As a manager, you’ve likely had things crop up at the last minute and disrupt your schedule: customer emergencies, unscheduled calls with your own manager, last-minute trips. But when your own boss cancels on you frequently, it’s not only frustrating, but it can feel like a slight or make you worry about your standing. According to the author, an executive coach, if you find yourself on the receiving end of too many cancellations, it’s essential to talk to your boss about it directly. Because that can be an awkward conversation, the author presents a set of strategies you can use to address the problem in a productive way.
Senior leaders are incredibly busy. As a manager yourself, you know your boss is sometimes at the mercy of things that pop up that they can’t control: a customer emergency, a sudden trip now that we’re traveling again, or a conference call that their boss initiates. It’s impossible for them to keep all their commitments all the time. But when your boss cancels as a rule, not as an exception, it’s incredibly frustrating.
As an executive coach who has coached and trained thousands of people within both large public companies and startups, I’ve seen this behavior often. If you find yourself on the receiving end of too many cancellations, it’s essential to talk to your boss about it directly. Because that can be an awkward conversation, here’s a set of strategies you can use to address the problem in a productive way.
Don’t take it personally
A cancellation may feel like a slight against you, but chances are, if your manager misses your meetings, they’re probably canceling other meetings at the last minute, too. Take note of your boss’s schedule and be attuned to what other people say. Where appropriate, you can discreetly ask a trusted colleague if they’ve experienced the same thing. Having a clear sense of the behavioral pattern will enable you to step back from your anger and see the bigger pattern of your boss’s habits, not just their behavior toward you.
Get your tone right
The last thing you want to do is come off as passive aggressive by throwing a barb at your boss or making them feel defensive. Having a neutral, non-accusatory tone will ensure you get off on the right foot. Think about all the reasons you can relate to that might cause your manager to be a no-show. They might be harried or overscheduled. Sometimes people genuinely don’t know they’re chronically canceling meetings, especially if they have an assistant managing their schedule.
Start the discussion
If you have a close relationship with your boss where you can be direct, you can say something like, “There are times that I need your guidance or I’m waiting for your input. When you cancel at the last minute, it puts me behind since I’m often counting on this time together. It also makes it hard for me to plan the rest of my day, since I spend some of it preparing for our meeting. Can I ask you to attend our one-on-ones more consistently or give me a heads up sooner if you have to cancel?”
If you’re not comfortable with a direct approach, another option is to have a collaborative conversation about the meeting itself, which can identify the reason behind the cancellations and potentially head off future ones. For instance, the meetings may not fit well into your boss’s schedule, so you could suggest shortening them or moving them to a different day. You can also revisit the topics covered in your meetings to make sure they’re the ones most relevant to your boss. You can ask: “What value do you want to get out of the meeting? Is there a format that would work better for you?” By openly discussing the mechanics of the meeting, you showcase that you’re flexible and solutions-oriented and that the meetings are important to you and will make you more productive.
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In many cases, these tips will solve the problem of your manager’s cancellations if it’s just a bad habit. But if the behavior persists — or if you come to learn that you’re the only person they’re cancelling on — it’s important to go back to your boss for a second conversation and be frank. You could say, “I have a delicate matter to raise with you, and I think it’s important for both of us. I’m finding that you’re still canceling our meetings regularly and I seem to be the only one who’s experiencing this. If there are any issues I should know about my performance, I’d like you to tell me.”
This can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s far better to get the truth on the table if there’s an issue so you can identify any perceived performance shortcomings and work to correct them. And in some cases, there’s a positive explanation. One of my clients discovered that her boss believed that her area was going so well under her leadership that they felt that their meetings with my client were optional. My client was flattered, but asked for more consistency.
Some bosses — despite promises to the contrary — never fully correct this problem. In that case, you can pre-plan for the cancellation and have a backup in place for other tasks to be done, just in case they do cancel the meeting. But the vast majority of the time, following these strategies can help you change the dynamic and create a more positive, consistent relationship with your boss.