A few months ago, the founder of a start-up company interviewed me for a job. During the interview I asked him several questions about the company, their product, the market they were aiming etc. None of the answers he gave me were completely satisfactory. But then again, I knew almost nothing about start-ups and I thought that I wasn't asking the right questions (or rather, I wasn't asking the questions right).

The second part of the interview consisted of a programming as well as a logic reasoning test. I noticed that the logic problem he proposed was very poorly specified and, the more I asked him to explain it, the muddier it became and after a few minutes I was completely confused and gave up.

Eventually, he offered me the job and I accepted it. That interviewer is now my boss and I have come to realize that those communication problems were not accidents. The guy is the poorest communicator I have ever worked with!. All his answers are evasive, he often contradicts himself, overreacts to annoying -- but nevertheless necessary -- questions, hides information and so on. In retrospect, I can see that there were a lot of red flags in that interview, signaling what was expecting me if I accepted the job. But I was not astute enough to interpret them.

So how can I avoid falling into a similar trap in the future? Which signs are clear indicators that your potential boss is a lousy communicator? After all, interviews are stressful (and quite artificial) situations. So, problems of that kind during the interview may not reflect the actual daily routine of the job.

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    It sounds like you perfectly identified this in your interview and decided to take the job anyways. – enderland Feb 7 '13 at 1:19
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    I have found that the negative impressions you get from interviews are generally accurate. The positive ones can be faked. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Feb 7 '13 at 14:45
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    btw, looks like there will be more advice on how to act in this situation, rather than how to avoid it next time – superM Feb 7 '13 at 14:53
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    Alternatively, you could simply ask them, "Who is John Galt?" and if they answer "destroyer" you have the answer ;) – enderland Feb 7 '13 at 15:14
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    I think that adopting scrum with 2-3 week sprints during which nothing can be changed would help a lot. – superM Feb 8 '13 at 6:50

The way I see it, you easily discerned there were communication problems occurring during the interview: unsatisfactory answers, poor specifications, "clarifications" that made things less clear. The problem was you couldn't tell at the time whether the problems were your fault or his.

The only way to really address that is to improve your own skills at communicating with a poor communicator. The good and bad news is, you have a lot of opportunity to practice. It basically boils down to two techniques: ask clarifying questions, and restate what they say in your own words.

Restating is the part a lot of people neglect. When he gives an evasive or ambiguous answer, you restate it in more certain terms: "So, what you're saying is..."

Other things that can help are getting it in writing, drawing a picture on a whiteboard, and providing him with prototypes or alternatives to choose from. Sometimes people communicate poorly because they don't really know the right answer. Being assertive and making your own call can help in those situations: "This part was unclear, so I decided to do it this way, because..."

You might find that using these techniques makes him more pleasant to work with. If not, at least at the next interview you can employ them, and if you still end up with communication issues, you can be much more confident they are on the other end.

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    RE: "The only way to really address that is to improve your own skills at communicating with a poor communicator" ... does he really wanna put himself through that? sounds like a good skill to have, especially in IT, but one that takes a lot of nerves and effort. personally, the reward wouldn't warrant the effort for me. sounds like it'd be easier to move on – amphibient Feb 7 '13 at 16:22
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    I would probably move on as well. I'm just saying pick up the skills in the meantime while you are looking. – Karl Bielefeldt Feb 7 '13 at 16:25
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    @foampile exactly! I intend to give it some more time, but eventually I'll leave the company. And that's why I'm worried about not repeating the same mistake when I do. – Ragnar Danneskjold Feb 7 '13 at 23:05
  • good luck to you, Ragnar. when evaluating undertakings, i like to interpret my wariness of effort as not laziness but as a calculated awareness of ROI. while most ppl around me seem to be excessively generous with their time and energy, i am very cautious what i will be focused on because i simply expect more bang for the buck. in my opinion, this would not be a very fruitful application of energy. – amphibient Feb 7 '13 at 23:08
  • A good answer, but the phrase So what you're saying is... has been driven into disrepute recently - other alternatives could be along the lines of "so what we'll do is", or "so we think we should...". These also emphasise you building collective understanding rather than putting the opinion in one person's mouth. – Grimm The Opiner Jun 1 '18 at 12:01

While being able to communicate is important, I believe the bigger question is:

Is his lack of communication ability hampering your ability to do your job satisfactorily, from both his and your perspective?

It's sounds like he is more of an idea person than an implementer, which is why he needed you. You could always take the Facebook approach, as in do what you think is best until he complains. At that point, you backtrack and ask him what he didn't like about it, but not expect him to provide you with an alternate approach. Idea people tend to know what they don't like a lot better than what they do like, and have an easier time explaining why they don't like something. Even more than that, they absolutely hate to admit they don't know something, especially when it pertains to their idea.

It sounds like you have an opportunity to express your creative independence, so be a little more self-reliant and don't be afraid to take a few small calculated risks here and there. He hired you to do what he couldn't. Not because he didn't want to, but because he simply didn't know how. It's very possible that both of you could benefit in the long run.

UPDATE: For those of you coming late to the game, the answer above was posted shortly after the original question was asked. The question has gone through at least one significant revision since I've last seen it.

To answer the new version of the question, my experiences have been varied regarding my respective managers' communication skill. The bad ones clearly stand out more than the good, but in all cases, you need to understand what is expected of you. The interview process won't provide a detailed perspective for which can base a judgement on...there simply isn't enough time. That being said, I would recommend in the future coming to the interview with as many questions about the job for and company to which you are applying. You also need to make sure the questions are not simple "yes/no" questions. Give him the opportunity to talk and ask for additional details if something is not clear. Most interviewers will applaud the level of interest that you are taking in the company and your level of preparedness by asking the open-ended style of question. If you see that the interviewer is growing uncomfortable with being interviewed, it could be an indicator that he/she is not accustomed to being asked a lot of questions or made to be the focal point of the conversation. It's not a definite indicator, but you could consider it a potential red flag. You should still keep in mind that the interview parallels the first date very closely...everyone is on their best behavior and trying to make a good impression. You're not going to start seeing the annoying habits and patterns until you've dated for a while, or in this case, accepted the job offer. If your manager's communication skill is that high of a priority to you, I would recommend you always keep your resume or CV up to date, just in case.

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    Interesting take on it; definitely one to ponder. – shambulator Feb 7 '13 at 8:40
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    I think it's ironic that an answer to a question about "what are clear identifiers can one use to identify people who don't communicate effectively?" completely misses the point of the question and answers something different which is exactly the problem the OP was trying to find ways to diagnose. – enderland Feb 7 '13 at 14:47
  • @enderland: It's really not so ironic when you consider that the question currently being asked is not the original version of the question, which is the version I answered. – Neil T. Feb 7 '13 at 22:12
  • @NeilT. thanks for your answer (and the edit). It has really provided me an important insight on the problem. But just for the record, as I write this, the question has not gone through any revision yet. – Ragnar Danneskjold Feb 8 '13 at 0:34
  • @RagnarDanneskjold: I hope it helps you figure it out. When I mentioned the question, I was specifically referring to the title. The body of the question may not have changed, but the original title was not as specific as it is now. When it all boils down, the original sentiment is still the same. The interview is an introduction...that's it. Hidden benefits may be uncovered later, as well as buyer's remorse. If you're lucky, you may get some added insight during the interview process, but you never really know what's up until you're knee-deep in it. – Neil T. Feb 8 '13 at 1:41

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