my boss cares more about “confidence” and “strength” than truth and accuracy

A reader writes:

I need advice navigating communication style differences. I manage an office of about 12 employees and four interns, all working under “Fergus,” the company’s owner. I report directly to Fergus, and the others report directly to me.

The issue is that our communication styles differ vastly. Fergus demands what he calls “decisive communication,” meaning that people are expected to speak confidently and with finality, without phrases like “I think” or “I’ll check” or “probably.” He claims that shows weakness. He also tolerates no excuses, expecting employees to simply apologize for mistakes and accept that they did something wrong.

While I respect that, I prefer a different communication style. If an employee makes an error, I want to know why because that can lead me to greater understanding of that person and how to best communicate with them. More importantly, “decisive communication” trips me up because I have trouble distinguishing between what is true and what is the speaker’s opinion stated as truth. For example, in a client meeting, my boss asked one of my direct reports whether Project X would be completed by the deadline. Following the lines of “decisive communication,” my report replied that it would. Unfortunately, the situation was actually far more complicated. Due to factors beyond our control (outside contractors, mail), there was a good chance that the project might take several days longer than the deadline – and it did. The client was upset not because of the missed the deadline, but because of the unfulfilled promise. This sort of thing happens internally, too. When I’ve brought this up with Fergus, he says that we should always expect every statement to possibly be false, the important thing is that it is said with confidence and strength. I’m the opposite. If I ask Intern A if Client X has called, I’d rather hear, “I don’t know” than a flat “no” meaning that the client didn’t call her but might have spoken to someone else.

So how do we manage the communication and expectations of our reports? I recognize that it’s difficult for them to pivot and change their communication styles depending upon who they’re speaking to, but I also want them to speak honestly and explain things fully. I’ve been reprimanded for listening to an employee’s “excuses,” but those so-called excuses turned out to contain valuable information about a flaw in a system. Mostly, though, I want to understand what is actually true and not second guess everything. Can you help us navigate this issue? How do I address this with those I supervise?

You’re presenting this a question of differing communication styles, each of which is legitimate … but that’s wrong.

Fergus says that you should always expect every statement to possibly be false, but that’s okay as long as it’s said with confidence and strength??


Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.

Of course you would rather hear “I don’t know but I’ll find out” instead of a statement that might be false! Of course a client would rather hear the truth than a lie puffed up with “confidence and strength.” These are normal things — so normal that they are generally the default for communication.

Fergus is setting up a work environment where you’ll never be able to rely on the information that you’re given, where “weakness” (which appears to mean not being 100% certain of 100% of everything 100% of the time) is somehow worse than “flat-out wrong” or “lying,” and where you completely mess up your employees’ sense of how to communicate in an office (something that will no doubt follow some of them to future jobs, where it will cause them serious problems and destroy their credibility with their new colleagues, and maybe even get some of them fired unless they immediately recover and pivot back to normal communication).

You say you respect Fergus’s preferences. You should not. His preferences are ridiculous, harmful, and diametrically opposed to a well-functioning, effective organization.

It’s very hard to believe that this is Fergus’s only serious failure of critical thinking. But even if it is, do you really want to lead a team that has this kind of dysfunction at the top? It’s going to severely hamstring your ability to manage people and work, and his ridiculousness will splatter on you in myriad ways that could end up hurting you professionally in time. After all, you’re the person who has to interpret Fergus to others, who has to manage your staff to communicate in the bizarre way he requires, and who presumably needs to act as if those expectations are reasonable when they are ludicrous (and who apparently gets reprimanded when you don’t).

You asked how to manage your employees under these conditions. I don’t believe that you can. You can’t instruct people to lie to Fergus and to clients but to privately tell you the truth. You can’t find a reasonable defense of Fergus’s requirements that doesn’t compromise your own integrity as a person with common sense.

I suppose if there are circumstances that ameliorate some of this — for example, if Fergus only shows up a few times a year and otherwise is basically out of contact, or if your sense is that a few strongly worded conversations will change his stance — then it’s possible you could make this work. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case, and I’m deeply skeptical that working in this environment is good for anyone’s career, and particularly not for the person charged with overseeing the many highly problematic ways this will play out.

{ 269 comments… read them below }

    1. Bubble Witch*

      This is what happens when you get your communications degree from a certain for-profit university that is no longer in business.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      I was coming to say “Your office is a metaphor” but really, it’s worth reflecting that this sort of bold authoritative statement–even if it contradicts the bold authoritative statement at the start of the same paragraph–does appeal to a segment of the population. The boss isn’t getting it from nowhere. But when we get away from rhetoric and showing bold leadership in a group, and down to concrete questions, like “When is the plumber coming?” authoritative untruths just annoy your customers.

      1. Just Employed Here*

        It’d be interesting to know how this would work out in a medical setting:

        “Is the still patient alive?”

        Or air traffic control… Or child care…

        In investing, this seems already to be how things are done, at least in some places.

        1. Just Employed Here*

          ….and apparently, also in proofreading:

          “Is the patient still alive?”

          was what I meant to write, confidently.

          My apologies! I have no excuse.

          1. pope suburban*

            No, no, let it stand! It was perfect the first time because the patient’s stillness was what caused the question of whether or not they were alive.

            Oh wow, this feels incredibly goofy and hard to do even as a joke. I can’t imagine trying to conduct business like this. My gut is telling me that Fergus probably advises his kids to “show gumption” and go to hiring managers’ offices, because boy is he ever out of touch. :’D

            1. Flash Bristow*

              I got the joke, even before you said it. Chill *lighthearted smiley face, since smilies don’t seem to display here, so now of course it’s more of a thing than I intended, but have a light casual smiley nonetheless*…

              OP I don’t know what to say, I am literally speechless and that takes a LOT. All I can suggest is that you get out. Maybe other places will be shit too, but at least it’ll be less insane shit, summat you can manage?

          2. boo bot*

            I mean, “Is the still patient alive?” does make sense, for a different usage of “still.”

            I would add to “Your office is a metaphor,” “Your office is a useful thought experiment” – as Falling Diphthong says, there are many people to whom this kind of confidence-above-all is appealing, but it’s usually only in the abstract, bombastic contexts that it holds up even a little:

            “We will defeat Oceania!”; “Everything is better now than it was before!”; “This is the biggest pizza anyone has ever made, everyone in the world agrees with me!”

            Once you’re in a place where objective reality matters, the tactic falls through immediately, because people can tell if you’re wrong about objective reality:
            “We are definitely on the right train!”; “Those cost $12, and we have the money!” ; “Your flight leaves at 12 AM on the 12th, and it’s going to Naples!” Things either happen or they don’t.

            Sorry, I’m sure no one here needs me to point out that “Verifiable facts exist” is not just one opinion among many. But I think that dragging this always-be-right attitude into a more mundane context sort of reveals its true nature, and I think that’s useful.

            OP, your office is both a metaphor for the thing and the thing itself. Cherish it, for that does not happen often. Cherish it well, and get the f*ck out.

            1. valentine*

              They don’t have to be right. That might be understandable, like the OP whose boss’ bosses insisted on zero typos. They merely have to sound as though they believe they’re right.

              1. boo bot*

                Oh, I wasn’t so much addressing Fergus specifically as the absurdity of his philosophy in general.

                Even in the OP’s situation, though, it’s likely to fall apart because “Is Fergus happy?” isn’t the only measure of success for the organization – presumably they need to bring in money, or create widgets, or govern, or something, and if everyone there is playing fast and loose with the facts, then no one knows what they’re really dealing with.

                If Mike tells me that my flight leaves at 12 AM, that’s either true or not true, and if it’s not true, then I miss my flight; if Elaine says we’re on the right train, and we’re not, then end up in the wrong place; if Steve says we’ve got enough money to pay for those $12 llama-widgets, but the widgets are really $13 and we’re broke, we overdraw the account and annoy the vendor.

                Basically the only way I can see this working is if everyone other than Fergus has a secret whiteboard chart in a closet somewhere, where they aggregate known facts and correct each other’s misstatements. I think you could get like a 3-episode arc out of it, but not a functional workplace.

            1. zaracat*

              (nesting fail – this was supposed to be in reply to Just Employed Here’s “is the patient still alive?”)

      2. Just Elle*

        Agreed. My first thought when reading this was that Fergus bought some kind of book on leadership, skimmed it, got absolutely NONE of the subtleties or caveats out of it, and yet decided to embrace the overarching theme as the foundation of his life.

        If you can find out what book it was (I’m assuming its as easy as asking if he has any suggestions for books on communication, sitting back with popcorn, and allowing him to wax poetic on The Best Book Ever)… then you can read it for yourself and perhaps guide him gently through the finer points.
        For instance, “Well Fergus, what about the part in the book where Mr AuthoritativeCommunication said that you can authoritatively communicate that you don’t know something? Don’t you think that applies here?”

    3. Lora*

      I once worked for a guy like this who was an engineer, not a politician. It was everything you imagine. So, there’s more than one of these in the world, unfortunately.

      He has been summarily fired with extreme prejudice from every job he’s ever held, and he only held onto the one for any serious length of time, at a company notorious for never firing anyone.

      OP, unless you reckon Fergus is in immediate danger of being dragged out into the parking lot by Security and told that he is now Persona Non Grata, I would be looking for another job.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*


          My last shtbag boss sold his business less than a year after I quit. There is a possibility but only if the business is bleeding money or the owner retires kind of thing. I’ve seen a lot of these guys sell. Its not worth waiting out though.

          1. Lora*

            This. When the business tanks because the customers have all bailed and / or are suing him, he will want to sell, but then who is going to buy a business with so much liability?

            There is a vendor company in an industry that partly serves my field, whose entire business model is this:
            1) really good salespeople get a contract to build a thing
            2) totally overpromise, underdeliver and lie through their teeth
            3) sue their clients for nonpayment, even though they themselves were unable to meet the contract terms, until the client settles with them just to make the whole nuisance go away
            4) move on to another client
            5) 10 years later when the people they’ve sued have all moved on to other jobs elsewhere and nobody at Original Client remembers how awful they were, make another amazing sales pitch taking credit for the final work that was started by them but finished by a more competent company
            Lather, rinse, repeat. But, I dunno, I wouldn’t want to work there myself.

