what to do when your manager is a bottleneck

Does this sound familiar? Your manager needs to sign off on a proposal before it can be sent to the client, but it’s sitting and sitting in her inbox, while the client grows ever-more antsy. You need your boss’s input before you can move forward with a new project, but she hasn’t gotten back to you yet. And so on. It’s hard to be productive when your manager is a bottleneck in your work.

If your manager’s need to sign off on or give input on work is creating a bottleneck in your workflow, you have three basic options:

1. Point the problem out to your boss and suggest alternatives. For instance, you might say, “I know you get a ton of emails and documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? I was thinking it might be easier to review if I brought it to our meetings, or maybe there’s some of it that I can move forward with on my own.”

2. Experiment with ways to minimize her need to give input without totally cutting her out of things she needs to be involved in. For instance, on certain types of projects you might include a note saying “I’ll plan to ___ (send this to the printer/move forward as outlined here/run with these numbers) on Friday unless I hear otherwise from you before then.”

3. Plan accordingly. If you know that your boss is a bottleneck, you can cut down on some of the frustration by building in time for that delay from the beginning. For instance, if you know you’ll need her okay on a marketing strategy before you can start delegating to your team, take care of that piece of the work first. Get her your overall blueprint as early as possible, and then work on other pieces while you’re waiting for her response – as opposed to waiting until later in the process to approach her, when you might need a faster turnaround and be more inconvenienced if you don’t get one.

And keep in mind that even great managers can sometimes create bottlenecks for their staff, when they have higher priorities that demand their time. Sometimes that bottleneck just reflects the reality that there are more pressing demands right now – and that’s not unreasonable.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Ajax*

    This is a great topic! It gets to the heart of what people mean by “managing up”.

    I have a manager who sometimes causes delays to our team’s workflow because she is doing the work of three people and is so busy – but she also wants to sign off on all outgoing work. I find it helpful to try putting myself in her shoes. Is she really busy, or is there a particular task or component of a task that she doesn’t like doing? For instance, she is great at drafting high-level agendas, but not very confident about her formal writing skills. This meant she took a long time to prepare for some presentations. I started asking her to draft a list of bullets, which I work up into a fair copy and then hand back for review. The total time she spends on prep dropped from ~four hours to 15 minutes.

    It depends on your skills and how busy you are too, but there is almost always something to make your manager’s life easier – which in turn is going to help you.

  2. Lisa*

    What if its the owner of the company? He tells us to wait on him, and not respond to clients. So we wait and wait, then the client is irate for being ignored, but we were told that the owner would answer and that we shouldn’t respond to the client directly. Meanwhile, the client calls / emails us, we relate the latest contact to be told again, the owner will handle it. Next thing you know, there is an emergency internal meeting about who dropped the ball. It was him, but we end up apologizing for not clarifying or working together to get XYZ done.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Get one of those phone message pads. Each time there is a call fill out the form on the pad. Leave the message on his desk/inbox/whatever his usual place is. Be sure to write down the time and date of the call.

      I hate it went bosses blame the employees for things that are their own fault.

      1. S.A.*

        We had that and it’s a pad with a carbon copy on the bottom so the person who took the note can have proof they did actually take a message and pass it on to the person it was meant for. I left the job because the idiot boss would micromanage, promise the customer the moon,” forget” to tell the employee, the work wouldn’t get done, then the customer would call to chew out the employee OR the idiot boss would try to chew out the employee and start a huge yelling and screaming fight. They kept losing customers and have earned a bad reputation. It really doesn’t matter what you do to rectify the situation or show the manager they are the problem if you have no real power in the company. It’s best to cover your butt while you’re there and leave for a better company or start your own.

        I’ve also told people about the issues I’ve had with my lousy former employer and it saves them time and wasted money too. If companies are poorly managed by those who would rather point fingers at the competent employees than take responsibility for their actions then they deserve to go under.

        A reminder for anyone who is asked about that last awful job they had. I never bashed the company but having a conscience I couldn’t lie about the way I brought up problems to be addressed and how they were repeatedly ignored by management. The customers were repeatedly mocked, lied to, overcharged, and delivered an inferior product. Keep the grievances relevant to the way the company is being mismanaged and how the customers are treated. You can also make sure to prove how you brought problems to light (notes, dates, times, collaboration with other employees you are still professionally acquainted with), showing you were a team player and tried to solve issues. Even if you can’t stand the company/manager it’s always best to try, then actually confirm the worst and move on knowing you did your best in my opinion.

