed in his notes communication improved tremendously & the fewer questions I needed to ask.

      Reply
  4. Snarkus Aurelius

    What exactly is her reaction when you tell her you’ve done everything she asked?

    It’s interesting that you think she thinks you are being defensive when you explain yourself.

    I see her response as something else: frustration at herself for acting like something isn’t being done and then being embarrassed when she learns you did what you were supposed to. Never underestimate the human desire to remain consistent.

    I’ve had many a family member, boss, and bfs act the same way when they learn everything is a-okay and they’re acting angsty over nothing. (My dad went to the extreme and used to demand everything be undone and redone.)

    None of this makes her behavior okay, of course, and you should take AAM’s advice. But this may explain it better.

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    1. Queen of the File

      I have definitely had a boss with the knee-jerk defence of blaming others when they “got caught” losing track of what they’d received–even so far as throwing others under the bus to hide their error (however understandable/innocuous). I am a big fan of visual reminders outside the computer like whiteboards (mentioned downthread) when it’s an option. Low-stakes way for an overwhelmed boss to see what’s getting done without any computer or communication barriers.

      I hope Alison’s advice works!

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      1. Sally Seattle

        Heh. This just happened to me with a family member. He dropped the ball on canceling a reservation because he made an assumption about what I wanted even though I NEVER told him I wanted it. Then he tried to blame me 10 times over for not communicating properly and for changing my mind. Aggressive blaming rather than listening, considering his responsibility for the error, or trying to find a solution. I wanted to be like, “If you do this as a boss, you are a sucky boss.”

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    2. Business Cat

      This explanation reminds me of the coworker whose feelings were hurt that she wasn’t invited to an informal training session the OP was holding in the office, then when the OP apologized and invited her to the training, the coworker dug in and found another reason to be mad about the trainings existing at all.

      She gets a gold medal in mental gymnastics.

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    3. Green Goose

      One thing would be to forward previous emails that show a confirmation/notification of work getting done so it can eliminate the actual “But I already did this” conversation, and it can answer the question with a time stamp.

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      1. Ramona Flowers

        But when someone is missing emails due to being swamped with them, adding more email into the mix isn’t really going to solve things. Better to input into something like Trello.

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    4. Marty

      Which is why it is so important to make sure this question never needs to be asked. When someone wants to know the status of some task or project, there needs to be some place where they can see it. Then, rather than needing to save face, they can avoid the frustration in the first place. After all, a whiteboard or document can’t judge you for your stupid questions.

      Reply
  5. Jessica

    What about a 5-minute confab at the end of the week, or a given day of the week, where you give your manager a quick download about project status?

    But if I were LW, I’d make double sure to document when tasks were completed, and keep a folder of the emails you sent that informed stakeholders. It sounds to me that if a manager is missing the notification email *and* subtly insinuating that it was because you dropped the ball, then having a bright shiny paper trail proving that you did your job will be your best defense. CYA.

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  6. Lynca

    My grandboss does this. We are notably swamped and often he doesn’t address emails until days after I have responded and addressed the problem. I often get emails asking to address X issue in the email chain or return a phone call after I have done them.

    The way I address it is giving him the date the problem was resolved and what was done. Example: “Problem X was completed on 1/1/xx via email correspondence. XYZ was done to resolve the issue.” I don’t try to explain anything other than when the work was done and what was done to resolve it.

    However since you say you’re updating the tracker and she has come to you asking where the work was- I would look into whether the tracking system is timely updating what you put into it. If not I would pull out the factual information: “I entered X into the tracking system on 1/1/XX. Did it not show that when you checked on it? I want to make sure my work is being properly tracked in the system.”

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    1. ket

      Overall agree. Depending on the dynamics, it might be an idea to say, “I entered X into the system on 1/1/XX. Please let me know if the system is not showing that it is complete/showing it as incomplete.” For some people, the “Did it not show…?” sounds like an admission of guilt, an excuse, or a passive-aggressive response. If this boss says you sound defensive or you feel you sound defensive, sometimes a solution is to adjust your tone so that you sound very matter-of-fact and sure, without any room for a reply like a question invites.

      It is both unfair and irrational, but sometimes peoples’ response to, “Did it not show..?” is “OMG I have to check her work, too?!”

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      1. Snark

        Yeah, “Did it not show” always strikes me as….dunno. Not an excuse or passive-aggressive, but kind of…conflict-avoidant? I tend to just state the bare fact: “I entered that into the system on [date] and updated the tracker on [date] at [time]. The tracker currently reflects that.”

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        1. CEMgr

          Just wanted to throw in that it’s always a possibility that the system is not showing the same view to boss as one sees oneself……either due to boss’s actions or settings, or for other usage or technology reasons or issues that can be hard to pin down without solid feedback from other users. That’s the spirit in which I ask, “Is not showing for you?”