            1. AnnaBananna*

              Oh, please tell us who this is!! (for some reason my mind went instantly to Lush but it doesn’t fit…I think).

        2. Just Employed Here*

          I agree that waiting isn’t an option, but I’d also assume that a private company like this would fold pretty soonish due to customers, staff, and vendors having had enough.

      1. MarfisaTheLibrarian*

        Oh man that sounds just…really bad…for an engineer. “Are these calculations correct?” “Yes!” *bridge falls down*
        But I’m hoping his confident lies were caught before things got to that point…

        1. Lora*

          They were, but when the regulators of your industry are the ones catching the errors as opposed to your boss or the company QA department…it’s not good.

              1. Gazebo Slayer*

                That disaster was the very first place my mind went. An engineer with this attitude could easily get people killed.

    4. Coder von Frankenstein*

      I was about to ask if the OP was Mike Pence.

      Whether it was or not, I agree with Alison: Get out get out get out.

  1. Amber Rose*

    You may expect everything to be false* but your customers will not, and will be very upset to be told a falsehood. This will impact your bottom line if it hasn’t already. Normally I’d say point this out to your boss but I sincerely doubt he’d listen. You probably need to leave, and maybe on your last day have an informative meeting with your reports about proper communication and offer a good reference.

    *I’m horrified to have to start a statement with this premise. How do you live, how do you trust anyone, when your starting assumption is that there’s a 50% chance everything you’re being told is a lie?!

      1. AnnaBananna*

        Ahh, the caveat being: truth =/= facts. Wait, how do you say ‘may or may not be’ in QWERTY and/or math?

    1. General Ginger*

      All of this. As a customer, I would never expect every statement from a company to be potentially false; I donn’t think I would be able to deal with a company who thinks I should.

      And yeah, I’m trying to wrap my head around the premise of “Trust Nobody — Hardcore Mode”. I get “common sense” and “trust but verify” or whatever reasonable precautions one could be expected to take, but… seriously, expecting 50% of everything to be a lie???

      1. SignalLost*

        It’s worse than that, because it sounds like Fergus would be a-okay with 100% of statements being false.

        Honestly, OP, get out of there. If you can’t change Fergus, he’s going to go under. Clients don’t like being lied to.

        1. Sabina*

          This letter and comment thread are giving me Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch vibes. “This parrot is deceased! No it’s not, its’ fine!”

    2. Jadelyn*

      I mean, you’re pretty much training your customers not to trust anything you say. I can’t imagine that would help you grow a solid working relationship with said customers. After a couple times of decisive falsehoods, I’d be ready to take my business somewhere where they won’t lie to me.

      1. Bilateralrope*

        I’d be thinking about suing to get some of my money back. Or at least threatening legal action.

        The idea of Fergus trying confidence over truth in court amuses me.

        1. Marthooh*

          Fergus would win that case! He would represent himself, with all the confidence in the world, and he would win. #ConfidenceAlwaysWins #CAW

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Absolutely. I would leave or fire a company that routinely lied to me. If there’s no reliability or trust, I might as well hire a Magic 8 Ball to advise me or provide services.

        1. Teeth Grinder*

          A consulting firm for which I worked gave out customized Magic 8 balls at a all-hands training session. I’m only 90% confident it was a joke.
          At the least, they should have come with a warning ⚠️ “Do not place where visible to clients!”

          1. Kelly L.*

            I’ve threatened to actually get a Magic 8 Ball for my desk, because I get a lot of questions that there’s no way I’d ever know the answer to. Not stuff I could reasonably know as part of my job–more expecting me to be psychic.

        2. Observer*

          This would be funny if it weren’t so sad. But it’s 100% true. The idiot is training his customers to distrust everything he and his staff say. The good customers will leave. Only the liars will stay.

          Which will, in his mind, “PROVE” that you should never trust anything anyone says. Because it’s a vicious cycle.

      3. Amber Rose*

        Wouldn’t even take me a couple times. I HATE being lied to. It infuriates me more than anything.

      4. Robin Bobbin*

        Imagine the employee being asked if X will be on time and being required to answer yes or no. If they say “yes” knowing that outside contractors/mail/whatever could delay X by a few days, it’s a lie. If they say “no” knowing that if all goes perfectly X will be on time, it’s also a lie. There is no non-lie option for the employee. What client would remain a client if they knew that every answer they got would be a lie? I wouldn’t stick around long as either employee or client!

        1. Lalaith*

          Actually, I would just start saying “no” every time I was asked if something would be completed by deadline. It’s a lot easier to guarantee that we will pass the deadline than that we’ll make it. We can make that happen, even if we could get it done on time. I wonder if that would make Fergus change his tune at all…

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Yes, I think that is the only way to go. “No, we will not meet this deadline. Contractor A will delay by four days and Process B will take two days longer than we planned for.”

    3. kittymommy*

      I want to know if he would communicate that particular “truth” to the client.

      Fergus is a dumbass, is that decisive enough for him??

  2. Où est la bibliothèque?*

    It might be confusing for them, but I think you have to tell your reports “Fergus wants decisive and confident answers, and in communicating with him that’s the rule you should follow. But this is not typical business communication and can cause problems, so I want to know every time you’re not 100% sure about something, even if it means flagging me after you’ve given him or somebody else the kind of answer he prefers.”

    1. MLB*

      That will just lead to a bigger mess than they already have.

      If I had to tailor my answer differently to multiple people (boss, grandboss and client), where 1/3 of what I’m saying could be false, I’d never be able to to keep it straight in my head. She needs to have a come to Jesus with her boss, and since he probably won’t listen to reason, start looking for a new job. You can’t manager employees properly when your boss undermines everything you do.

      1. hbc*

        I don’t think it’s that complicated. Most people are used to giving context-dependent answers, both in personal and professional life. For example, your boss might need to hear that the idiot in shipping packaged things wrong again, but if you want to keep the customer, you might say, “I’m sorry, this is unacceptable, and it’s our top priority that it never happens again.”

        Even if I refuse to outright lie, there’s what I say to the customer (“We’ve been having some issues in the warehouse lately that we’re working on straightening out”) and there’s what I say to my colleague (“It’s a dumpster fire back there and I’m shocked we get anything out the door.”)

        1. SignalLost*

          I get where you’re going and I know this is how I communicate with my boss vs my colleagues (“I’ll look into seeing if I can fix search engine rankings for a site less than a week old”/”there is nothing I can do about the fact that this other site is older and has more traffic”) but this is more like “Your order definitely shipped” vs “we have no idea where the order is.” There’s a qualifier that the news might be bad in what I would say and that’s based on managing a boss who likes shiny things, but the second example asserts the positive when the negative is true. I’m setting the groundwork for revisiting site rankings and saying it can’t be done, I’m not lying the way the second example does.

      2. Blue*

        I don’t think it’s that confusing, especially since the answer you’re giving Fergus is always the same and never has any meaning. You tell him what he expects to hear and then, separately, tell the truth to your boss. This is an extreme and particularly absurd example, but I think many of us have been in a situation where we might give our own boss more nuanced information than we might give someone outside our immediate team. I can’t tell you how many times I went into a one-on-one with my last boss and said, “As I told Grandboss, we are on track to complete everything by the deadline, but I wanted to flag a potential hiccup for you, just in case.” But ultimately, I don’t see this being sustainable. OP needs to bail.

      3. SophieChotek*

        I agree with hbc and blue – my higher-level bosses refuse to hear anything “negative” and have reprimanded me, for instance, for giving negative market analysis or being “less than optimistic” about any outcome. So I do speak to them one-way, but then I will be more honest with my immediate boss. And sometimes he will run interference for me with my higher-up bosses, too, when it is needed.

        It is definitely not an ideal way to operate and I think it could be really confusing for some people and still incredibly frustrating! I would hate the idea of knowingly say to a client, “Yes this project will be done by X” if I knew it would not. (I suppose, I could say “No this project will not be done by X” with confidence!)

        But I do think some people come negotiate it.

        1. Marthooh*

          But what’s the alternative? If people speak truth to the boss, they’ll be reprimanded for it. If they speak decisively, they’re contributing to miscommunication in this job and screwing themselves for future jobs. The burden exists whether or not the OP discusses it with others.

          1. RUKidding*

            True. I don’t have a solution tbh. This is just screwed up. Personally Fergus’s thinking everything is a lie all the time thinking (“yes” ends up being a no then “no” ends up being a yes), is putting people into a no win position and sounds line a psychopath playing a game. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

            I don’t understand how he could -not- want accurate info.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I have that rebel side of me.

            “No the order will not be ready Monday.”
            Reality: It may or may not be ready but since Boss puts high priority on confidence and firm statements this is the statement that might fall out of my mouth.

            “No we do not have enough materials.”
            Reality: Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. It’s too close to tell.

            “Sue is not here.”
            Reality: I don’t know where Sue went. I only know she is not here.

            “Sue did not tell me when she will be back.”
            Reality: Her errand might take an hour or it might take two hours depending on how many problems she has. I could also go with, “Sue will be back in three hours.”

            As far as lying to the customers, just tell the boss that you are not prepared to take the hit when the law rains down on you so you will not be lying to customers.
            See, here the thing is what is he going to write you up for? “OP will not lie to customers.”
            You can dress this up as,”Well I am concerned for us as a company if we misrepresent our offering to the customer. This can cause us unforeseen legal problems of many types. And that would get costly.”

            There is another technique you can use. You can tell the boss that all questions for your people must be brought directly to you and you will seek out the answer and report back. No one is to ask your people directly. I would tell my crew to say, “NSNR knows, please ask her.” Or “I will ask her to get back to you.” This also works very well.

            If you stay at the job, you will probably arrive at a point where you are angry enough that you will be able to say,”You are asking people to choose confidence over truth and that will eventually sink even the best of companies.”
            You might also be able to say things like, “Do you want the truth or do you want confidence? You can only have one.”
            This is a know your boss thing. If the boss is a bulldozer personality then you probably don’t want to go this route. However, if you have inside info that indicates the boss is on shaky ground with key people in the company it might be worth considering and buy you some time to job hunt.

