Stop Scaring Your Boss with Blank Stares

I discovered something early on in my career—bosses are notorious for catching employees off-guard. They show up at unpredictable times and ask unexpected questions. I never knew what to say when they stopped by. It didn’t matter if they asked “How’s your day?” or “What’s the latest and greatest about our big project?” All they got from me were blank stares and bumbling responses.

As much as I wanted to put my best foot forward, I ended up stuffing not one but both feet in my mouth around “higher-ups” for too long. The result? My freezing up caused confidence levels to plummet and second-guessing to skyrocket in more than just me. If only I had known then what I know now: while employees dread seeming stupid when the boss rolls in, bosses get just as scared when they have to interpret their employees’ blank stares. And if only I had developed solutions then that I have now to stop scaring them!

Do you go silent when your boss (or your boss’ boss) is around, or just start babbling in hopes you’ll say something smart? In either case, you know he or she will stop by again soon, so why not find a way to keep from responding like it’s a big surprise?

A Tool to Try—My 3 Short Lists

What’s below is a simple way to stop scaring your boss with blank stares. It’s a note-keeping tool on three key topics that I’ve found helpful for years—

  1. Blue Sky Dreams,
  2. Down-to-Earth Hurdles, and
  3. Stories from the Field.

By having your thoughts on these ready in bullet point form, you’ll be able to cast vision, tackle challenges, and breed encouragement in ways that build rapport with your boss. Remember, he or she didn’t pop in to connect about everything you do or care about, and you don’t need to panic as if your job is on the line. This technique will allow you to give your boss a taste of what you’re thinking “on the spot,” but in a way that’s prepared, clear, succinct, and meaningful (without dragging them into your day-to-day weeds).

Pro Tip: I prefer to use a pocket-sized notebook or a 3x5 card, but apps like Evernote and Google Keep work great too. The goal is to quickly and discreetly access your prepared thoughts using three short lists.

Short List #1: Blue Sky Dreams

Good-hearted employers aren’t trying to trick you when they ask what’s exciting about your work, or what keeps you up at night. They hope you have winsome ideas for the future that will help your organization, teams, and individuals soar. In fact, some companies even encourage what they call “FedEx Days” to inspire innovation under quick turnaround conditions. These kinds of experiences help take the corporate lid off so leaders can tap into and discover new “sky is the limit” dreams. It would serve you well to brainstorm a running list of three to five ideas and initiatives that will serve your organization well. Keep it handy so you can talk about it when your boss asks.

Short List #2: Down-to-Earth Hurdles

Unless your boss is living in la-la land, he or she knows you’re facing challenges in the leadership trenches on a regular basis. A big part of your role is to cut off problems at the pass so your boss doesn’t have to deal with them personally. Still, when he or she stops by to chat, trust that they honestly want to know what kinds of issues you’re facing and solving. Jot down the top three to five projects and/or challenges you’re currently navigating. Your boss doesn’t want to hear your long list of complaints, but they are curious how they can help you handle key hurdles you’re facing as a leader.

Short List #3: Stories from the Field

Upper management typically hears way more about organizational brush-fires and the bottom line than stories of success from employees. Bosses need affirmation that everyone’s hard work matters and is making a difference. A great way to foster a culture of positivity is to carry three to five encouraging stories with you at all times and be ready to share them. Talk about what good is coming from working together and serving clients. Your boss will be all ears, and you won’t get stuck scaring him or her with a blank stare!

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