when your team constantly back-burners your priorities

When you work on a team that has to collaborate on competing priorities and yours always seem to be the last to get added the to-do list, how do you influence your team to give your work priority? Do you just say, “Hey, it’s been two months and I still haven’t gotten any support from team member X to finish the Acme project. Are you going to have some time next week?” And if you do, what if they say, “Sorry, I’m still working on the Jones project, maybe next month”?

You can find my answer to this question — and answers from three other career experts as well — over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonie*

    This is the life of a grant writer!! No matter how far in advance you ask for information you still get everything at the last minute! Even when there is money attached it isn’t a priority.

    1. fposte*

      I’m on both sides of the grant thing, and I think the problem is that there isn’t money “attached,” but simply money hoped for; also, you’re often asking for information from people who aren’t getting any of the money even if you do get the grant, so obviously it’s not going to have the same urgency for them. I figure as long as people actually manage to give me info in that situation I’m pretty happy.

      That’s related to one of the things the article made me think about–when there are org reasons why your stuff really isn’t as high priority, but for your own unit you still need some response, and the org has your unit for a reason. Generally it’s worked out okay for me, but I’m always a little concerned that a situation will come up where I can’t meet a deadline or deliverable because bigger cheeses than I have needed support.

      1. Anonie*

        If you have built a relationship with the funder ahead of time it is “money attached” sometimes all we have to do is put together a request and we know we are getting the money and it is still like pulling teeth!

        1. Anonie*

          I can also say even after you get a grant and you already have and sometimes spent the money you can’t get others to give you the information you need to turn in reports. Which can negatively impact whether or not you get a future grant.
          So it is not about “money hoped for” I am talking about “money attached.”

    2. Paloma Pigeon*

      THIS THIS THIS. At my last job, it was like pulling teeth to get the programs team to provide any data to support the grant, and I was never able to work ahead, even with deadlines set months in advance. So frustrating.

    3. Diane*

      I just came here to say this!

      It’s so frustrating, because globally, I hear grants are a priority, but it’s next to impossible to get people to do the tasks they agreed to without scheduling meetings to watch them read or walk them through developing their ideas. In some cases, it makes sense to be a facilitator, but in others, they are the content experts, and in highly specialized fields, there’s not much I can do.

      1. Anonie*

        Exactly! Sometimes you have to be the Grant Writer, Program Developer, Evaluator and Content Expert. And after you get the grant you have to manage them to make sure the program is doing what it is suppossed. Money is the priority but the actual work that goes into putting together a good grant request is not.

        1. Doy*

          And this is why successful grant writers are worth your weight in rubies the size of pumpkins- thank you!

          (Can you tell our non-profit lucked into one?)

          1. Anonie*

            Good grant writers are gems! You are very popular when you bring in the bucks! :-)

      2. Artemesia*

        I have a relative who just quit her job yet too young for social security because the stress of being the grant and contract proposal writer necessary for the business to survive got to be too much. Everyone did what is being described here and it is a highly technical field so the engineer types not only delivered the needed information late meaning that virtually every day of her life was a deadline crisis, but they also tended to treat her like a secretary and expect scut work tasks to be done when she was trying to put together budgets, make sense of badly written technical jargon etc etc. The final straw for her, was when a higher up took charge of something and took it away from her, then dropped the ball and missed a deadline and then turned around and blamed her.

        She has a small inheritance that will tide her over and Obamacare means she was not longer forced to work for insurance alone — the company is screaming that they ‘need her’ — but after years of low pay and vicious day in and day out craziness trying to get support to get the data needed, she is finally out of there.

        I have written a few grants and know how hard this can be; I know I could never survive a job where I was doing this day in and day out like she was.

        1. Anonie*

          She could always freelance to make extra money if needed. Where I am Goverment Grant Writers charge $130 -150 an hour.