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        2. LBK

          I think this is a case of knowing your audience. IME about 80% of the time, the playing dumb/practicing humility angle works better for people because it lets them save face when they clearly just didn’t check or didn’t see that it was already handled, and being more direct can come off as rude or can make them defensive. But there is the 20% that prefers the blunt approach – they don’t care about the emotional side of it, they just want to know whether it was done or not. The OP just has to know which type their boss is.

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          1. Competent Commenter

            That rings true for me, too. For that 20%, the least emotional response is best, and stating “Problem X was completed on 1/1/xx via email correspondence. XYZ was done to resolve the issue.” as Lynca says above is so neutral. Not only that, I approve that it’s in the passive voice, which I normally frown on. So very neutral.

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          2. Zirco

            Many responses to this sort of boss can read as passive-aggressive, and you don’t want to do that.

            I tend to try to use an extremely cheerful approach: “Already done! I finished it last week!” rather than “Yes, I finished that. Didn’t you read my email?”

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    2. MCM

      I’m wondering if the boss doesn’t know how to pull the data or tracker up. Or if it’s e-mail based, that it’s going into the SPAM folder in error. There is one thing you might to look at if you’re entering it into a tracker. You may be missing a step that sends it to your boss. Be it clicking a submit button or something else. Or could you boss be pulling up an old versions of a spreadsheet? There is a disconnect between the two of you, you might want to do some research to see if the step in between is missing. Maybe what she sees on her end, is different than yours. Shows completed on your side, and shows tasks outstanding on hers?

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    3. MCMonkeyBean

      Yes, for some reason I always feel like using the passive voice and saying “X was done yesterday” seems less defensive than “I already did that yesterday.”

      Reply
  7. Terra C

    Something to look out for, in the mean time: It’s possible in her conversations with other management staff your boss has complained about you — as in, “I’m always having to ask Wakeen to do things repeatedly” or “Wakeen needs constant monitoring as I never get updates from him,” etc. If you don’t do something, like as AAM recommends, then your reputation throughout the organization may be impacted.

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    1. AndersonDarling

      I was thinking along these lines, but I was wondering if someone is lying to cover themselves and saying that the OP didn’t do something. “Oh I would have done that report if Penny updated the tracker.” “I didn’t drop the ball. Penny was supposed to email me to start on my report and she never emailed.”
      If this has been going on, then the culprits think it is working and will keep doing it unless the OP pushes back.

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    2. ErinW

      I have the reverse of this problem. People at my boss’s level will be like, “My people are still waiting for that thing your assistant was supposed to send.” My boss will be like, “Would you do this, please? I already told you.” And I’ll tell her, and show her, if necessary, that I sent it two weeks ago. Someone at the other end is just ignoring it or missed it or doesn’t know where to look. But she believes people at her level. I’ve been trying for a long time to figure out the right balance between pushing back in my own defense and being a finger-pointing pill.

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      1. Snark

        Well, it’s weirdly confrontational to cop the “Why didn’t you do the Thing” attitude with someone who can be trusted to do the Thing and emailed you about the Thing and updated the Thing Tracker.

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        1. Detective Amy Santiago

          Yeah, but like Alison said, the boss has a lot of other priorities. Her suggested scripts are a much better way to handle this.

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          1. Snark

            Alison’s scripts are more diplomatic, and returning the confrontation would be counterproductive…but I was pinging on the “weirdly” part. I guess my point was, let’s not pretend Boss isn’t being a presumptuous asshole to cover up not handling their workload. It’s not weird to be kind of insulted by behavior like this. Having other priorities doesn’t give Boss carte blanche to imply that items they’ve negligently overlooked weren’t done.

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          2. Nico M

            I don’t agree. The manager is an arsehole and needs to change. Niceness from the OP will just perpetuate the shite.

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        2. always in email jail

          True, but if she accuses the employee of getting defensive saying that in the moment may not be the best strategy. I think she either 1. is just that disorganized or 2. is insecure about being busier than expected and letting things fall through the cracks, so she takes it out on OP a bit to feel better/more on top of things or 3. OP has done something (or boss thinks she did) to give boss that impression. In any of those scenarios, I think Alison’s advice of having a conversation about it outside of the moment is great.

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          1. The Supreme Troll

            I see what you are saying, but the question that SS wants the OP to ask can (with the right tone) be asked in a way that shows earnest curiosity, that the OP wants to really know what is going on here, so that she can make sure that she doesn’t lose her boss’s trust, even for a moment.

            As I said, the right tone is very important. The OP doesn’t want to come off sounding defensive or indignant (which I can understand that she has the right to be).

