Work Relationships

6 steps to dealing with a forgetful boss

Written by Kate Lopaze

Every job has a secret component that never appears on a job description or annual review: managing your relationship with your boss. Unless you’re at the very top of your company’s food chain, you have a manager who works above and with you to make sure you’re doing what you need to do. But although this is a highly professional relationship, it’s also a human one, with your personality and your boss’s in play. If you have a boss who tends to forget things, or has a short attention span, the work day can feel a bit like Groundhog Day as you explain and re-explain things—but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s go over some strategies you can use to make sure your boss has all the info she needs, while helping you keep your sanity.

1. Put it in writing

When you come out of a meeting, or discuss something with your boss, follow up with notes soon after. That way, you have a record of what you talked about, what next steps were, what everyone’s responsibilities will be, etc. When your boss comes to you later to ask about topic X, you’ll be able to say, “Oh, I have the notes on that from last week. I can resend.” Then it’s just a quick email forward, and not a rehash discussion of things you’d already covered.

2. Be proactive

Don’t wait for your boss to come to you with a request like, “Can you update me on X?” or “I’m blanking on what you were going to do next for Y.” Sending short, regular status updates on various projects can help keep your boss in the loop (preventing queries and you having to stop and explain things), and jog his memory about what you’re doing, and when.

3. Target your information

If you’re dealing with a boss’s short attention span (or busy-ness, or distraction) keep your discussions focused. If you have a status meeting where you update on a number of projects, send an agenda with the most important items highlighted, so that you can keep the discussion focused on specific points. Instead of having large meetings on a range of topics, consider having shorter meetings, each on a separate and targeted topic. Staying on-topic can prevent attention and discussions from wandering too far from the subject at hand.

4. Use email more efficiently

Nothing gets lost in an inbox faster than an email subject line of “Hey, quick question” or “Meeting to discuss.” The ease and portability of email often makes for casual writing, but whether you’re sending an email from your desk or on the fly from your phone, take the time to make the subject line as specific as possible. That makes it more findable in your boss’s inbox, and may help head off follow-up questions that have already been answered.

5. Tailor to your boss’s personality

Think about what the core issue is here. Is he forgetful because he’s in constant meetings, and just doesn’t have time to process information? Does she do better with visual presentations than with long-winded discussions? It’s like how teachers adapt their classrooms to how students learn. If you consider why your boss is forgetful or isn’t paying attention, it can help you figure out how to attack the issue. It doesn’t mean your boss is doing a bad job—just that her style may be different from your own.

6. Turn to technology

If you don’t feel comfortable setting reminders for your boss, there are ways to let tech do that for you. Productivity apps like Asana or Evernote can help you manage your own workload and projects, but they also have built-in tools like the ability to assign tasks to other people, send email reminders, etc. It can be a gentle way to remind your boss that he needs to send you the information you need, or sign off on something before you can proceed. Bonus: it’ll keep you more organized too!

If you have a manager whose style can seem absent-minded at times, don’t despair. You can’t necessarily change your boss or his style, but you can work on the way you “manage up” to help maintain your own productivity and peace of mind.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.