  2. Christine*

    I’m doing this to someone right now, and she HATES me for it. Here’s the thing: I cannot do what she really needs me to do. Our sales team set up a program I cannot support half the time. It’s her job to make sure the program is supported. I tried to explain my difficulties and the alternatives, and she didn’t listen, she harped on me about how it was important to do what I cannot do, to make the customers happy. I think customers would be happy if we researched what we can actually do before we sell it to them, but that’s just me. If I really bent over backwards, I could get her what she needs 60% of the time instead of 50, and something close to what she needs another 30% of the time, 10% of the time I can’t come close. I could bend over backwards like that and take up a huge chunk of my time every day, or I can shrug my shoulders and let the 50/50 split go…she harps about the same either way and if I wrap up my time trying to do the best I can for her, I’m neglecting other people I can help all the way. She is in the process of escalating what she thinks of as my poor performance up the chain; what she doesn’t realize is that I have the capital to get through that without it reflecting poorly on me, and if anything it will just corroborate my case that I often don’t have the tools I need to do my job.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Why can’t you do what she wants? Are you lacking the tools necessary? The skills? Something else? Is it something that your management could solve, if they tried?

      She didn’t listen, but what does your manager say?

  3. Jess*

    Speaking as an admin who handles several people’s competing priorities, you know what helps with this? TELLING ME WHEN YOU NEED IT DONE BY.

    1. Chinook*

      “Speaking as an admin who handles several people’s competing priorities, you know what helps with this? TELLING ME WHEN YOU NEED IT DONE BY.”

      I agree 100%. I loved the one department I supported who let me set up a process with my inbox, some sticky notes and a pen. The deal was that, if there wasn’t a note on work with a due date and who it gets returned to, the item got put to the bottom of the pile. Even if you considered it a rush, this info still had to be on there because I may be given something else that was an even bigger rush (think audit reports with filing deadlines). I supported partners that understood my need to priortize on the fly and and they had my back when some new accountant tried to buck the system and either just “drop and run” with no added info or insist that their work had to be done RIGHT NOW.

      I had that group so well trained that they even started doing this with other Admins when they were working across departments.

        1. Chinook*

          honestly, working for those partners and that department made the overall toxic work environment bearable (the audit department was in their own little world and getting rid of the woman I replaced was step 2 of the 10 steps they were taking to detoxify that place, so I think I was a relief to them too.) I will admit that I was a bossy admin and even became teacherish with the fresh out of college accountants, but I ran the risk of becoming overwhelmed if I didn’t. It also helped that I was able to give quivk turn arounds unless I was swamped and only squeaked under deadlines if the turn around was needed immediately.

      1. Julie*

        I’m about to go full admin from just a supporting role and wondered how I can manage people and still get things done. This sounds like a great idea. I might not be 100% successful but if I set the bar high on day 1 maybe it will work.

      2. DLB*

        Similarly, I had a co-worker who required deadlines on all things people handed to her. If someone wrote “ASAP” on it – it would go to the bottom of the pile since it didn’t have a specific deadline.

        1. Amtelope*

          Yep, that’s how our editorial department works; if you want something edited, you’d better have a deadline for when you need it back, and “ASAP” means “after everyone who gave us actual deadlines.” Given their workload, I don’t blame them a bit.

    2. Bea W*

      God yes. Not an admin, but i have the same issue. Tell me when you need it and how important it is to get done by that date. Is it a hard stop or is it a soft timeline?

      1. Jessa*

        And please don’t lie to me about it. I will find out, and you will get bottom piled all the time unless I verify with someone else.

        Not every single thing you ask of someone is the same “now now now” priority. Stop trying to make your stuff more important than it is. Because it’s not procrastinating for me if you need my input in 6 months to give it to you in five and a half because the thing that is needed in 5 months comes first and the thing needed in 4 months is before that. Tell me when you really need it. If to finish your stuff you need mine in 3 weeks, say that.

        If you’re one of those “I have 6 months, I must do it in a week” type people. Let me know. I may NOT be able to do it in a week (there are all those projects due before yours,) but if I have extra time in between, I might accommodate you, if you’re nice about it to me and understand that when I can’t, you’re not going to be late.

        Your need to look super special to the bosses does not trump MY requirement that ALL my work gets done in time for all the people who use my services at the appropriate deadlines.

        1. OhNo*


          When I see ASAP, I think “drop everything, because this project is absolutely the most important thing on our plate right now”. If its not that important, then I need an actual due date.