    2. Mockingdragon*

      Agree…I think “don’t get fired, but tell me the actual truth later” is the only way these people can survive.

    3. Kes*

      I agree that this is probably the best option if OP can’t leave or persuade her boss that customers will not share his priorities and will value accuracy over absolute answers.

      Boss will basically be a missing stair but that’s better than everyone following his lead and just pretending that stairs never exist

      1. Hey Nonnie*

        Yeah, in order to cope until everyone can leave, I might quietly have a meeting with staff next time Fergus is out of the office for a few hours. Explain that what Fergus wants is not normal and not how things work in the real world, and doing things his way can be damaging to their careers. And let them know you’ll be a reference for their job hunt, but in the meantime Fergus must be treated as the missing stair that must be worked around so everyone can get by in the meantime.

        Also, maybe it would be easier for you to backchannel with the clients to appropriately manage their expectations (as in, “ask me about project status, not Fergus”), but there are certainly ways that could backfire, too. If you can get out fast with minimal staining to your own reputation, do that.

  3. TootsNYC*

    could one confidently say, “I will have an accurate answer to that in an hour”?

    I think this guy read “The Art of the Deal” and took it too seriously.

      1. Justin*

        You and I both know he can’t actually read or write.

        But on a real tip, the sad thing is that so many people like this boss emulate that nonsense and SUCCEED at it. Not just despite it but because of it.

        1. Bilateralrope*

          How many succeed ?

          How many only look like they are succeeding because they get people to ignore the bankruptcies?

          1. Coder von Frankenstein*

            Depends on what you consider “success.” If your goal is fame, money, and power… I hate to say it, but yeah, some folks do succeed this way.

            Of course, the price of that success is that you have to be forever hustling. You can’t ever stop and relax. If you do, the destruction you’ve left behind catches up to you.

          2. Ego Chamber*

            This is why it used to infuriate me when I was working in Call Center Hell and they’d say idiotic buzzphrases like “Perception is reality!” I know what I think they were going for, if you took the most charitable reading of that, but this is why we can’t have a nice timeline: this ‘all opinions are equally valid’ bullshit.

        2. RUKidding*

          “You and I both know he can’t actually read or write”

          Pretty much everyone with a nanoparticle of a single brain cell knows this…¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Abby*

      I wonder if that could actually be a good compromise? It is a direct, bold statement, would make the client feel confident in the companies capabilities, and isn’t a blatant lie.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Idk, Fergus sounds just bonkerballs enough that even a confidently stated “we’re working on it” or “we’ll have the answer to you shortly” wouldn’t fly, since it’s not a direct answer to the substance of the question being asked.

    2. Just Elle*

      Agreed. My first thought when reading this was that Fergus bought some kind of book on leadership, skimmed it, got absolutely NONE of the subtleties or caveats out of it, and yet decided to embrace the overarching theme as the foundation of his life. (Or, maybe there are books out here that truly embrace this drivel. There are a lot of bad books in this world).

      If you can find out what book it was (I’m assuming its as easy as asking if he has any suggestions for books on communication, sitting back with popcorn, and allowing him to wax poetic on The Best Book Ever)… then you can read it for yourself and perhaps guide him gently through the finer points.
      For instance, “Well Fergus, what about the part in the book where Mr AuthoritativeCommunication said that you can authoritatively communicate that you don’t know something? Don’t you think that applies here?”

  4. Zip Silver*

    If Fergus wants you to speak confidently, then that doesn’t necessarily mean to give affirmative responses. With the client, for instance, it may have been better to confidently say “no, we will not hit the deadline, however your project will be done accurately and with full effort behind it”. Little of this, little of that.

    It sounds like he doesn’t want maybe answers, just yes/no, which should be easier to work with than thinking you always have to give a confident yes answer knowing that it may be a lie.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      No, he said he expects them to be more untrue than informative. It’s clearly not about ambiguity, as ambiguity exists, he just wants to ban any mention of it from his domain; it’s about image over substance.

      Sorry, OP, your boss sucks and isn’t going to change. Best of luck with your job search, that’s the only way out of this mess!

      1. Antilles*

        Yeah, that’s how I read it too – the problem isn’t that he wants people to use a stronger tone, it’s that he wants people to deliver completely unambiguous answers – no maybe, no gray area, no conditions. Unfortunately, in the real world, a “maybe” answer often IS the right answer.
        Even something as simple as a deadline. Will we meet the client’s deadline? Yes, but only if X, Y, and Z happen…at least one of which is outside our control.

      2. Zip Silver*

        The answer to not giving ambiguous answers is to give negative answers, or in the case of a deadline, give one further out than what you expect and then when you beat the deadline (because you fudged it, in the first place), you exceed expectations. If he doesn’t want to hear “I don’t know/maybe”, then there are workarounds

        1. R.D.*

          Exactly, and that is good practice when giving deadlines regardless. Under promise, over perform.

          The difference is between giving a confident, yes or no answer, and telling everyone what they want to hear.

          We don’t know from the letter how Fergus would react if he were given confident answers that are simply not what he wanted to hear, but I would be attempting to take the pessimistic approach when answering him. Confidently say no, and then if that changes, go back to him and confidently tell him you will actually meet the deadline.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I suppose if you unambiguously say, “We will not be able to deliver that until February 28,” you will look better if you call and say, “On investigation, we’ll have that to you on February 15 at the earliest, and February 18 at the latest,” you could get Fergus off your back. But you’ll still look sort of stupid.

        3. ket*

          The problem is with issues like the phone call mentioned. Is it better to say, “Yes, the client called!” if you don’t know, or “No, the client did not call!” It’s not about underpromising and overdelivering in these types of question.

          1. Lalaith*

            Are yes or no your only options? Can they say something like “I have not spoken with the client” instead?

    2. boo bot*

      Okay, I don’t want to suggest anything other than leaving this place, but in the interim, it might be worth experimenting confident tone/ declarative statement of reasonable phrasing:
      “I’ll have the answer for you this afternoon by 3 PM.”
      “Jane will know! I will find out.”
      “That’s 100% unknowable, I’m sure of it.”

      I doubt that will work, though. Ultimately, Fergus’ business model only works if you don’t mind fleeing in the night before the townspeople figure out the snake oil doesn’t work.

  5. J.E.*

    OP said Fergus is the owner of the company, well is there anyone Fergus has to answer to that OP could speak with, like a board? This is not good for business as clients will come to see the company as untrustworthy or shady if they are told with certainty one thing and then that thing doesn’t happen. I’d much rather hear someone say they don’t know than give me false information. Does Fergus not mind if he himself is given false information by those who work for him as long as it’s said with confidence?

    1. Jadelyn*

      This sounds like too small of a business to have a board of directors. But that’s a good question – if someone lies to Fergus in pursuit of “sounding confident”, how does he react when things don’t go as promised?

    2. Bilateralrope*

      Since Fergus demands lying to customers, what about agencies that deal with false advertising ?

      Depending on where the letter writer is located.

      1. Wintermute*

        nonstarter. That applies to printed advertisements, basically, no one has yet criminalized salespeople making wildly ambitious assumptions about timelines, performance, etc. For better or worse.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        Any chance that’s not a misspelling but actually the correct term when they’re made of whatever the fast food industry is adding to their sawdust and rat meat to make it so goddamn delicious these days?

  6. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    “Lie to me, I promise I’ll believe.”
    WTF is Fergus’ endgame? He doesn’t believe what you say anyway, but at least it sounds good? So many questions. First of all, can we get a consensus on the meaning of excuse? This is a gut reaction word for me, first of all.
    “Hey, do you have X report ready?”
    No, I’ll need another day, because…
    “I don’t want to hear your excuses.”
    OK, then. It will be ready tomorrow.
    “Why don’t you have it ready today? And remember, I don’t want any excuses.”
    OK, WTF do you want me to tell you then?
    *personal story: third grade, notoriously mean substitute teacher asked for homework. I didn’t have that part. “Where’s your map?”
    My parents…
    “Enough! [begin ten minute rant about how children should not blame their parents for their failings. It’s the kid’s responsibility, RANTING]
    “Ok, I will ask you again, why don’t you have a map like every other child in this class.
    my parents…
    picked me up half an hour early yesterday and it hadn’t been assigned yet.
    “Oh, well that’s OK, but you shouldn’t really expect to blame them for everything.”
    Hate that woman and the moral war against the work Excuse.

    1. queenbeemimi*

      I had a boss who was like this about “excuses” too.

      It will not surprise you to know this was far from the only way in which he was a bad communicator and unreasonable boss.

    2. Amber Rose*

      As a smart-ass small child I used to tell teachers that I wasn’t giving them excuses, I was giving them reasons so they would understand.

      It just made them mad and got me a reputation as having trouble with authority and being disrespectful, but I will note that aside from snapping “time out” or whatever, they never had a real response to that. I swore i’d never be that useless as an adult.

      1. TootsNYC*

        my kid was being pressured by the teacher (I thought a bit unfairly) and I told him he should say, “I’m going the best I can, I’m just a kid!”

        He was ballistic–“No, mom that’s backtalk,a nd I’ll gelt in REAL trouble.”

    3. Jadelyn*

      Honestly, I think the only real difference between a reason and an excuse is intent. Are you trying to understand/explain why things went down as they did? Then it’s a reason. Are you just wanting to make sure people know it wasn’t your fault? Then it’s an excuse.

      1. Just Elle*

        Exactly. I mean, what if I told you you could take total authoritative ownership of a situation, and still provide an ‘excuse’ at the same time?
        How can anyone believe things won’t happen again, unless they’re certain you’ve identified the cause and made changes to ensure the next time a cause like that pops up, it won’t impact your results?

        “Fergus, I missed the deadline. It won’t happen again.”
        “Fergus, I missed the deadline because I failed to account for the turnaround time from the vendor. Next time, I’ll make sure to factor it in, and I’ve also sent an FYI to the team just so they can be on the lookout too.”
        Which would you rather hear as a boss?

      2. TootsNYC*

        “Are you just wanting to make sure people know it wasn’t your fault?”

