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My role involves working with teams across the company, but there is a strong tendency for people to come and chat us up informally in order to get their things done, put pressure and even "blackmail" my team to help their team.

This is because the formal process is already overwhelmed with a huge backlog and the team needs to churn through that process before anything.

Yet, people seem to think that regardless of what we are doing right now, their task is more important.

To us that adds a lot of distraction and, frankly, even makes us feel insecure because they tell us lots of stories about our performance...

I am the assistant manager of the team and I have the task of being the "external face"/PR of the team, whereas our boss is doing the deep nitty gritty work. I was told that it is part of my role to shoo people away, but I am concerned that I might be coming across in a negative, defensive, "no-we-can't" attitude. I have never worked in customer service so I am not good at telling people "no".

I am usually very friendly and that may be why people approach me more / why I was promoted to this role, but when people keep coming and coming... I honestly am overwhelmed, especially when they try to encroach on me through informal paths.

So how can I get rid of these requests without coming across negatively?

EDIT: I need to emphasize that it is my role to manage and filter the day-to-day requests, not my boss's (he can escalate but he generally wants me to do that).

marked as duplicate by gnat, IDrinkandIKnowThings, yochannah, Garrison Neely, Michael Grubey Nov 7 '14 at 2:23

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    "Blackmail" is a very strong word - what exactly are they doing or saying? – David K Nov 4 '14 at 13:09
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    "This is the type of scenario that causes people to get fired. I don't want that to happen to you" is one such example – RoyalExp Nov 4 '14 at 20:06
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    Well, in that case, it should definitely escalate… – o0'. Nov 4 '14 at 23:24
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    Note one way to reduce a backlog of work, is improve project input submission quality, generally with a set of firm (but fair) standards. If folks are highly anxious to get their projects complete through your group, having them prepare things ahead of time to speed through your process serves them as well. This allows your team to become more efficient in reducing the overall backlog. – zipzit Nov 5 '14 at 17:56

13 Answers 13

95

I've had similar situations and I've simply been honest with them.

"I've got so many things on our plate right now and I don't want to forget your request so if you can send me an email with the [formal request form] then I can get it on our list and have [boss] prioritize it ASAP."

This is a gentle way of reminding them that you have a process but firm enough to turn them down without actually turning them down.

The fact is that since you're in management now, you're going to need to hone your "no skills" because telling people "no" or at least "not without a formal request" is part of the job. You can turn people down or delay them with a smile on your face. It's not just important, but crucial that you nip this behavior now because if you don't, you're training them that this is acceptable.

I realize you don't want to be the bad guy so the alternative is to be the guy whose hands are tied by the process.

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    "Be Honest" works better at this than saying no in my experience. The "training them" part is also golden. Showing empathy and giving them the sense you value them and care about their product is important. It's important to keep remembering you have the same interests (a good product that works well). However - if they still feel free to come by and bother you about features they're still consuming a lot of your time. How would you address that? Being honest with them sometimes does the converse and encourages them to come more (if your milage varies - I'd love a clarification). – Benjamin Gruenbaum Nov 4 '14 at 11:23
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    If bothering you isn't productive, they will mostly stop doing it; they don't want to waste their time, just yours. For those who can't get the idea, you are entitled to tell them point-blank "I understand, I've told you how to submit it to the queue, but I really can't help you beyond that right now and I need to get back to work." – keshlam Nov 4 '14 at 22:01
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    I think using honestly while encouraging them to follow the established process is best. "What's your ticket number? Oh, you haven't submitted it? Well, I really can't do anything about your request unless it's been submitted. Why don't you start there." – NotMe Nov 4 '14 at 22:13
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    I'd go a bit further than that, and offer to walk them through submitting the issue. They will either go along with that, in which case next time you can tell them "look, you know how to do this now, so do it", or else they'll back off because they don't want any formal record of the fact that they're trying to pre-empt the task that is "officially" highest priority. – Steve Jessop Nov 5 '14 at 17:44
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    @ChristopherEstep: well, by taking that argument to its logical conclusion you shouldn't even acknowledge their presence, saying "go away" is taking time from your busy schedule ;-) I'm assuming that the process for submitting a ticket is reasonably sensible within the kinds of thing I'm used to, so that going through it would take 2-5 minutes, roughly comparable with how long the OP is spending anyway on these conversations in which threats are made. I'm also assuming that the problematic time is time spent satisfying the requests. If there isn't even time to discuss the request itself, OK. – Steve Jessop Nov 5 '14 at 20:08
31

People try it because they heard it works.