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      2. SS

        I think it might pin down an issue that boss and OP aren’t aware of…. Boss could say “my tracker show’s that is isn’t completed yet” and you both find out that there’s a glitch in the reporting software or that boss is looking at wrong column. Or boss says that email wasn’t received then you might agree to flag them with a specific header to make them more easy to notice. I’m not saying to ask it in an accusative way… but more in the ‘perplexed to be asked about it’ tone.

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        1. JessaB

          Yeh I would be very much drilling down into the specifics of what I did and how or if it got to the boss. “Hey boss, let’s look at the tracker from YOUR system the way you look at it and make sure I’m not missing something because it shows on mine.” I wouldn’t be worried about having been accused of not doing the Thing, but of boss not knowing I did the thing which means I have to go trace it back from boss’s end. “Let me see what you see boss and we’ll figure out why my emails or my updates to the Tracking Thing don’t get to you.”

          tl;DR basically until proven otherwise I’m going to consider it a tech issue not a me doing the Thing or the boss really genuinely thinking I didn’t do the Thing, thing.

          Also, I’d have done that way earlier in the process of being asked about the Thing.

          Reply
    1. Breda

      I usually go in the exact opposite direction: say, brightly, “Of course I did that!” It gets across the same message (“I am competent, thank you”) in a way that actually feels reassuring if you do it right. It’s hard to read a cheery tone as defensive.

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        1. LBK

          Yep, exactly what I say (see, I can’t get myself out of “yep” mode). And a “Thanks!” on the end always helps too.

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          1. Competent Commenter

            I think “yep” contains a certain perky tone that’s perfect for telling someone that they’re wrong and you know they’re wrong but you’re not rubbing it in. Lot of value for three letters. :)

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            1. LBK

              Agreed, I think it’s a nice middle ground between the sharp formality of “yes” and the potentially implied annoyance of “yeah”.

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        2. Natalie

          I’ve also always gone with the cheery, matter-of-fact approach – “Taken care of!” was probably 5% of my emails at my last job, because my boss was constantly behind on his email. Of course, he was pretty relaxed about it, but it might be worth trying with this boss if her micromanaging is coming from an unconscious place.

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      1. AKchic

        I used to have to do that too.
        Very bright, cheery “yep, I did that on X/X/XX at XX:XX, and here’s the email (attached) that I sent the same day confirming completion. It didn’t get bounced back on my end, did it go to your spam folder?” Sometimes I’d throw out a joke about IT’s new spam and junk settings, but we all knew that my boss never reads his emails, because I’d read receipt everything sent to him and he’d delete my emails without ever looking at them and then claim that I didn’t send anything to him in the first place.
        There’s a reason why I save all of my emails and email receipts.

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  8. Henry

    I would love to hear an update on this. In some way, we’ve all dealt with a micromanager, so if the LW finds a good coping mechanism, please share!

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    1. MCM

      My boss is one. Told me that she wanted copies of all emails I sent. I did it, she changed her mind when she realized how boring it was and time consuming.

      She may have been bought to task for not keeping her manager updated. It rains downhill. Or has lost control over something, and has started focusing on what she has control of, but not effectively. The going back and forth is waste of time.

      I’m leaning towards the fact that a step between the two individuals isn’t working. Can you pull your tracker up or e-mail when she’s standing there, showing her that you did your step? If it’s showing completed on your end, and you prove it each time, she might stop coming back.

      Reply
      1. AKchic

        Just cc’ing on all emails? For 3 years my manager was getting all of my emails and I had to cc her on the majority of my emails.
        For some things, it was good, because I did so many things, and in all honesty, I was overworked and needed help; but she focused on weird stuff.
        Oh, I was close to a deadline, maybe I shouldn’t be handling a volunteer project anymore (um… I still got the project done 2 weeks early, and the “volunteer” project wasn’t volunteer, so-to-speak, the company encouraged it, but I was unpaid and still kiiiind of representing the company so I was allowed to use company email as long as I didn’t do the volunteer work on company time. I used my lunch hour).
        I was “struggling” with organizing, so maybe I shouldn’t be taking time off of work. Uh, yeah. Because I got dropped with 12 boxes of miscellaneous paperwork 3 days before I was going to have surgery, and I needed grandbosses to actually help me figure out what half of the junk was, let alone what was worth keeping?

        I still think she just wanted me gone.
        I did leave. On my own terms.

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    2. I'm A Little TeaPot

      To be honest, my method right now of handling my mgr’s particular brand of micromgmt combined with overall not-on-top-of-things is to find a new job. Doesn’t have to get to that point, but sometimes it does.

      Reply
  9. Snark

    God, I could have written this letter, in a past job, right down to the “Don’t get defensive!” when informed “Yes, I did that on [date] and emailed it to Wakeen,” and “Yes, I updated the task tracker,” and “Yes, already emailed that to you, please see email attached.”

