are you a bottleneck for your staff?

Do your staff’s work or requests end up sitting in your in-box for weeks because you’re swamped with other priorities? If your workload means that you’re creating a bottleneck in your team’s workflow, here are some ways to get that flow unstuck, so that work keeps moving.

1. Take a fresh look at what work needs to go through you. Do you really need to sign off on or be involved in everything that’s going through you? If you have skilled and experienced employees, could they either handle some or all of it themselves, or be coached to do so over time? Managers often resist taking themselves out of the loop on work because they’re nervous about how projects might go or they feel that work will be better if they’re involved. And frankly, often that’s true, but the question for you is: By how much? If you’re only making a marginal improvement in quality, it might not be worth the cost of delaying it for days or weeks while it waits for your attention … as well as the cost of possibly demoralizing people and not developing your employees’ skills.

2. Take a look at your other priorities too. The answer to removing a bottleneck isn’t always as simple as “just take yourself out of the loop”; sometimes there are good reasons that you need to be involved. If that’s the case, it’s time to take a broad look at everything that’s on your plate and ensure that you’re prioritizing your time by where your impact will be greatest. That might mean that you realize that you’re spending time on things with less payoff and you’re able to carve out some of that time to deal with the bottlenecked items. Or it might mean that you realize that you have indeed prioritized correctly; sometimes a bottleneck reflects the reality that there are simply more pressing demands right now (in which case you can convey that situation to your team and move on to the next step).

3. Talk to your staff about how to make it easier for you to give fast answers. For example, if you find that people are sending you unpolished drafts or incomplete work, causing you to spend more time polishing, make it clear that work should be in what they consider final form before it comes to you. Or you might ask people to dispense with lengthy emails and instead provide you with a clear, concise statement of what they need (along with their proposed solution, if possible, since that will make it easier for you to give a quick yes or no). Or you might ask people to save up most items for a weekly one-on-one rather than sending you things for input throughout the week.

4. When all else fails, communicate clearly. Be realistic about your workload and your likely response time, and fill your staff in on where things stand. Let people know right away if you’re not likely to get to something for another week (or month), and give people an advance heads-up when you’re coming up on a particularly busy period. It can go a long way to say something like, “Next week, I’m going to be focused on preparing for the board meeting, so if you’ll need something from me during that time, please get it to me before this Tuesday.”

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    #1 is the most common downfall in my world. I work with a couple of people who are major bottlenecks and it’s because they’re spread too thin and not delegating properly. Thankfully these aren’t people I report to, but it still makes it hard to get things done.

  2. Daisy Steiner*

    Demoralising is so right! I can’t think of anything more deflating than to work hard on something, then for it to sit un-actioned with someone for months, until eventually it’s out of date and there’s no point doing it.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Yes, and its fun cousin, “scramble to create something on a deadline, wait six weeks for approval, and then scramble to get it back on the timeline.” Oof.

  3. Aideekay*

    Do you have a suggestion for how to approach a boss who is obstinately CHOOSING to be a bottleneck?

    I suspect this is an ego thing, but my boss claims more and more responsibility for signing off or giving feedback on just about every presentation or creative project that happens. I can see why he might want to, but it is extremely demoralizing to be confronted with that degree of distrust in the quality of my and my coworkers’ work.

    It also, of course, pushes deadlines to their absolute limit which is making the other departments we work with unhappy.

      1. _ism_*

        That was a good one! It even sheds light on a point that was not directly said: It’s important for a boss to communicate a purpose or at least assign priority to a goal that you know is likely to reach the bottleneck in your current system. That kind of transparent communication will enable her employees to plan ahead better, because they understand that there is a more important deadline or that more important people are waiting for it, than usual. When a manager conceals that she’s getting heat on something from above, her employees get mixed signals about priorities.

  4. non-profit manager*

    At my last job, one of my supervisors was a major bottleneck. Things would sit for weeks and weeks. Then he would get to it and propose all sorts of ridiculous* changes that, of course, needed to be done ASAP to still meet the deadline of the overall project schedule. (*Most were ridiculous. Even he thought so; more times than not, we would make his requested changes and he would ask why we did that, then argue with us until we produced his original changes … sigh).

