Picture this: Your boss stops by your desk and casually lists a half-dozen things you need to get done. Your boss then vanishes before you have time to ask clarifying questions. That's the dreaded drive-by manager. They may mean well (or they may not), but you'll need to adapt, adjust and "manage up". Here are a few ways to do that.
What Is a Drive-By Manager?
The example above is classic drive-by management, but a drive-by manager doesn't have to be someone who just passes by, hits you with heaps of work and is gone before you can ask questions. They can be a manager you never see because you work from home, or a manager who meets with you regularly, but those meetings are all dumping sessions of to-do assignments and deadlines. In short, a drive-by manager tends to spend their time giving you work rather than offering input and feedback so you can do that work.
It's important to note that a drive-by manager isn't necessarily a bad one. In some cases, your boss may simply be too busy to spend a lot of time with you, and that can't be helped. In a previous life, my boss had so much on his plate that those moments when he passed my desk really were the only time he had, unless we made a point to grab lunch or meet up outside of work. He wasn't trying to be frustrating, he was just busy (aren't we all?).
In other cases, that drive-by behaviour can be purposefully malicious. A good friend of mine had a boss who would casually mention major policy changes in the hallway, and then ding you on your performance reviews if you didn't remember, or get the word through the grapevine. She would forward other people's emails to you and then purposefully retreat to her office to avoid questions or working with you on it. Before anything else, the first thing you have to do is determine whether or not your drive-by manager is just busy and offloading at their own first opportunity, or they're being a jerk and setting you up for failure.
If Your Drive-By Manager Is the Malicious Type, Get Out
If your boss just has no desire to help, there's no real recourse but to get out as soon as you can. Bad bosses can infect your entire life, and if there's no redeeming the way you and your boss interact, your best bet is to devote your energies to finding a better job. After a certain point, there's no redeeming a toxic work environment.
Then, when you go looking for work, ask about management style up front and use these tricks to spot a bad boss before you're on board. With luck, you can avoid having to manage yet another bad boss.
Learn to "Manage Up" and Work Around Your Boss
If your drive-by manager is one you can work with, or one you don't want to leave, learning to "manage up" is a necessary skill. Not every boss has the time to sit and explain how they want a job done every time they assign you one. Plus, the best bosses will trust you to do your best and deliver great results.
That said, you'll still have questions, run into problems or need to adjust deadlines. Here are some ways to get answers even if your boss is too busy to pin down:
- Use their preferred communication method. Your boss may be too busy — or unwilling — to chat with you face to face, but other methods may work better. If you see them glued to their phone between meetings, email or send text messages. Don't try to pin them down for a meeting or a chat unless it's absolutely necessary. Odds are they will be able to respond to a quick, short email asking for their opinion. Plus, you'll have proof that you tried to keep them in the loop if everything goes off the rails.
- Return the favour. Instead of just getting frustrated, give a little of their own medicine. Peek into their office from time to time and see if they have time for a quick question. Ask them something they can answer in a minute or two, and then save the rest for later. It may sound petty, but if your boss is super-busy it can actually be helpful. You'll have to pick your questions carefully, but some guidance is better than none.
- Schedule one-on-one meetings. If you work in a professional environment, regular one-on-one meetings with your boss are a good idea anyway. Once a week or so is generally a good schedule, and the time gives you the opportunity to ask questions, set priorities, discuss their priorities and get the clarification you need. It's important to take charge though, or you run the risk of those meetings becoming dumping grounds for more things your boss needs you to do. Take the lead, set an agenda and stick to it. If new work comes up, get clarity on it right away and how it fits into the other things you're working on. Use every minute in those meetings wisely — they may be all you really get.
- Work on their behalf. Odds are your boss is asking you to do something because someone else needs them to produce this work — or needs your department to produce the work. Find out who the ultimate stakeholder is, from your boss of course, and ask if you can work with them on the task. They may be busy too, but at least you'll have someone else to help you make sure the job gets done the right way the first time. Plus, you can balance your questions across both parties to make sure you're never in the dark.
- Follow up early. If your boss asks you to do a bunch of things and gives you due dates for them, never wait until they're due to finish them. Getting done early will make sure you and your perpetually busy boss have time to go over your work and make changes before it really needs to be done. This is especially important if your boss visualised one product and you wound up turning out something else. In the same vein, if you're asked how long it will take to do something, remember the "Scotty Principle": under-promise and over-deliver.
- Learn to pick your battles. Sometimes it's worth letting your boss know that you're frustrated and really need help on something delicate. Other times, they're as busy and frustrated as you are, and venting serves no purpose aside from stressing you both out. If you're just fed up, find a healthy way to vent. If you really need your boss's help, or you think the situation needs to change or bad things are going to happen, let them know what's going on. Just don't play that card too often; it's important to only draw a busy boss in when you really need them. If you can choose wisely, you'll prove your ability to act on your own when you have to and seek their counsel when it's appropriate.
Learning to manage your manager is only half of the battle when you deal with a drive-by boss, but it's the most important part. Learning how to push their buttons, how to communicate with them, and when to pull their strings to get the response you need will make sure that even if nothing else changes you'll still succeed working with them. It's not all you can do though.
Anticipate Your Boss and Adjust Your Work Style
Next, turn your attention to your own workload. You'll never survive an encounter with a drive-by manager if you're overwhelmed, so it's important to have flexibility in your schedule. Some of this involves mastering the fine art of looking busy, so you have ultimate control over your workload and when people expect things of you. Tackle the big wins and priorities first so you're not stressed at crunch time. Be mindful of your time and workload. Set your boundaries and stick to them. Remember, if you fill up your plate with work, you're screwed when your boss stops by to dump a half-dozen new projects on your lap.
Of course, not all of us are in positions where we can effectively push back on work or say "No, I'm keeping my plate clear in case my boss needs something." In those cases, you need to become a prioritisation master. Sure, everything may seem important, but make sure you work on things in the order they need to be done first, and in order of visibility (especially to your boss) second. Delegate when you can, and don't be afraid to ask for help from your colleagues or teammates. Make sure you re-establish expectations with anyone involved any time you have to shuffle work around your plate. In short, be the master communicator your boss doesn't have the time to be. It may seem unfair, but you'll be better off for it, both personally and professionally.
We also can't understate how important it is to get organised. If you don't keep a paper trail of the things you work on, or keep a calendar of your due dates and to-dos, or have some productivity system that works for you, having a drive-by manager will make sure that you do. I'll be clear: You won't survive working with a drive-by boss unless you can prove when you said you would do something, when you plan to do something, when they asked you to do that same thing, and how far along you are on doing it. Find a productivity method or system that works for you, and you'll be in good shape.
Finally, make sure to take care of yourself. Working with a drive-by manager can be frustrating and stressful. You could sit at your desk furious about the pile of work you just got, or you can fire off a few emails for clarification and dive into the things you can do while you wait to hear back on the things you can't do. Be proactive and assertive. If you're really stuck, take a break. Close the laptop, lock your screen, get up and go for a walk. Hit the gym. Go vent to someone you can trust. Do something healthy for yourself, then come back to the work later once you're refreshed and the edge is off.
Working for a boss who's too busy to give you time and attention can be frustrating, but it's not the end of the world. If they're willing to compromise and help when they can, you're in good shape. But remember that most job listings say "able to work independently" for a reason. As long as you can keep up, your boss's busy schedule can actually work in your favour. You get the freedom to be independent and take credit for your own work. You just have to learn when to trust your judgement versus when to ask for help. Just don't hesitate to do either when the time is right, and you'll be fine.