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My manager left the company a few weeks ago. Instead of replacing him, the organization was re-structured so that I have 4 contracted project managers. They all micromanage everyone's hours and determine what everyone under them will accomplish that day. They've been scheduling overlapping times for me and won't accept me saying that I'm busy. They say that's not their problem and I need to learn better time management. I've tried emailing them together to discuss these issues but they refuse to respond to each other, they just respond to me alone and remind me that this isn't their problem.

I'm not allowed to know who they report to - I don't have permissions to view that level of the org chart, nor would I have permissions to email or schedule a meeting with whoever that would be. So I can't take it above their heads.

I can't afford to lose my job and be without health insurance, though I don't think any of them have firing power. What should I do in this scenario?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Aug 6, 2021 at 6:35
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    "[...] nor would I have permissions to email or schedule a meeting with whoever that would be." What place are you working at that you don't have permissions to send someone an email??
    – fgysin
    Aug 6, 2021 at 9:48
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    Who is going to do your performance review andput you forward for raises etc?
    – mmmmmm
    Aug 6, 2021 at 10:30
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    Who do you ask when you want to take holiday/leave? Who do you call when you're calling in sick? All 4 separately?
    – freedomn-m
    Aug 6, 2021 at 13:49
  • Considering that you are now forced to do for yourself what your ex-manager previously did for you, do you think this situation is why he resigned? Is it likely the people at the next level up the secret (how bizarre) org chart are planning a change to this structure soon?
    – Theodore
    Aug 6, 2021 at 21:03

9 Answers 9

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What should I do in this scenario?

Make your own schedule of tasks and publish it. Include all of your current assignments laid out in non-overlapping time segments, using your best estimates for time required for each. Update it and re-publish it weekly. It might be easiest to simply dedicate Mondays for project manager #1's tasks, Tuesdays for project manager #2's tasks, etc. Friday could be for any other stray work that comes your way.

If any of the four project managers complains that their project isn't getting the attention it deserves, you can tell them that it isn't your problem and that you are obviously forced to rely on your best judgement. Explain that you would be happy to go over it in detail if all four of the project managers would agree to get together with you to discuss it jointly.

Meanwhile, work very hard to find a job where you'll have a real manager and you can put this silliness behind you.

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    I agree, except for updating and publishing it weekly, I'd keep it always up to date in Outlook. If they won't use Outlook, then have a sticky note for each project/task near the entry of your working area, and when they come to you with more tasks, ask which of THEIR tasks to put off until later. Aug 4, 2021 at 21:19
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    This + @thursdaysgeek's comment + except sticky notes. I don't think that you should keep tracing tasks in sticky notes. Aug 5, 2021 at 3:09
  • Not to be rude, but I don't see how this is relevant to the post. OP is getting double booked and when telling their PMs, they're told "Not my problem." How does saying "not my problem" back to them solve anything?
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:05
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    @Mars: It solves nothing but it puts the ball back in the managers’ joined court where it belongs for an actual resolution: “If y’all can’t agree on what I should be doing when, then, lacking clear, non-conflicting direction, I’m going to adhere to my best judgement to resolve any conflicts. If you’re unhappy with that, that’s above my pay grade. Sort it out between between yourselves.” Aug 6, 2021 at 11:27
  • I worked with a mentor once who had me and a few peers who were in the same boat do this and set up a weekly meeting to review / adjust priorities. Getting all the stakeholders together forced them to sort it out among themselves. My own best judgment was taken out of the equation altogether. Aug 7, 2021 at 13:02
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So, here's the actual correct answer: You have 4 managers who all think they have priority, who won't negotiate with each other and expect you to prioritize their project, and say it's your fault that you can't do 4 things at once. A big part of project management is resource management, and if the resources (i.e. implementers, i.e. you) are telling them that you can't be allocated to 4 things at the same time, then it's their job to allocate you properly. Except they won't. So the actual correct answer is to tell them you can't do 4 things at once and they need to learn to allocate resources better.

Of course, because these people are technically all your "manager", you can't actually do this because it will likely get you fired. So here's an alternative:

Try this once, and only once: Take all the tasks you have right now and prioritize them, and send an estimated schedule to all 4 of them and tell them when you can deliver what. Don't try to impress them or whatever; create standard, reasonable estimates that will allow you proper time for development, testing, debugging, deployment, and whatever else you need to do (assuming you're a developer; I don't have much domain expertise outside of software development, so use your own judgment as to what you need to allocate time for if this doesn't apply to you). See what happens. There is a possibility, no matter how small, that they will see what you are doing and accept that things take time, and this will solve your problem.