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  10. always in email jail

    This may be passive aggressive (I’d be interested in the input of others), but if asked by email I’d take the approach of forwarding the original email you sent her upon completion and writing “Completed X/XX, additional details below. Please let me know if you have any questions!” That shows 1. that it was completed on time and 2. that you told her already

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    1. Snark

      No, I think this is perfectly okay, personally. I mean, they’ll probably feel a little humiliated about it, but they should, and if your tone is correct and professional, that’s their problem.

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      1. always in email jail

        I’ve done it a few times and haven’t received any blowback that I’m aware of, and when an employee does it to me I just either feel a bit embarrassed, or am glad they resent the info so I don’t have to look for it! (and I usually reply with “Perfect, thank you!” or “I thought you had, but lost the email and wanted to confirm! Thanks for re-sending!” etc.)

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        1. fposte

          Yeah, this is pretty par for the course around my office. Admittedly, I don’t lead with “Why didn’t you do…” to employees, because I know I might have lost it, but I don’t read subtext into a resending–I wanted the thing, here’s the thing, yay.

          Reply
      2. JulieBulie

        I’ve had occasion to do this many times (and people have done it to me, too). I can’t swear that no one will be offended by this, but I’ve never gotten any bad feedback on it. It is no secret that it is easy to miss or forget an email, so at best, it is a favor for the recipient. At worst, it is a reminder to the recipient to check more carefully.

        Sometimes, digging up the email to re-send it proves that I did send it before. Other times, it reveals that I didn’t send it to everyone I thought I did. Oops. So it’s a double-edged/mutually beneficial solution.

        Reply
      3. Vegan Atheist Weirdo

        Like others, I’ve had to do this more than once. This kind of behavior is infuriating, and I’m not about to tolerate it in silence.

        Honestly, regardless of what script LW uses or new tactics they adopt, I doubt this boss is going to change. I’d be looking for a new job in your shoes, LW. Boss will only realize how efficient and valuable you truly were once you’re not there to keep all her balls in the air (if then).

        Reply
      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        I’ve found that if the tone is cheery/non-accusatory, then folks aren’t usually too bothered by referencing/forwarding/including the original update email.

        Reply
    2. Not a Real Giraffe

      Yeah, I sometimes reply to the “Why isn’t Thing done?” email with an attachment of the email that shows Thing was done last week with a neutral “This has been taken care of – please see note from [date] attached showing confirmation that this is all set.”

      Reply
    3. Murphy

      I have to do that with my boss sometimes. But when he misses things I send him, his attitude is “Where are with Y?” or “Have you taken care of Y?” and not accusatory, so I can just say “All done! I sent it to you yesterday, should I send it again?”

      Reply
    4. Helpful

      Yes, I like this. And if it’s in person, OP can say, “Yes, I completed it and am happy to resend the message if it got lost in the shuffle.”

      Reply
    5. BadPlanning

      Frankly, if I’m on the “why didn’t you do thing?” — I would like to get the original. Then I can double check if I got it. If I didn’t, I can check into why I’m not getting things. If I did, I can evaluate why I didn’t remember it (was it on a bad day? Sandwiched between automated messages? Etc etc) and try to change my behavior.

      Reply
    6. LQ

      I don’t think this is passive aggressive, I think it’s a good way to handle it. It covers the “done” and the “what else do you want to know beyond done?”
      I know when I’ve asked if something was done and the person resent me the already did it email I was always happy to see it. Sometimes I hadn’t checked it off, sometimes it got lost, sometimes they never sent it….whatever, it’s resolved.

      Reply
    7. Aurion

      Yeah, I do this too. Whether I attach the previous email depends on the person I’m talking to. A lot of times they would just go “oh, did I miss it?” and run a search in their inbox. But if their inbox is really overwhelming (and/or if they get shirty about it), I’ll attach the previous correspondence.

      So usually my progression goes:

      (1) Verbal: “Yup, finished it on X date”; they take my word for it (or go search themselves)
      (2) Verbal with more detail: “Yup, finished it on X date, I sent you the update on Friday at 16:04”
      (3) Resend email via forward: has email chain and attachments
      (4) Resend email via attachment: has email chain, attachments, and all the metadata of the old email

      Sometimes I go straight to (4) if the email chain is particularly long/complex, if the subject line has changed, or if I’m dealing with multiple people (for example, a customer service team handling the same general inbox).

      I’ve never gotten bad feedback by attaching old correspondence. I suppose one can interpret that as passive-aggressive if it’s done repeatedly, but on the other hand, I think the proof of completion is enough to make the asker reconsider long before the pattern repeats itself too many times.