      2. Monodon monoceros*

        This goes both ways- my last manager was terrible about not giving deadlines or letting us know when things were urgent. She’d ask me to do something and make it sound like I should just add it to the to-do list for the week, and then suddenly in an hour she was calling me asking me if I’d done it. I got much better about asking every time when she wanted things to be done by. Then it was a struggle to get her to answer or be honest, but I at least got some guidance part of the time.

          1. Monodon monoceros*

            Yeah, she was not great. The other fun thing she would do was assign a task to multiple people, without us knowing. So we’d all work on the same thing, then when you’d give it to her, half the time she’d say “Oh, Jane just gave me this. I didn’t need you to do it anymore.” Extremely frustrating.

    3. Seattle Writer Girl*

      LOL. Oh yeah, I tried that. My boss would simply reply “as soon as you can.”

      Ok, well, I’ll put that on the calendar for “never” shall I?

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    My job often requires that I perform tasks for people whom I do not report to (and who don’t report to me), but I’ll need inputs, either from these same people or from others on my team, in order to complete my part of the project.

    I’ve gotten really good at making sure there’s a warning system. When I get an assignment, I’ll say “I need X by Y in order to deliver Z by A.” If Y is approaching, I’ll send a reminder email with “if I don’t have X by Y, I’ll have to give you Z on (insert later due date).” This *usually* produces the inputs I need when I need them or a later due date; in either case, no skin off my nose. When it doesn’t work, the unreasonable people at least know they are being unreasonable, which helps to cut down on the number of times that it happens (at least, I think it does).

    1. Monodon monoceros*

      I’m facing this right now, too. The people I’m waiting on don’t even technically work for our organization, so there’s not a whole lot we can do if they don’t help us complete projects. Except when it comes to report writing, where we sometimes have to write “No progress has been made on Project X due to lack of input from Dr Who et al.” and then sometimes that lights a fire under them when they see that in writing.

      At least my boss is very aware and understanding when I have to tell her why something is stalled. Otherwise I’d feel awful when we meet and it sounds like I’m making excuses on each project that I’m waiting for so-and-so to get back to me.

      1. LMW*

        I’ve taken a similar approach when in comes to production calendars. No one wants to have their name specifically attached to a missed deadline!
        For my calendars, every task for a specific project not only has the due date, but the last name of the person responsible. If they miss the date, it gets crossed out in red, and the new date is entered (and any changed dates for tasks that follow the missed deadline get changed in red without the deadline). That way everyone always knows when projects went off schedule and can talk to the responsible party. I’ve had a few people try to get me to take off their names or not have the crossed off dates or change it after the project is completed, but it’s my way of holding people accountable for their deadlines. Plus, it’s an excellent way of tracking patterns regarding when projects go off the rails — is it always at a certain stage? (Maybe we need a to change that deadline) Is it always with a particular person? (How do we get them on track or cut them out of the process?).

        1. Monodon monoceros*

          Yeah, I always feel a little passive-aggressive putting their name in writing, but whatever works! I joke that it’s better than offensive-aggressive.

    2. Cassie*

      I’m facing this problem right now – a few months ago, I requested some input to be submitted to me by mid-April (so I can incorporate it into my project). It’s a fair amount of input I need so I gave plenty of time, and sent the request by email plus hard copy.

      Well, mid-April came and went. We asked for a status update and they’re working on it – they’ll have it in a couple of weeks, we were told. And then that date passed too. I gave another deadline – and that passed as well. Now it’s apparent that they didn’t read the guidelines so they were preparing the wrong information. It is very frustrating because I didn’t think I needed to check in every step of the way to make sure these people understood what we were asking for.

      I think it was pretty clear what we needed – other groups were able to meet the deadline, and they asked me questions about this or that so I could help them stay on track. This group, though, never asked – I had to check in with them, give them data (that they didn’t know to ask for), check in with them again, give them some more data, etc. I’m not their supervisor, I don’t have any authority over them, and I don’t know what else to do. We have a hard deadline coming up and I really have doubts we’re going to make it.

  5. Interviewer*

    I manage a team of 10 admins who support 3-4 people each. They balance competing priorities each day from people with varying degrees of seniority and responsibilities. From my experience:

    1. Stated deadlines are crucial.
    2. Explaining the interdependence of the work on other tasks or how it fits into the whole project is important.
    3. Establishing a pattern of kindly asking for help, being responsive to follow-up questions, and appreciative of the final output are all highly motivating. (If you send occasional notes to the manager commending a job well done, it’s even better.)
    4. Understanding where you are in the pecking order or seeing the overall workload helps. If you are a junior associate asking for 4 hours of time from your admin during the same week that the senior partner is prepping for trial, you are not going to get a lot of attention.