  3. Anonymous*

    I was excited to see Alison tackle this topic, but felt increasingly disappointed as I read through the advice. It’s not that the advice is bad, it’s just that it sounds too easy and it requires the manager to be somewhat reasonable. Plan ahead, have a direct conversation about the problem, offer to pitch in, and the ubiquitous “manage up.” It sounds so simple, so why doesn’t it solve the problem?

    I’ve done all this and more. Heck, I’ve even delved into the psychological side of managing up to try to anticipate my manager’s motivations and anxieties. In the end, I’ve realized that my manager is an inflexible bottleneck with a streak of serial micromanaging. I’m not sure what you can do when your manager (1) readily admits she’s a bottleneck, (2) refuses to change, and (3) gets angry when employees try to work ahead or around her.

    1. fposte*

      “It sounds so simple, so why doesn’t it solve the problem?”

      Because ultimately there is no advice that will enable you to make somebody different than what they are.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not sure what you can do when your manager (1) readily admits she’s a bottleneck, (2) refuses to change, and (3) gets angry when employees try to work ahead or around her.

      Not much. Work around it or change jobs, basically. There’s no magic pill to make a bad manager reasonable.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Actually, there’s one final resort that you can try before that: Say to your manager, “[bad consequences] are happening when we’re not able to get your sign-off in time. Should we just accept that that will happen sometimes, or would it it make sense to handle this stuff differently?” Ultimately it’s her call if she’s willing to pay those bad consequences as the price or not.

        1. Jessa*

          The problem with that is a lot of bad managers will find a way to turn that back on the employee so you might also want to be looking for new work.

          Someone up above made a comment about “then they have meetings where the boss manages to make it the employees’ faults that something went wrong. (paraphrased)

        2. Anonymous*

          I hope my comment didn’t come across as critical to your advice, Alison! Like I said, it’s not that I think the advice is bad. It’s just that I was hoping for some new alternative that I hadn’t considered. But you’re right, there’s no magic pill or silver bullet.

          We did have that [bad consequences] meeting about 6 weeks ago. We’d had smaller discussions that were project- or incident-specific, but this was the first time that I felt I had really laid it all out there. And it was after I caught some grief from the CEO on an overdue project had been waylaid on my manager’s desk for weeks. That was when my manager admitted that she’s a bottleneck and not able [willing] to change.

          It didn’t solve the problem, but it did actually relieve some of my stress. And I’m trying to do better planning, which includes declining any opportunities with relatively tight deadlines.

      2. AnonAnon*

        I really appreciate this response. Some folks are just bad managers, and you have to decide if it’s worth it to stay. I’m in a small company with four people – right now I’m the only full-time support staff, although we do have a temp to do administrative work and a consultant. My CEO wants to approve everything and doesn’t understand how many new technologies work (such as email attachments, Mac/PC compability, Twitter). She gets very frustrated when we try to explain, which makes it even harder to get approval for items that use these types of tools (like a website redesign).

        That said, she’s a nationally known expert in her field and she’s open to suggestions from me, even in the short time I’ve been here. She’s a terrible bottleneck but the benefits of the job (at this time) outweigh the frustration of things not moving forward as fastly as I may want. Sometimes I just have to say to myself, “The culture of this organization is that things move slowly” and leave it at that. Not to mention that many large organizations take longer to move things forward as well, because of all the layers of review (60+ days typically, compared to our 3-4 weeks). So sometimes things feel like they’re moving slowly, but they’re not for the industry. It’s just a matter of finding other things to work on.

        With my previous boss (who was also a bottleneck/refused to delegate), I used to say, “I’m happy to wait for your approval on this, but that may mean this project gets delayed for X days/weeks.” She would say okay, but then tell outside stakeholders that we would deliver it on the original date, despite not making time to approve it. That was terrible – the refusal to move things forward reflected on me and I left.

  4. Rebecca*

    My manager is a bottleneck. She a while back, she called us all together and yelled “I AM THE MANAGER AND NOTHING GETS DONE WITHOUT MY APPROVAL! EVERYTHING GOES THROUGH ME, QUESTIONS, SUGGESTIONS, EVERYTHING”.

    I think you can imagine what has happened. Things we normally took care of on our own, and just gave the head’s up when completed remain undone. Suggestions have trickled down to nothing, as they get stuck in her email abyss. Plus, now she complains that she’s interrupted too many times during the day with questions and hundreds of extra emails.

    One notable afternoon, she proudly announced she read my email about a suggestion I made. I searched for it, after she left my office. It was 16 months old. Woot.

    1. Anonymous*

      Reminds me of my boss. She ignored my emails, phone calls, and face-to-face requests to review and approve a proposal last summer. This dragged on for two months, and the proposal deadline passed. Last week, she sent back a copy of my proposal covered in red ink and a “sorry it’s so late” post-it note, which happened to be coincidentally attached right next to the printed deadline on the cover page. Sigh.