Of course, that probably isn't going to work. In which case, start looking for another job ASAP. You can't do 4 things at once, and if they are forcing you to do 4 things at once then you can't stay there because they are asking something impossible. On your way out the door, you may want to do the above as suggested and tell them you don't have a time management problem, but they have a resource management problem.

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    Good answer - straightforward and honest, placing the problem back where it belongs. The OP should stand up for himself and not allow others to step on him
    – Anthony
    Aug 4, 2021 at 22:13
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    Do we know the OP is a programmer?
    – Relaxed
    Aug 5, 2021 at 7:31
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    @Ertai87 Yes, that's indeed the gist of the question, no doubt about that but in that case an estimate of the time needed to for “development, testing, debugging, deployment” isn't really going to help. And just to be clear: I didn't downvote your answer, I don't think it's bad. It's just that the way it's phrased seems a little too specific and that some of the advice you're giving might not apply to everybody. You might want to edit it to clarify this.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 5, 2021 at 15:17
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    @Relaxed "Do we know the OP is a programmer?" - are you trying to say that there are people who are not? ;-) Aug 6, 2021 at 9:44
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    @Mars The problem is deeper than that. A "normal" person, upon being told that someone is current working on something else for someone else and can't work on your thing right now, would back off, or, at the very worst, go to that other person and ask then about what they have the person working on to confirm they're not being lied to, and then back off. OP's PMs are not even doing that little amount of work, they're just assuming OP is lying or whatever and slamming him anyway. It's worse than "not knowing", it's willful incoherence.
    – Ertai87
    Aug 6, 2021 at 15:09
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Talk to your boss' boss.

The boss who left reported to someone. By default they are now your boss. Contact them and ask how they want you to work. If for some bizarre reason you can't find out who they reported to, contact HR. If you don't have HR, contact someone with a job title who looks like they might be responsible for your area of work.

Describe your situation and ask how they want it handled, or who should be making that decision. If they tell you, fine. Do what they say. If they tell you to sort it out yourself, then you are free to take any of the solutions suggested in the other answers, with you also able to say "XYZ person told me that this was how I should be working".

It is, by the way, exceptionally bizarre that you cannot see the whole org tree. I've worked with some very dysfunctional companies, but even the worst let me see who everybody reported to.

And yes, start looking for a new job.

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  • "the organization was restructured" probably makes the first few sentences irrelevant. But probably the right approach :)
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:19
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    Good answer. But if you wrote "escalate to higher levels" it would be clearer.
    – FluidCode
    Aug 6, 2021 at 12:33
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This is a risky solution, but it can work if none of the project managers has enough power to fire you without involving their superiors.

Pick the project manager you like the best. Give them priority, and tell others that "I cannot do that, as I have that time already scheduled with PM x x."

Eventually the other project managers will realize they are not getting your time, and will focus on micromanaging their other subordinates. And you can focus on doing a good job on the project you picked. Having one manager that really likes your work is better than having four managers that are all dissatisfied.

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    This might work. Maybe the OP should also factor in which of the four project managers seems to have the most clout within the organization. Aug 5, 2021 at 8:35
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    "without involving their superiors" If there are superiors that can be involved, that's a person the OP should talk to who could actually help resolve the situation. This is probably too risky an answer since it essentially boils down to "keep on keeping on".
    – Lilienthal
    Aug 5, 2021 at 9:43
  • @Lilienthal Indeed, if the project managers involve their superiors, the situation probably gets resolved. And I do not suggest to keep on doing what they are doing (balancing in a quadruple workload), I suggest drop the 3 extra workloads and do one job well.
    – jpa
    Aug 5, 2021 at 10:21
  • @thieupepijn Yeah, under the assumption that any of these new, contracted PMs has any real clout in the org. I fear OP has secretly been sidelined, and their job is in danger no matter what they do.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 5, 2021 at 11:41
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    Hmm, that certainly seems like a gamble as well though. I'd suggest adding some advice on how to pick the "right" PM here (highest profile, best support, most well-liked, ...). Following this advice blindly has the potential to be job-ending for the OP. Advice on how to tactfully push back might help this answer. You might also want to clarify why picking a favourite is better than sticking with a "first come first served" approach.
    – Lilienthal
    Aug 5, 2021 at 13:43
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You seem to be in a matrix management situation. Especially if the project managers are contracted out, shouldn't you have a line manager? That line manager might not have much to do with your daily work, but he or she should exist and be ultimately responsible.