      Reply
    8. Mel

      I had a co-worker that would send me the “where is this?” Email and CC my supervisor. Nothing gave me greater joy than to resend that email. (And the day my supervisor replied, CC’ing coworker’s supervisor and asked if she could please do a cursory search of her email before sending *another* email making more work for me… It was Christmas and my Birthday all at once.)

      Reply
  11. Game of Scones

    My best shot at something constructive is that if these are recurring tasks, maybe stick to a subject line convention in your emails (assuming you probably do that already) and offer to help your manager create an email filter for your updates. Then, if she thinks something hasn’t been done, she can quickly check that folder for a clear status.

    Reply
  12. RB

    A couple of people on my team have whiteboards in their cubes to track stuff like this. Anyone walking by can see the status of the tasks, even if you’re not there or are too busy to discuss it.

    Reply
  13. Manager-at-Large

    Are you having regular 1-on-1 meetings with your boss? Weekly? More contact on a regular basis can sometimes head off the nebulous “I don’t know what my directs are doing” feelings during times of rapid growth and change.

    If 1-on-1 are not a part of your corporate culture – maybe just set up a weekly stand-up meeting – just to level set what has been closed out, what is on-going, a look ahead at what might be coming or need attention, what is waiting for someone else’s action, etc.

    and look into that tracking system – if you have one, and you are updating it – then something is amiss.

    Reply
  14. OHCFO

    Hi OP. This sounds tough. I teach innovation/continuous improvement courses in my workplace, and one of the concepts we talk about a lot that can help with issues like this is Visual Management. I used to get a lot of questions from my boss about the status of a set of particular, long-term projects. Even though I was “doing everything right” communicating about status in the way he had requested, he kept asking. For the last few months, I’ve employed a visual management tool that has dramatically reduced the number of questions about status. It’s called Kanban. People use Kanban in a number of ways, but the simplest way is that on the whiteboard behind my desk I drew 3 columns-TO DO//DOING//DONE and each of the main components of the project are written on their own post it. All the post-its started in TO DO. As I start working on them, I move them to DOING. When all the steps related to a particular post-it are complete, it moves to DONE. I know it sounds cheesy and overly simplistic, but I think it provides a subconscious reminder to my boss that 1) I have a system for making sure work doesn’t fall through the cracks and 2) he has access to the status info any time might want it–so he doesn’t feel frantic about not knowing the status of a project element. Not saying Kanban is the answer, but there might be a low-tech visual reminder system you can devise so your boss can have a clear where things are without having to ask and without having to sift through emails. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Judy (since 2010)

      Many tracking systems (for software issues, for example) have a view like that. Especially if they support Agile. In the system we currently use, I can have all the issues based on a query (assigned to = me, project = PurpleTeapot) show up in lanes based on state. It looks on the computer screen exactly like you do on your board with each issue in a box, although with issue states of submitted, assigned, fix implemented, testing, closed.

      Reply
  15. peachie

    Oof, this sounds very familiar to me. Fortunately, in my situation, there is none of the accusatory tone or assumptions that I’m not getting things done–but my boss will frequently miss things like this. Both of us are laughably busy and our department is understaffed, so I absolutely understand it (and I’m sure I miss my share as well), but I get that it’s frustrating.

    One thing that’s helped me is making my subject lines VERY clear. If I’m asking something or reporting anything new, I’ll send a new message rather than putting that in a response to the email chain. I include leaders like “Update” or “Question” or “Action needed” if any of those are the case, and I make sure that the subject contains basically all she needs to know–I keep the body short and just add any relevant attachments. Example subject lines: “Quick question about the upcoming Teapot conference in Vancouver” or “Final approval needed–promotional brochure proof.” This works MUCH better.

    I also try to mention anything that I’ve done or am working on in person every day. I swing by her office every morning to ask “Anything new/pressing/on fire?” and let her know things like “By the way, just approved that order” or “Today I’m working on the new graphics for the Teapot Society launch.” At the same time, I’ll check in about anything ongoing that needs an action/approval on her part. Making this part of the daily routine keeps us both up to date.

    It does sound like you’ll need to have a broader conversation owing to the accusatory tone you’re picking up on, but the two things above have helped me a lot, and it sounds like our bosses may be similar, email-wise.

    Reply
  16. theletter

    – Ask to double check the ticketing system with her: some ticketing systems can be very complex and people can accidentally add more complexity without realizing it, and then not get the notifications they desire or have the right stuff on the board.

    – Some ticketing systems offer reports! it might be helpful for her to use reports.

    – If the ticketing system doesn’t offer reports, a quick daily report can do wonders. I wrote a daily report for a manager years ago, and she loved it. I dropped in a lot of humor and she would read it to her husband while making dinner.

    – Be proactive/creative. She might say she wants email and the tracking system, but clearly it’s getting lost in the noise. If I were in your shoes I’d text her or send an IM.

