my boss is so busy that I can’t get any time with him

A reader writes:

I’m employed at a small-ish company and my boss is one of the directors. One thing right off the bat: My boss is a truly fantastic boss. Understanding, smart, full of good ideas, and a great mentor … when I can get in touch with him. We work in offices on opposite sides of the country so the best way to communicate is via inter-office chat or the phone. I’ll send him a message to which he’ll respond 12 hours later or just not respond at all. We used to have fairly regular one-on-one meetings, which turned into bi-weekly meetings, and now he barely keeps those. The meeting will be rescheduled multiple times in the week that we do have it – at which point it will finally end up on a Friday at 5PM. By that point, I will have built up enough of a backlog of “topics to discuss” that we’ll go over time or he’ll be interrupted and have to drop the call for something else. I try to schedule a time to chat, but he never has a free minute.

I know that he is very busy – lots of meetings, lots of travel. I’ve learned to find the answers to most of my important questions elsewhere or to plumb my network of resources for help if I need it. Sometimes, though, I do need guidance from my direct chain of command, and in those moments it’s radio silence. Perhaps I should take it as a sign that he doesn’t think that I need all that much guidance, but a lack of feedback is starting to wear on me. As I’ve taken on more and more responsibility and am trying to spin many plates at the same time, I would like to be sure that I’m going in the right direction. It’s frustrating to feel like I’m on an island by myself especially when I can see that he’s actively answering other people and having (on time) one-on-one meetings with other team members.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I expecting too much from my manager given that he’s so busy? Is there a better way for me to tailor my communication to get the most out of the time that I DO get with my boss? Should I just suck it up and learn to forever find my own answers?

Have you talked to your boss about the problem? If not, that’s the place to start since he may have no idea that it’s an issue for you.

Often in this situation, people assume that the manager is well aware of how inaccessible they are and that therefore there must not be anything that can be done about it. But in a lot of cases, the manager genuinely doesn’t realize that the staff person needs more access and pointing it out will often get you solutions. Not always, of course — some managers are too scattered or overwhelmed to fix it — but often enough that it’s worth talking about it. (This is the same thing I see happen all the time when it comes to overly high workloads, as well. People assume that if their boss is assigning them a ton of work, there’s no point in speaking up because they must be expected to find a way to get it all done, when in fact the boss is assuming they’ll speak up if it becomes a problem. So the boss goes on thinking everything is fine while the employee is stewing and feeling overwhelmed.)

In your case, it sounds like one thing that would really help is re-committing to weekly one-on-one meetings and not letting them keep getting pushed back. Since your boss is having those meetings with other people, it’s clearly something he’s willing to do, so my bet is that he doesn’t think you need them and that they’ve felt like an easy thing to cut out of his busy schedule. But if you tell him explicitly that those meetings feel crucial to your work and you want to resume them, that might be all it takes to get them happening again.

You could say something like this: “I found it really helpful when we had regular weekly meetings in the past. We’ve stopped doing them as frequently, and when we do them, it’s often at the very end of the week and we run out of time to cover everything. I often run into situations where I need your feedback, and it can be tough to wait as long as we’ve been waiting. Would you be open to meeting weekly again, and trying to do those meetings at a regular time that we can both plan around?”

You could also ask something like this: “Is there a better way for me to get ahold of you when you’re busy and I need something that shouldn’t wait until our one-on-one? Typically I’ve tried messaging or calling, but I know you’re busy and can’t always respond right away. When something’s time-sensitive, what’s the best way for me to get ahold of you?”

Or there’s the bigger-picture approach to all of this: “You’ve given me a lot of independence and autonomy, which is great. But sometimes I need more access to you than I can easily get, and I’d love to get more feedback and input from you.” And then, from there, you can go into the two requests above.

Beyond that, take a look at things that you might be able to alter yourself. For example, you mentioned it sometimes takes your boss 12 hours to respond to a message. That’s actually not a terribly long response time, especially for a busy manager, so this might be a spot where you should just readjust your expectations. But if some of those messages are more time-sensitive than that, are you sure he knows that? An email with the subject line “TIME-SENSITIVE: urgent client issue” is going to get attention faster than the subject line “client update” will.

