“SOS! My Boss Has a Shiny Object Syndrome!”

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A couple of weeks ago we talked about the Shiny Object Syndrome. After that post, one of my readers shared her workplace experiences with a boss who seems to suffer from this condition. The reader finds her work frustrating as the direction they are headed seems to be changing way too frequently and sporadically which in its turn affects her productivity and morale. This made me think that more people could relate to the experiences of dealing with someone with SOS. So I decided to share some tips on how you can recognize the issue and what you can possibly do about it.

What is SOS?

Your boss can be a creative type, always coming up with new ideas. He can be a charismatic person and a good speaker capable of painting a compelling picture of his vision. He gets you to believe in his vision, see how it is going to help others and you excitedly join in to make it happen. You come up with a plan for implementing this new idea and start working towards the plan. You are making some tangible progress and can’t wait to share it. You are ready for your next meeting to present your status report, get his feedback on what you have done so far and possibly get some guidance for the further course of action. You imagine your discussion will go well and you will be recharged with the positive energy after hearing uplifting constructive feedback. Only when you actually do meet with your boss, you notice visibly less excitement on his end, see lack of interest towards the progress you have made, hear vague answers to your questions, and, oh no, even see a blank stare in his eyes when you want to discuss your progress towards what you think your shared vision is. When he finally opens his mouth – the realization sinks in. He has long moved on – to another bright idea, a different exciting subject, a whole new future state.

This is exactly what has been happening to our reader time after time. She does not want to reveal her name, so we will call her Veronica. Veronica said that after reading our original article on the Shiny Subject Syndrome, she saw relief in finally finding the right words to describe the phenomenon she has been dealing with. “I knew it was not a lack of care on my manager’s end. Couldn’t necessarily call it procrastination either”, – she said. Now, that we have established that it’s a case of SOS, what’s next?  What do you do when you are fed up with jumping from one cause to another, only to realize that it’s nothing more than another shiny object?

Prioritizing:

First of all, Veronica, let’s acknowledge that people like your manager are needed too. Their high level of creativity enables them to generate a lot of ideas which could be a good thing. The best way to utilize this kind of talent is by placing them on project teams where new ideas are much needed during the brainstorming stages. In the team environment, the high flow of new ideas would be balanced out by the more level-headed team members. They would help to make sure that new ideas will be evaluated and prioritized while the team’s focus would maintain where it’s needed most. So, if you are already a part of a team composed of various personality types you can get help from the team to narrow down which ideas will benefit the company most and thus must be given a priority and turned into an actionable plan.

Direct and Respectful Communication:

However, if you are not on a team, and are working one-on-one with your SOS-stricken manager, direct and respectful communication may help. What if he is not trying to confuse you on purpose, but simply isn’t fully aware of the impact his actions have on you. You can start by explaining to him how the confusion about priorities affects your productivity. Please be specific when you have this conversation, limit to a few factual examples. Gear the conversation towards how the reality occurs to you and what kind of outcome you are looking to achieve with his understanding and help.  Do not make it sound like you are diminishing his level of business awareness or, worse yet, criticizing their personality.

Timing is Everything:

“SOS” boss could be still jumping from subject to subject when left to his own premises. So, to reduce distraction during your meetings, learn what most suitable day of the week/time of the day is for him. Ask to set aside some time for series of short meetings to review the progress of a specific project you both have agreed you needed to start working on.  Be proactive in acknowledging how busy he is and offer to book your meetings around his schedule.

At the same time, just in case, have all of your questions, issues and supporting documents ready in an organized manner, because one of the symptoms of SOS is spontaneity and unpredictability. It’s better to be prepared to have the discussion with a short notice than to keep chasing him till that perfect time slot opens up.

Finding the Right Approach:

Try to find out what his learning style is – some people like everything explained to them with words, others are best at reviewing numbers and interpreting charts. Some like things printed out for them, others work much better with the electronic information. Whatever his most effective method of learning is, plan to present your information in that format.  Ask him how much or, maybe, how little detail he needs in order to understand where exactly you are at with a given project. Preferably, bring up only one topic at a time to catch and hold his attention on what is most critical to your success.

When you are going to him with a problem,  bring with you a possible or a preferred solution too. He may get carried away with the pace of his own thoughts and ideas, so anything you can offer to round up the discussion is better than getting him started with an open-ended question about the problem you are facing.

Last but Not Least:

Keep great documentation on all of your project milestones and the progress of your action plan. You never know with a SOS-stricken manager, when he may return to discussing a project you thought he had long forgotten about! Also, if according to your project notes, there are actions he agreed to take on, politely but firmly encourage him to commit to a deadline that will work for his schedule.

Set up the boundaries! It’s ok to stay late once in a while if something urgent came up at work. To me, it’s also fine if occasionally if you look at something work related outside of work (especially depending on your level of responsibility within the company). But do not make a habit of it! And by no means, encourage your SOS boss to overtake your personal time with his late night inquiries or last minute requests for action to bring to life his bright ideas.

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11 Comments

  1. Veronica you are not alone dealing with a boss who has the shiny object syndrome. I know how hard it is to get your work done when your boss keeps jumping from subject to subject. Thank you for very useful tips, Natella.

  2. I consider myself very lucky to have never reported directly to a Manager with Shiny Object Syndrome. I can imagine the frustration that Veronica deals with on a regular basis and the unique challenges that present themselves as she struggles to make progress. You have created a great list of recommendations Natella that will allow Veronica and others to work more efficiently with their managers and enjoy a much more rewarding work environment.

    1. I have seen many people in workplaces having SOS to a certain degree. And when it’s someone’s manager people usually find the subject more sensitive and harder to find the right angle to approach from. So Jason it is pretty lucky that you have avoided dealing directly with a manager chasing shiny objects.

  3. After reading you post, Natella, I immediately recalled one of my bosses who suffered from the shiny object syndrom:)) Eventhough I had many good one’s too.
    I think your tips will be very useful for many people who want to succeed in their careers.

  4. Very true! A few years ago I had to report to a manager like this. The only way to get our job done was keeping all the project notes in a great shape. So anytime another “shiny object” showed up I’d have to go back to the notes I took in out previous meetings to see exactly where we left things off. So, Natella …

  5. I admire your ability to post so many fresh articles on your blog! I know very well that writing manually takes a lot of time so kudos to you for sharing with us something exciting and thought provoking every single week. Thank you so much Natella!

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