how to delegate last-minute work without a mutiny

No matter how well you plan out your team’s work, you might occasionally need to delegate an urgent project at the last-minute. Here’s how to do it without sending your team into rebellion or causing anyone to have a panic attack.

1. Acknowledge to your staff that the deadline is not ideal. Employees are more likely to get frustrated if they feel that you’re not acknowledging when something is a challenge. Things will usually go better if you don’t try to pretend the interruption isn’t a hardship. That doesn’t mean that you should fall all over yourself apologizing; after all, most workplaces have times when last-minute, urgent work pops up. But don’t pretend that it’s not a disruption.

2. If possible, explain why the project is coming up at the last minute. People tend to feel better about dropping everything to race to get something done when they understand the context for it and why it’s important.

3. Proactively address how this will impact the employee’s other work. Are there other deadlines that will need to be pushed back to make room for the new project? Projects that can be moved to someone else to clear space in your employee’s calendar to work on this? While some employees will raise these questions themselves, many will assume that if these steps were possible, you would say so without being asked – so make sure you do!

4. Get the employee help, if possible. Are there others who can be pulled in to help? Can some pieces of the project be delegated to others to make it go faster?

5. If someone has to really go above and beyond to make the deadline – such as working all night or canceling important plans – go out of your way to reward them. Order them dinner to be delivered while they’re working, encourage them to take a comp day once the work is done, or otherwise make their life easier and show your appreciation.

6. Say thank you. If someone races to get something done by a last-minute deadline, works late, takes on additional stress, or simply does an excellent job, letting them know they appreciate is not only kind, but makes them more likely to go out of their way for you in the future.

7. If you’re chronically needing to assign tight, last-minute deadlines, figure out why. Could better planning or communication solve the problem, or is it simply the nature of the work? Sometimes it really is just the unavoidable nature of the work, but it’s worth looking at whether better planning to head off some of it.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. alma*

    YES to all of this. I used to work in an office where last-minute emergencies were part of the job. It was frustrating as hell, but I always appreciated the project managers who were straightforward about what the business need was, and respectful of the work it would take to achieve it.

    On the other end of the spectrum, one of the other project managers was incapable of being the bearer of bad news, so she would always sneak around and obfuscate and try to make the deadline seem less severe than it really was. Then we’d always eventually find out what the REAL deadline was and hit the ceiling over how little time we had left (and how much we’d already wasted thanks to her antics). I think she felt like it was her job to manage our emotions over the last minute work, and it just completely backfired. I always came away from conversations with her feeling manipulated and resentful.

  2. Aunt Vixen*

    I had a leadership position once where a thing landed on us on Friday that had to be done by Monday – and when I asked my team who could come in on Saturday to help work on it, I made it clear that they’d be helping me, because as the lead I wasn’t going to make people give up part of their weekend without giving up part of my own. Obviously that can’t happen every single time, but I think managers demonstrating (rather than just insisting) that they’re part of the team, rather than existing above it, can go a long way to winning hearts and minds.

    1. Gene*

      Yeah, if you’re going to make me come in on a day off, you darned well better be there too. And not to just stand outside my cubical drinking coffee and telling me about the new TPS report cover sheet.

      1. Bea W*

        Yup. My former manager and Big Boss NEVER put in extra time or pitched in on the task while insisting or even requiring people to work late or weekends or the most sacred holiday of the year (i told the manager of the other dept they could all go home on time and i would adjust my own schedule to accomodate their team who offered to work pretty crazy weekend hours to make up for the time they wanted for religious observance and we kept it between ourselves). At my current job everyone pitches in. When our manager asks us to put in extra time she puts in at least as much time and then compensates us with a day off. It makes a huge difference in morale and the willingness of people to step up.

  3. Tiffany In Houston*

    Tell your team or subordinate AS SOON AS YOU FIND OUT. I got caught by my a manager one time as I had my purse on my shoulder on my way out of the door, for a last minute issue. Needless to say I was pissed. Plus you don’t know what the person had planned after work. I was single/no kids at the time, but what if they had kids or were a caregiver? What if they carpool with someone?

    1. Jeanne*

      Actually, what I’ve heard more is that if you’re single you have nothing to do. Which is NOT true.

      1. AmyNYC*

        Agreed. This angers me so much – I don’t have kids, but I do have friends, a pet, family and plenty of other obligations.

    2. Bea W*

      Yes please! Do not sit on an urgent request for 3 whole days and spring it on people on a Thursday. If you do this, you just suck and deserve mutiny.