You can also look at whether you’re making it as easy as possible for him to send you quick replies. A message that says, “Can we talk about what to do about X?” will require more time for him to answer (and thus might be put aside for later) than “Here’s the situation with X. I propose doing Y. Sound right to you?” And make sure, too, that you’re being as brief as possible and asking your questions right upfront so he doesn’t have to wade through a long message to find what you need.

You also said that there are times when he doesn’t respond at all. Go back and look at some of those messages that didn’t get responses. Was it clear what you were asking, and was it clear that it was time-sensitive and not something he reasonably could have assumed could wait for the next time you talked? Even saying upfront “I’m hoping to hear back from you today because I need to get back to Jane in the morning” can be the difference between an email that gets answered and one that gets set aside as lower-priority and then forgotten.

Ultimately, though, talk to your boss about what’s going on. Based on what you’ve said about him, he’s a good boss who will be receptive to hearing this and trying to remedy it — he just needs you to tell him that it’s a problem.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. MindoverMoneyChick*

    I second Alison’s thought that bosses don’t always know when they are being in accessible. I remember one time when I was having an easier than normal day and leaving my door open more an employee said to me “wow, you’re so accessible today.”

    I was really surprised and said”do you not normally see me as accessible?” Apparently not so much and I was really surprised. upon reflection she was totally right, it had just creeped up on my and I didn’t realize it.

    1. Princess Carolyn*

      I’ve had several bosses like this at several jobs and it never occurred to me that they might not realize I need more access to them. It seems so simple now!

    2. hbc*

      It’s hard, because you can think “People have been accessing me all freaking day!” But you don’t see the ones who saw your closed door and left, or notice that there’s a couple of particular people who’ve you’ve not seen for a while because their issues haven’t gotten to 3 alarm fire.

  2. FlibbertyG*

    I had a job like this. It wasn’t something that was going to change. I had to accept it as given, and assume I had the authority to proceed as I thought best. I tried to see it as a learning opportunity (although I did eventually leave and one of the reasons was to be more part of a team). Once my instincts were wrong and I made a rather sizable mistake; I expected to be chewed out, but the boss actually acknowledged that given the lack of supervision, the consequences were kind of on him. On the whole it worked out pretty well for the three years I stayed there.

    1. BRR*

      This is my current job. I had to sit down recently with my department head to clarify that I have the responsibility for managing what I do because some colleagues were being a little too pushy with trying to tell me how to do my job. I basically said either my decisions need to be respected or someone else can manage my program (I’m a department of one).

    2. LILY*

      The problem I had was that, with management inaccessible, When I tried to proceed as I thought best, I would get reprimanded. “What makes you think you had the authority to do that?” Has a way of making you question every move you make.

  3. AnotherHRPro*

    As a manager, please speak up! If your manager is satisfied with your work and there doesn’t seem to be a problem, they can easily assume that you are doing fine with the amount to connection and feedback. Unless you tell your boss what you need to be successful, they won’t know.

    And I loved Alison’s advice about looking at how you communicate. If you write long emails with open ended questions that might be part of the problem. The key is to make it as easy for your boss to respond as possible. If possible tell them what you plan to do and ask them to confirm if it is ok.

  4. Doreen*

    I had a manager who was almost impossible to get in touch with – we could play telephone /email tag for weeks. I knew he read his email within a day or two although the responses took longer. So I eliminated the need for a response as much as possible – for example , I would describe how I planned to handle a situation , but rather than asking him to confirm it was okay , I asked him to let me know if he wanted it handled differently. This worked because I was usually contacting him about situations in which I had the knowledge/experience to make the decision but not the authority.

    1. Amtelope*

      Yeah, sometimes with bosses who are inaccessible, you have to say “I’m planning to do X. If you’d like me to do something different, please let me know before (the 2:00 client meeting/I send this email at the end of the day/I confirm the hotel reservations on Friday).”