When you ever allow someone to get through with skipping the process, people will try again and again. As a result those people who do follow the process will be served even slower and will soon realize that they also need to skip line when they ever want to get their stuff done. This feedback loop will soon cause that nobody follows the process anymore.

This might in fact be the reason why your performance is perceived as poor: Your official queue doesn't get processed as fast as people expect, because your spend too much time with processing unofficial requests. It isn't even unlikely that these unofficial requests also fly under the radar of your official performance measurement, further fueling the preconception that your department isn't as productive as it really is.

The only solution is to rigorously tell them "Yes, we will do it, just follow the process as usual".

Do not listen to begging, bribery or blackmail. When people start to complain and accuse you of being uncooperative, ask them to escalate the problem to the person who designed the process. Should the process be too slow and/or inflexible to fulfill the business needs, it might need to be adjusted. Or maybe you just need more people. But either problem isn't yours to solve. It is the job of your superior.

  • This answer should be tattooed on the forehead of every project manager and change management specialist, below a bold "Read Before Asking" heading. – Wesley Long Nov 5 '14 at 5:06
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    That said, in some organisations the official process isn't the real process, and there are some people such that if they need help, that does in fact take priority over following the process. This is something to clear up with your own boss: "the CEO keeps asking me to do things and last time threatened to fire me if I won't. Should I do them or should I apologise and say that I'm just not allowed to and you'll fire me if I do?". It sucks that the CEO won't follow the process, but if that's the facts on the ground then you have to acknowledge it. – Steve Jessop Nov 5 '14 at 17:46
14

You can't. Ultimately, whenever somebody asks for something they feel they deserve, but get told no, then they're going to be disappointed - that's the truth, and trying to avoid it will get you nowhere.

The good news is that you can mitigate this disappointment and ensure it's short term by doing the following:

  • Be upfront - if you can't do something now, say so.
  • Set expectations - if the reality is that this request won't be serviced for weeks, be honest about that. Continually missing deadlines hugely irritates people and the short term reward of them believing you can help sooner is rapidly overshadowed.
  • Provide reasons, not excuses. Your company has processes which they should follow - reiterate this, and explain why the process is important.

I understand you want to avoid a "no, we can't" attitude - but if your boss is telling you that "we can't", then that's the reality of the situation. It's no good trying to be everyone's helpful friend if you can't deliver.

7

This is because the formal process is already overwhelmed with a huge backlog and the team needs to churn through that process before anything.

Do you have the ability to streamline the process? It will be much easier to say "please go through the process" if the process is transparent and inclusive.

Make the business aware of your other priorities and ideally get the business involved in the prioritization of it. That is run scheduled, regular prioritization meetings. Then when someone approaches you out of that meeting they are not asking you for a little extra help, they are asking you to ignore the requirements of the rest of the business.

Finally be heartless. Some people will hate you for it, but frankly they will hate you even you say "no" with your sweetest voice, or "yes" with no real intention of completing it.

7

First don't feel guilty for saying no. You aren't saying you are not going to do the work, you are saying to follow the process.

Further, these people know what the process is, they are trying to game you into doing their work first because they know the way tasks are prioritized in the official system will not get their work done first. This is like asking daddy for permission after mom has already said no. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they want what they want with no consideration for the other projects in the queue.

You have to consistently push them back to the offical system. If they need a higher priority, tell them who to contact to up the priority in the official system.

Remeber the offical queue serves several purposes, it measures your performance (which means the unoffical stuff is killing your performance measures). It also serves to show when more people are needed by the length of the backlog. Skipping the official system is the worst thing you can do.

5

Welcome to the world of the politician! You need to divorce yourself from the process, and speak as though you are a mediator between the person and the process. You aren't a representative of the process, you are the person's friend, and are trying valiantly to help them deal with the process.