    2. Sharon*

      Something similar just happened to me. A coworker and I were put on a Super Critical project that involves face to face meetings with people from lots of other companies, so they keep proposing new meetings we need to travel to. After being told we need to work on the project, our boss’s boss stopped giving any further direction. For example, do we have the budget for international travel once a month (I was told twice a year travel)? My coworker emailed her a list of proposed meetings and asked if she wanted us to go. No answer. I reply’all’ed to ask again. No answer. I set up a short meeting with him and her and our boss to discuss the travel planninng/budgeting.

      Last Friday in the middle of the day she suddenly emailed us to say “hey, you guys need to attend this next meeting in “, which started this Monday. So we spent Friday afternoon clearing our calendars (including the meeting I set up to discuss the travel) and getting our flights/hotel all set up. And I’m typing this from right now.

      The next project meeting is in Europe next week. I’m waiting for her to pipe up this Friday to tell us we need to attend it! LOL!

    3. Anonymous*

      Oh my god this is my husband’s boss to a T. He is a terrible manager and a constant bottleneck and he has had rants exactly like that.

  5. Banana*

    One solution I’ve found to this was to send a 10-15 minute appointment request to the manager to talk about whatever it is that I need from them. That way, I’m sitting there while they review it and can answer any questions on the spot. It usually just takes 5 minutes, but it works better than sending emails saying that this is urgent. And sometimes, instead of accepting the request, they just sign it off right away. Everyone wins.

  6. Ruffingit*

    Worked for someone like this once. It was rough. I was laid off and was relieved. There just wasn’t a point in working there anymore. She would promise to get me things I needed to do my job and then she just wouldn’t approve those things. That was the culture there and she was the owner so there was no one to talk to above her. It got to the point where I was doing busy work because I couldn’t do the job without her getting me the things I needed – training, the assistance of co-workers who were experts on certain things, etc.

    I came in every day, sat there for 8 hours, did what little I could, and got paid pretty well for it, but it was a waste of money for them and of my time. Finally got laid off and felt relieved for many reasons, (dysfunctional environment to say the least), but one of the big ones was that I didn’t feel like my time was being wasted anymore. One of the big issues was the project I was working on wasn’t really used that much. Had I been given the resources I needed, I could have turned it into something really useful to both train internal people and for client use. But alas, nothing was forthcoming from the owner.

    It’s seriously demoralizing to know you’re doing things that no one is ever going to use anyway.

    1. Anonymous_J*

      Sounds like the job I got let go from in Mid December. Yuck and good riddance!

      Good luck finding your next awesome thing.

  7. Katie the Fed*

    I feel terrible when I’m the bottleneck, especially because there are some things that are required to go through me (yay, bureaucracy!). Sometimes I just miss things in my inbox (I get about 300-400 emails on any given day), or plan to get to them and don’t.

    I’ve told my team that if they’ve been waiting more than a day on a response to something then they should come remind me in person, preferably in the morning before the current day’s crises are hitting.

    It works pretty well, but I’m also not intentionally being a bottleneck.

    1. Anonymous*

      Me too! I know I’m a bottleneck, and it’s largely a function of “too much work” plus “need to sign off”.

    2. Ruffingit*

      I think the reasons for being a bottle neck make a difference. If it’s because you’re a control freak micromanager, then you just suck. If it’s because you’re super busy so it happens occasionally, but you try to stay on top of it and you will handle things if someone comes to see you and needs it right then, then you’re cool. Bottleneck occasionally is OK. Bottleneck as way of life – not OK.

        1. Jes*

          Exactly! I try to share with my team when I’m in a crunch time so at least they know why I can’t address their issue, but it can be hard to clearly explain why their pressing issue isn’t making it into my list of top priorities today.. or tomorrow… without suggesting that it’s not an important task in itself. :S. I appreciate that Alison’s advice touched on that.

        2. Ruffingit*

          I’m sure they do because it’s a matter of whether or not it’s a continual problem. For you, it doesn’t appear to be and you’ve told them to come and remind you within a day if needed. I assume when they show up and say “Hey, we need this ASAP” you don’t say “Oh right, yeah OK, um I’ll get to that put it on my desk…” and then two weeks later it’s still sitting there. If you are doing that, stop it. ;)

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Empowerment is critical.

        My goal is to make myself as unnecessary as possible.

        I challenge any bottlenecking manager to look at the things they are bottlenecking and ask if they are really necessary to that process and then, if so, ask themselves how to be made unnecessary.

