19

My orders come through a somewhat matrix-style command structure. I report to one technical line manager, who decides and defines how things should be done from a technical point of view, but also need to work with a variety of senior managers to discuss new business requirements, projects and other commercial targets, i.e. what should be done. I also have my own staff to help me. My role is to be the middle man.

What I can do by a certain time will depend on how I can do it and how many of my resources can work on it. One of the senior managers I work with most often tries to get most of my (my team's) time by using coercion in the style of "This is absolutely higher priority than those other tasks. Someone will get fired if we don't finish that sooner!"

Maybe he doesn't always do it so explicitly, but uses subtle techniques like coming to talk to me in person in public and ask many difficult questions on planning and deadlines before I even started deciding those timelines. "Why can't we do this? How long will it take to plan this? This is very important, you know right?" etc. I am thus often forced to say "Yes, don't worry, we should be able to do it."

This has been going on for a while and I made the mistake of just following what he said because I had no other choice (and he's a senior manager after all), but now I realize that this has put me in the habit of taking on too much and overworking my team, often and regularly beyond capacity.

What can I do when someone higher in rank than my line manager comes and speaks like this before I even started planning or uses coercion/blackmailing when helping me set priorities?

  • 15
    people, particularly from sales backgrounds, like to try and negotiate deadlines, the key is to give them the responsibility of the consequences too. Either requirement of adding resources or dealing with your boss at their level to take them from someone elses priorities. This can diplomatically sort real urgencies from drama. – JamesRyan Sep 24 '14 at 12:28
  • 14
    By putting "blackmail" into the summary of this question, you drew a lot of attention to something important to you, despite there being no blackmail involved. Sounds like the senior manager you speak of. – Brandon Sep 24 '14 at 15:41
  • 1
    If this senior manager is trying to delegate work to you, the bottom-line to ask yourself is: do I report to this individual, either directly or indirectly? If so, try to do what he says and speak to your direct manager if there is a conflict. If you do not report to him, then ignore his request and speak to your manager about it. – Brandon Sep 24 '14 at 15:44
  • So why are you not able to complete the work as directed? – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 24 '14 at 19:12
46

This is not blackmail. If it were this manager would imply a direct threat to you for choosing not to comply with his wishes. Blackmail requires the person to hold a threat over you.

This manager simply sounds pushy and persuasive. You are likely complying with him and telling him what he/she wants to hear because you are afraid of conflict. Simply giving in and working overtime because:

and he's a senior manager after all

This is just an excuse you are telling yourself because when we truly do not have a choice and are afraid to make a decision that might lead to somebody not being happy we look for reasons after the fact to justify that we have no real power after all.

The truth is you have a lot more power than you believe.

Not every stakeholder will be 100% happy

Accept that you and your team have legitimate limitations and that you cannot sacrifice in overtime to make him happy. This is an absolute.

Happiness is a choice

The senior manager knows that he gets more of what he wants faster because he chooses to be unhappy with the current situation. Squeaky wheels tend to get more grease. You reinforce this persuasive behavior by giving in.

Communicate Facts

The facts are that you haven't estimates and you can't promise or commit until you know the effort. Yes I know that we often set long term feature goals before having detailed estimates but they are just that... goals. Goals are not commitments. Reiterate your goals, follow up on commitments.

18

"This is absolutely higher priority than those other tasks. Someone will get fired if we don't finish that sooner!"

This is not necessarily blackmail (though it seems to me to be a thin line to cross from this point) but simply adding pressure (though that doesn't make it "OK").

This will go on as long as you allow it to. Just say no (actually saying "no" could be bad, but you can go with "we will need more resources for that", or "we can put all effort into this part, but then the other two tasks will have to have their deadlines shifted two weeks back" and so on and so forth).

It sounds like your manager is putting you in a difficult situation by not acknowledging what you require to finish your tasks. This can mean:

  • more man-hours from your team

  • more people in your team

  • less tasks/responsibilities

  • more time for you to make decisions; if coming up with an estimate requires two days of planning and checking your resources, then "I will send you an email by the end of tomorrow" is a perfectly reasonable answer.

If he stops you in the corridor between meetings and asks difficult questions, just tell him you will need to be in front of your computer/agenda/whatever before you can answer that accurately (as in "I could make a guess, but I will need to check my project plan before I can give you an accurate answer").

If you have gotten into overcomitting your team simply point that out and let him know the same task will take more into the future.

