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Half of my work are orders from my direct manager, the other half requires that I address specific needs across the whole company - mostly lateral in authority but also a few senior managers. My direct manager is not entirely responsible for any of the other areas, so my performance reviews are similar to 360 degree surveys.

I can postpone or decline other peoples' requests, but in order for me to be successful, build great relationships and contribute positively, I am supposed to satisfy everyone where my judgment says it is beneficial for the company.

Unfortunately, there are situations where work from my direct manager takes all of my time and I am overwhelmed by any external requests. I am physically unable to take on more tasks (sleep, stress, hunger, some bad symptoms).

My manager says I should simply ignore or postpone any other requests, but I am concerned this might ruin other people's perception about me and obviously my professional relationship with them.

What is the best way to communicate laterally/externally that I am overwhelmed, without damaging those relationships?

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    Are the other people going to ask to give you a raise or bonus or is your boss? – user8365 Sep 4 '14 at 21:21
  • Replaced the overused "professionalisn" tag with the "deadlines" tag. Removed the "stress" tag, as no management of stress is being asked for. – Vietnhi Phuvan Sep 4 '14 at 22:41
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    Advice given to student pilots: "When lost, climb and confess." There's nothing wrong with saying "I'd be glad to, but I don't think I can get to it any time soon given my existing commitments. Can it wait? If not, you're gonna have to talk to my manager about what other tasks can be delayed or reassigned." Note that this is also a legitimate answer if your manager asks you to take on more than you can realistically handle. Nothing unprofessional about knowing your limits and not promising more than you can reasonably be expected to deliver. – keshlam Sep 6 '14 at 7:59
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Here is where your manager can really be an asset and help you out. You are overtasked because your manager has things he needs you to do and there is a demand for your time from clients as well.

Step one: Document all the tasks you are doing, how long they take, and who originated the task.

Step two: After you do this for a couple of weeks you'll see that many of the tasks are repetitive. Basically, they are the little maintenance tasks you need to do at a minimum for your position. Categorize those seperately from the others.

Step three: Add up the number of hours you perform doing maintenance tasks. The difference between the number of hours per week you are authorized to work (eg. 40) and your maintenance tasks is called your unused capacity.

Step four: Take all of the other tasks, we'll call them one-time tasks, and work with your manager to prioritize them. You already know how much time they will take to perform, and you know how much unused capacity you have. Let your manager work with your to determine what you have time to do, and what should wait.

Step five: Ensure you properly set the expectations of your clients. If you can't get to something for a week, tell them. Don't blame your boss when you do it, simply say something like "Unfortunately, I only have the capacity to get to this next week. Is that ok?" If it isn't then make sure your boss is aware.

Many times in IT you'll find that you'll quickly become overtasked and overwhelmed. This isn't anyone's fault and its fairly easy to prevent. Usually the cause is there aren't enough people to do the work. So, some tasks will need to wait or they will need to hire someone else to help.

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There is only so much time in any given day and only so much energy in any given person. You need to address your time constraints honestly and openly, and then you'll be able to prioritize your work load more effectively.

Once you've drawn the line at what you can do, you can pull that line back to what you should do. Everyone else with extra tasks for you must be told honestly and directly that there simply isn't time to accomplish what they need when they need it.

It is much more damaging to your reputation to take on too much and then not come through when people are depending on you than to know your limitations and communicate them up front to people who can either figure out how to wait until you can give them time or find someone else who might have time for them.

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I am in a similar situation. One thing I follow religiously, always under-promise and over-deliver. My suggestion would be to do the same in your case.

Before that, you should decide your priorities first. Can you afford to delay or sideline your direct managers work? If the answer is yes, you can start taking up additional work.

If the answer is no, your direct manager's work is the most important thing, then stop worrying about what others think of you. From what I understood, you are just worried about not gaining some extra brownie points for doing some work which you may leverage in future. While the intention is good, but in this process you are loosing your prime duty, i.e. your direct manager. After all, you can never please everyone.

Communication is most effective when you do it in a simple and straight manner. Just explain to your lateral seniors that you are already swamped with your prime responsibilities, and you will always try to help them. Then of course, try your 110%.

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Use your manager as a human shield. Have everyone route their requests through your manager and have your manager set the priorities and the milestones. With your input, of course. I see four scenarios:

  1. Your manager is a tough cookie, and is not afraid to say "No!". In this case, don't cheat him out of an opportunity to be the bad guy, say "no" to people and run interference on your behalf :)

  2. Your manager's first reaction to others' making requests is to say "yes". See to it that he never say "yes" on the spot to anything that involves you having to do any work. Train your manager to consult you every time someone makes a request, and work out the time lines together.

  3. Your manager is congenitally says "yes" and he just can't stop himself. Again, make him work with you and if he agreed to something outrageous, make him go back and say "no" to the very people he originally said "yes" to. If you can't get him to to comply, get on the phone or email and say that it just can't be done in the deadline allotted unless one of the authors of the requests that you are working on scales back their priorities. Make sure that you point out that there is only one one of you and that tough decisions must be made and that you have to make them.

  4. The manager is so weak he might as well not exist. In this case, you have to make the tough decisions yourself, trading off popularity if necessary in favor of sanity and adequate sleep. If someone makes a request you can't fulfil in the time demanded, tell that someone that to get their way, they must negotiate with request author A, who is sponsoring the request that you are working on. Let them negotiate between themselves. Have the manager rubber stamp your decisions.

  5. (continuation of #4) I am thinking of something like a project calendar that I would send say once a week to everyone to let them know what projects I am working on and what projects are in the pipeline. If someone wants to make a request to me and I am fully booked, he'll have to look at he project calendar and get someone to sacrifice their priorities and get back to me.

My style is that of a pretty strong subordinate, ready, willing, and able to step in if the manager flinches. Your style may be different. But if your manager is weak or practically non-existent, you may have very little choice but to fall back to my style.

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