  • Ask the human resources department who your line manager is. If they cannot or will not answer, something is seriously strange.
  • Ask your line manager to allocate percentages of your time to different projects. Those percentages should add up to 100% or slightly less.
  • Inform your project managers of those percentages.
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  • This. Especially since OP differentiates between the use of "manager" vs "project manager." Another term for line manager would be functional manager. It's not the PM's job to manage resource allocation, it's the PM's job to get an allocation from the functional manager. In this case, OP no longer has a functional manager to protect them, so the PM's are just doing whatever they please.
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:08
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    That said, OP mentioned a restructuring. It's very possible that OP no longer has a functional/line manager and that the PMs don't know how to adjust
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:08
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    @Mars Then OP needs to go to HR and resolve the situation. Who will approve their vacation if they don't have a line manager?
    – Roland
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:19
  • @Roland Exactly. Speaking from experience, matrix organizations are hard. And in this case, it seems like they may have thrown away the matrix organization and don't properly know how to adjust.
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:20
  • One lazy alternative to the matrix organization (multiple PMs, one functional manager) is to still have multiple PMs and entrust the employees to manage themselves. But in this case, it puts the employees above the PMs, as they decide whether or not they can participate in projects).
    – Mars
    Aug 6, 2021 at 7:23
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Aim for a Transfer

Directly approach one of the managers and see if they can poach you, whether it is through an official transfer or some other mechanism. If they are not interested try the next manager. The goal is to convince a manager that you want to dedicate more time to their project(s) but those other awful managers are getting in the way, but if you were officially transferred to be under their management the problem would be solved. Thus it would be a win to the manager (and a win for you too).

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As others have pointed out, this is an untenable situation, especially in the long term; you can either take steps to resolve it now, leave or (eventually) be fired for non-performance. Assuming you don't want to leave or be fired, and to expand on @jpa's answer, I have used the following strategy (as jpa said, it's high risk) in the past: get the latest set of requests from all the involved managers, collate them into a list and e-mail it to all four of them in the same e-mail, so all of them are aware you are addressing all of them. For each request, give a good estimate of time required and total these times. Point out to all four "managers" (that may be their job title but they are seriously not managing anything right now) that you have limited time and that you absolutely cannot do four things at once; further point out that you don't actually have the authority to choose your own schedule but that since the work's piling up you will work on project x (pick the one you like best or randomly select one, it's not important) exclusively until they have an actual plan you can follow. This will (hopefully) have the effect of getting them fighting amongst themselves until they realise they either need to come to an accommodation with each other or appeal to a higher authority for arbitration.

If there is any organizational sanity there, the manager who's project you selected will be happy, the other three will be very well aware that if their projects fail they will take the heat, especially if they try to blame you and you can show documentary evidence that at least you tried to sort this mess out.

Get the heat off you and onto them, basically.

Caveat: this is a very risky approach but I have used it successfully (only on three managers at once, to be fair) and I only tried it because I have a massive ego, professionally speaking, and decided there was no risk to me personally as they would be insane to lose me. If you aren't sure you have the strength of will and ego to stick with this line (doing it once will get the heat back on you immediately; you have to repeat this until they get the message) then please disregard this as an answer and get another job as soon as you possibly can. No-one deserves the kind of treatment you're getting and it can only end with you standing up to them all at the same time or you leaving, preferably before you get called to the meeting in the room with the dodgy bridge over the shark tank.

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So you say "I'm not allowed to know who they report to". Sorry, but this makes no sense: every organisation has a heighest manager who has total overview, so there must be a way to get a common manager for all of those people.

Best thing to do when different people are giving you contradicting tasks: go to a higher manager who commands both (or all) or them, and let that person take the decision.

Trying to solve this in your own corner won't bring a solution, at the contrary.

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  • Why the downvote?
    – Dominique
    Aug 6, 2021 at 8:43
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    I agree with this. There have been stories from e.g. Amazon or Microsoft where the CEO is especially open to being emailed; the intermediate layers of management don't like it, but the CEO is the one person with the power to untangle the situation. Of course, in the middle of a takeover and reorg, they may be a bit busy - but they may also need to know that the reorg is failing like this.
    – pjc50
    Aug 6, 2021 at 9:23
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First of all: get out of there as fast as you can. Seriously. What kind of company doesnt let you know who the superiors are? That is just strange.

Second: get out, seriously.

Lastly: if they have no firing power, you can go the passive aggressive route and just do as you can and what isnt finished, just isnt and when a manager is pissed you just tell them that the others had higher priority or asked you to do that and if he is pissed he has to talk to them. Or as others have suggested, do your own schedule and let them know.

I mean there are some other ways I wouldnt suggest, but whatever makes you happy.

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  • While the managers might not have firing power, they have the power to report the OP's performance any way they wish - and of course that report will be negative, eventually reach someone who does have firing power, and get the OP fired.
    – toolforger
    Aug 6, 2021 at 6:24

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