    If you are still not getting results after using these methods, something else is going on, I’d follow up with a manager. (In my company, I’d assume passive-aggressive behavior by someone who doesn’t think it’s his or her job to complete that task or help on that project, and just waits for you to take it elsewhere.)

    1. Puddin*

      Very well said! Especially point 2. I find that people treat you with an urgency similar to the urgency you exhibit in your own work and in response to others inquiries.

      1. Seattle Writer Girl*

        Yes to #4. I used to work under a Sales team that got monthly commissions based on how many clients they “turned live” each month. Except I was the one who had to do all the work to get the client “live.”

        Every single salesperson would come by my office at the end of the month and try to convince me why their client was the #1 most important client for the company–not for them personally, but overall, in general, above all others–and that I should do their projects first. And how could I not see that their client was more important than Bob’s client? Or Suzy’s client?

        Blah, blah, blah

        After awhile I just started telling people to take it up with my boss, the CEO, who, 90% of the time, had no say in what order I did things. People rarely took it up with the CEO, which I interpreted to mean their job just wasn’t THAT important then.

  6. LMW*

    I encounter this all the time with the subject matter experts we need to participate in our content creation efforts. I’ve tried to make it as easy on them as I can — they don’t actually need to write blogs or papers, I can find them a ghost writer. I set up video shoots so they can sit for 9 videos in one 30 minute window.
    The problem is that they are on different teams with different leaders and priorities, so there’s little to no incentive for them to help me. And their projects might be very important, but they aren’t on my priority list at all.
    I’ve been talking with my new boss about this as an organization-wide problem. There’s no incentive for people to help. If our leaders expect people to participate in marketing efforts and lend their expertise, then they need to express that’s it is an expectation and work it into organization-wide goals.

    But what really drives me nuts is when people say they will participate, agree to a deadline, and then repeatedly fail to produce what they promised.

    1. FormerPhotog*

      OMG, yes. I am currently wrangling SMEs and presenters. I wish I could just go to their sites and sit them down for the half hour it would take to record.

  7. Holly*

    Right now my priorities list is getting shaken up every single day – one minute a project is vital/must have yesterday and the next day it’s now third to something else. Having to start-stop-start-stop on projects is so stressful, personally, and kills the momentum/flow I’ve built up on that particular project. Not really the same concept, but it’s been killing me lately.

  8. plain jane*

    You want me to help with content creation to get more business so you can get a bonus. Me and my team can barely keep up with delivering against the business we currently have.

    I know it’s short sighted, and we need the content created eventually. But when it comes down to the next 3 hours, I’m going to put out (or try to avoid) the fires. Acknowledging the varying urgency levels would be appreciated. Also a track record of not taking all the credit with upper management when lots of other people had to put in extra hours to support this initiative will go a long way. Or sharing the fun stuff and not just requiring help with the scut work.

  9. Annie O*

    What if your priority really ISN’T more important than the other ones? Or what if it’s not as time-sensitive as the emergency du jour?

    I’m stuck in that situation and it sucks. Just because my priority isn’t as important as some of the flaming emergencies, I’m still expected to “manage up” and get it done.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, that’s the situation I’m talking about upthread, too. On a short-term basis, my stuff *isn’t* as important as some other people’s, but long-term, it still has to get done.

      Thinking about it, that might be worth a procedural discussion in its own right separate from any particular task’s urgency: “I understand and agree that there are more pressing tasks on most days, but how can we make sure that my stuff gets eventually tackled even as the higher priorities are honored?”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s what I’d recommend — it’s worth an explicit conversation (with the manager or with the team, depending on the context and dynamics) about how to work that stuff in and make sure it doesn’t get back-burnered indefinitely.

      2. Annie O*

        Yes, that’s a good discussion to have! And it has yielded results on occasion. But sometimes it’s still not enough if your company has big dreams and limited resources.