    Reply
    1. Risha

      Most of this I agree with, but if someone sent me a text or IM every time they completed a task for me, I would lose my temper with them really fast. They’re both incredibly intrusive when you’re busy!

      Reply
      1. LQ

        This depends on what size task we are talking? Each email completed? Or the I’ve finished reorganizing the backlog for the next 6 months, it took me a week? Because one of those is totally reasonable and the other is WAY not…

        Reply
        1. Someone else

          I wouldn’t want a text or IM for either of those types of things. Texts and IMs in my office are strictly for things that need an immediate reaction. It’s an interruption, so there better be a good reason. Unless I’d previously indicated I wanted to know as soon as the backlog were finished being reorganized, even if I get 1000 emails a day, telling me that type of thing had been completed is totally something suited for an email, not a text or IM.

          Reply
  17. JulieBulie

    OP, I don’t think you’re being thinned-skinned. It’s reasonable for your boss not to know off the top of her head whether you’ve finished something or not, but it’s NOT reasonable for her to assume you didn’t do it without checking first.

    You ask, “Is there at least a way to ask how to get the information to her the first time without sounding like I’m being defensive?” I would actually pose that very question to her, in those words, the next time she accuses you of being defensive. How the hell are you supposed to not be defensive when she’s treating you like a slacker?

    On the other hand…

    I work with someone that I find difficult to communicate with. When I ask, “Where is the Teapot Report,” I am asking literally where is the Teapot Report. (I am assuming that it is finished or at least in progress, and I want to know where on the network the file is located.) But she always interprets it as “Where the hell is that Teapot Report? Aren’t you done with it yet?!?” Make sure you’re not hearing the wrong question.

    Though it really sounds as though the tracker system might be slow or she doesn’t know how to reload/refresh her display.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      I too have to coach people that when I ask “where is this?” or “when will this be done,” that’s literally what I want to know. There is NO SUBTEXT for “why haven’t you done this?” If I need you to do it faster, I’ll literally tell you. If I’m concerned that there isn’t enough progress, I’ll literally tell you that.

      In addition to being sure you’re hearing the right question, also consider whether your boss just doesn’t have the skill to ask a question without sounding accusatory.
      Some people just never figure out other ways to behave than the authoritative stuff they experienced from scoldy adults when they were children. Their only paradigm is “authority figure” like a mother or teacher or principal (most of whom frankly just boss children around or scold them).

      Reply
      1. Red Reader

        I have to do that with my housemates too. “Who’s doing the dishes tonight” doesn’t mean “I’M ABOUT TO EVICT YOU ALL WHY ISNT SOMEONE DOING THE DISHES RIGHT THIS SECOND AND VACUUMING THE FLOOR TO BOOT,” it means “who’s doing the dishes tonight.” People, I do not have time to make up trick questions for you and you’ve all known me long enough to know that. I meant exactly what I said.

        Reply
    2. Natalie

      Excellent point. I used to have a couple of coworkers like this, and eventually I had to start cutting them off when they would respond to the wrong question and reiterate that I was just asking for an ETA (LIKE I CLEARLY STATED) and not trying to subtly prod them to do it quicker.

      Reply
    3. Casper Lives

      I’m working on not being like the person you work with. I know it’s annoying my (reasonable) supervisor. In my case, it stems from having a former boss who did mean, “Why are you the slowest person who didn’t finish this 3 days before the deadline I gave you?!” She would repeat, “Where is the TPS report?” until you started apologizing and/or explaining why it wasn’t done yet.

      Reply
  18. Ainomiaka

    Alison has reasonable scripts to use first, but eventually “x method of communication isn’t seeming like it’s working ” may have to be the answer to “keep doing what you are doing.”

    Reply
  19. CEMgr

    Just wanted to throw in that it’s always a possibility that the system is not showing the same view to boss as one sees oneself……either due to boss’s actions or settings, or for other usage or technology reasons or issues that can be hard to pin down without solid feedback from other users. That’s the spirit in which I ask, “Is not showing for you?”

    Reply
  20. TootsNYC

    I might just put a white board on the wall behind my desk, and each morning write down what I need to do, and cross it off.

    Or use paper, so I can keep it as evidence, and cross off and date stuff. Then it’s right out there in front of her. But it looks as though it’s for you.

    Reply
  21. Agatha_31

    I get a lot of “you haven’t sent us x documents!” in my line of work. I’ve taken to re-sending what I already sent with proof of the original sending. So if it’s an email document, I forward the original email. You can see the original date on the forward, but I even send it as an attachment so there’s not even a question I tampered with the date (not sure if that trick works with Outlook – and yes, that’s a bit the paranoid side of things, but I just like to CYA the first time so I don’t have to repeat work more than necessary). I just write something along the lines of “further to our discussion of _____, please see attached.” It’s polite, professional, succinct, and it only takes a minute or so to find that email and and resend it that way. Ditto faxes – whip up a quick cover letter saying the same, and add the original fax confirmation sheet (or sheets, as the case may be – I hate faxing!) as part of the package.

