manager keeps missing deadlines that impact my work

A reader writes:

A recent snafu at work has left me wondering on how I should handle similar situations in the future. One of my supervisors frequently leaves things I need for my work to the last minute. I understand my supervisor is extremely busy (doing the work of 1.5-2 people right now), but I’m getting knocked for these things not getting done or for errors resulting from the unreasonable time constraints.

Most recently, I waited 4-6 weeks for a letter for a mailing. I gave verbal reminders and an email reminder. As a result, the letter went out without some key pieces that I later found out were wanted/required but wasn’t informed about, as well as with a typo. This is all made more urgent as one piece in the packet (that couldn’t be sent without the letter) becomes irrelevant in a few weeks.

How would you recommend I handle situations like this in the future? I’m at a bit of a loss because of the power differential between us, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds or make it seem like I’m throwing my manager under the bus to our boss. In the past when I’ve asked for deadlines, for example with the letter, I was told as soon as possible or on X date. Then X date passes and I still don’t have it.

Think of it this way: Your job as the owner of these projects is to do everything in your power to get them done by their deadlines, but you do not have a magic wand that can compel your manager to produce things more quickly. That means that you should focus on the pieces that you can control. For example:

* Be very, very clear ahead of time about the trade-offs for delays. For example: “In order to have this fully proofed and in the mail in time for the content to still be relevant to people, I need your piece by Tuesday. If we get it on Wednesday or later, we can still get it to the printer in time but will need to skip the usual proofreading. If it’s Friday or later, we’ll be giving recipients hardly any time before the offer expires.” Then, if you get it on Thursday, you say, “I want to remind you that because our deadline was Tuesday, we’re going to skip the usual proofreading in order to get this in the mail on time.” (It’s still going to be your boss’s prerogative to say “no, find a way to get the proofing done before it goes out,” and then you have a conversation about what to push back to make that happen and whether it’s worth delaying the mail date or not.)

* Once a deadline is missed, follow up immediately and provide similar info as above. For example: “I know you’re swamped. I was hoping to get X from you by yesterday. At this point, we can still get it out next week but I’d need to get it from you today. If that’s not realistic, can we talk about how to proceed?”

* In the spirit of focusing on the pieces here that you can control, if we assume that your manager may not be able to get you what you need by when you need it, are there other ways you could get those things or make it easier/faster for to get them done? For instance, you might say to her, “I know you’re swamped — how about I draft this and then run it by you so that you just need to sign off?” Or, “I know you get a ton of documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? Would it be easier to review if I brought things to our meetings rather than emailing them, or maybe there are some things that I can move forward with on my own?”

* Talk about the big-picture pattern. For example: “I know that you’re juggling tons of things and can’t always meet the internal deadlines I’m setting for my projects. Is there a better way for me to navigate that? A few times, it’s led to me getting dinged for delays, so I’m hoping that there might be a better way for me to approach it.” And/or: ““[Bad consequences] are happening when I’m not able to get your pieces in time. Should we just accept that that will happen sometimes, or would it it make sense to handle this stuff differently?”

* If the person knocking you for the problem resulting from these delays is someone other than your manager (sounds like it might be her boss?), it’s reasonable to say, “Can we make sure that Lucinda knows that we ended up delaying this because of priority conflicts? I don’t want it to look like an oversight.”

Ultimately, your manager may make the call that Priority X is more important than Your Priority Y, even if it means that Y is delayed or otherwise negatively impacted, but the keys are to make sure that she’s making those calls with full information about the trade-offs, and that she’s making it clear to you and her own boss that she’s doing that.

{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Argh!

    As soon as I read this: “One of my supervisors ” I thought “uh-oh”

    Do the other supervisors know this is happening? What happens if one of them has something urgent come up and you’re busy with the unnecessarily delayed project of the disorganized one? Perhaps the disorganized supervisor needs someone dedicated just to them.

  2. ArtsAdmin4Life

    If none of what Alison’s suggests ends up working, I recommend doing what I did once in a similar situation – quit. (Ideally with another job lined up.) You and your work are not a priority for this manager. You do not need nor deserve to be stressed out or “knocked” because someone else is failing to do their job in a reasonable amount of time, especially after being reminded over and over.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Maybe — but we don’t have enough information to know if the trade-offs the manager is choosing to make are reasonable ones or not, given all the various priorities she might have on her plate.