    2. Beezus*

      Yep, I do this all the time. “Here’s a problem, here’s how I think I should handle it, these are the steps I am taking for now, please let me know if I’m way off base.” I’ve only gotten pulled back a couple of times, and it has been because there was information my boss planned to pass along, that he hadn’t had a chance to talk to me about yet, not because my instincts were wrong.

    3. nonegiven*

      That’s what I was going to say.

      “Unless otherwise directed, by $localtime $date, I will do X.

  5. MD*

    This is really timely for me as I’m having a similar problem – and my boss is literally 2 desks away. I’ve tried every Avenue of communication I can think of – walk up to his desk, call him, video call him, IM him, email him – and it’s still usually met with silence until one day something goes wrong and he slaps my wrist. I feel like I’m not *allowed* to talk to my own boss, so I make the best judgments I can, and just roll with the punches from there. Not saying this is the best approach, but it’s all I can really do.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not all you can do! At least not if you haven’t tried talking with him about the problem yet. Name it for him and ask for advice on coming up with a solution.

      1. JaneB*

        I tried to have a conversation very like that and got a lecture about being “too needy” – and no advice.

        If I use my initiative, even with the email strategy suggested above, I usually hear nothing until action has been taken and I get told off (either via fly-by bossage or in whole-department meetings) because it was wrong. Not consistently, so I can identify patterns to avoid; my boss is also pretty changable. One day he loves teapots with dots on, the next you’re an idiot for even considering dots because everyone knows stripes are the right way to decorate a teapot, then a week later he’s complaining that stripes are old fashioned and dull and all us teapot-adorners are stupid stick-in-the-muds who don’t keep up with industry trends. Some of that is just his “style”, and some of it is do to a very volatile wider environment (e.g. we’ve had three different new ways of getting spending approved introduced then replaced in the last four months…), but he doesn’t pass on communications from other departments to his staff as updates when they arrive on his desk, but as “you did it wrong, here’s the method you should use” corrections, usually coupled with sarcasm.

        Not surprisingly, this causes decision paralysis and a lot of redoing of work.

        Any ideas on how to approach a conversation on the topic which doesn’t come across as “needy”?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, it sounds like the problem isn’t so much your boss’s inaccessibility as it is the fact that your boss kind of sucks. Does that resonate? So it’s a really different situation from the OP’s in that regard, unfortunately (she was dealing with a good boss).

  6. C in the Hood*

    One thing I like to do is make prioritize the list of things I need to talk to my boss about. Then I might make a little script of my exact questions, so they can be as succinct as possible. (Sometimes, in the process of doing this, I find the answer!) This way, when I do have time to talk with him, it’s relatively quick & painless for him.

  7. Catabodua*

    Something that helped me in a similar situation was to start a naming system with email titles.

    So, instead of “Project XYZ Timeline” my email title would be “Need response – Project XYZ Timeline” or “FYI Only – Project XYZ Timeline.” You could also add due dates if the person wanted them.

    It allowed the super busy person I needed to get responses from to know which emails of mine needed action vs which ones they were only being copied on because there was information for them.

  8. Competent Commenter*

    I liked Alison’s recommendations around best ways to word your emails. I second that. I’m a marketing person so I’m very conscious of effective communications even in emails to my coworkers, and I’m someone who has problems with procrastination and anxiety so I’m well aware of my own tendency to avoid dealing with open-ended, confusing emails. Make sure that your emails are as easy to respond to as possible, per Alison’s ideas. Clear subject lines: “Need a sign-off on form X,” or “One-minute request: please review attached paragraph,” etc. reassure people that if they open your email it’s going to be easy and quick to take care of. Also great is Alison’s point about having very clear requests, rather than “we need to talk about the Lord of the Rings portfolio.” This really helps. Do as much thinking ahead as possible for your supervisor so he isn’t tempted to just close your email back up again unanswered.