    I’m not sure if your boss is doing this to you in person or via email, but if it’s via email and you’ve already looped her in, maybe just grabbing the original cc to her and sending it with “Hi (b0ss), per your (date) email, I followed up on (x) in the email below on (date) – let me know if there are any other questions or concerns.” Professional, succinct, doesn’t come off as defensive.

    Reply
  22. Hope

    My boss gets swamped in email to the point that I never expect him to see any of them (I know he sees some of them, but I also know he has 10k+ of unread emails in his box, b/c he’s swamped with vendor crap). Thankfully, he’s not a micromanager, but if there’s something I need him to know in a timely fashion, I try to tell him in person. He’s said it helps him because he doesn’t have to hunt down where I’ve told him I’ve done something, and hearing it rather than reading it seems to stick in his memory better. But my boss is also pretty accessible, so it’s not hard to pop in with a “have you got a couple quick minutes?”

    If your boss is just unable to wade through her emails, don’t stop sending them (CYA, after all) but especially for bigger/less routine things it might be worth doing a two minute in-person check-in on the various stuff you’ve taken care of once every couple of days.

    Reply
  23. pj

    I would just recommend the weekly (or daily depending on how frequently you are being asked) bulleted list of “Project Status Update [date]”, despite what boss has said. You can even note in the intro that “All items have been updated in the tracking system.” I’ve never yet met a boss that didn’t appreciate a quick at-a-glance status update email.

    Reply
  24. oranges & lemons

    I’ve had bosses do a similar thing that also annoys me–when I ask for their help on something, they assume I haven’t done the most basic troubleshooting. After a few years working for someone, I’d like to think that they would trust my assessment of what the problem is, or at least the level of complexity, and not just default to “it’s probably [very basic, common sense solution]”.

    Reply
    1. Silver

      Oof. Yeah, I just had a back and forth with my boss today like that.
      Them: ‘Get info off form-x’
      Me: ‘It’s not on form-x’
      Them: nitpicks my wording and ‘match it to form-x’
      Me: ‘ok, but it’s not on form-x’
      Them: ‘I’ll review it later’
      Me: *primal scream because it took weeks to get the thing that started the whole exchange*

      Reply
  25. animaniactoo

    I might try replying things like “Please see e-mail today at 9:39 am” when she asks for an update.

    And “Please update the tracker system in a more timely manner” would get “I updated it as soon as I finished. Did it not show up for you? Should we ask IT to check into it?”

    So that if she describes you as being defensive again, you can say “Well to be honest, I do feel somewhat defensive because it seems that you regularly think that I haven’t done things that I did complete before they were due. So I’d like to figure out why you’re not seeing the updates and get that resolved so that you have access to the information you need and don’t have to keep checking back with me for it.”

    Reply
  26. Argh!

    My boss is very disorganized and she will frequently ask me to send her an email about something that I’ve already emailed about once or twice. I have stopped creating new emails and now I forward the old email with the header showing the date(s) when I’d previously emailed it. It doesn’t solve her problem with disorganization but it does take the blame off of me & puts it where it belongs.

    Reply
  27. NW Mossy

    Alison’s advice to have a verbal conversation (face-to-face, if you can swing it) about this is so important, and this situation underscores why tilting the majority of the interaction you have with your boss to passive/indirect communications like emails and tracking systems is really bad for the boss/employee relationship.

    We all know that email is THE WORST for communicating tone – JulieBulie’s example upthread illustrates this really nicely. It ends up like this: more emails -> more chances for picking up unintended negative tone -> strain on the relationship -> eroded trust. It’s bad enough when it’s between peers, but when it’s between boss and employee, it’s so very much worse because that relationship matters more to the employee’s well-being and success.

    I’d take a slightly different tack in the discussion with the boss, framing it as a situation where you take as given her need for the status information and are looking to figure out what’s the best way to get it to her in a form and with a timing that meets her needs. Your goal is to ask a lot of questions about what she uses the info for and what her current process is for getting it, while listening carefully to the answers with no judgment attached. Through the course of that conversation, you’ll likely spot some aspects of her process that are getting in the way of meeting her needs that you can help with. Show up as her ally in giving her insight, and you’re not going to look defensive or cranky – you’ll look like someone who understands the goals and cares to help get there.

    Reply
  28. EddieSherbert

    That’s so frustrating! My boss tends to lose track of things as well – but does great with email. So in my case, I send a recap of every meaningful conversation we have, meeting, client she’s supposed to be following up with, etc.