      Especially if the OP is in an assistant-type role, this might be par for the course for the type of work she’s doing. Learning to manage it can be really valuable and make her pretty sought-after, since it’s a skill lots of people don’t have.

      1. Observer

        But, if the OP is getting knocked for things that are out of her control, it doesn’t make a difference if the manager’s priorities are reasonable or not. It’s not fair or appropriate to blame her, and if that doesn’t stop, she really does need to consider leaving for another job.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          It doesn’t sound like the OP has taken the sorts of steps in the post yet to make sure that everyone is in the loop about what’s happening, and doing that could pretty easily solve the blame element.

          1. Observer

            Oh, sure. I agree that “think of leaving” is the LAST thing to do, no the first. I also don’t think that the OP described a situation that is so dysfunctional that she needs to consider leaving as long as she stops being dinged.

      2. Artemesia

        Super fabulous point. Learning how to actually get the job done in these situations is an amazing skill and will be a marketable skill. When I had a boss like this I usually drafted those letters and then cornered him to review them using similar language to what Alison suggested i.e. ‘I know you are swamped with work . . . so I drafted this; can you see if it is ready to go.’

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

          It has taken me a long time to learn how to manage up, and the higher I go in my career, the more critical the skill has become.

          Also, learning to give statements ahead of time like AAM suggests rather than having something go out layout/be delayed and being left holding the bag.

          1. Persephone Mulberry

            Yes! A lot of people probably think of “managing up” only in the context of admin/executive assistant and the person they directly support, but any role that involves collaborating with others will benefit from knowing how to get what you need, when you need it.

        2. Doriana Gray

          70% of my current job is drafting REALLY IMPORTANT LETTERS to clients with state regulation, policy information, and loss mitigation language in them, but even when I was just an assistant in less high-level industries, I still always wrote my own letters and only asked for a proofread if I was unclear about some position I was taking or wording that needed to be clear for company policy purposes. I’m impatient and hate waiting for people to read letters, especially if they’re long, so I just tend to do it and get sign off approval only if necessary. (And it helps that I’m a former journalist, so every manager I’ve ever had just trusts that I know what I’m doing.)

          OP, if you’ve done enough of these letters and there’s some overlap to them, I’d really recommend you take the advice to take the initiative to draft the letters yourself using prior approved letters as templates and have your supervisor briefly scan it. This can save you both a lot of time.

      3. Wondering

        Question: how would you describe this skill on a resume or cover letter without making it sound like you’re blaming the manager/overstepping bounds? I’ve been doing this exact same thing at my current job and would like to highlight it as a valuable skill in the future, but don’t want to come off as whiny/nagging.

    2. Not an IT Guy

      I agree with leaving…considering that if anything is to go wrong, it’s most likely that the manager will throw you under the bus. I once had a manager who interfered with my projects, even going as far as physically destroying my data because he “didn’t like how my desk was cluttered.” Needless to say he ended up firing me because I couldn’t get that one project done that I no longer had the data for. So if things can’t be worked out, run before your manager has a chance to blame you for not getting things done.

      1. LD

        Really? There doesn’t seem to be anything that indicates the supervisor is being malicious, in fact, the OP writes that the supervisor is doing the work of as many as 2 supervisors because he/she is overworked. Yes, of course, there are malicious supervisors who would do things to make themselves look good at the expense of their employees, but that doesn’t seem to be what the OP thinks or has expressed. Maybe the supervisor’s priorities are different or the OP hasn’t been as direct as needed to share the impact or the consequences of the supervisor being late with the information OP needs. Alison’s advice is spot on to start with sharing the consequences and asking for help and support to prevent the consequences and to at least let the supervisor know about the problem. And not to wait to remind the supervisor till it’s late, especially since there is a pattern.

        1. voyager1

          I don’t know, if the LW is getting dinged performance wise for issues, who is blaming her and why isn’t the manager taking some of the responsibility for the errors if need be. The manager doesn’t have to be malicious to the LW for her to feel the way she does which to me seems like she is frustrated.

          1. JessaB

            This, I think the bigger issue is not the missed deadlines but the fact that the boss in question is throwing the OP under (or ignoring, or not thinking important to make it clear that it was the boss’s decision to not do x) and letting the OP get in trouble for something the boss needs to make absolutely clear is zero % the OP’s fault.