        I woudl say, “Are you trying to get out of trouble?” or I’d add “when it actually WAS your fault”

        Because explaining that it completely wasn’t my fault when it wasn’t, that’s not really an excuse.

    4. CDM*

      It’s the person in the position of power that determines if a defense is a reason or an excuse, not the person presenting the defense.

      If the person in power is trying to understand why things went down as they did and prevent/avoid a recurrence, then it’s a reason.

      If the person in power just wants to blame/punish the subordinate regardless of fault, then it’s an excuse. Calling a defense an “excuse” is convenient shorthand for “I don’t want to hear it and I’m not going to do anything about it other than blame you.”

    5. Verde*

      I had a boss like that – try to give a reason, matter of factly, and get yelled at for “playing the blame game”. Explanations are different than excuses.

    6. Wintermute*

      In that one I can see the point, sort of. It’s about agency. You can just say “I left class early yesterday” without invoking “my parents picked me up”… focus on what you did not what other people did.

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        In an adult in the workplace, sure, but kids often don’t have any agency in this sort of decision.

  7. The Ginger Ginger*

    Even worse is that for EVERYONE in this office, they’re being trained to this ridiculous and atypical expectation. When they move on to new roles thinking this is normal, they’re going to give their new managers fits. And if they “speak confidently” about something serious enough, they could end up fired.

    1. J.E.*

      Yes, this is another example of people in toxic work environments getting a messed up view of what’s “normal” that it carries over into their next jobs in non toxic environments. It’s like the other examples Alison gives where people coming from a place like this have to re-learn how to operate in a functioning work environment.

    2. R.D.*

      I feel bad for the poor interns. They don’t have any other work experience to compare this to and might think this is normal. :(

    3. Freelancelife*

      Wasn’t there another AAM story/letter where the OP had an issue with her colleague who would do this ‘confident reply’ and she would never know if he was lying or not? It caused big problems for her. Maybe he worked at this company before?

  8. Snarkus Aurelius*

    There’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation.

    “I didn’t turn in that report on time because the people I manage didn’t give me the information I needed” is an excuse used to deflect responsibility.

    “I didn’t turn in that report on time because no one communicated to me that the deadline changed to today” is an explanation that describes a failure bigger than the person responsible.

    When failures happen, it’s your responsibility as a manager to know the difference because, as you say, you need that understanding.

    Your boss, however, doesn’t understand this and doesn’t care. Okay fine. But I don’t appreciate him expecting employees to accept responsibility for a mistake that they may very well not have been responsible for in the first place. I, for one, will not apologize for such things like no one communciating to me imortant information.

    1. Mystery Bookworm*

      And it can quickly get into gray areas, which is sounds like Fergus is scared of.

      An employee of two-months who didn’t get a report done because he’s still working out how to properly chase up Rebecca from accounting so that she’s responsive would be different than an employee of two years. And managers should respond differently.

      This approach attempts to remove all nuance from the situation, which is – frustrating. And ultimately might make it difficult for them to spot problems in their pipeline.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Let the gray areas begin!

        You’re totally right! I suspect that this boss doesn’t want to do the work of figuring those details out.

        1. jy3*

          Anyone read Altemeyer’s work on authoritarian personalities? IIRC, fear of uncertainty and ambiguity is a big part of how they work.

    2. boo bot*

      “There’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation.”

      This is super important! I came into adulthood kind of believing that all explanations are excuses, so I didn’t make any excuses, and as a result I ended up not giving people information they needed, which made me look much worse than any perceived failure to sufficiently accept blame.

      Note: this is bad in personal relationships as well as work, like that time a boyfriend ended up thinking I cheated on him because I was so focused on apologizing and accepting blame for suspicious text messages* that I didn’t get around to telling him (truthfully) that I DIDN’T actually cheat on him.

      *Yes, this was a terrible relationship, why do you ask?

      1. SS Express*

        There was a letter here once about a young candidate who (I think) didn’t turn up for an interview and apologised profusely but never offered any kind of explanation, not even “I had a personal emergency” or anything. Someone suggested she might still have that mindset that it’s wrong to “make excuses” and not realise that not giving any kind of context for your mistakes actually comes across much worse. I really don’t even know why we teach kids that in the first place because it really does them a disservice.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          It’s right up there with, “Tell me what happened but don’t name any names.” I can still remember some people in grammar school being totally tortured by this question. It was so painful to watch this day after day.

  9. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I’m curious about what kind of work you are involved in where your boss is so divorced from objective reality. No matter how confidently I state that the sky is pink with purple polka-dots, the fact of the matter is that it isn’t. Does the boss never actually touch real stuff?

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      If the client wants the sky to be pink with purple polka dots, you damn well tell him it will be pink with purple polka dots tomorrow!
      And then the client is happy and a happy client is good for business.
      Somehow I can’t form a syllogism.

      1. Hershele Ostropoler*

        I wonder if (part of) the problem is that Fergus can’t tell the difference between a happy customer and a satisfied one.

  10. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Yikes. I cannot imagine how much energy it takes to assume you’re hearing false – but confident! – statements, and to wonder about contingency plans for pitfalls and problems. OP, my preferences are the same as yours, and I don’t see how this can work for you or your team long-term. Your boss may mean well but confident assertions are no match for respectful and realistic truth, with reasonable explanations for issues or challenges. Since he won’t change the climate, you may need to find another place to succeed.

  11. Lady Phoenix*

    Is this the first time we have ever seen Allison go WTF over a letter? Huh.

    I eill assume the Masectomy Letter is the one that made her go “Flames on the Side of My Face”.

    1. WellRed*

      “Is this the first time we have ever seen Allison go WTF over a letter?”

      Not even close to the first time.

  12. Falling Diphthong*

    If you try to address this with him one more time, I’d assume that he might have a background that causes him to overcompensate on this. Like he worked with someone who hemmed about everything, and clients heard “oh…. probably not” and gave up, where a firm “Yes, we can do that” would have worked out 90% of the time. And so his current (ridiculous and counterproductive) extreme position arises from trying to swim against the opposite riptide, and not realizing that he’s now in a different context and that instinct is not helpful anymore.

    1. Galahad*

      This!!! It is a terrible idea to not give a straight answer to a customer. No one wants to do business with someone who, when asked if X will be done by Thursday, always gets a “Maybe” or “I don’t know” answer.
      You can (and should) be confident while telling the truth..

      eg., “The task is well in hand and will be completed by Thursday, barring any unforeseen delays by others”. (or another relevant qualifyer, such as “assuming that we receive your draft approval by Tuesday night.” or whatever..
      “We can not complete it before Monday due to the effort required, even assuming no delays from other teams” (a confident, negative, answer)

      – Two backgroung notes – a) you need to build in a resonable buffer day before committing, don’t give your shortest possible timeline.. and b) You need to proactively communicate leading up the deadline. e..g, on Tuesday you update that you have not received items in time, or that all is still going well.

      This is basic Project Management, folks. — Be confident, build in a buffer, tell the truth ,and proactively communicate early when things start to change. Changes happen on projects, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be confident and truthful to those outside of your team.

  13. animaniactoo*

    Honestly, the only thing that would fix this would be somebody being able to get through to Fergus that TRUST is the basis of confidence and strength in one’s role/position. Without that trust, the appearance of confidence and strength will soon become felt as betrayal. So, which would he rather have? His clients and others to feel they have ongoing trust, or to continually feel betrayed?

    Unless you feel that you have ANY hope of getting that across to him and having him change his style, there is no solution to this division.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      “Fake it til you make it” only works as advice if you make it. If you lose the Quibler Faucet orders somewhere in Kalamazoo, then faking it isn’t enough.

      1. JKP*

        “Fake it til you make it” isn’t about lying. It’s about acting the part until it’s no longer a part and feels comfortable. It gets a person over imposter syndrome and lack of confidence and overthinking things when you don’t have enough information to overthink it. If you’re faking being a good manager, that means you have to have role models for what a good manager looks like and copy what that good manager would do in that situation. Then with experience acting the part, you feel comfortable in the part and gain experience and understanding for why a good manager does those things so you don’t have to fake it anymore.

  14. Jane*

    “I’m 100% confident that I can’t make a solid determination about the schedule. I can give you a strong estimate that the delivery date will be Wednesday, but I’m 100% sure that there’s a possibility that that could change due to factors beyond our strong control.”

    Also, I lol’d at the line “Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.” Good one, Alison! hahaha!

    1. Galahad*

      LOL, Jane, that is a great example of this specific issue. The only way to interpret that answer is “I do not know, so no, we can’t get it delivered for Wednesday and I am talking way too long to say nope!”

      Imagine if your wedding caterer gave you that answer. You would reply “Thanks, NEXT!”.

      Yep there are people like OP’s manager who take this way too far e.g., “Always say ‘Yes’, never ‘maybe’ or ‘Can I get back to you’, etc. But there is a confident language middle ground.

  15. Jennifer Juniper*

    Get out now, OP! There are bees in this workplace. You cannot ethically manage this team, even if Fergus only shows up once a year. And your expectations are being messed up in this job, as I can see from your letter.

    1. BuildMeUp*


      OP, this is way more than just different communication styles. I would start job hunting as soon as you can. The longer you stay here, the more normal it’s going to seem, and the more difficult it will be to adjust once you get out.

    2. Leela*

      Also god help OP if a client somehow attaches OP to the lies she’s been told, it will tank her reputation. OP get out get out get out! And tell everyone you manage that this is not normal business behavior

  16. Trout 'Waver*

    Can I just say that I despise people who state their opinions as facts? Because I do with a passion. Once someone demonstrates themselves to be that way, I have a very hard time ever trusting them again.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        (Motion carried…. let the minutes state that Fergus is not a trustworthy employer.)

    1. B'Elanna*

      Yes!! I work with someone who does that, and I take everything he says with a grain of salt.
      On top of that, he’ll flip-flop or contradict his “facts”. Sometimes in the very next sentence! It’s bonkers.