    We do have a 30 minute biweekly “check in” meeting one-on-one to go over what I’m working on and where her priorities lie – I really appreciate it – and, of course, IIII have to send a follow up email after the meeting (haha), but maybe the meeting itself could help you out?

    Reply
  29. SleeplessInLA

    Ooohh, I have been here so I feel for you OP. Unfortunately the boss in question simply didn’t find me to be a “good fit” for her team (she came into the role after the person who originally hired me left the company) so her micromanaging was CONSTANT.

    What worked in my case was not only cc’ing/bcc’ing her on every. single. task. I completed and then sending an EOD email update with a bullet of everything I’d completed for the day. After about a month she got so tired of the emails that she told me I could stop and left me alone.

    Reply
  30. willow

    If I sent something by email that I am now being asked about, I will forward the original email to the same person, so they can see (1) that I already sent it, and (2) when I sent it.

    I have one PM who, if he is waiting for three documents that he KNOWS come in staggered, will always, after I send him the first in the series, ask where the others are. So now I just beat him to the punch – I send the one document, and tell him that the other two will be available tomorrow. That way, he knows that I know that he knows … you get the picture.

    Reply
  31. Safely Retired

    Being cc’d on an email means your boss might have to dig through paragraphs of details with far more information that necessary. Don’t bury the news that way, make it explicit. Instead of adding your boss as a cc to an email, send it without that and then forward that email with a one liner to your boss: “FYI, the message below details the completion of task XYZ.” If you can make something about all such messages distinct, such as the word Done or Completed in the Subject, or in the first line of the text in front of the FYI, that would help make those messages stand out from the rest. Then use the same format for the FYI you send for everything that wasn’t covered by forwarding emails, adding as much detail as necessary below that. Train your boss to look for those notices and hopefully she will train herself to rely on them (and you).

    Reply
  32. I Coulda Been a Lawyer ;)

    I have a coworker who didn’t understand why when he double clicked the spreadsheet on his desktop, it wasn’t the same as the one on the server. Instead of a link to the server original sheet he’d created a copy. Nice guy, bright in many ways, but couldn’t grasp that he wasn’t creating links correctly. It took a while (and docked pay for not showing up when scheduled) to retrain him. It could be something this odd here too. People don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know.

    Reply
  33. Artemesia

    This is one were I would have to sit down with the boss and talk about ways to avoid this problem. I’d be frank about frustration with being seen as defensive when falsely accused of not completing the work (obviously framed more delicately). I think a focus on communication when things are so complex and busy — and suggesting a weekly summary report or asking if there is another approach that would work better. But you really have to address the issue of the assumption that work is not done.

    Reply
  34. Kate

    Or you can forward the already sent e-mail once again, “in case she missed it”, so she’ll see you’ve already done that weeks ago. It usually works.

    Reply
  35. Damn it, Hardison!

    Totally late to the game on this one, but does your tracker have the ability to send notifications to your boss when it’s updated? I have a project tracker on Sharepoint and team members can choose to be notified when it’s updated (immediately, daily, weekly, etc.). Of course it’s possible that the notification email will get lost in your manager’s glut of emails, but she will at least be vaguely aware that the tracker has been updated (if not the specifics of the update) so it might help.

    Reply
  36. stephanie

    I used to travel for business a lot, and I tried to cram as much work in that travel as possible, so my days would usually look like one plant inspection at 6 am, then drive 4-5 hours to another plant inspection, then drive to another location to be ready for another inspection at 6 am the next day. I would be keeping 14 or 15 hour days, much of it on the road. And I had a boss who would call me on the road, demanding some piece of work he’d never requested before, and insisting it had to be done right now. Cue me finding a public internet connection and messing up my whole schedule so I could get him that urgent piece of work done and emailed. Then I’d get back to the office and a week or two would go by and he’d drop by my desk and say “did you ever send that thing we talked about?” He wouldn’t even have looked at it in all that time.

    Reply
  37. aett

    I’ve dealt with a similar problem: my office only consists of about a dozen people including me, and a third of those people are management. There have been plenty of times when Manager A gives me a task, which I then complete, only for Manager B to come over and ask me about the same task. I find myself starting a lot of sentences with “Oh, I was just telling Manager A about how I did X, Y, and Z, and…” and I feel like a broken record sometimes.

    Reply
  38. FormerEmployee

    Assuming their tracking system isn’t fouled up in some way, this is just tiring/tiresome.

    Despite the extra work involved, the idea of a white board with the status of various items or something similar might be the way to go. The bonus for me would be that while it is totally helpful to do this sort of thing, there is a soupçon of “I am doing this because you, my manager, can’t seem to manage”.

    Reply

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