            Also if you have an employee that is completely stressing out over deadlines you are constantly missing, it’s kind of on you as a manager to let the employee know what you want them to do when this happens. In other words the OP’s manager needs to manage.

        2. Sally Sparrow

          Yes this! There is too much on Supervisor’s plate, and this is coming back to bite both of us (and the department) from the dropped ball. Supervisor even frequently helps manage the artificial crisis created by their last-minuteness. Luckily, another person is being hired on Supervisor’s level so hopefully the workload goes down a bit.

    3. LQ

      I think it is entirely possible that this could be an opportunity. I had something like this happen. I offered to take care of the whole thing rather than just my part. My boss was incredibly relieved, he didn’t really understand the minutia of it and now I just report back to him the big picture and what I need on it. I can do it much, much faster than he can, plus it gave me the chance to learn shiny new things.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        Great point and that conversation could just happen to bring the manager of the supervisor into the loop about the deadlines they’re missing, since it sounds like the manager is unaware. Which was my other thought, is the manager aware? Would it make sense in their office culture for the Op to copy manager on all these deadline emails?

    4. INTP

      If nothing else works, I agree. Hopefully, Alison’s suggestions will help, or it will be made clear that there were more important priorities so the tradeoff in the quality of OP’s projects is understood to not be OP’s fault. But sometimes people are just like this and cannot be changed.

      I worked under a CEO like this. There was no reasoning with him about trade-offs. It was our responsibility to stay up all night proofreading, skip lunch and not pee all day, or whatever else to make his deadlines work after he did whatever part when he felt like doing it (which was never until it created a crisis for everyone else). We would be expected to bully vendors into giving us rush expedited service without charging for it because he didn’t feel like choosing, say, a promotional pen, until two days before they were needed. Then any imperfections in the final product were our fault for not doing our jobs perfectly. But he was the CEO so that was just how it was going to be.

    5. Dan

      What I was going to write on this was:

      If the ‘dings’ are affecting you negatively, such as on your performance review, raises, or bonuses, then it’s time to seriously consider your options, including finding another job. While some “friction” in these kinds of cases are par for the course, there’s a line between reasonable and unreasonable consequences. The trick is to figure out where that line is and leave if the situation doesn’t improve.

      If you do leave and want to cite that excuse to a future employer, you need to explain that you tried everything you could to make the situation work, and only when things became untennable did you decide to move on. (Nobody wants to hire someone when the going gets just a little tough.)

  3. AMG

    I wonder if some distribution lists with you as a recipient would help. If your manager sets up the distro ‘mailings’ then you are more looped in and/or can get your hands on the information faster.

    If none of Alison’s suggestions help, it may be that being at the tail end of the whip is just part of your job. Some people can learn to function that way. If everything is last-minute, nothing is and it’s just business as usual. Not ideal, but possibly functional.

  4. AdAgencyChick

    OP, who is knocking you for the issues caused by your manager’s missed deadlines?

    If it’s your manager, I think the steps Alison suggests will help immensely to get your manager to recognize how she is contributing to the problem.

    But it sounds like you have another boss who is not your manager, and who is criticizing you. If that’s the case, I think it would also help to loop your boss in on what’s happening, not in a finger-pointing way but in a “how can we do this better?” way. (The answer to “how can we do this better?” may very well be that projects that your manager consistently doesn’t have time to finish properly get handed off to other people by the boss.)

    1. neverjaunty

      Good catch.

      And OP, make sure that in taking Senior Blogger Green’s advice, you are putting all this in email and not just talking to the late boss about these things. It is impossible to overemphasize how helpful it is to have written, time-and-date-stamped proof of your efforts to get things back on track, rather than it being your word against boss’s.

    2. Meg Murry

      Yes, if the person critizing you is a key person on the project, it is probably better to loop them in earlier in a matter of fact but not throwing boss under the bus matter.

      For instance, you could send an email update to both your boss and the supervisor that says: the packets are finished, just waiting on Bossperson to finish the letter. Then if the person in charge has any power, he/she can lean on boss to get it done, or delegate it to someone else.

      However, I also agree with the other advice that this would be a good place for you to step up, if possible. Can you ask if this is a packet that goes out year after year, or if this project is similar to another project, and if so, could you use the letter from that time to draft a template for your boss?

