Getting Your Boss to Provide Clear Guidelines and Boundaries…

…Even if you’re doing creative work or know more about the work than your boss.

Most people want to be free to make some decisions at work. You don’t want to operate like a soldier all day. In fact, you may even be expected to be a little bit creative in your job, which requires you to take some risks and make a few mistakes—and you like it that way. How is it possible to get clear expectations and directives from your boss, especially if your whole job is about creating something new and different?

The more creative you want to be in your work, the more critical it is for you to be 100 percent clear about what is expected of you and, in particular, what is and what is not within your discretion. You need to understand exactly the parameters within which you are expected to operate. If you are given no guidelines or goals, you still want to clearly define some boundaries, otherwise you may find yourself completely adrift. At the very least, you want to find out: Is there a deadline? Or will you be allowed to brainstorm ad infinitum? How will you know when you are “done”? How will you recognize a finished product or result? If you are going to be free to take risks and make mistakes, then you need to get your boss to define parameters in order to create a space in which risk taking and mistakes are truly safe for you in the context of this job.

Beware: Sometimes when you are assigned a “creative” assignment, what’s really going on is that your boss just doesn’t yet have a clear goal for the project in mind. He doesn’t know exactly what he is looking for yet, so he asks you to “take a crack at it,” so he can take a look at it and “take it from there.” This is nothing more than your boss using you to work out the early stages of his creative process. But if you and the boss have not talked through that process in advance and you don’t understand exactly what your role in the assignment is, this can turn into a frustrating experience for both of you. You may end up working hard on the project, only to have him send it back to the drawing board over and over or take over entirely to rework it himself. You then feel the manager has hijacked the project and your work and efforts have been for nothing. Even if the goals of an assignment are uncertain, it is still critical that you learn what role the boss wants you to play in it and understand exactly what is expected of you.

When Your Boss Is Not the Expert

Often, bosses oversee employees with particular expertise—expertise they may not share. If you are an expert and your boss doesn’t have the knowledge or experience doing your job, how do you get any guidance from her? Teach. Your boss doesn’t have to become an expert on the work you are doing. But you do have to teach your boss enough to understand what you are doing.

It’s OK that your boss doesn’t know or understand everything you may be doing. But it’s not OK for your boss to remain totally in the dark. When trying to get your boss to spell out expectations, focus on outcomes and ask lots of questions: “Exactly what is it you want me to accomplish? What do you want to be holding in your hands in the end? What is the effect you are looking for?”

Help your boss do the homework so she can ask you probing questions during your management conversations and make sure you are on the right track to meeting those expectations. Keep her informed and focused on outcomes: “This is where we are now. This is how long it took to get here. This is what I am going to do next. This is why. This is how long it should take. This is what we should have at the end of this stage.” Document the basics of these conversations.

While your boss may never become an expert, over time, she will get to know your work better and better and be able to provide clearer directions and guidelines.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,



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