Career Path

Surviving Your Boss: When the Boss Is Bored

Managers, like all workers, can have bouts of boredom. Will they turn that into busywork for you? Part two in a series.

Even the most passionate professional will, if pressed, admit to the fact that we all can get bored at work. Including our bosses. And while studies have found that boredom can help you do better work once you’re focused again, it’s estimated that productivity lost on bored employees in America ranges anywhere from $483 billion to $605 billion a year.

Oftentimes, these sudden bursts of energy—built out of tedium—can leave you reeling.

Unlike your own bouts with boredom, which may be spent scrolling through Instagram or plotting your next vacation, when your boss gets bored, he or she could potentially shift their boredom to you and your team. If you’ve ever had to suddenly switch gears and move to a different project that lacked time sensitivity solely because your boss, out of nowhere, expressed interest, then you may have gotten pulled into a boredom vortex. And while such moves may make a boss feel like he or she is getting something done, oftentimes these sudden bursts of energy—built out of tedium—can leave your team reeling. Below are tips on how to pick up on boredom and figure out what to do with it. 

Study the sequence.

Most departments or teams have a cycle that keeps their work moving; there are times when things are really hectic, and times when it’s quiet. It could be a weekly churn, where Wednesdays are insane and Fridays are slower, or a seasonal shift, when summertime is the busy season.

Once you understand that rhythm, drill down on your boss’s style. Is he an early riser who fires off the majority of his emails before 7 a.m.? Or does she play tennis each afternoon and isn’t likely to pick up the phone between 2 and 3 p.m.? Understanding both the department’s cycle, and your boss’s, will help you become aware of which times he or she may be most vulnerable to boredom.

Analyze the ask.

If you receive an email on a slow day asking you to attack something new, see if the request has specific timelines and goals in place, says Karen Huang, senior manager of search assessment at Korn Ferry. If there is no deadline or crucial details, the project may not require immediate attention.

If you can’t decipher where the ask stands in terms of priorities, approach your boss to get a better sense of the timeline, the goal of the task, and how you should prioritize this work with your other duties. By asking about specifics, your boss may quickly realize that his or her request isn’t as imperative as he or she originally made it seem.

Capitalize on the attention.

Your boss’s moments of untapped energy can actually be used in your favor, because it’s a time when your boss isn’t preoccupied with a hundred different other tasks. He or she will have time to listen to your ideas, giving them full attention. And if you don’t have much on your plate, then you can use these moments to pitch ideas you’re passionate about. “You always have to think about two things: what’s good for the business and what’s good for your own professional development,” Huang says. This move could get you out of that boredom-induced task and also inspire your boss. And when we’re bored, isn’t a little inspiration what we’re really looking for?

Part 1: How to become indispensable to your boss. Up Next: Can you ignore your boss?

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