    3. INTP

      Oh, good point. Yes, CCing the other supervisor on your “I need Item by Date” emails is a good idea. Maybe start with an email containing a general list of all items and the dates you need them by (one of the items being something like “Full list of items that must be included in the mailing” to avoid the forgetting-to-tell-you issue) before anything is late so it isn’t interpreted as aggressive or tattling. Then CC the supervisor on follow up. Maybe not a first reminder, but definitely the second reminders on.

      And if the problem is chronic and has affected numerous projects that both supervisors were involved in, suggesting a “Let’s figure out how we can improve our process to avoid this” meeting and showing up with examples of all the times you were sent items late might be a good idea.

  5. AFT123

    I’m sorry, OP! This is a really hard dynamic to work in successfully and I know it adds so much stress. Alison has some great advice. Even if it doesn’t end up working out with this position and your supervisor isn’t responsive, have the experience of trying to fix this situation will serve you well in other positions. I was in a similar situation and while the conversation I had probably wasn’t as great as what Alison suggested, it didn’t make much of a difference with my supervisor, and for better or worse I started to just skip getting her involved and ask forgiveness if she got mad. She was too busy to even notice, and when she did, I apologized and it was on to the next thing. I’m not sure if this is applicable or even good advice in your situation, but if the only other option is quitting, maybe this would work for you. I still ended up leaving over various other things but creating/forcing my own autonomy made things a lot more bearable (and successful to be honest) for the last months I was there.

  6. videogamePrincess

    Don’t be afraid to go job-hunting if this is an ongoing problem. Obviously weigh other factors, but don’t worry about company loyalty or whatnot if this ends up not working out.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Sure, of course. But for what it’s worth, this can be a really manageable problem once you figure out how to approach it. I wouldn’t start thinking about quitting at this point.

      1. AnotherHRPro

        I’m a little surprised by all of the comments that it is time to find a new job. Alison’s advice is exactly how to handle this and this really isn’t that unusual, particularly the higher you go in an organization. As an employee, it is important to communicate clearly to our managers what issues are happening and what are possible implications. When you have a lot of competing priorities you need information to determine what you need to focus on. If the OP’s manager understands what the trade-offs are for not getting the OP the information that she needs the manager’s behavior might change. Or it might be something that needs a different solution (someone else provides the information, etc.).

  7. jm

    I definitely concur with AAM’s advice about putting together drafts, with whatever information you have, and then presenting the draft to your manager for input/changes/clarifications. I’m an exec assistant and this technique speeds my boss up dramatically. It’s a lot easier for her to edit my draft than to create something from scratch.

  8. LC

    Wow, this letter is similar to what I’m going through with one of my managers. When I ask him for information, which he doesn’t always get me on time, he tends to retaliate in a passive-aggressive way. Any advice on how to handle that? Here’s what I wrote Alison:

    Among other things I do for my company, I work as a recruiting coordinator. One of my jobs is to get a list of interviewers from the person in charge of recruiting and set up a schedule, which I put on interviewers’ calendars.

    Last Thursday I left for the 3-day weekend without scheduling the interviewers for candidates that would be arriving the following Monday and Tuesday. I don’t like doing this because that means I have to scramble the day that interviewees are supposed to arrive to our offices. Also it’s not really fair to the interviewers who are told day-of that they now have to interview someone. It’s manageable but not ideal.

    The person in charge of recruiting did not give me the interviewers list on time. In the days leading up to the 3 day weekend, I asked repeatedly for this information. I tried to be polite about it but I am wondering if I pissed him off with my repeated requests because when he got to this task (which he finally got to on the first day of the 3-day weekend, meaning I was working on a day off). he sent me a list of everything he noticed that I did wrong (details that I forgot to get to that would have made his job a bit easier). He also sent me directions on how to do my job. Now, I know how to do my job – and I didn’t really appreciate the implication that he had to tell me how to do my job when I do well 99% of the rest of the time.

    I am wondering if he’s feeling guilty and insecure about the fact that he’s behind on a lot of things, does not get me information on time, and in general has not been able to keep up with his recruiting duties so that this recruiting season we have fallen far short of our hiring goal. I think he’s burning out – he leaves when he knows he’s supposed to interview candidates and goes to the gym for 1-2 hours. He also has started to leave sarcastic replies to some of my requests for information.