      I understand now that as he’s explaining something, he’ll change his mind, and will simply change his answer/explanation mid-conversation without any acknowledgment.
      I watch him talk to other co-workers who don’t know this about him, and it’s both cringy and hilarious to watch.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        My sister essentially thinks out loud, and it took me forever to figure this out. I kept getting mad that she would flip-flop so hard, until I learned to wait a little bit and find out what the final decision was.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This is so annoying. I always say, don’t involve me in your thinking process. Bring me in at the end when you have your final conclusion. This did not work either, because my person never found their final conclusion on anything.

    2. Wintermute*

      Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, they’re not entitled to their own facts.

      the problem is endemic, and it’s because too often we treat all sides as equal and valid and people are afraid of stating objective truths. You see it all the time on the news. They present side A, then they feel they have to present side B, even if side B is flat earth or something equally scientifically impossible. They’re afraid to say “this is a fact”, even if they can attribute it. They’re not even willing to say “this is the consensus of people that actually know what they’re talking about” instead they feel they have to “teach the controversy”. As a result learned consensus is given false equivalence with ignorant, or worse ideologically-based, buffoonery.

  17. Myrin*

    Your boss is a ridiculous person who’s never heard of logic in his life but apart from that, I’m interested in how he reacted to the client’s ire (since the client apparently directly brought up the fact that what was said so confidently turned out to be wrong)? Because, okay, so Fergus “says that we should always expect every statement to possibly be false, the important thing is that it is said with confidence and strength”, fine. That sounds like it’s something he wants applied to his company. Fine. But that also implies that he knows that that’s not actually how the world as a whole works. So how does he deal with people outside of your company – like, let’s say, eh, clients? Does he explain to them that they’re all doing life wrong? Or that they should always expect to be lied to and play a merry round of mental roulette regarding what could be true and what could be wrong? Basically, how does he function in relation to people who aren’t his reports?

    1. I Write the Things*

      Living life as non-stop rounds of Two Truths and a Lie would have me tearing my hair out, either as the employee or the client. And if this “communication style” hasn’t lost the company both employees and clients yet, it will.

      And not just clients – how does he function with his family? I have so many questions. Is he married? Does his spouse just have to expect that half of what he says is total BS? Why would anyone stay in that marriage? Are there children? Most kids are taught not to lie, but his kids would be taught that you should just lie with confidence and everything will be fine holy crap everything makes sense now.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        “Does his spouse just have to expect that half of what he says is total BS?”

        Most likely his spouse expects that *everything* he says is total BS. Including “Love ya, hon.”

    2. SusanIvanova*

      I suspect he handles disappointed clients by tossing whoever gave him that confident answer under the bus.

      1. Marthooh*

        Or maybe he says “Stupid client!” in the same tone I use when I whack my thumb and say “Stupid hammer!”

  18. NYCRedhead*

    Is it possible to ask follow-up questions in the moment to elucidate the “decisive” answer more?

    Fergus: Will the report be done?
    Employee: Yes.
    You: Are there other factors that might hold it up?
    Employee: Yes.
    You: What are they?
    Emp: External factors like outside contractors and mail.
    You: When will you know if these factors will hold it up?
    Emp: Tomorrow.

    But I agree that Fergus sounds like a nightmare.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Every single inquiry turns into the third degree? If I had to do this, I’d have to wear a trench coat and carry around a bright light to shine in people’s faces.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Ooh, and speak in a super-exaggerated Russian accent or something.

        I mean, if you have to do it, you might as well have fun with it.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Exaggerated 50’s film noir jargon.

          Actually, if you say everything confidently in old slang, the boss won’t know if you’re telling the truth or not.

          1. Wintermute*

            That’sa buncha malarky, see, I figure most cats can crab what you mean when you’re chinning like a private dick, it’s duck soup!

            That Fergus though, he’s a bad egg, man a joint like that is in dutch with a goose like that as the high pillow. Personally, I’d take him out back for a little read and write, real gashouse, I mean the full broderick. But since I doubt the writer wants to get elbowed and end up cooling their heels in the hoosgow, I recommend they blow the joint. Sooner or later that fakeloo artist is going to meet a palooka he can’t flim-flam and then they’re all in a big jam. That joint’s going to be chilled, doorknobbed. I’d at least set aside some case money and get ready to ankle if it looks like the cards are falling the other way, because sooner or later a boss like that will drive you right goofy.

  19. CatCat*

    You can’t effectively work around this. Look for a new job and then let Fergus know with confidence and strength, “I quit.”

    Not that you should do this, but one can fantasize: at the end of the day before leaving for a new job, “Today was my last day.” If questioned, “Two weeks notice shows weakness. I am communicating with finality, as you taught me.” This would be ridiculous to actually do. But I really would like Fergus to get a “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” consequence.

  20. Mystery Bookworm*

    Even beyond the practicalities of work, I really, REALLY don’t like the idea that there is something inherently weak about “I don’t know”.

    I don’t know lots of things.
    You don’t know lots of things.
    Fergus doesn’t know lots of things.

    The world is a huge, complex place and we’re all richer in ignorance than in certainty. This doesn’t reflect poorly on anyone, it just reflects how much there is to know.

    Confidently accepting that we don’t know everything puts us in a much more powerful place for decision making and helps us to empathize with one another.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Seriously, this is why there are not shouty agnostics out there. “I DON’T KNOW! BUT VERY LOUDLY!”

        1. Wintermute*

          I knew a dyslexic, agnostic insomniac. It kept him up all night wondering if there really is a dog.

      2. Jan*

        Like in the Simpsons episode where Homer meets his long-lost brother Herb, who’s a successful car salesman and defines confidence as telling yourself “If I was ever more sure of anything in my life…”

        HERB: Say that again but with self confidence!
        HOMER: SORT OF!!!

      3. Jasnah*

        I thought of this! Just channel Michael Scott “declaring bankruptcy” and yell, “I DON’T KNOW!!”

    1. Jadelyn*

      Seeing ignorance as weakness, rather than an opportunity to learn, is how you get people who double-down on their positions even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If they were ignorant of something, that means they were weak, and they’re not weak, therefore they can’t have been ignorant and therefore your evidence is invalid and probably also evidence of a conspiracy to mislead everyone.

    2. Antilles*

      I really, REALLY don’t like the idea that there is something inherently weak about “I don’t know”.
      Ironically, you mostly run into this idea among people with a little bit of knowledge.
      If you have a little bit of knowledge, it’s possible to think you know everything; most experts recognize just how much there is to know about the subject and recognize the gaps in their knowledge.

    3. irene adler*

      The best boss I ever worked for had no trouble with “I don’t know” with some of my questions. Then he would work with me to find the answers.

    4. Green great dragon*

      I believe my strong and confident ‘We don’t know’, delivered on occasion to very senior management, played a major role in establishing myself as competent. Sometimes you don’t know until you get there.

    5. Indie*

      I would imagine that ironically, it is pretty obvious that Fergus is extremely weak because he is so often making inaccurate statements and has so paranoid and twitchy a case of imposter syndrome that he pretends to be omnipotent.

      We used to have a guy in the office like that and we nicknamed him ‘Guru Simon’ and would ask him increasingly obscure and impossible questions that he would unhesitatingly invent answers to.

      Excellent mansplainer tool.

  21. Falling Diphthong*

    I’m going to ignore the obvious comparison and instead go for dating. Confidence that you can back up with action is best, but unearned confidence will carry you pretty far in initial impressions. Certainly more than an unearned lack of confidence.

    The thing is as people get to know you, they judge you by whether you’ve shown any ability to backup any of those statements. As you become a known quantity, the rules change. (Also relevant in game theory strategies.)

  22. Ladylike*

    LW, Alison has already said this, but you sound like a great, intelligent and reasonable manager, and Fergus is the exact opposite. Don’t let his blathering about confidence and strength cause you to question your management style.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Agreed! LW, you sound fantastic. Get out and find a boss who will appreciate these excellent people skills you have.

      My first thought while reading this letter was “Fergus is an idiot.” And then I read Allison’s response and was like, “See? I was right!”

  23. Sara without an H*

    To quote a statement Alison has used frequently: “Your boss sucks and isn’t going to change.”

    Admittedly, Fergus may have a future in politics, but unless that’s your own chosen career path, you need to put distance between yourself and him before his unique approach to truth-telling damages your own reputation.

    Start job-searching. Now.

  24. PB*

    I don’t understand Fergus at all. “I’d rather hear a confident lie than the truth”? Yikes! As a team lead, I need to have accurate reports of the work my team is doing, as I’ll use that to base decisions on, make promises to stakeholders, report to leadership, etc. Saying “I don’t know. I’ll check and get back to you by 3:00” is not weakness. It’s correct.

    You’ve already seen one client get justifiably upset about this. It will happen again. It will cost you clients. Your organization’s reputation will likely suffer, and potentially your own, as the mouthpiece for this bad information. Like Alison said, this isn’t just a different in communication style. Fergus is wrong. Completely.

    1. Wintermute*

      Exactly, there are some times when between you, the client and God only one of you knows the answer… and it’s the one not responding to e-mails.

  25. Lisa Babs*

    If this was just a different in communication styles (which it’s not) and your boss just didn’t like “maybe” or “i don’t know”, there IS a way around that. Like with your example of the intern (“If I ask Intern A if Client X has called”) the answer can simply be “they didn’t call me”. It’s confident and 100% truthful. BUT honestly that’s not the situation you are describing.

  26. Lazy Sock*

    “Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.”

    This. Honestly, one of my favorite answers so far. Love it.

  27. irene adler*

    Given that all employees report to OP, why not follow a strict chain of command for all communications?
    All reports communicate with OP in the manner that OP wants (full explanations).
    Then OP communicates directly with Fergus. No interaction between employees and Fergus.

    Then it’s up to OP to frame responses in the manner Fergus requires (decisive communications!).

    This is not to say that Fergus is being reasonable. He is not. But limiting the communications betw. Fergus and all reports would reduce the burden on the reports re: confusion/upset/misunderstandings over Fergus’ unreasonable communication expectations.

    I do this between my boss and my report. My boss is a nice guy, but horrible at communicating with people. My boss prides himself over his ‘effective communication skills’. I had one new lab tech come to me convinced my boss wanted her to quit. Found out he’d given her his version of the ‘welcome aboard’ speech:” we will never try to stop you from leaving Company X if you ever wanted to…”

    1. LGC*

      That’s a ton of labor for the letter writer, though!

