Get Your Distracted Boss to Pay Attention: 7 Tips That Work

The average manager gets interrupted every 8 minutes, so its no surprise your boss is juggling multiple demands for their attention. Multi tasking is a myth, but try telling that to your boss. Many studies have shown that our primary task suffers lower performance when we try to split focus between two things. New research indicates mild distractions like listening to the radio can improve performance on mundane tasks such as driving through the countryside when there is no traffic (study), but still our brains can only truly focus on one thing at a time. Follow these 7 tips that actually work to get your boss to listen to you when you need it most.

Tip #1: Say Their Name

Hearing your own name is so powerful that even people in a persistent vegetative state (and we don’t mean your boss) show brain response when their name is spoken. You can use this to your advantage when in a meeting or public forum and you know your boss is distracted. Say their name when you start talking to get their attention, but make sure to follow the key points below:

  • Make sure your boss is not already making eye contact when you say their name or it will be awkward. Only do this when they are staring into space, looking at their phone/laptop, chatting with someone, or otherwise distracted.
  • You want it to be natural in the conversation so that it doesn’t sound sarcastic or worse yet, like you are reprimanding your boss. We give some great examples in Tip #3.

Tip #2: Know What You Need From Your Boss

When you speak with your boss you need to have a purpose in mind and communicate clearly. The #1 complaint from employees about their job is Poor Communication, but this problem doesn’t just happen from leadership. Everyone is guilty of meandering off topic when talking and this can be too much for your ADHD boss. There are six main reasons why you engage with your boss.

  • You need a decision or approval from your boss
  • You need your boss to endorse your decision or actions
  • You want your boss to be aware of important information so they are not blindsided later
  • You are looking for detailed instructions
  • You need your boss to allocate resources
  • You want your boss’s input (opinion or expertise) on something

Of course your boss can come to you at any time for any reason, but when you seek out your boss keep the reason in mind so you have a better chance of leaving the conversation satisfied.

Tip #3: Be Direct and to the Point

Most people talk too long ‘setting the stage’ before they get to their point and then get frustrated when their boss cuts them off. Lead with the punch line! Here are some great examples that tie Tips 1, 2, and 3 together:

  • Boss, we are going to need your input on how we proceed with this issue, I think option A is better than option B…
  • Boss, you need to be aware that customer x complained again about their order, in case their VP brings it up at today’s meeting…
  • Boss, project X is falling behind schedule, John from Purchasing says he was re-prioritized onto other work, I need help getting resources assigned…
  • Boss, based on yesterday’s email from Jane we are switching focus to the western region, let us know if you have any updated information…

A common fear when communicating the key point first is that you will receive snap decisions from your boss when they don’t have all the information. Once your boss knows the request the follow-on conversation happens more naturally. They will be more patient as you fill them in on critical information to make the decision and most bosses will have their own questions to clarify things in their own mind. Most importantly, it shows you recognize the demands on your boss and are working with them to use their time most effectively.

The same concept applies to all communication. Let your boss know right from the start what you need from them – don’t make them wade through a lengthy email that looks important just to find out at the end you sent it to them as an FYI.

Tip #4: Find Time When Your Boss Is Less Busy

Everyone tries to do this at one point or another, you need to talk to your boss about something and you think ‘I’ll just catch them when they are not busy and and nonchalantly bring up this topic‘. It sounds great but it rarely works without some advance planning. Managers have many demands on their time so it can be a struggle to catch them when they are relaxed.

Every workplace has a different dynamic for when they get busy, but minimize unnecessary conversations with your boss during crunch times like end of the quarter or when you know they have back-to-back-to-back meetings. The bombardment of interruptions can be so intense during a normal day that managers will frequently come in early or stay late in order to get work done. These can be the best times to have a one on one conversation with your boss, just don’t make a habit of it.

Despite your best efforts, you may still find that your boss is distracted and not paying attention when you speak with them. Address it directly and politely ‘I seem to always catch you when you are very busy and it makes it hard to keep our conversation on track. I know you have many demands on your time but is there a way I can schedule 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time? I think its important to give these items our full attention‘.