        I’ve found that building relationships with unit managers can help. In a pinch, I’ve literally bribed co-workers to work on my stuff. Or I’ve horse-traded with other product owners to get my stuff higher on the queue. But it seems those tactics are just a way of circumventing the organization’s prioritization process instead of reaching a true solution.

  10. Jaded in IT*

    I’m dealing with this right now. A project I’m assigned to has had funding for software licenses and hardware pushed off for 3 years. This would replace a very aged existing system, which tons of people complain about, yet it doesn’t seem to be a priority to actually get some money and resources to move forward. I’ve taken to every time I get a complaint or someone brings me an issue (many of which I can’t actually solve because new things are incompatible with old things!!) I copy my manager on my response. Maybe if he starts to see how many problems there are, it will become more of a priority for him.

    1. LD*

      Keep track of them and put them all together for a more effective impact. One problem at a time doesn’t always come across as when you stack them all together and see them combined. Kind of like knowing that the drip on the faucet is annoying, but when you learn that it’s costing you 50 gallons of water a day, that’s an impact. And if there is any way to quantify the time, productivity, or dollars lost due to the issues, that should help, too. Good luck!

  11. ClaireS*

    I work in a heavily matrixed organization and I’ve quickly learned that relationships are key. People are way more willing to go above and beyond for you if a) they like you and b) you’ve done it for them in the past.

    This type of situation is where emotional intelligence (in my more cynical moments, I call it “ability to manipulate”) is hugely important.

  12. Diane*

    I work in a place that erects altars to busyness.I wonder if backburnering projects is yet another way to convey “I’m SOOOO busy and indispensable that I don’t have time for your very important project that will actually benefit me if I get off my stupid ass.” I’m paraphrasing.

  13. BadPlanning*

    One of my coworkers was recently discussing the idea of escalation. How it used to be a useful tool. Competing areas of the company want you to do different things as your number #1 OMG!ON!FIRE! priority? Escalate it up the chain until a higher person makes the decision on if Thing Banana now trumps Thing Avocado — since they’re making the money/policy/direction/etc decisions. Now escalation is used as a threat and if the decision goes up the stack, you clearly failed to magically do both things at once or deal with it at your level (sure, sometimes you can make the call…but sometimes you don’t have the big picture).

  14. Claire*

    I feel this…it’s tough when you need things from people who are much busier/more important than you. One of my tasks is to get out a monthly newsletter with articles from my org’s senior staff, and let me tell you it is like herding cats. I totally understand why this is a low priority for them, but they (organizational they) are the ones who decided this is what they want to do…but it’s my job to make sure it goes out!

    1. MJH*

      That’s the most frustrating thing!

      I am paid to do this job, and while I know it’s not anywhere near the top of your priority list, nor do I have any authority to compel you to do it (because you outrank me by miles), if it doesn’t get done, *I* look bad at my job. I can’t even explain how much I hate it.

  15. Bea W*

    My group has this problem and it’s definitely systemic. We do what we can, and until things change (above our heads), and that’s all we can do.

  16. Anon for this*

    Our organization manages a number of very different projects funded by different government clients. The projects require dramatically different skill sets and subject matter expertise. There are a few junior and mid-level staff to support and manage these projects. Management assigns staff to work on the projects and does not consider workload at all. I’m managing the analysis portion for a major government study that would require full-time work over a 8-10 week period. What I get is two junior staff, one who can work full-time, and two mid-level staff who can work about two days a week. I’m on the project full-time. I experienced this on the last study and I ended up serving as the principal analyst and author of the report – thought it cost me about 90 hours per week to get the work done. The client was ecstatic with the findings, the study changed critical national implementation policy, but for my efforts my boss tried to get me fired because I had to assume most of his duties due to his bias against the participants and that I sidelined his child who he brought to give her work to do thought she lacked any degree of professionalism. I never wish to be put into that position again.

    Trying to make a system work on the goodwill of others, particularly when there is intensive work involved, will lead to some defecting because they don’t want to put forth the effort, others because they aren’t interested in the subject matter, and still others who want to help but simply can’t juggle the priorities. If you want things done correctly, assign the staff and the time to match the effort needed. I feel very strongly that reputations matter – and constantly shorting clients because of poor internal management policies will inevitably lead to loss of business.