    Because I thought that was such a horrible way to work, I have leaned in almost the opposite direction with my team. I will jump on their requests/questions/etc so they can keep moving. But that means many things I need and want to work on do not get done. I am not sure how to balance this, though I am experimenting with flagging things in my inbox as “to do” and carving out designated slots each day to deal with them. I have also empowered them to take action on many things without consulting me. And I always make time for questions and create an environment so they feel comfortable coming to me. I could not imagine having to review and sign off on everything they do – ugh.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I’ve never met a bottlenecker who a) acknowledged that assessment and b) wanted to remedy that problem.

    I did hear lots of explanations that included having high standards or something.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*


      My previous boss was a huge bottlenecker and while she admitted it was a problem, she was never willing or able to change her ways. She claimed it was about standards, but there was a lot of insecurity too.

    2. F.*

      Our company bottleneck has to sign off on reports to our clients. The task would be manageable if he would do them at least weekly, but he will sit on them for weeks until there is a very large pile. Then he just signature stamps them without reading them. Going over his head has not helped, even when clients are refusing to pay until they get their report. He has been here over eight years, so it isn’t going to change. I think it is just a passive-aggresive way of saying FU to the company.

    3. Graciosa*

      Hi, my name is Graciosa, and I am a recovering bottlenecker.

      I’m not sure I know any managers who can honestly say that they have *never* been an impediment to progress, but I really have tried to reform.

      For me, the key was setting regular, specific times to respond to questions, requests for approval, etc. from members of my team. They are marked on my calendar (to which my staff has access) so they know exactly when I will respond to anything submitted beforehand.

      The hard part is disciplining myself to finish *everything* that is open during the designated window. With a limited amount of time, I can give some feedback and direction, but it needs to be succinct. I just can’t get into too much detail on any individual item and still respond to everything.

      There are moments when I worry about going too far the other direction – providing decisions or direction without more may be wasting an opportunity for coaching or development. On the other hand, not providing the decision or direction holds up the project.

      It’s not easy to get this right.

    4. CM*

      I have! I find that around here, people are pretty willing to acknowledge if something isn’t working and will try to change it. Yay for a functional workplace.

  6. Cranky Comms Lady*

    My boss insists on reading every piece of internal communication before it’s distributed, and rarely makes changes more significant that turning an ellipsis into an em dash. And he’s in a ton of meetings most days, so it can sometimes take two full days for him to make those tiny corrections. It’s, uhh, a little bit frustrating.

  7. Kita*

    In the last couple weeks I’ve actually started noticing that I’m treating my boss in a way that would turn her into a bottleneck. She’s new, and I’m used to working under a different boss, so I keep giving her things to take to other departments. Like, “We’ll need to know how many teapots Alex is making next week, can you ask him?” I feel like I’m the problem here – I know what we need, I know who to get the info from, but I keep trying to pass it through my boss because I’m scared of getting in trouble for overstepping if I go straight to the other departments myself

    Any thoughts on trying to take on more responsibility so your boss doesn’t ahve to be a bottleneck?

    1. CM*

      How about, “I’m planning to go ask Alex how many teapots he is making because I need to know for X project. Does that sound good, or would you prefer to handle that yourself?” Or a broader approach would be, “Normally I talk to other departments directly about X, Y, and Z, are you comfortable with that or would you prefer to do that?”

  8. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    Thank you for the advice, Alison.

    May I suggest a fifth action, which is to talk to one’s leader about expectations for knowledge management and level of detail? Personally, I have found this helpful so that I prioritize where I need to focus and can provide the information my leader needs to perform his job. It also helped me learn and become comfortable with a delegation style – some managers, especially newer ones, assume that they still have to execute certain actions rather than delegate and monitor them. It might be a side effect of Imposter Syndrome in that these managers think they are expected to know what to do and fear indicating anything to contrary to upper management and direct leaders.

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