Dana WilsonIt can be hard to get your boss’ attention, even when you need it the most.

Listen to this story from … let’s call her Rhonda. Rhonda, a VP of communications, went into the CFO’s office for a signoff on the annual report. She made a point of explaining carefully that the report was going to the printers at six the next morning. The CFO assured her that all changes were made and to let it go.

The next day, after the presses had been rolling for five hours, the CFO sat down in Rhonda’s office with a copy of the annual report stuffed full of marked pages. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go over my changes.”

Despite Rhonda’s best intentions, somehow her message to the CFO was lost. Communication with upper management, and other colleagues for that matter, can often be a lot more complicated than it would seem.

This is because nothing happens in a vacuum. Each one of us at any given time is the product of long term and short term stimuli. This interference or “noise” in the model is often the cause of miscommunication. The CFO may have been thinking of the board meeting coming up, the audit just completed, the first quarter figures, or the person who cut him off on his commute into work. All of this occurs beneath the surface and, is for the most part, invisible to the casual observer. The object of your conversation is probably not even aware of these factors on a conscious level.

But by becoming a student of human nature, you can help yourself by presenting information to your boss or colleagues at a time and in a manner that blocks the “noise” and makes them more receptive.

Studying the preferred rhythms of people’s work habits can provide clues to the best time to approach them. Do they like to clear out emails first thing in the morning or chat with other executives? Do they need that first cup of coffee or tea? Do they have a “golden” time when they prefer to work on projects that demand their undivided attention? What’s on their agenda for the day? An administrative assistant can tell you if they have a meeting or conference call scheduled. Plan to talk to them afterwards (unless you sense the event went badly).

Emails allow people to address subjects at a time that is best for them. But does your boss like detailed reports or quick notes that can be fleshed out in person? Does he or she like to catch up with emails over the weekend? Some executives prefer face to face updates as developments occur and others would rather be brought up to speed on several topics at a scheduled time. Adjust your method to dealing with each individual.

Even if your company has an “open door” policy, most leaders are probably not tuned to your channel when you cross the threshold. If they keep their eyes on the computer instead of making eye contact, their focus may be elsewhere. Look at their body language. Is it tense or relaxed? Simply asking if this is a “good time,” or “when would you like to discuss the Simpson project,” will allow them to address the problem at once or pick a time of their own choosing. Obviously, if they are on the phone, come back later … unless the information you have is vital and perhaps relevant to the conversation they are having.

Remember, it is generally not a senior executive’s job to understand the detailed process behind your efforts. Lead times, press runs and final deadlines are items that they may not decode as you intended. Their minds are probably focused elsewhere. They are looking at the big picture and hopefully trust you to handle the details. Talk to them in a way that provides context for them to make better business decisions.

Your task is to know the factors determining those decisions and then use a vocabulary that speaks to them. Addressing the economic factors that drive decisions can often be helpful. Know what’s important to them, use their language, and avoid jargon as much as possible.

To get your boss’ attention, you need to know your stuff. If you are prepared, you’ve done good work, and you have a strong recommendation, let your boss know. Confidence (without arrogance) is highly persuasive. Be firm and speak with conviction, communicating in a way that your boss can understand. It’s hard to ignore that . . .

Dana Wilson is a Troy Media freelance writer.

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