    In a related vein, if you’re feeling like you’re making a lot of decisions on your own and aren’t sure if you’re going in the right direction (I can really relate as I had no supervisor for about 8 months), send the periodic brief email explaining what you’re doing so you’ve got that documented. “Subject: Update on new process for handling The One Ring” with a message, “Just wanted you to update you on the new process I’ve developed for handling The One Ring. I’ve identified a new source for lava that’s closer and less expensive than Mount Doom, resulting in significant cost savings. If you have any concerns about that, please let me know.”

    Also, we have a new admin for our team and she’s supposed to spend 25% of her time supporting me, although I don’t supervise her. She tends to want to have a meeting each week, and we go over the list of items, and then we talk through some, and then we never finish. I really would prefer that she just email me a status update, either as an item gets completed or a periodic “these are still on my radar” and save our meeting time for actual questions, need for advice, etc. Actually I’d like to answer more questions by email also. Guess I should tell her that in our next meeting, now that I realize that, but she seems so attached to having them that I’ll have to be diplomatic! Anyway, that might give you some insight if any of it pertains to how you meet with your boss. Your mention of a list that you never finish in your meetings made me think of it.

    Also, have you asked your coworkers who do get more frequent meetings with him what works for them? Maybe there’s something in there that would help.

    Good luck!

    1. Beezus*

      With the admin – I think you can almost introduce the email status update thing without connecting it to a reduction/refocus of meeting time at first. Then, when you meet and everything you normally talk about has already been covered via email, you can handle the change in meeting handling separately.

  9. A Nonnus Mousicus*

    Hi everyone! OP here – Thanks for the helpful comments. I have an update! A few days after I wrote the original letter to Alison, I had a heart-to-heart with Fergus. I laid it all out for him including how frustrated I was with the situation. It turns out that this has been an ongoing pattern not just with Fergus, but with a lot of higher-ups at the company and they’ve been working to correct it. Soon thereafter, Fergus and I discussed what needed to be done in order to get things back on track. He acknowledged that he was spread too thin overall and that was a contributing factor and he and I talked about how best we could maximize the time during the week that we were able to meet.

    Coincidentally at that same time, I received a great offer from another company which fell exactly in line with what I want for my career path. Overall I was happy with where I was (frustrations aside) but knew that I would be making a mistake to pass up such a great opportunity. Everyone was happy for me and understanding when I gave my notice and I was able to implement a few strategies which I believe will help benefit the person who replaces me. I’ve been at my new job for a couple of weeks now and it’s been great! Ironically, my frustration with not being able to communicate with Fergus on a regular basis helped me to be more self-sufficient in the long run but to not let things get to a tipping point before I address them. I’ve been using that to my advantage, and it all worked out in the end!

    1. FlibertyG*

      This is a great update! I agree it can be an empowering situation as well as a frustrating one. I’d rather have an out of touch boss than a micromanager, for just the reasons you describe. Glad it worked out well for you.

    2. Name (Required)*

      Hi OP great news on the new job. I’ve been pulled up for not being accessible enough before and I genuinely hadn’t realised they were feeling like that and we worked out a bunch of ways to fix it. (eg we made a sacrosanct meeting once a fortnight, they put URGENT in front of genuinely urgent emails etc) We all ended up happy.

      At the time, I was horribly overworked (which I needed to address myself :) and the 2 reports who were hurting were amongst the best I had and I had full confidence in their work. Unfortunately, it’s often the squeakiest wheels that do get the oil, or the people making the biggest stuff ups that need the monitoring. We had an honest conversation and I also put in writing afterwards what a great job they were doing and how much confidence I had in them (it turned out they didn’t have as much confidence in themselves as I had in them and also they needed more support which we worked out how to do). I was also appalled they took so long to raise it with me but they were also knew I was under the hammer so hadn’t wanted to make things worse.

      All in all at my end, it was a great wake up call for me as I realised I had been taking them for granted quite a bit and they got positive feedback in how much confidence I had in them and we worked out how to fix it in a way that worked for us all. I would totally recommend people raising early and politely rather than waiting too long and letting things fester. I also now proactively check that the support levels I am providing are in line with people’s needs (without catering to over the top requests).

      Good luck with your new job

  10. Mimmy*

    This is so helpful, thank you Alison! The email suggestions you and the commenters gave will be particularly useful.