    1. orchidsandtea

      That’s so tricky. His response to your (necessary) reminders is to be vindictive, ugh.

      I wonder about LQ’s suggestion below, of seeing if there’s anything you can take on (like suggesting who could do the interviews, so he can sign off on it rather than having to come up with it).

    2. Beezus

      Do you see that you’re frustrated that his delay impacted you, when at least part of his delay was related to information he needed from you that you didn’t provide?

      It does sound like he’s kind of sucky and has some problems, but I think your focus is in the wrong place. If I were in your shoes, I’d be making a written checklist for the process he corrected you on, and I’d send it to him for review and focus on following it consistently. I’d also address any differences in the work instructions he sent you (either by changing what you’re doing or starting a conversation about how you do X instead of Y for reason Z). Get aligned with him on what you’re supposed to be doing, and show him that you care about doing the work well.

      If he’s behind and not keeping up with his work, I’d focus on making sure the work I pass along to him for input/next steps is in the best possible shape, and look for ways to ease the process along – are there steps or parts of steps that you can handle? Are there areas where you can suggest a course of action for approval/denial instead of waiting for him to tell you what to do? When you’re bringing him problems, do you have ideas on how to fix them? Focusing on those things will put you in a better position than focusing on what’s going on with him.

      1. orchidsandtea

        ? I think we’re reading this differently. Where are you getting that the recruiting guy was missing information from LC?

        1. KG

          “he sent me a list of everything he noticed that I did wrong (details that I forgot to get to that would have made his job a bit easier)”

    3. I'm a Little Teapot

      Whoa, he’s leaving you sarcastic replies when you ask for info and blowing off interviews with job candidates, presumably leaving them hanging and perhaps after they’ve taken rather risky time off from their current jobs, to play hooky at the gym? He’s not “guilty and insecure” or “burning out” – he’s a jerk.

    4. KG

      This task seems like a weird middle step. Can’t the person in charge or recruiting also be the person who enters this into the calendars? OR at a minimum that person could do the schedule entry themselves should you be on holidays or otherwise unavailable. It seems like extra unnecessary coordination for them to arrange everything and then you enter it into the schedules. You say people were coming in on Monday and Tuesday. How does the recruiter manage to plan that without access to the schedules? Do your coworkers have wide open schedules? In my office, the management level people would not have availability in their schedules for last minute interviews and it would cause a big problem if people started showing up.

  9. New Bee

    I think Alison’s first piece of advice will go a long way. If your boss isn’t clear on where she falls in the pipeline (maybe she’s assuming she’s the last step?), she may not understand the difference a day or two makes. Perhaps a silver lining is that you’ll gain a lot of skill in designing and communicating project plans. When you lay it all out up front, following up on missed deadlines isn’t nagging or micromanaging; it’s a reasonable action that moves the (previously-communicated) plan forward.

    I also don’t think anything in the letter suggests OP should quit; there’s no indication her job is on the line, and making sure the big boss is looped in should prevent OP from getting knocked around in the future.

  10. Anna No Mouse

    I have a project lead who has put a whole project in jeopardy because of his inability to meet deadlines. As the project manager, it falls to me to get things done, but we work in different offices in different states, so there’s no poking my head into his office to pester him. Even with regular verbal and email reminders, as well as written out and agreed upon timelines, he doesn’t get me what I need anywhere close to the timeline.

    I have actually spoken to our operations manager about this, since I don’t want this falling on me when this project goes kablooey.

    The last straw for me was getting an email from said project lead that he sent to our whole team asking us what we were doing to meet a certain (inane) request of his, telling us he doesn’t like being ignored. Not only were we already working on it, but if he had checked his email, he’d have seen the messages in which we copied him discussing how to address this (completely pointless) request of his.

    I feel your pain, OP. I hope you have better luck than I have.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      I wonder if, for you and Op, there’s a project management tool/app that your company would go for? Haven’t used them myself but I have friends that talk about this type stuff and sounds like it could be invaluable in this type circumstance. It would show all the moving parts, when they’re due, who’s responsible, status, etc.

      1. Anna No Mouse

        I created a project plan at the beginning of the project with just this information, but it needed the project lead’s buy-in. I finally received it… 4 months later.

  11. LQ

    Are there pieces that you can peel off to other people? (Having someone other than your supervisor proof read it for example?)