  4. Sascha*

    Such is the life of an institutional reporting analyst. Those university deans just never seem to forward you their report requests on time… :)

  5. Leah*

    Yes! I would add that framing the work as an opportunity to try new things will go over like a lead balloon. A previous boss would decide to do something herself and then either run out of time or it wouldn’t work out. She’d dump it on someone as an “exciting opportunity” but we all knew what it meant. This was the same boss who forbade people from having ideas or making suggestions because that wasn’t their job.

  6. mess*

    Last minute deadlines are sort of par for the course in marketing, but I used to have a coworker who, several times a month, would come by my desk when he was leaving at 5:30 or 6 and dump something on me that was needed the next morning with no prior warning. He was a terrible communicator and I think maybe thought it would be easier to just hand it off and run away. And of course the deliverable would always need way more work than he said it would (outdated templates, tons of mistakes, etc). Once he made me late for my own birthday party!

    I really appreciate it when people give me a head’s up–like, “I have a document that I’ll need you to edit, but I probably won’t be finished until 4pm. Is that doable?” I know that’s not always possible, but I think being as proactive and transparent as possible when you think it could come down to the wire is much more effective.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Coworker, not manager? “Ok, I’ll do what I can, but I have plans and will need to leave by 6:45. I’ll put it back on your desk, with a note on what I’ve done, and you can come in early and finish it up tomorrow morning. I’m sure I’ll be able to finish similar work next time, if you can get it to me earlier in the day.”

      1. mess*

        Yes, a coworker (but above me in the food chain). I’ve gotten much better at pushing back on this kind of stuff as I get older and more experienced (and have more clout in the organization!).

      2. Bea W*

        That’s exactly what i would do. Need it in the morning and you have no authority over me? I’ll help do what what i can, but you might still have to get up early to finish it your own damn self, especially if i have plans for a threesome with two delicious hunks (a hunk of cake and a hunk ice cream).

  7. EngineerGirl*

    You missed one point. Let the team know what part of the project is truly important (critical) and required Vs what are supporting tasks. That way the team can focus on meeting the important stuff first. So yes, the overview and detailed analysis of the test event is required, followed by the pass/fail of each test, followed by the supporting detailed documentation for each test. In short, build staged off ramps of critical to less critical just in case the task is too large for the time constraint. This will give the team a feeling of accomplishment and energize them to finish the task as they see it is achievable.

  8. Lily in NYC*

    Ha, the project managers in my office are so competitive with each other that they all jump at the chance to be the one to take on a last-minute project. Especially now that it’s promotion season here. I stopped by the office at 11:00 pm the other night after having drinks with friends to use the office bathroom before my long subway ride home – there were 6 people from my dept. still there working even though nothing special was going on. I’m so glad I’m not on the promotion track here (I’m an EA) and rarely stay later than 6:30.

  9. Jillociraptor*

    This is all so great. I’m having one of those “How can I discreetly forward this to my manager” moments! My biggest challenge is that some people who delegate to me both often ask for things very last minute AND don’t seem to view it as a problem. Any suggestions for how to accept delegated tasks last minute and manage up productively to keep those last minute things to a minimum?

  10. Jeanne*

    My boss always gave me last minute stuff because I was the best at the work. Of course my boss never stayed a minute past 4pm. Of course the other workers would refuse to work overtime. I used to think hard work would pay off. It didn’t of course.

    1. Jeanne*

      I kept trying to start the conversations. How can we balance last minute work among the group? How can we work with other depts so less work is last minute? Unfortunately, that was shot down. Bosses really should make the effort to see why this is happening and if plans can be made.

  11. Callie30*

    Great tips – Yes, I really wish all people who manage would read this. I frequently get last-minute tasks from my boss. It’s not always a ‘big deal’ if it’s just me, except when I have to engage those under me in the projects – then it becomes more difficult.

  12. Puffle*

    This is why I am really glad that one of my supervisors was promoted to a role in a different department. I’d have to ask three or four times for her to pass on the documents that I needed, and she’d finally cough them up at 5 pm… and then tell me that I had to have everything ready for 8 am the next day. And this was never a 30 minute task that I could just dash off, it was always a solid several hours of work. I don’t mind working late when there’s a good reason for it, but I really don’t count ‘because you are incompetent and forgot to do it/ didn’t want to bother doing it yourself’ as a good reason.

