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Mind Reading: Not at the Office

By Liz Ryan Sometimes in the middle of a hectic day, you'll encounter a co-worker or boss who greets you with a surprise expectation. You might be turning a corner in the cube farm, or just minding your own business, when your colleague asks anxiously: "Roger, will you have that spreadsheet ready for me today?"

"Which spreadsheet is that?" you wonder. "The new pricing schedule!?" he says. "The meeting with the VP of sales is first thing in the morning."

"I'm confused," you counter. "I had no idea you wanted me to work on that. Did you send me an e-mail?" The look on his face says he didn't, but even so -- "Can you do it today? It's urgent!" pleads your colleague. So you agree to help.

THOUGHT CRIME. Or it could be your boss who, late on a Friday, suddenly demands clairvoyance. "So, I'll see you in Las Vegas on Monday?" she asks. "Vegas?" you answer. She stares at you, horrified. "But the national sales meeting starts on Tuesday!"

You're waiting for her to say "I meant to tell you last week," but she doesn't. Clearly she told someone that she wanted you to go -- maybe her administrative assistant, or her nanny. But not you.

As you hurry away, irritated, to make travel plans, you can't help worrying that you've slipped a notch in your boss's eyes for the crime of failing to read her mind. You would expect people who put you in such a position to 'fess up a day later and admit their mistake. But some people simply can't do that. They're too insecure, or stubborn. It's galling, but it happens every day around the globe.

WHAT NOT TO DO. So how should you handle such a situation?

For starters, don't get mad and blurt: "How WOULD I know, when no one told me?" Rather, you might calmly inquire: "What sort of communication with me was supposed to happen?" That will put the emphasis back where it belongs -- on the missing messenger. You're not accusing anyone of anything, you're just musing about a process that didn't work.

A co-worker or manager who has already realized that he or she goofed up isn't going to discuss the breakdown in detail with you. They'll change the subject, or say: "It doesn't matter now, let's just move forward." That's O.K., as long as it's clear that you weren't at fault.

It's also reasonable to give in under pressure: As a well-mannered person and loyal employee, you can take responsibility for solving the problem without dwelling on the issue of how a message meant for you failed to arrive. You can revisit that subject when things have calmed down, a few days later.

MEMO TO ME. Say to your fellow employee, or your boss: "I've been thinking about that mixup last week where you thought I knew about the Las Vegas meeting. Would it make sense for us to have a post-mortem on the situation to make sure it doesn't happen again?"

Don't say: "I swear I never got your e-mail." Chances are excellent that no such message was ever sent. Also, don't focus on proving your innocence -- just make clear that you're interested in good communication.

Here's a technique to use when one of these situations arises. Don't utter it aloud, because it's snarky, and you might get fired. But say it to yourself:

"O.K., I understand. You made something up in your mind about what I knew, and it turned out not to be true, and I'm at fault because of that. I get it." And then move on. You'll have put the onus where it belongs without starting a confrontation. And most of the time, you can live with that. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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