    Is it also a chance to see if you can be included in some of the meetings and such that lead up to these things so you have the what needs to be added pieces covered? (Sometimes this is reasonable and your boss will be happy to give you a new task and it can help move you up, sometimes this is really not reasonable so it is worth thinking about is this something you could volunteer to do.)

  12. AnotherFed

    Ouch, this could have been written about me. Alison’s advice is all great, but the key is to be short and swift – yes, your manager needs to know the impact of skipping something or being late, but if she’s really swamped, six long emails about six things you need are not going to get dealt with. If possible, give reminders (ideally a matter of fact rundown of what you need and when and what’s already late) in person at times you’re already scheduled to see the manager (don’t interrupt just to do this) – that’s a perfect opportunity for her to reprioritize or flat out tell you that something just isn’t going to happen.

  13. Sally Sparrow

    OP here. Thank you for the suggestions. I have a bit of a problem being more assertive and the language and approach is really helpful.

    Background/for those that are wondering, I receive work from three different people within my department (11 people total) – Supervisor, Coworker (who is above me, but who I wouldn’t consider a supervisor), and the VP. This is also my first post-college job and its been interesting to say the least. For those that suggest quitting, the most recent has been the only seriously egregious one with substantial, negative impact, and beyond this issue I really love my job. But I know I can’t change Supervisor, so I’d rather work on what I can control. I already know Supervisor is not the best at making decisions in a timely manner. So I’ve stopped giving different options.

    And for those that asked who is dinging me. It’s mostly blowback from VP over the low attendee count, because the mailing hasn’t gone out so people don’t know about an event that Supervisor has deemed cannot go out separate from the mailing.

    1. LQ

      Reading this I stand by my statement even more. Try to offer (if you think your supervisor would be ok with it) to go to the meetings, or say, hey, if you forward me the notes from whoever, I can wrap it into the invites, update it, run it past Suzy for a proof and then have the final ready so all you have to do it approve it. This can be a great chance to grow in your first post-college position.

    2. Meg Murry

      Can you propose a one-on-one weekly with your Supervisor to go over project status?

      Alternately, send a weekly update. Include something like the following sections, with short bullet points: Items Complete, Items in Process, Waiting on, and Next Up. Possibly consider putting Waiting On first, and bolding the names of who you are waiting for. If your supervisor has a clear list of what you need from her, that’s all you can do.

      Although it is also possible that your boss has decided to stop burning the candle at both ends and is letting some balls drop (to mix some metaphors). You say she is doing the work of 1.5-2 people – it is possible that the VP has acknowledged that, but isn’t willing to do anything about it, because, hey, everything’s getting done, so it’s ok, right? It’s a terrible strategy, but sometimes the only way to show the powers that be that you can’t keep up with being understaffed is to let some things go badly. That forces their hand to either step up and find a way to hire more staff or find a way to step down the list of events/priorities/tasks.

    3. Stranger than fiction

      So, burning question, is VP aware what’s happening? If not, finding a way for that to happen without pissing off supervisor is key.

      1. Sally Sparrow

        Yes. VP had to approve Supervisor’s letter (which happened in 1-2 days and was not the cause of delay). And VP asked the status of how many people are planning on attending event thus far.

        1. Observer

          Then why is the VP giving you grief about this?

          You absolutely need to keep the VP in the loop, as it’s the only way to make it clear that you have done everything that is reasonable to get timely response.

    4. Observer

      Then, in addition to Alison’s excellent advice, you need to make sure that the VP is in on all the your requests and explanations of the issues. It’s not about throwing your supervisor under the bus. It’s making sure that the VP knows what the problem is (and that it is NOT your fault and lack that’s the problem.) This is, in many ways, the VP’s problem to fix. But, he really needs to see how the staffing level is feeding the issue. Seeing the problem happen as it happens is a good way for that to happen.

    5. hbc

      Hmm. If you have a problem with being assertive, it’s possible there’s not really dinging going on. “It’s too bad that mailing went out so late and we had low attendance” can sound accusatory if you’re a bit timid. But even if there are literal fingers pointing, I think you really have to be clear and unemotional. “I was told that the notice about the event needed to go with the mailing, and I was waiting on X and Y before the mailing could go. Do you want them split up next time if we hit a drop-dead date for event notification? Or should the mailing go out with X and Y if this happens again?”