Emphasize the following

  • The process is fair for everyone
  • What they are asking is unfair to everyone else
  • Strengthening your division might help

Them: We really need this done by Tuesday for a meeting, is there any way we can speed things up?

You: Unfortunately none of the tasks ahead of yours have a note suggesting that more important tasks can jump ahead of them. Would you like me to add a note to your task saying that more important tasks that come up later can jump ahead of yours?

Them: Bigwig is going to be very disappointed if this isn't done in time, I'd hate to see you let go.

You: Me too! That would slow everyone's tasks down even more. Hey, if you have pull with Bigwig, maybe you could suggest that they hire a few more people for my department, or you could offer one of your existing job openings to my department, that would surely make things go faster!

Essentially you remind them that you, too, have limited resources, and that the process is fair. The fairness and inflexibility protects them, and if they need this done faster, get them to help increase your resources.

  • You make a lot of good points here, but "Would you like me to add a note to your task saying that more important tasks that come up later can jump ahead of yours?" This seems passive aggressive. I don't think I could respond this way without feeling uncomfortable. – Lumberjack Apr 3 '18 at 17:32
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    @Lumberjack It is a little over the top, but emphasizes that if you were to allow them to cut in line, they too might be subject to others cutting in line. Certainly you would have to alter the language for your personality and style of delivery, and "cutting in line" is a more socially acceptable way to describe what's happening. – Adam Davis Apr 3 '18 at 18:50
3

There are a couple of things that you need to take a step back and understand... 1. People will always choose people over process - its faster and its more personal. 2. The majority of people don't actually expect to get ahead of the queue, but its worth a try when it takes little effort.

How to deal with it - tactfully draw their attention to the process and explain that if they genuinely feel that they have a higher priority then they will have to escalate it through their management process.

Most important - there can be no exceptions!! Otherwise your integrity will be called into question.

Its a hard stance to take and I do sympathise with your situation, but if you stand firm and do not make exceptions, then word will soon get out that there's no point trying to circumvent the process.

Then, you will be in a position to determine whether the process itself is actually working or not and deal with it accordingly.

2

You should never let them escalate it over the required proceedure. As everyone else has been saying, that's going to back up your regular workload and encourage them to go through the unofficial channel again and again.

Sometimes however, there is an emergency need, and official channels aren't fast enough. In this case, it should not be your personal responsibility to make it happen, especially if they are threatening you with termination.

Escalate it. Run it by your boss even if he's 'busy' with other things, run it by HIS boss if he has one you can contact, make sure that these 'important' requests are being escalated to the people who should know about this emergency need. If it turns out that the requester has been wasting your time, they will know why that happened, and who's onus it belongs to (Hint: When they request it as an emergency, it is not your fault that workflow got interrupted).

Regulation is important because it prevents you from being dragged under the bus for mismanaging your project priorities. When someone tries to step over that regulation, you need to tell the people who are in charge of what you do why you 'need' to break that workflow.

And, quite possibly, when they learn that you're going to escalate it for them, they will nicely back away from that request.

1

You misunderstand your job description and frankly your boss is screwing you.

Your job description is to be the official jerk, azzhole, you name it. Your boss does not want to be known as the jerk so he's setting you up. If you survive it your reputation in the company will be permanently damaged and you can forget advancement. Sorry but that's just the way it is.

Your best option is simply to be unavailable at the drop of a hat BUT never ignore them. What I have done in this situation is the following:

Work from home, work from another office, find somewhere else to be than your desk. That forces the people who are used to making a trip to your desk to buttonhole you to show up, find your gone, then leave. Eventually they will stop doing it and you can spend more time at your desk.

Never answer your phone always let it go to voicemail.

Setup a voicemail greeting that emphasizes that email is the fastest way to contact you. People will ignore it and leave messages anyway. You can retrain them by when you listen to your voicemail, get the callers name and then respond to them by email. If they don't leave an email address and you can't find it then just don't call them back for a week or so, and then when you do call them back make sure to call when you know they won't be there - like 7pm at night or 6am in the morning their time - and leave a voicemail message on their phone saying you couldn't understand their message and it would be better if they email you.