      More to the point, while it covers the issue, it requires LW to lie to Fergus on a regular basis. It’d give him the answers he wants, but I feel like that puts way too much pressure on LW to manage his feelings. (And depending on the variety of bad boss he is – for example, if he’s a micromanager – this might not be feasible at all.)

      1. Jasnah*

        I think this is the strategy OP should take while they look for another job (confidently, with strength).

  28. hbc*

    This is basically the reason I left my last company, though no one there stated it so overtly. I told my boss that he was valuing confident-but-wrong answers over cautious-and-correct, giving him several examples. He acted like he was considering it (probably because I said it very confidently), but then continued to take the blowhards at their word. My last straw was when he started moving two of the biggest contributors to the success of the company out of the management team in favor of those who told him what he wanted to hear.

    From my experience, you can live with it for a while, but it’s draining if you’ve got a less flexible relationship with the truth.

  29. Free Meerkats*

    “For example, in a client meeting, my boss asked one of my direct reports whether Project X would be completed by the deadline. Following the lines of “decisive communication,” my report replied that it would. Unfortunately, the situation was actually far more complicated. Due to factors beyond our control (outside contractors, mail), there was a good chance that the project might take several days longer than the deadline – and it did.”

    Did your report know these factors were there? If so, the proper “decisive communication” reply would have been “No. It will take several days longer.” Then if those factors didn’t pop up, Project X would have been completed a couple of days early.

    While your boss is beyond a loon (possibly a grebe), decisive communication doesn’t mean agreeing with everything, it just means speaking with authority in simple declarative sentences. He’s not demanding “decisive communication,” he’s demanding toadyish sycophancy.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Hey, quit dissing grebes!

      I think the OP should decisively share Alison’s answer with Fergus, tell him that his preferred form of communication will destroy his business, and confidently act and reply normally to her team, customers, and Fergus himself. (With ‘normal’ being defined as allowing ‘maybe’ and ‘I don’t know’ answers.)

      1. Wintermute*

        I like that, sort of how they use Daganham Station as slang for “crazier than crazy” in Cockney slang because it’s two stops past barking (as in “barking mad”)

  30. Quake Johnson*

    “Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.”

    Oooh, Allison, gettin’ a little sassy this morning. :)

  31. Susie Q*

    This is insane.

    I work a billion dollar a year software company. If we are asked a question by the customer and we don’t know the answer we are instructed to say “I don’t know the answer. Let me check when I get back to the office and I get you the answer then”. Then we write down the question and do just that. Better to not know than to lie.

    1. irene adler*

      Speaking as a customer, I’m more than impressed with my issue being ‘handled’ like this. I sure don’t mind having you get back to me. Take the time to get the correct answer.

  32. londonedit*

    There was a letter recently where someone was asking whether it was unprofessional to say ‘Let me check’ in response to a question they didn’t have an immediate answer for, and pretty much everyone responded saying absolutely not, in fact it makes you look MORE professional, people will respect you much more if you say ‘I’m not 100% sure on that; let me check and get back to you’. And now here we have Fergus, who would prefer people to just make stuff up off the top of their heads rather than saying ‘I’m not sure’.

    OP, this is definitely not a case of ‘different communication styles’, it’s a case of Fergus being an idiot. How can he genuinely think that a blindly stated ‘Yes’ is in any way more helpful than a considered ‘Hmm, I think I know the answer but I’m not 100% sure. Let me check those numbers and get back to you’? Expecting people to just give him the answer he wants to hear, rather than the correct answer, is deeply unhelpful for everyone.

    1. Arctic*

      I do think there were several people in the comments pointing out that some people will not accept “let me check” as an acceptable answer. Even though they are being unreasonable.
      This type of boss isn’t particularly uncommon, sadly.

      1. Wintermute*

        I think there the context is really important. If it’s something that it’s your job to know, then yeah “let me check” is unacceptable. Anything, generalized, has points it fails. Most customers will prefer “let me check” to a firm but wrong answer but if the question asked was something extremely elemental to their needs (does product X work with system Y, how much does an installation cost, etc) then it makes you look incompetent. In the same way, if my boss asks “were there any problems on your shift” my entire job is knowing if there are problems and if so solving them, so saying I don’t know is saying I didn’t actually do my job.

        But when the knowledge is not something you’re expected to know off the cuff, then reasonable bosses prefer “I don’t know” with the caveat that some prefer an educated guess rather than a complete lack of answer.

  33. Kate R*

    Yikes! Fergus is terrible, and I suspect it’s not just that he’s looking for “confident” answers. Fergus wants yes men. What do you think the reaction would have been if your direct report has responded “No” to Project X meeting the deadline? Would Fergus have accepted that with no follow up questions? If he doesn’t want “excuses”, then he doesn’t want to know why it’s not getting done on time. But obviously, a client isn’t going to be happy with just a “No” answer without some explanation. Is Fergus really OK with people just not delivering on time? Or are his expectations just that no one will ever make a mistake, and everything will get done with no hiccups ever? Because that’s way more than a communication problem.

  34. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    He’s the owner, you can’t save anyone from him unless, like Alison said, he’s only around a few times a year.

    I’ve had owners who were very quirky and basically batsht, if they weren’t around we operated differently than when they poked noses in. But being there every day and clearly having contact with your reports, it’s practically impossible to do that song and dance.

    The thing is, you can’t change a person who has ultimate power unless they want to tweak things. He’s set in his (terrible) mindset. You need to adjust to him or leave before your head explodes.

  35. learnedthehardway*

    You need to get out of there. Fergus sounds like he owns the business. You’re not going to convince him differently. Staying will harm YOUR reputation and you’ll burn bridges in your industry, as clients come to distrust what you say.

  36. Ruthless Bunny*

    Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers communicated like your boss. Ken died in prison and Bernie gets out in 2022 (not long enough IMHO).

    Why not confidently proclaim, “No! We’ll miss that deadline?” Funny how a negative outcome, proclaimed with confidence and strength isn’t an option.

    But no. Get out now. Before your big, fat retirement account tanks.

  37. Peter Nagy*

    It’s possible , if unlikely, that your boss wants to know what the variables are. For example, “If I ask Intern A if Client X has called, I’d rather hear, “I don’t know” than a flat “no” meaning that the client didn’t call her but might have spoken to someone else.” There is a third response that is neither dishonest nor weak. “I didn’t receive a call from client X, but it’s possible someone else did.” Also, with the client who had a missed deadline, how about “We can make that target date as long as our suppliers meet their deliveries.” I’m not saying that this would meet your boss’ desire for authoritative, confident replies; I’m just exploring if there are ways to build in uncertainties to acceptable responses.

    1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

      “It’s possible someone else did” is still the wishy-washy response Fergus is against. It’s still not 100% confident, because it’s not a 100% concrete answer. Key word: possible

      1. whingedrinking*

        My therapist, at one point, encouraged me to use fewer modals in my internal monologue (“may”, “might”, “could”, “should”, etc.) and to focus on using present tense verbs to describe myself as a way of keeping grounded and maintaining forward motion. The idea was to keep from wandering off into the woods of uncertainties and moralizing (“I should” is a fairly toxic phrase for me) and stay in reality. It works pretty well for me – as an internal monologue device. It sounds like Fergus heard some kind of similar advice somewhere and way, way overextended the concept.

      2. Wintermute*

        I would focus entirely on what I have agency over then. “my part will be done”, “I will complete all the work that I have the inputs for”, “I have not spoken to the customer”. If that doesn’t satisfy him apparently he only wants psychics working for him too and then there’s even more truly no hope.

  38. LaDeeDa*

    I teach several different communication style assessments, and a large part of my job is helping people figure out the best way to communicate with their leaders, peers, and team. I was about to post some suggestions on how to navigate this, giving Ferg the benefit of the doubt… until I got to “he says that we should always expect every statement to possibly be false.” This is the exact opposite of most people who have a direct style of communication. They don’t want you to answer until you know, they don’t want a bunch of background and detail, they want the bullet points.
    I don’t know how updates are usually given to him- if it is 1:1 or in a team meeting. My suggestion would be for you to communicate updates to him and not have the team members do it. This way you can get all the information you need, and you can give him the high-level view. Such as “Project X is on schedule for now, I’ll let you know if that changes.”
    As for clients, I would never lie to them, and I am always honest about my timeline and deliverables and any delays. That is what people want– transparency!

  39. Superanon*

    These places are real! That culture was pervasive in my first post-college employer (huge supermarket chain in the southeast) and it’s taken years to unlearn all the toxic baggage that came with that. “There are no bad days, only excuses!” was a favorite among the higher ups while they were excoriating you for being unable to bend time and/or physics to meet utterly impossible goals & deadlines.

    1. Lucille2*

      I experienced this culture in customer service as well. Had a job in college talking to customers over the phone. It was not allowed to respond in the positive with “Yeah/Yup/Uh huh.” Always answer, “Yes.” Never say “I don’t know.” It was inauthentic at best, and unhelpful at worst, and customers saw right through the BS.

      Sometimes there really are just bad days. I find it’s best to chalk it up for what it is, get through it without incident, and start with a clean slate tomorrow.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Well you shouldn’t respond with “yeah, yup or uh huh”. You should respond with “yes” or “no”. So I’m with you most of the way.

        My best seminar speaker drilled home his motto of “I would rather have no business than bad business”. Clear communication is key. Not dancing around, having to say “yes” to unreasonable demands and such. But you really do need to be well spoken or you reduce your authority each time.

      2. whingedrinking*

        I mean, I would tell someone not to stop at “I don’t know” – because yes, that’s unhelpful. You can follow it up with “but I can find out for you”, “but I’ll look into it”, “but I’m going to ask for some help on that”, “but the person who can help you is…” But you should absolutely not pretend to know something you don’t!

  40. LadyCop*

    Pretty sure it takes more confidence and strength to say you don’t know than to blurt out a lie…

    Clearly Fergus never served in the military…

    1. Lucille2*

      Totally agree. Confidence is knowing what you don’t know. Responding to everything in the affirmative is the very opposite of confidence. It’s actually pretty cowardly to cover up the things you don’t know.