Tip #5: Proactively Schedule Time With Your Boss

If your boss is always running to meetings, answering texts, and just impossible to pin down, then put a meeting on their calendar. Non-managers are always surprised by this, but putting a meeting on their calendar is actually doing your boss a favor in several ways. It tells your boss how urgent the matter is, how long you think you need, and it reserves the time so that other meetings and appointments are less likely to double-book your boss. When you make a casual request to talk to your boss ‘when they have time’ it puts the burden on them to fit it in with all of the other competing priorities. Most employees feel like they are imposing but it is seldom received that way.

In fact, if you don’t already have regular one-on-one discussions with your boss scheduling a standing meeting with your boss is one of the best things you can do to improve your working relationship and career progression. Start with a standing meeting every two weeks for 30 minutes and adjust the frequency and duration as needed. Be flexible in your scheduling and use part of the first meeting to align on the working details.

Here is an excellent overview on the concept of one-on-one meetings between boss and employee.

Tip #6: Stop Talking and Wait

Remember in kindergarten class when the teacher would pause in the middle of class and simply look at the student that wasn’t paying attention? Remember how it felt when you recognized the whole class was waiting for you to refocus? The same technique that works in elementary school still has power with adults. Silence becomes very uncomfortable for people.

This technique is most powerful when you are one on one with your boss, when they look at their phone or start scrolling on their computer simply wait until they look up and make eye contact, then resume speaking. In those moments, all but the most narcissistic bosses will realize they were being inconsiderate. For a brief second, they feel like an elementary student getting reprimanded.

They may not apologize and that is fine, you are not trying to make your boss feel bad, your goal is to ensure they are paying attention to your conversation and not distracted by other issues.

After they notice you have paused they will invariably encourage you to keep talking ‘keep going, I’m listening‘ but hold firm with a polite ‘its ok, I’ll wait‘. Avoid any sarcasm or cheeky comments, target a professional tone and really mean it when you say you can wait patiently. Draw a clear line between less important topics and items that really do need their full attention. For the latter, stand firm even if they press you to continue and respond with ‘this topic is important to me, I need your attention‘.

The ‘important to me‘ portion is vital, because your boss may think the discussion is a routine matter – after all, they manage a number of staff and it may be business as usual for them. By directly stating it is important to you, now your boss should take notice if they have any emotional intelligence at all. Whatever the item is, questions about company policy, improvement suggestions, or your career development, it can have a major impact on your life and deserves their attention.

Don’t overuse this technique. Waiting for someone to finish their actions before continuing a serious conversation is just being polite. However, don’t overuse the method of calling out your boss for being distracted. Doing so can get you a reputation for being overly dramatic or even insubordinate if your boss thinks you are on a power trip. Make sure you reserve it for the most meaningful discussions.

Don’t stop talking and wait when in a group of three or more. The silence loses all its power if another person sees the pause as their opportunity to get more air time. You need you boss to recognize that you were waiting for them to rejoin mentally and you are not in control of the pause in a group setting.

Tip #7: Reward Your Boss When They Give Their Attention

Expect incremental changes over time and not a big improvement in the short term, but most bosses will realize that discussions with you take longer if they are not focused. In order to regain their perceived efficiency they will start to reduce the interruptions and distractions on their own but you can take steps to reinforce this feedback loop.

Thank your boss for their attention. Even if they were distracted during the meeting, if you were able to get what you needed from them be sure to express appreciation. If you asked for a decision or direction at a meeting a simple ‘Thanks, we’ll get this done‘ can be very effective. In private meetings you can be more direct and not seem like a sycophant, ‘thank you for making time for me, I appreciate your focus‘.

Give time back to your boss. If you scheduled a 30 minute meeting with them and managed to get their undivided attention for 15 minutes and covered your most important topic, leave on a high note. ‘I know you are very busy, so I don’t need any more of your time today‘. Its a small but meaningful gesture of sympathy and respect since time is one of the most precious commodities for most managers.

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