        Sometimes you can’t, so you keep those things, but many times you can. Teach people how to make good decisions without you.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          I was specifically replying to Ruffingit’s post, not Katie’s. I wasn’t directing the challenge at Katie! (I belatedly caught the context of the thread.)

          Katie, your experience and practice sounds like mine where I try hard, I do bottleneck sometimes, and I feel bad when I’ve bottlenecked.

        2. Lora*

          +1000. But this also involves not throwing your employees under the bus for mistakes and sticking up for them in conflicts, which not a lot of managers do.

          Another thing, which I am dealing with right now, so it’s in the forefront of my mind: Make a plan and stick to it. Yes, priorities will change and that happens unavoidably sometimes, but if your priorities change TOO often, you’ll end up with a zillion half-finished projects, none of which are near completion because yesterday you wanted A, B and C and today you want A, C and D, and tomorrow you want D, E, and F. And all those things have a 2-3 week lead time.

          It amazes me how so many managers insist that THEIR work is incredibly volatile and they are just the exception, but suddenly when they are told, “change direction ONE MORE TIME and you’re cleaning out your desk” they magically figure out how to stick with a plan. Which begs the question, “how much value does this manager add, really?”

  8. Anonymous*

    I’ve been able to tackle some minor bottlenecks by setting up a system with managers. Every email to my last manager started with the action and deadline, and then the project name. So, I would have subject lines like:
    “FYI: Analysis project for University” (i.e. no action to complete, I’m just informing you about this)
    “Reply by Thurs: Analysis draft v1”
    “Read before Wed mtg: Background on analysis project”
    “Confirm today!: Analysis ready to send”
    And then I was allowed to go interrupt her if it was 3 PM on the due day and I hadn’t heard anything from her yet. While probably not the ideal system, it worked for us.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That’s actually a really good idea because every time the inbox is opened, they immediately see what needs to be done in the headers of the email. Love that!

    2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      I love you.

      My people are very good but this might be even better than what they do for me. I love this aggressive style with deadlines in the email header. It is so helpful.

    3. Poe*

      I love this. My boss has an email avalanche of an inbox, so we try to route everything through me, but I only catch about 80% because people are weird and refuse to follow instructions (academia, hey!) I try to avoid adding to the email pile-on, but when I have to, I am going to try this.

  9. BG*

    This is my current situation, except I really like my boss and believe he is a good manager… I just think he has too many responsibilities. He is the Director of Operations & Marketing and we’re a pretty small company, but there has been so much going on on the operations side of things (changing every system we currently have), he hasn’t had time to focus on marketing (which is what I do). I do as much as I can myself and he is not a micromanager by any means, but sometimes things do need his approval. Also, I’m the only other marketing person, so I have no one else to bounce ideas off of before bringing them up to the rest of the team.

    He was just out for more than a week, so I don’t expect him to get to my emails any time soon :( I’m so bored – I’m making up assignments for myself.

  10. Puffle*

    Ahhh this is such a problem for me sometimes at work. Person A writes the paperwork. Person B (who works at another site, is higher in the hierarchy than me, and is stubbornly unresponsive to repeated reminders) is required to approve the paperwork before I’m allowed to get my grubby mitts on it. The main issue is that in the past Person B has on more than one occasion finally coughed up with the paperwork/ plans/ etc less than an hour before I need it (for meetings, deadlines, etc). Ahhhh story of my life

    Honestly, I know Person A, and usually she will actually phone me and say, “This is what I outlined in the plan/ what the paperwork is about/ for, heads up you’ll need to do x, y and z”. Person B just signs off on this stuff every time, never makes any changes, so we get away with it (but I am ready in case they do change something)

  11. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    Remind. Me.

    I have many people under me, a handful of people over me, and a bazillion balls in the air at one time. I try hard to set things up so I’m not a bottleneck and I try to be responsive but I am one person.

    I get cranky when I find out something didn’t proceed because the person was waiting for me and never said anything past the initial request. The right answer is not “I didn’t want to bother you”.

    There are no points for not bothering me. The only points awarded are for completing the project.

  12. Feed Fido*

    Some bottlenecks cannot be circumvented, but as the old pioneers of yesteryear did…DOCUMENT. Document because you need a bridge back to your position when you are left standing there all alone trying to explain why the project didn’t work or even get done.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Agreed on documentation!! Because you will often get the manager who says stuff like “Why didn’t you remind me??” It helps if you can whip out the documentation and say “I did. On 2/16 at 2 p.m., again on 2/25 at 1 p.m. and then again on 3/1 at 3:45 p.m.” The more detailed the better.

  13. Wo Fat*

    Putting a small twist into this thread, how do you deal with your boss over the bottleneck when it’s his boss who is the hold up?

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