The goal is to get all input to you via email. The reason is that first it's trackable time and date. So people cannot claim that they contacted you and were ignored. You have proof they didn't contact you. When you get email requests from them that are backdoor you can reply with a document of how to use the official channel. And you should always reply to emails ASAP. That trains people this: if they try to see you they waste their time, if they try to call you they waste their time, if they try emailing then you respond. You will on occasion get true emergencies that need to be escalated that is why it's critical to keep a channel open to you.

Good luck and start looking for another job. When you quit in your exit interview emphasize the problem is the company is not putting enough people in your team to handle all the work, and leave it at that.

1

There's actually only two possibilities here.

  • Your team needs more resources! The fact that so many people depend on your team is great. It means your company has a lot of work it has to do, which means it has a lot of work it can do, which means it is, you guessed it, growing, and your team is where it needs to grow.
  • Your process is terrible. Maybe there are 10 medium priority things that need to be completed before one possibly legitimately high priority off-the-cuff request can be reviewed. Sounds like the new process is to skip the old process and try to get stuff done by going to you directly. Sadly, that may actually be an improvement.

Consider improving the process rather than choosing. Perhaps there should be an expedited review process if it really is the case that this looks too much like an "all in the queue" instead of "review then prioritize".

Just remember that it takes a woman 9 months to conceive and give birth, but if she works really hard at it, it takes about 9 months. If your team is under duress, this is not a problem with the team, but with the company that's putting so much duress on the team. That really should be your attitude. Nothing here is your fault any more than the human gestation period -- yeah, you get the point.

Your strategy should involve a lot of "no". By the way, the way to say "no" is to do a lot of repeating yourself.

"No, you'll have to go through our process."
"But that'll take weeks!"
"Yeah it could be just go through it."
"This is why your team looks so bad."
"Maybe but it's how it has to get done so just go through the process."

Don't open the conversation up outside of your talking points, which should be, as I see it:

  1. "You have to go through the process no matter how backed up it is."
  2. "Our team doesn't have enough resources." (This is a political plug on your part!)
  3. "You'll have to take that up with management."
1

In another view: Process should work for the organization. But all too often process can work against the organization.

This is because the formal process is already overwhelmed with a huge backlog and the team needs to churn through that process before anything.

So how is the formal process? Are you strictly working in a fifo fashion or do you also have a process for skipping ahead of the queue? People want to get their job done, and often are blocked by requirements from other departments. Nothing as frustrating as that 20 persons in your department can't do their work because of some trivial problem which another department needs to solve.

In the end, one of the best ways to not get overwhelmed is have a process to skip ahead of the queue. And have a cost to that. Then whenever someone is coming to you at lunch, you can them refer to that. Because fulfilling their request outside of process would deprive you of funds and you can point that out to them.

-2

I am concerned that I might be coming across in a negative, defensive, "no-we-can't" attitude.

Yes-we-can!-Right-after-finishing-those-other-equally-important-requests.

Refer to someone who can make the decision if their request is more important, for example your team manager.

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    this doesn't seem to add anything substantial over points made and explained in prior 6 answers – gnat Nov 4 '14 at 15:34
-3

In a previous lifetime I got a reputation for being friendly, competent, and helpful, so I had a LOT of customers coming to me with out-of-band requests.

My response was typically something like:

"Jeff, you know I am always happy to help you, but it's not my job to help you, it's my job to work on tickets. Can you please file a ticket so that there is an audit trail for my work?"

As for prioritizing work with limited resources, you can tell people to include business impact in their tickets, and publish your triage rules so that everyone can see what the process is. (Don't go to SLAs unless you know you can meet them, though.)

  • this doesn't seem to add anything substantial over points made and explained in prior 11 answers – gnat Nov 6 '14 at 8:32
  • The part I thought might be useful was the implied "it's my job to work on tickets, I can't justify taking the time to help you if there is no associated ticket." that was not mentioned in the previous answers. – arp Nov 6 '14 at 9:21
  • as far as I can tell, the same point was made and explained in this answer yesterday – gnat Nov 6 '14 at 9:24

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