      You can do this after the fact, too, if you tend to clam up in the face of immediate criticism. “I reviewed my notes, and here’s how it went down….” A reasonable boss will see that you can’t magically make a person above you get the info to you in time. But if you lay it out clearly and you still get the blame just because you have the last step in the process, start looking around.

  14. Newbie

    Something I have found helpful that keeps my butt covered when I’m dealing with people who for one reason or another have trouble with time management, is to give them a due date BEFORE the actual due date – so I’ll say something is due a week before it actually is, giving them and myself buffer time. This is of course, more of a short term solution and can’t always work out but it’s something that can keep you moving forward in case your supervisor isn’t willing to deal with the issue themselves.

  15. Marcy Marketer

    This was happening to me extremely frequently in my current position. I was incredibly awkward when someone would ask me why something wasn’t done, and I was waiting on my supervisor for approval or part of the piece. I would hem and haw and kind of half answer. I felt like I was in a no-win situation– If I didn’t explain clearly what happened, my reputation was on the line, but if I did explain the issue, I would get in trouble and damage my reputation with my supervisor. I tried a couple of things– one was skipping supervisor approval, for which I got in trouble. The second was kind of hinting at what was happening with internal clients, which backfired as it made my office’s reputation slide.

    I actually did find a solution, and that was to document the timeline for things with my supervisor and the client on the email. So I might say “I will Draft X by DATE, supervisor will proof by DATE, and client will approve by DATE otherwise X will not be delivered on DATE.” Then I’d follow up with “I’ve drafted X and it’s with supervisor for review. We expect the proof to be complete by DATE.”

    With my supervisor on the hook for specific dates with clients/departments, she had a little more onus to complete her deadlines since it would affect her reputation. It also had the bonus of making responsibilities a lot more clear without me having to be conformational or seem like I was undermining her at all. We also started using a project management software and added another person to the team, decreasing her workload, which I’m sure helped. I still have to “ping” her a lot, but at least everything is getting done!

  16. Supervisor Too

    Being a supervisor who is sometimes a bottleneck due to my own busy schedule, I really like the idea of asking how you can help. When someone is pressuring me for something, and my time is limited, I have learned to ask them for a draft document or for a list of relevant bullet points so that I am not starting from a blank page. This really helps me as I switch gears from one project to the next to the next.

    Perhaps this is something you could offer to do, but if you do, be very open to the idea that the version that comes back to you may be quite dissimilar to your draft. This does not constitute a negative commentary on your contribution, which did its work in getting the supervisor to think through what needed to be said. People submit drafts to me sometimes, and seeing it from their perspective helps me clarify my own.

  17. Didididi

    Thank you for these suggestions, Alison. I have a manager that takes forever to get things done when it comes to my department. I asked to create a pool of freelancers in November (not even hire someone, just have more than one freelancer available who can cover) — I even gave him a few leads, but nothing has been done, no one called. At the time we were ok staff wise, but now we have one person with serious health problems and one who wants to reduce their hours. And on top of everything else, our workload is increasing. I now have the words I need to explain work may not get done or be of poor quality if freelancers aren’t hired. And I can push back when he comes to me with his own, last -minute jobs.

  18. MillersSpring

    People respond differently to various ways of following up. I have a list of tactics for getting responses:
    – follow-up email
    – phone call
    – dropping by their desk/office
    – laying print-out on their chair
    – skype instant message
    – booking time on their calendar, not just to discuss but to actually do the work
    – cc-ing their boss
    – mentioning it in a meeting or on a conference call where others are present

  19. AnonyMeow

    This is going to be super-specific to the project you have on your plate and won’t address Supervisor bottleneck in general, but can you discuss with Supervisor other additional outreach options that wouldn’t require too much effort from Supervisor?

    For example, if you already have basic details of your event, can you send out a “save the date” type of invite early, only with enough details to pique prospective participants’ interest but not so detailed as to require Supervisor writing a blurb, etc.? I’d say something like “I know you have a lot on your plate, and sending out detailed invites early can be a challenge, but we also know that the recent last-minute invites resulted in low turnout. I was thinking that we could try sending out brief invitations with date X, venue Y and presentation Z for the next event and see if that bolsters attendance. Can I go ahead and try this?”

  20. KG

    For me, I try to do a much of the legwork on something as possible to reduce what I need from senior level people at my company. OP mentions project was held up do to a letter. Drafting as much of the letter as possible was a good suggestion. I’ve found even filling in basic address and subject line information prompts people to fill in the tiny bits I need from them.