    I had an internship supervisor who was extremely inaccessible – he was the head of the social work department in addition to having a caseload. As students, we were required to have weekly supervision – I don’t think I got them even every OTHER week.

  11. fishy*

    This is good advice! And thinking about the advice gave me a good idea for what I should ask my manager, so I’m extra grateful for it.

    My manager is great, but she’s also very busy. She has flat-out told us that she doesn’t have time to have weekly meetings with us. And honestly, in my case I don’t tend to feel that I need weekly meetings, though biweekly would be nice… right now they’re monthly.

    One thing I notice that she tends to look over most of my coworkers’ work before passing it on to our clients, and gives detailed feedback to those who are struggling. But she usually has me submit my work to the client literally without her even glancing at it. I know that’s because she trusts me, and that’s great! But I still wish sometimes that I could get specific feedback on things I could be doing better, because even if I am good at this, no one is perfect, and I’m pretty new to this line of work. So maybe I’ll ask if that’s something we can discuss at our next meeting. I can even think of one project that she got to have a good look at after the fact that she probably could give me feedback on.

  12. designbot*

    A manager I work with taught me a great but simple trick regarding emails that you may also want to try; start high priority emails with their name. This manager gets so many emails every day that he simply cannot possibly read all of them, and most are to entire teams of people. Since he’s responsible for high level oversight as opposed to day to day details, he can generally count on other team members to put out the fires, so he scans for his own name in the preview line to see what issues truly need his attention. So if I say “Can you take a look at this?” he won’t read it, assuming that someone else on the email chain will handle it. But if I say “Tywin, could you take a look at this?” he knows he’s the one who needs to address the issue and does. YMMV, but worth a try.

  13. Workfromhome*

    Been there and done that. I agree with Allison’s main point that having a discussion specifically about access and expectations with your boss are key (if you can get a meeting to talk about it :-))
    If nothing else you should know where you stand even if nothing will change. That was what happened to me in my last job. I’d been there among time and worked remotely. Even if I visited the HQ and my boss was might there I might get 5 minutes or not at all with him. It was nothing to go weeks or even months without any more than the occasional short email. I finally cornered him one day and said :”I really appreciate that you don’t micromanage me but I’m concerned that I could be far off track and not know it until its too late since its so hard for us to connect” He flat out told me “I understand but I have a number of other that report to me that need a lot of hand holding. I depend on you that I can just give you something and it will be done and done right. That frees me up to spend my time on others that need more help or supervision. Its the price you pay for the autonomy you have. ” At one point I went probably 3 years without a yearly review. I just had to learn to live with it. Any email of any length I included a 2 or 3 line summary that basically said if I needed any approvals, why and when I needed them and what the consequences were if I didn’t get them. I’d often do as some others above suggested and say”No reponse by x date will be taken as approval to proceed. ” I never got any blame for anything that went wrong but did get overruled on some stuff because I didn’t get supported in the same way I would have had we sat down and discussed things.
    Sometimes I got the impression that some junior people thought I was some kind of maverick that did whatever I wanted. It sounds better than it actually was since despite the freedom it lead to me doing FAR more and making much more complicated decisions than my salary warranted. Thus me leaving

  14. Hooptie*

    Alternately, if you’re looking to move up, look at the kinds of decisions you are making and extra work you have been doing and DOCUMENT them. When you have your annual review, make sure that your boss sees the additional responsibility and decision making you have been doing. I honestly would not be afraid to put together a proposal for a promotion – and probably wouldn’t wait until my review. It seems to me that your boss trusts your judgment and doesn’t appear to think that you need constant supervision or frequent guidance, so I would take advantage of it.

    I did the very same thing in my role – when I couldn’t reach my boss, I started making ‘executive decisions’ and always kept him in the loop. On the rare occasion that he disagreed with me, it certainly got his attention and gave me an opportunity to ask how I should have handled the situation differently. I’ve moved up (still reporting to the same VP) to an executive manager and am now on track to become a director, hopefully next year. Take advantage of the opportunity that is in front of you! :)

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