    If she’d even just acknowledged that she was putting me out, I would have felt less irritated about it. A quick “I’m so sorry I didn’t get this to you earlier” wouldn’t take any trouble on her part (especially because the things I had to do were usually her tasks foisted off onto me)

  13. Girasol*

    Thanks for the timely advice! I’m asking great people to do the impossible right now. They will, but I want them to keep that great positive attitude afterward.

  14. tired*

    Regarding #’s 5 & 6 in particular… any ideas (as the employee in this equation) for how to tactfully broach the topic of having put in extra hours/effort in response to last-minute requests without coming across as a martyr or overly needy? Honestly, I’m less interested in the thank you/pat on the back and more just knowing that they know what it took to get the job done.

  15. Anon Accountant*

    Or how frustrating it is when it’s 1 person who has known about the project for weeks and drops the ball at the last minute and it’s a 5 alarm emergency of “drop everything you are doing this second and throw everything you have into finishing this ASAP”.

    Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s amazing how much chaos just 1 person can cause in an office.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Although it’s not just one person, because that person’s manager should be making it clear that’s unacceptable. If they keep letting this happen the problem is really management.

      1. Anon Accountant*

        The problem definitely is management- the #1 offender is a partner.

        Good times all around with him as a person in charge and the other 2 that are too timid or lazy to say anything to him.

  16. Matt*

    I remember being called on my way home in the subway by my direct supervisor. (These were the old days pre-smartphone where everyone had a mobile but it was not as standard as it is today to be reachable outside of work.) She literally begged me to come back because one application I had been in the process of developing over the recent weeks had to be deployed into productive NOW. The boss two levels above her had threatened to make her responsible for this being finished TODAY after hearing I was no longer in the office (I always was an “early bird” with flextime working from 7 to 3:30 or so).

    Well, this was at about 4 pm, I ended up sitting at the computer until 9 pm. Next day I learned that although “my” application was up and running perfectly, it was useless, because another (federal) government (I was working at municipal government) who were our partner in this project and supposed to host the user interface had a different sense of “urgent” and still needed another few days …

  17. Mutineer*

    I quit a job that paid me nothing less than a fortune because of my company’s refusal to do #7.

    The higher ups had no qualms about issuing last minute work almost every afternoon and weekend. If someone at their level had actually sat down and planned for ten minutes before noon on Friday…

    Nature of the job, they justified, when I knew it was mostly due to their desire to have a three day weekend themselves. And I heard on more one occasion that the hourly employees should be grateful for the hours, not vetching about ruined plans and expenses incurred therewith.

    The last straw was when their carelessness caused one of my workers to miss his cousin’s wife’s funeral (she’d been murdered) and was implied he’d be disciplined if he didn’t come to work (my boss was out of the country and unreachable). I did my best to cover for him (and missed the funeral myself) but it was not enough to get him there clean and on time.

    This was completely unacceptable. Makes me sick to this day that I had a part in it; I found out that Monday this project actually needed to wait until then for further instructions (as with many of our “urgent” weekend projects) and considering I was being threatened with a PIP for (as Alison puts it) “pushing back” I was really peering over the edge.

    The fact that I waited another three weeks to walk even after this, I will never live it down. I could excuse it by saying I was waiting those three weeks for someone to show remorse, for some change to happen, but I knew in my heart from that Friday when I failed to push the deadline, that no one gave a damn. I am sick that I stayed those weeks for the paycheck, when I knew I could no longer reconcile answering to these people, nor look my workers in the eye.

    Frankly, I have been soured against applying for management positions again (though I may be considered qualified and they are the only jobs that can pay my student loans around here) especially realizing I wasn’t necessarily working for principle and decency (although according to them I was). I was working for the company’s interest.

    I will say I am ever most grateful to those managers who are kind and try their best to do their jobs so we can do ours… If you count yourself as one of those… Thank you.

    So. Bottom line: if you have the power… #7.

  18. C Average*

    This is all fantastic stuff. Thank you.

    I’d add one more (that should be obvious and doesn’t seem to be): put the ask in writing in a clear, concise but thorough format.

    When emotions and stress are running high, when people are sleep-deprived, and when there’s no room for error, it sucks to spend valuable time trying to remember what was said in a meeting or debating within the team “did they want THIS or did they want THIS?”

  19. Bea W*

    My former employer did #4 and absolutely nothing else. My current employer can’t get the resources for #4 but does everything else. Guess which one incited a secret riot in my head at the mere mention of a sudden urgent deadline.

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