  17. Scott M*

    I’m still having trouble understanding this. Why isn’t a manager setting priorities? Everyone is jumping through all these hoops. When I need something and someone else tells me they can’t do it, I report back to my manager that project X can’t move forward because Tom is busy with Project Y.

    Then, my manager decides if that is a problem and makes the decision on what Tom should work on.

    Problem solved. And no negotiation required!

    1. Annie O*

      Bwahaha! That actually assumes your manager is going to help you with something like this. Certainly not universal!

      1. Scott M*

        Well, unless the manager tells someone to do something, it’s not gonna get done. I don’t have the authority to tell my coworkers what to do. I’ve never had a manager tell me to handle priorities like this – is this normal?

    2. MJH*

      In my case, if my manager says why isn’t task X finished, I can say “because Y didn’t get back to me,” but my manager has no authority to compel Y to respond.

      Then super manager goes into the system to look for Task X, finds it isn’t completed and freaks out on my manager. She may or may not stick up for me, but suddenly Task X becomes the most important thing on my plate. Super manager may or may not understand why Task X isn’t done, but he isn’t going to go after Y, either, because he isn’t Y’s manager and Y has a different kind of role.

      1. Scott M*

        Then it doesn’t get done.

        I’ve had this happen too, except the result is that the project gets delayed until it reaches a pain point for a manager who DOES have the authority to to compel the person to work on it.

        Managers set priorities. Sometimes they don’t do it well, but it’s their job. If you gotta force them to do it, then so be it.

  18. Scott M*

    I am sooo embarrassed that I did not fully read Allison’s answer over at the Fast Track blog, and didn’t realize that she also mentioned getting the manager involved (once you try to work out priorities with your teammates). I find it curious that she is the only person who mentioned this.

  19. Vicki*

    My immediate thought, on reading the question, was: the Team priorities are set by the manager. They’re not your call to set. They’re not your co-worker’s call either.

    I noticed that a commenter at quickbase saw what I saw: only Alison mentioned the manager.

    ALthough Eva Stryker did say “is your priority really more important than the others?” that’s not really the issue… and again, it’s not your call.You priority is more important to YOU. Your coworker’s priorities are more important to them. The person who sets priorities across the team is the manager.

    Now, if you’re in a situation where everyone’s task is priority 1, you can’t get anything from anyone else, and they can’t get anything from you, and your performance review suffers because of thise… you need a new job.

  20. Techwriter*

    I was hired once to do a training manual for in-house software. It was an absolute nightmare and then some. This was software that was very complicated and constantly changing as it was customizable. I could never get the training or help I needed to do the job no matter how much I asked for it. I was promised it and then it never came. I muddled through as best I could, but it was a very difficult job. Think about being asked to do super advanced Excel tasks the first time you sit down to use it. No one will give you a guide or any help, but they expect you to produce. That is what was happening here. There was no way I could understand the customized parts of the software without someone explaining it, but they just wouldn’t do it. I was finally laid off shortly after a few other people just up and quit because they were in the same boat of having no support and in some cases, no idea what their jobs even were. It was a nightmare.

  21. AF*

    Thank you so much for this. My boss (the company president) has set up a system where we always miss deadlines and work with a busy outside company to do the bulk of our work. And he won’t fix it. He constantly tells clients that we’ll meet some arbitrary deadline when he hasn’t consulted with our contractors to see if they can actually get the work done by that deadline. It’s really embarrassing to regularly tell clients that we’re behind schedule. And the work that does get done is usually rushed at the last minute and quality suffers as a result. Eventually there will be no business because of it but he doesn’t really seem to care to fix it.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I can relate. I worked with someone like that once too. She would promise the moon to clients. Even if the moon could be delivered, it could never happen on the schedule she promised. Just wasn’t humanly possible. And, sometimes what she promised could never be delivered at all. It was hard because angry clients were always calling with “Where is my widget detonator? I was promised this by last week!!” And yes, we’d have to be the ones to calm them down and take their increasing frustration/abusive anger all because the company owner promised what she couldn’t deliver in a timely manner. ALL THE TIME. UGH.

  22. KrisL*

    I like what Allison said. The manager’s the person responsible for making sure things get done. If you can’t get done what you need because of other people, you need to talk to them first (calmly, explaining the issue), and if that doesn’t help, talk to the manager.

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