  41. I edit everything*

    Fergus sounds like he has the worst case of Male Answer Syndrome ever diagnosed. It’s a very similar condition to mansplaining, but doesn’t require the presence of a knowledgable woman to manifest. It’s simply that he has and answer for every possible question. “Hey, Fergus, how does a nuclear reactor work?” He has an answer. “Who was president of Mongolia in 1953?” Answer. “What were the primary influences on the development of dadaism in Eastern Europe?” Answer.

  42. Observer*

    You may want to point out to Fergus – strongly and with certainty – that training customers to distrust everything and anything you as an organization WILL hurt the business, no two ways about it.

    If you can’t change Fergus’ mind, I think Allison is right. You need to job search. You are being set up for failure, this is the kind of thing that will hurt the business in the long term, and if you allow this to continue it’s going to badly tarnish your reputation.

    And in the meantime, while you job search, there is one tactic that should at least keep you from tanking *your* credibility with clients (and other outsiders) if you can pull it off. That is to show your work, so to speak, when you give answers. eg “Can you get project X done by 2/15” woild be met by a confident “We sure can as long as the post office makes timely deliveries and we don’t have another snowmageddon” (assuming that those are two factors that are likely create a problem.)

  43. Lucille2*

    I’m in full agreement with Alison on this. Fergus is doing everyone a disservice. He’s creating employees who will be afraid of telling the truth if the answer is not positive. I’ve managed employees like this, and it is VERY difficult to earn their trust when they inherently believe that managers don’t want truthful answers.

    Also, it IS possible to answer truthfully and confidently without simply saying, I don’t know/No.

    Client: Are we on track to meet the deadline?
    Employee: We’re at risk for the following reasons…. We can meet the deadline if X happens, but if Y happens we’ll need to adjust. Here is our contingency plan if Y happens.

    OP: Did Important Client call today?
    Employee: Not to my knowledge, but I understand Jane was also answering calls. I recommend asking her.

    Confident answers while maintaining the truth. But I would doubt Fergus will accept this language and it’s probably in your best interest to get out. However, since getting out is usually a process, maybe this will offer some help in the short term and provide a last-ditch effort to save your employees from normalizing very bad behavior. Clients of your company will quickly see through the BS of the “confident language” if they haven’t already and jump ship.

  44. MsChanandlerBong*

    Communication differences can really derail things quickly. My former boss and I are VERY different when it comes to how we communicate and what we value in the way other people communicate. When I hire a writer, my priority is to find someone with good writing skills. I’d rather hire an excellent writer who takes a few hours to respond to emails than a middle-of-the-road writer who responds right away. My boss is obsessed with hiring “quick communicators” (people who respond to emails within minutes). He’d hire a mediocre writer who couldn’t follow directions just because the person responded to an email quickly. Then we’d end up having to fire the writer later because s/he couldn’t do the work at an acceptable level of quality. It got to the point where I was looking for other jobs because our communication styles and priorities were causing such a clash. Thankfully, he was moved to a different business unit, so I don’t have to work with him directly now. Things are so much better. Our retention rate is higher, and we have fewer problems with our freelancers, because we’re hiring based on skill, not on some arbitrary measure of dedication and professionalism.

  45. Indie*

    I have a friend who calls this ‘pyramid scheme confidence’. She briefly used to work at this really small and exclusive private boys school which stressed ‘leadership skills’ but which essentially taught them they never needed to know anything as long as they could be ‘convincingly confident’ and persuade others to follow. She says she still has nightmares about these privileged, connected young men profiting off all the people they have successfully fooled because they’ve been led to believe they have nothing to offer but lies and bluster. Once you have a label for it, it’s a surprisingly easy and common thing to spot.

    1. Elbe*

      The really crazy part is how often lies and bluster actually works. It’s a true sign of privilege that it may not even catch up to the worst offenders within their lifetime.

    2. Jasper*

      Some of them become mayor of London for a while before dumping their country into a nightmare of leaving the EU.

      1. Wintermute*

        you can point out a LOT of politicians that have the disease. Because superficial charm is basically all politicians have to go on. When was the last time you heard any politician talk about detailed, realistic policy choices in terms of the alternatives, solutions and compromises needed to actually make the sausage? There are a few but they’re considered the least persuasive politicians on the planet. No one wants to talk about the complicated realities of international trade and finance, they want a sound bite to grab onto. We say we do, but if they actually start to talk in those details our eyes glaze over unless it’s *our* area of expertise because they know more than we do.

        1. Anonentity*

          I once met a particular politician on a visit to my workplace and I wouldnt say he inspired superficial confidence. He and his aides couldn’t find the front door to a high street building for something like 30 minutes (it baffled them that the car park was at the back, reception at the front) and then once he was in the building he remarked flatly, and with surprise that we seemed to have ‘a lot of women’ in the workplace. Needless to say he was buffetted by every kind of privilege. He is doing swimingly even without pretend competence.

  46. nnn*

    This would be very difficult to execute, but I wonder what would happen if literally everyone started strongly and confidently communicating properly, and just refused to play Fergus’s game. And, when Fergus calls them on it, say “I’m a strongly, confidently, and decisively telling you that it is unhelpful to tell the client we will definitely meet the deadline when we are uncertain. We are strongly, confidently and decisively giving the client the information they need so they can make informed decisions.”

  47. SWFgoesketo*

    I agree that this is likely not going to change any time soon and that ultimately, leaving may be the best bet. However, in the meantime, I agree with the commenters above who have suggested adding qualifying statements to the “decisive” answers, especially in client meetings. (“Can we get these documents out by the end of the week?” “Yes, if we receive our pre-printed postage tomorrow.”) This will hopefully be a good balance between Fergus’ preferred method of communication and the clients’ desire for accurate information.

    I disagree somewhat with the notion that asking people to communicate differently with you, clients, and Fergus is a problem. Understanding communication preferences and being able to pivot register and style is an important skill, not only in the workplace, but in life in general. I think the letter writer and her direct reports can view this as analogous to jargon vs. laymen’s terms. Specialized language is probably appropriate for in-house discussions and discussions with vendors, but clients probably need different terminology. That’s just fine. Similarly, I think it’s okay to ask your direct reports to give you honest answers, even if they aren’t “decisive.”

    I loved the idea of asking for extra information in the moment to back up your employees, who are no doubt in an awkward spot (that is, saying, “Are we waiting on any estimates/contractors/whatever at the moment?” so that they have an opportunity to qualify their yes or no). If they’re speaking to Fergus one-on-one, of course, that won’t work. Would Fergus respond positively to decisive answers that had “and” statements tacked on? (For instance, would it be okay if a conversation panned out like this: “Has Client X called you?”/ “No, and I will check voicemail/ask the other person on phones to see if they spoke to someone other than me”)?

    I definitely would talk to your direct reports and clue them in to your communication preferences/give them “permission” to be “indecisive” by saying something like, “If you ever are unsure of the status of a project, please let me know what information we need in order to have an accurate answer. I want you to tell me if there’s an external factor that may influence timeliness/whatever.” They don’t need to say “I don’t know,” but they can say, “I need X in order to answer definitively.”

    1. Observer*

      You seem to have missed a key point here. No one is saying that differences in communications style are inherently bad, or that it’s ok to refuse to accommodate them, especially for your boss. Allison explicitly calls this out, in fact, and points out that the issue here is NOT about communications styles. It is a bout a boss who care more about style than about facts. The boss has explicitly said that it’s more important to sound confident than to be actually accurate. That’s not style that is SUBSTANCE.

      1. Argh!*

        … and yet an employee has the option of not following the boss’s directive about that when something is the truth. The real problem isn’t what the boss is asking. It’s deciding whether going against what the boss is asking is worth a reprimand or getting fired. It probably is.

  48. Kathleen_A*

    It’s unusual for me to have such a strong feeling about someone I “know” only from a few sentences written by somebody else, but OP…I just *despise* your boss. What an idiot. I agree with those who are saying that you need to get the heck out of there, if you can.

  49. beth*

    OP, I don’t know how else to say this–your boss is a liar. His only priority is looking confident, and he’s willing to sacrifice the truth to reach that goal. And he’s telling everyone who works for him to do the same.

    This is not good. It’s not good for his company, it’s not good for your team, and it’s not good for you. It sounds like you’re doing your best to push back, but the reality is that in this environment, you can’t trust that anything anyone tells you is actually true. Some of it probably is! But you don’t really have a way to know which bits are and which aren’t, because everyone is being trained as habitual liars. You can ask your employees to tell the truth with you instead of putting on a front, but when the big boss is so adamant about this, there are always going to be some people who internalize his attitude; I can’t see how you’re ever going to be able to trust that the information you’re getting is actually reliable, given that. And when you can’t get reliable information, you can’t really manage.

    If this was a coworker, I’d say you could try to go over his head and see if you can cut this behavior off. But it’s not–this guy is your boss and the owner of the company. Unless you think you can convince him to change your mind, I think you should probably start job hunting, before the company’s general malaise of dishonesty tarnishes your own reputation.

  50. Marthooh*

    Ahhhhhh, bosses. Can’t work with ’em, can’t work without ’em.

    And we’re not even three weeks into the year!

  51. Tobias Funke*

    Oh man, I think my business accidentally hired Fergus to do some work for us. We are still trying to get our money back for the work that never got done that we got lied to about for six months.

  52. Asperger Hare*

    My old boss used to do this! He would expect perfect, instant recall of any particular fact about one of our 500+ clients at any one time, and used to click his fingers impatiently while I – naturally – took the time to look up the correct information on our database.

    Leaving that job was an absolute delight, I’ve got to say.

  53. Quinalla*

    It’s one thing to project confidence in front of the client in your area of expertise even if you aren’t always 100% sure – you want to act confident – but that doesn’t mean misleading them or flat out lying, especially about due dates, ugh! And internally it makes ZERO sense. Hasn’t your silly boss caught up to all the authentic, etc. talk that is all the buzz recently? Maybe point him to some dude pontificating about it and he’ll change his ways? I think it is worth a try as I feel like he may have picked up this confidence thing from a seminar/book/etc. at some point and took it TOO FAR.