    If someone needs to make a decision on something, I will pull and compile everything they need, sometimes even summarizing it in a new spreadsheet, and then instead of leaving it on their desk or just sending it via email I will take it over to their desk and ask to run through it with them. If they can’t I’ll ask when they can and come back. My experience is email is a useful record, but is often ignored and face to face discussion push things along faster.

    Also, having a standing meeting might be useful depending on your timelines. If you had a list of things you needed from that person, and you sat down to run through them all and you had made a big effort to start things/summarize things it could be very useful to your supervisor. I often find that when people ask me for things that I’m not completely clear on, or I need to familiarize myself with someone extensive, it usually gets pushed for things I can bang out quickly. Giving someone a clear update and summary on what’s needed from them is helpful.

  21. Heather

    OMG, yes.
    My last boss was also a major procrastinator, which put a ton of pressure on me to work around her habits. For example, I was actually instructed to take more lunches at my desk and NOT leave on time so I could be available when she finally got around to checking her emails at 5:30 p.m. I’d also have to leave files and sticky notes on her keyboard because that was the best way to get her attention. I get it, people are busy, but dammit do your job!

    OP, I recommend you create a paper trail, so when someone asks why project X isn’t done on time, you can say, “I told you on DATE and TIME that I needed THIS from you to make the deadline, but you didn’t provided it and these were the consequences. Hold them accountable!

  22. super anon

    I have this same issue – except I also can’t get my bosses to meet with me, either in person or via teleconference. I mnet with both of them together once in the 10 months I’ve been in this position, and have never met with them personally without another coworker in the room. It makes managing up incredibly difficult, especially because they often don’t read the emails I send to them.

  23. newlyhr

    My boss is really slow on responding to stuff, and now HER BOSS is asking me for the deliverables on a project that he knows I did a lot of work on. . Technically I have done everything I can do on this project until she does the final review and signs off. It is on her desk, but her boss comes to see me frequently and asks me for it. He wants me to manage her to get her part done. Talk about Malcolm in the middle. Oy voy…..

  24. Meg

    My boss can be slow at responding as he has a lot on his plate that is more important than the tasks I am asking about. What works for us is for me to send him the initial email outlining the task/requesting approval. Then I send a meeting request, attaching the original email, for a specific time for him to approve the item/give me feedback on the document/approve for release. When we meet, he is ready to respond, and things no longer get lost in the shuffle. It took us several months of things getting lost for us to get to this approach, but now it is working really well for us.

  25. NicoleK

    I dealt with this at my Old Company. A certain VP liked to get involved in different programs and projects. When she gets involved, it causes delays and set backs. Reminder emails didn’t work. Setting deadlines didn’t work. Asking her for status updates didn’t work. I left Old Company partly because I no longer wanted to work with her.

  26. anonimuz

    So the difficulty I find when taking Alison’s approach is that if I just let things fall where they may then I can avoid blame. If I work proactively to state what is needed by when, it just makes it easy for people to say “Well okay, good plan, do that then”, even when my point was that there wasn’t time. So I just end up giving myself more to do, making the problem worse.

    Like say a letter needs to be sent by end of tomorrow and I see my boss isn’t attending to it. If I just leave this to him he will miss the deadline while I get on with my other work.

    If I come to him with a list of ways to try and meet the deadline by skipping some parts, he will reiterate how important all the parts are and now make it my responsibility that everything is included. Then I have to stay late to make sure everything I told him about gets done.

    So I lose either way, but the second way I have to work more hours. Maybe this is just my weird boss. How would other workplaces do this?

  27. Joie De Vivre

    Op, I’m sorry you are experiencing this. As a volunteer, I currently report to a woman that sounds like your supervisor. She is overworked, but in my supervisor’s case, I’ve learned that a lot of her “unmanageable” workload is due to situations she has created. She spends a lot of time re-doing things she didn’t do right the first time.

    For example:

    If a document needs to be revised, proofed, formatted, and distributed; she will end up with multiple versions of the document. Each copy will have some of the changes she made, but not all of them. What should have been a relatively simple project became a mess. And yes, I believe she missed the deadline & the version that was finally distributed did not have all of the needed changes.

    Good luck & I hope you give us an update later.


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