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I have an intense job where we have 20 things going at the same time, all of them urgent, most of them late, and new ones falling down the skies each day. I am a mid-level software engineer and my boss is even busier than me, like times 10.

I am quite independent on the day-to-day stuff, but for let's say the "bigger decisions" I sometimes need his opinion. This is due to a few things: he has more experience and better judgment (obviously), and if I fully decide on things, usually what happens is, he won't care at the time but a month from now he will absolutely grill me for doing it in a way that is not exactly the way he would want it. Mind you, the way he would want it is like an RNG without seed, depending on how he feels at a particular point in time.

What makes it more difficult is, during the day when I go to him, he is super busy and often stressed due to the fact, and it results in me hearing a mouthful. I am "used to" this by now, but this can still be very disheartening. The thing is, if he has some time and peace of mind, he is like a different person; much more reachable, listens, etc.

Honestly, I've tried but I am not sure how I navigate this... My best bet is, to not go to him as much as possible, but sometimes that's just not possible.

Edit: The main question is, how to work with a manager who is often unavailable, and when available tends to be judgmental of the work, etc.? This is only the case when he is stressed/overloaded. He tries to get it over with without giving me time to properly explain and for him to understand which leads to a chaotic discussion which he leads.

I am not concerned that these affect me badly, because in my performance reviews (the only time we actually have some time to be calm and talk), he admits these himself too, and I get very good reviews.

My concern is to keep getting the work done, but at times there are decisions I can't make.

What I tried already: Weekly/bi-weekly sitdowns in the calendar, but quite often there will be some "urgent" he has to take a look at and we don't do it. Emails (doesn't use the internal IM) to ask to come whenever he could, can easily take a week...

He is super nice normally, and I want to be able to interrupt his day without being detrimental to either one of us. Haven't been successful yet!.. If it matters, it's a large company in Europe.

Also, I don't know if there is an objective answer to this question, perhaps not... That's fine too. Regarding my comment, I think we can be a bit more open to questions that are not perfect. At the very least, please leave a comment on the reason that made you feel this way.

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    Sorry, I thought it was implicit. What do I do in this situation? How do I manage the need to discuss technical decisions with someone as described? Also, I see 3 votes to close due to this post not fitting workplace guidelines. You can close the question but honestly, where does this question fit, if not here? I think this is a very real and frustrating problem, and I feel a bit lost on what I can do about it! And please let me know in the comments why this is a post that should be closed within the hour. I am curious to hear the reason to gatekeep questions on a site for questions!
    – Guarneer
    Sep 1, 2023 at 9:02
  • @JoeStrazzere you say that and then ask a big question asking for clarification of what's the goal :P. Happy to remove my VTC as soon as op edits the question to have, well, a question and goal (though my vote was for lack of answerable question, it defo fits here)
    – Aida Paul
    Sep 1, 2023 at 10:31

4 Answers 4

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In my opinion you can do 2 things at this time:

  1. Create a paper trail. If you get grilled about something you asked your manager about a month earlier but he didn't reply so you had to do it yourself to the best of your ability and it wasn't correct, prove to your manager you asked for his input but he didn't give it. This helps in the discussion at that time, but will also help you if your (annual) assessment is being held.
  2. Talk to your manager about your lack of knowledge/seniority where it is apparently expected and how you see it can be improved. If you need more time to discuss things with your manager but he doesn't have time, you can come up with alternatives to share with your manager. Some ideas: perhaps there are other people in your organization to discuss things with? Or maybe you need to set up a plan with your manager so you get the knowledge you need to make better decisions going forward.

On the other hand it also seems like your manager wants to have things done exactly the way he wants it. That is possible to some degree, but you can't look inside his head every time something needs to be done so this can always be a risk for you. Ultimately it is up to you to what degree you deem this to be acceptable for you or if it's perhaps better to move on to a different job where you get the freedom you want or need to properly do your job.

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  • Thanks! There is already a trail from my previous attempts at coordination... Ultimately it will come down to having a discussion with him when he eventually has time. As you say, he expects full autonomy, but then he has to be okay with minor decisions I take in that autonomy. Perhaps we have to better clarify what this should entail...
    – Guarneer
    Sep 4, 2023 at 6:20
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If you’ve got like 20 different workstreams, do you really need an immediate answer to the one you’re working on, or can you switch to another task if one is blocked?

(Ok, so lots of context switching isn’t great for your productivity, but neither is sitting idle waiting for a response from your highly overworked / stressed boss…)

If you’ve got a ticket tracking system in place, just put your questions on the relevant tasks and either move them to “Blocked” or assign it to your boss for a response.

You can add your own recommendations to address issues in as much detail as you want (although try to keep it brief and to the point if your boss is heavily time-constrained) and they may even just hand-wave your suggestions through rather than spend time with a long response of their own :-).

And if you don’t have a ticket tracking system maybe set yourself up a simple one on a free web-based product and invite them to join your board….

The idea is to let your boss know you’ve got a question / problem and record the details, but let them decide when to fit it into their schedule. They can (hopefully) review all the questions you’ve got and provide responses when it’s convenient for them.

If you can schedule a recurring meeting with them you can work through the blocked tickets together, and if you don’t need that time your boss gets it back as extra time :-).

This might be a bit optimistic if you’re both running at 110% already, but letting your boss choose when to respond to your questions will probably make both your lives less stressful, and using a tracking system will give you an automatic timestamped audit trail of when you flagged things up…

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Note that he may be less stressed if you pose questions in e-mail rather than realtime. You can also say "I think what I should do is, let me know if I'm misunderstanding anything", building the fallback and paper trail Stefan suggested in his answer.

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Tell him about Lee Iacocca’s method of handling situations where you are the boss and there is too much work and everything is urgent:

You go to the office, then you pick what is the most important or the three most important tasks. Then you do this task or these tasks. And you don’t care about all the other tasks that are urgent and important. And then you go home. And next day, you go to the office and repeat. Meanwhile you assume that the people working for you are capable of doing their job.

For you, I’d say you write an email saying “I need to do X. Unless I hear otherwise from you, I will do Y to achieve this”. If he complains you can say “X is done now. I didn’t hear anything back from you”. To be honest telling you that a job that has been done could have been done in a slightly different way is neither important nor urgent. And wasting his time on this is why he is snowed under.

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