    I would start looking for a new job unfortunately, I don’t see how you will be able to function at this place.

  54. wither snow*

    LW, a rhetorical strategy that may or may not work, and that in any other case, I would never recommend (I had it forced upon me once upon a time, which is how I know about it): treat this like you are being held to every single implication of what you are saying.

    Q: “Did that person call?”
    Wrong answer: “No.” because they might have called someone else, or they might have gone to voicemail and not left a message.
    Right answer: “I did not receive/answer a call from them.” Which is the exact situation: they may have called, you do not know everything that has happened in the world, all you know is that you did not talk with them on the phone or get a message.

    Q: Is the yellow folder in the cabinet?
    Wrong answer: “No”, because it might be hidden or misplaced, and then the asshole might open the door, say “aha, it is here, you were wrong, how dare you lie to me”.
    Right answer: I did not see it when I looked for it.

    And so on. You can say these things with all confidence. You are never saying what you think. You are never hedging. You are just straight up telling them things.

    There is still one person in my life who I have to talk to this way or otherwise all hell will rain down upon me. I don’t recommend it in a general sense. The one time it came in useful was when I had to talk under oath about a thing.

    1. Decima Dewey*

      Or you could wax philosophical: “There are an infinite number of universes. In some universe, X called, the yellow folder is in the cabinet, and we will meet the deadline. Alack, this is not that universe.”

  55. Bulbasaur*

    Unfortunately holding people to this kind of standard makes Fergus an extremely weak manager (yes, I went there).

    It’s a pity there is no way to enlist clients in this without being unprofessional, as they would have standing to take him to task over this. I would be sorely tempted to repeat his line in client meetings (“our policy is to make confident statements conveying certainty even when none exists, so you should keep in mind that anything I say may possibly be false”) and then let the chips fall where they may, but I don’t think I could bring myself to do it.

    You could perhaps do a low-key version of it by ignoring Fergus or disagreeing with him, and making a point of honesty when you are dealing with clients. Then if they have problems with being lied to and ask you about it, you can respond in the first person (“I am always careful to be accurate and truthful in my dealings with you”) while deflecting any questions about the organization as a whole (“I can’t really talk about that – I’d suggest bringing it up with Fergus. What I can tell you is that I am always etc.”) That requires you to accept the likelihood that you’ll get into trouble with Fergus and possibly suffer career-limiting consequences in the near term, but personally I’d have zero respect for Fergus or his opinion anyway at this point and I’d be more worried about preserving my professional integrity and relationships. And if he threatened to fire you you could always say “You can’t, because I’m the only one that our clients trust to tell them the truth.” For the medium and longer term, well, you should be looking ASAP if you aren’t already.

  56. Argh!*

    If overpromising is a problem, simply say “No, it won’t be done in time.” Then he’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    I have more of a cut-and-dried communication style than my subordinate, and it drives me nuts. If I ask a yes-or-no question, this person will answer with a long list of things off the top of their head rather than replying yes or no. I have to listen to ten minutes of their stream-of-consciousness thought process and sift through it all to figure out the answer on my own. It is a waste of my time and theirs. It often comes about in one-on-one meetings, and I’ll ask if project xyz has been finished. Said subordinate should be expecting that I will ask this but never comes prepared with a yes or no. I would also accept “Almost. Only z needs to be done now.”

    So…. if your boss is a black-or-white thinker, or wants briefer answers, you can prep your people for this by practicing with them. If they speak in run-on sentences, have them develop a list of one-word answers, or practice asking the kind of questions the boss asks.

    Even if you yourself find an escape route, your staff will have to live with this person, so it’s worth trying to learn to speak his language.

  57. tangerineRose*

    I used to have to work with someone who would give answers even when he didn’t really know what the answers were, so you never knew if you were getting the real answers or not. It was frustrating and made it harder for anyone to work with him.

    1. Argh!*

      Yep, it’s called narcissism and it’s not a rarity among bosses, unfortunately. My grandboss will not allow anyone to say anything remotely negative about our teapots, even when it’s obvious there is something wrong. And yes, things go wrong or don’t get fixed, because propping up grandboss’s self image as reflected in our teapots’ reputation is more important that putting out good work or good customer service.

      (And yes, I’m looking for a new job)

  58. LoV*

    Unfortunately there are a lot of people who prefer a confident style of communication, even if it doesn’t match up with reality.

  59. Bopper*

    Maybe don’t ask “Will the project be done by Tuesday” but
    “What are obstacles to getting the project done by Tuesday” or
    “Is Tuesday still our target date or should we be looking at Thursday at this point”

  60. Bopper*

    or what is the probablility that the project will be done by Tuesday.

    But don’t set them up where their choice is to overestimate or disappoint you now.

  61. Elbe*

    I was once given very similar advice from a manager and I pushed back. Companies that have this culture are always dysfunctional.

    When people have a mindset like this, it’s a strong indication that they are used to environments that are all about appearance and not about substance. They’re used to places where having a good image and being able to BS well took them far and made them successful – they genuinely think that they’re giving good advice.

    Attitudes like this are always really linked with privilege in my mind, because these people have clearly not really been held accountable, have not really been held to a fair standard. They don’t focus on substance because they’ve never needed it in life. And they don’t understand that it’s different for other people.

  62. The Imperfect Hellebore*

    Bleh. Fergus seems to be quite the unpleasant idiot (to put it very, very politely). Fergus seems to have his head inserted firmly in his own posterior, where he likely enjoys hearing only the echoes of his own smugness. “I demand decisiveness, tra la la la laaa,” I imagine he sings to himself as he wakes every day.

    “I have shaved well this morning!” Fergus boldly informs his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Yes, it may be a ‘possibly false’ viewpoint, as his stray neck hairs and asymmetrical facial hair may attest, but who cares about that? The point is that Fergus asserted his position as an excellent shaver with ‘confidence and strength’. Who cares about work well done? Who cares about happy clients, retained long-term? There is no need for these frivolities, when one can firmly say: “I have retained my (possibly false) position with strength and confidence.”

  63. The Doctor*

    With that attitude, Fergus deserves to have his company fail. Get out of there ASAP and encourage your direct reports to do the same.

  64. That One Person*

    Said with strength and confidence, and allows you to believe NONE of it. Sounds like a good method…to completely diminish and destroy confidence and integrity.

    More importantly I can respect some of the ideology behind it, though it sounds like he’s going through a literal version rather than ideological. You can say things with strength and confidence without it having to be a straight “yes/no” deal, or even acting like you have all the information. Sometimes it’s simply about the right attitude and reassuring the person that you’ll look into the matter or double check the information so they get the correct info. If I can’t trust the person to tell me the right stuff that means I now have to do more work and figure out if they’re right or not – or in the case of clients, wait and see what happens (which isn’t a good feeling, but I like being proactive).

  65. Anoncorporate*

    I understand needing to be firm when facing external facing clients/customers, but that doesn’t mean you should never admit something don’t know! Ack I can’t even…

  66. CM*

    Okay, so, I can understand a school of thought that goes “Fergus doesn’t want to know the details; he literally just wants a two-word status update: on track, off track, hit target, missed target. Round to the nearest value and say it.”

    However, somebody who truly wanted that because it’s a communication preference would be fairly dispassionate about it. From the way Fergus is described, it doesn’t sound like he’s being dispassionate — it sounds like he’s making character judgements about people who sound too wishy-washy for his liking and getting mad when managers who aren’t him coddle the employees to much by listening when they talk. I’m also taken a-back by the part where people need to “accept that they did something wrong” because, again, that implies more of a character judgement (or a moral judgement).

    So, I think there are times when it’s not such a terrible thing for a leader to ask for a bare bones status update rather than an explanation, but it sounds like Fergus, specifically, is actually not expressing a communication preference so much as he’s expressing contempt for the people he works with by judging them as weak. Even if the OP was to find a way around the “communication” issue, the contempt would still be there and Fergus would still feel entitled to express it in some other way.

  67. Polymer Phil*

    I’m pleasantly surprised that so many people are saying this isn’t normal business communication. I was under the impression that what Fergus is doing is pretty much normal for MBA / management consultant types.

    I do think this is one reason why MBA-types have been favored over people with experience in a field for managerial jobs in recent years. People who know a subject well are more apt to say “I don’t know” than some cocky buzzword jockey with a cursory knowledge of the widgets his company makes.

  68. TotesMaGoats*

    I had a boss kind of like this. She was an AVP and me and my 3 colleagues were director level. One colleague was so indecisive and hedged on everything. Everything was always “crazy” in her shop. It drove my boss bonkers. The thing is she had the autonomy to be decisive about some stuff. And she just wasn’t. Part was her personality. Part was that our boss was very hard to work for unless you were the golden child. It sucked when you weren’t (ask me how I know) but when you were…life was sweet. I even told my colleague one time after we’d had a big professional development leadership retreat thing and did a DISC assessment that if she was just more confident I think boss wouldn’t jump her so much. Unlike poor OP, my boss respected a confident “I don’t know but I’m doing X, Y, Z to find out.”

    OP, your boss is crazy pants. Run away.

  69. CS*

    Allison is right; your boss is an idiot.

    Why anyone would micromanage to the point of insisting — not telling, INSISTING — that you drop phrases like “I think,” “probably” and “I’ll check” needs to find something better to do.

    On the other hand, I wonder if it’s cultural? Why else would someone think that there should always be a good possibility that a statement might be false?

  70. Althea*

    I would have had to quit this place or be fired in a short amount of time. “Fergus, telling you this is a certainty is false. I’m not going to lie about my work, to you or to anyone.”

    I really want to know how Fergus would react to this kind of statement. With a bowl of popcorn in hand.

  71. Troutwaxer*

    Fergus reminds me of the horrible, awful, (might not want to read this) bit on “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” where the one guy was supremely confident because every day he inserted 100 pennies into his rectum. When they came out, he would clean them and used them for purchases. And when he met someone, he could always be confident… because he knew they’d already touched something that had been inside his butt.

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