  • 4
    "Sure, I can do that as a rush job, but something else is going to have to slip or be transferred to someone else to make room. How about the two of us talk to my direct manager about sorting out the priorities?" – keshlam Sep 24 '14 at 13:08
  • 1
    This may be programmer-specific but I wanted to note that depending on how far into a project you are and the nature of what needs hours spent on it, adding more people might well increase the amount of time required on a project rather than decrease it. New hires must be ramped up and even re-assigning current workers to other jobs means they have to work through someone else's code to figure out what it's doing. – NotVonKaiser Sep 24 '14 at 13:44
  • @NotVonKaiser: true, but dealing with that is a matter of planning properly for it. Dropping extra people into the middle of a late project frequently makes it later. Adding people to the team, scheduling whatever time is needed for training them along with other projects (including the cost of ad hoc help with their newbie questions as they work), and adding the new people to new projects in future, is a more considered investment of the team's time into increasing the team's capacity :-) – Steve Jessop Sep 24 '14 at 14:35
  • @SteveJessop Absolutely. It kind of sounds like the person in question is at least midway through their project with this guy, though, so the fable of the Mythical Man-Month may well apply here. – NotVonKaiser Sep 25 '14 at 1:27
  • "If he stops you in the corridor between meetings and asks difficult questions, just tell him you will need ..." This is so helpful. I am very easy to persuade through pressure person. The solution I have found over the years is simply not taking difficult decisions impulsively. Q: You must X and Y immediately! A: I will consider this and respond to Your request by the end of the workday as to the timeframe of the solution. – Vorac Dec 20 '17 at 14:40
11
  1. Never say "yes" on the spot to that senior manager. In fact, never say "yes" on the spot to any senior manager. You got yourself into a very bad habit.

  2. The question you need to sort out is whether that senior manager is asking you to complete tasks that are really critical compared to tasks that other senior managers are asking you to complete or whether he is throwing his weight around.

  3. The other question you need to sort out is whether he is being a drama queen when he states that someone can be fired over this, or that his power to hire and fire is no greater or less than that of other senior managers. Of course, if he works on all the critical projects, he definitely has more influence than other senior managers.

  4. That senior manager seems to have worked out a routine that seems very successful for him, when he comes on to you early and strong and sucks out the team's capacity to work, other senior managers be damned. If you have the spine to do it, you need to tell that senior manager that you need to hear from the other senior managers. If you don't have the spine, then perhaps you shouldn't be the team lead.

Again, the caveat is that some senior managers are more equal than others - For example, I am assigned the toughest, most critical projects compared to other senior managers and it is common knowledge throughout my company that I get assigned the toughest, most critical projects - Make sure that this senior manager is not a senior manager like me. Because if he is, you have very little choice but to ask "How high?" when he says "Jump!"

  • Ooof, number 4 is some tough love! – Gusdor Sep 24 '14 at 14:42
0

Escalation

The answer to this exact issue is a process known as escalation.

Take this sentence: "This is absolutely higher priority than those other tasks."

This is a statement of fact and can either be true or false. To determine whether it is true requires the consensus of those who own the priorities. If the other tasks are owned by other managers, they need to talk to each other to determine whose priorities come first. If you are unable to get them to talk to each other, the next step is to escalate to the senior manager to whom these managers report.

You can escalate two different ways: directly and indirectly.

Directly

CC an email from the problem manager to his overlord, and ask him to confirm overall priorities. This is not a breach of etiquette because you are answering to several managers all of whom report to the boss-- you can't be expected to obey all of them when their instructions conflict. Be sure to CC the problem manager.

Indirectly

Follow the problems manager's instructions and de-prioritize everyone else's tasks. Inform the other managers that you are doing this, and if they have any questions tell them (please) address them to the problem manager. By etiquette these emails should be CC'd to the problem manager.

0

You should send a mail to all your managers and ask for more manpower. In the mail you can state, that you've been given a lot of high priority tasks lately, for example task A, B and C by manager Z and your team had to work lots of overhours (warning sign, often costs extra) to get them done.

To further support management in implementing their tasks it would be good to give you an extra of [N] people, so the tasks can be finished without affecting the health of your team or delaying other tasks deadlines.

That's all. You don't blame anyone, you offer a solution and it will take discussion about manager Z one level higher. Either everyone is okay with his style or not, but it is not your business anymore.

Also, when he approaches you with a task, the answer is "I have tasks lined up for managers X and Y, I need to talk to them first how critical completion on those is" and "I need to make a proper estimation first, doesn't make sense to agree to a deadline we cannot keep later".

-4

I used to struggle with this a lot.

When working with a chain of command, the stuff rolls downhill, they say.

Overcoming the primary stressors

  • You want to communicate the importance of your current projects. But the already-rushed manager often won't have time to listen. Don't worry about that: just change gears as quickly as possible.
  • You may not feel prepared for the manager's task. Even so, you probably are, otherwise your manager wouldn't be assigning it to you! Try to be resourceful and find ways to "wing it", take shortcuts, or what-have-you.
  • You may worry about preferential treatment of some kind or another. In some cases, it's true that employers try to stress employees into quitting, but that's rarely the case. It's more of a cat-and-mouse game. Keep a bright attitude and friendly disposition towards all of your coworkers, so that your manager's boss will be impressed by you.

Basically, I've been able to keep jobs by dealing with the three bullet points above, where I was previously unable to keep jobs. We all know that the work environment has everything to do with why turnover happens and personality has very little to do with it. With application, we can adapt, at least a little, to our companies' speeds and cultures, though, in order to stay gainfully employed.

  • I'm just speaking from a reality-based viewpoint. – Wolfpack'08 Oct 4 '14 at 21:29

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