my boss never returns my work on time

A reader writes:

My company policy requires that most items that I produce (reports, etc.) have to be reviewed by my manager before they can be sent to clients. My manager has many good qualities; unfortunately, the ability to accurately judge how long it will take him to complete a task is not one of them, and he consistently returns items to me well after he has promised them. These delays can range from hours to weeks. At best, they are an inconvenience (I have to work late to keep timelines from slipping), and at worst they affect clients’ perceptions of my abilities.

I try to be very explicit when sending him items for review (“Please return your comments by [date] so I can complete [steps A, B, and C] before sending to client by the deadline of [date]’), but it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. Additionally, I worry that by sending frequent follow-ups and reminders, I’m desensitizing him to the urgency and/or being annoying. We both work remotely, so knocking on his office door isn’t an option.

My manager and I have discussed this, and although he acknowledges his shortcoming in this area, he doesn’t seem to be working on it – at least, not in any way that I have noticed. I’m really fed up, but not sure what to do. Should I try and discuss with him again? Should I contact his manager? HR options at our organization are not really helpful.

Generally, this kind of thing is between you and your manager and not something to escalate over his head unless there are really serious repercussions to what he’s doing — like multiple upset clients, or you having to constantly work late (more than just here and there). Exceptions to that are if you happen to have excellent rapport with his manager and she seems like the type who would want to know this and would ensure it didn’t cause issues in your relationship with your boss, or if you’re ever asked to give input on his work, like for his performance evaluation or in a 360.

But before you even start thinking about that, talk to him again. Say this: “Can we talk about what I can do differently to ensure that I’m able to get your sign-off on my work before deadlines pass? When there’s a long delay, I often have to work late to keep us from missing deadlines, and when that’s not possible, I’m concerned that it’s affecting how clients see me. I know that you’re busy with your own work. Is there a different way I could approach this to ensure that I get things back on time?”

Note that this isn’t “change what you’re doing.” It’s “help me figure out if I can do something differently, or if there’s a better system for both of us.”

Of course, the real solution might be for him to change what he’s doing. But presenting it this way is a very polite way of reopening the topic and letting him know that nothing has changed since your last conversation. And who knows, it also might actually result in him thinking of something that you could do differently that would help.

If this doesn’t get you anywhere — if you just get vague promises that he’ll try to do better — I’d be prepared with some suggestions of your own. For example, you might ask if he’d be willing to put on his calendar specific blocks of time to deal with your stuff each week — like a regular standing appointment every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to review what you’ve sent him, or whatever makes sense with your workflow. Or maybe he’d find it helpful if you sent him an I.M. each morning with what you need from him that day. Or maybe it’s possible to take him out of the review process for at least some of what currently goes to him, so that he’s not a bottleneck. (If there are certain types of items that he rarely has changes to, that could be a good category to suggest this with.)

It’s pretty likely that if you’re willing to take the lead in suggesting things like this, he’ll agree to at least one of them, if not more.

If you try those new things for a while and things still don’t really change, it’s fair game to bring it up again in a similar manner. Also, if you have a generally good relationship with him and he values your work, it’s not out of line to let him know that this has become a significant frustration for you. Often in this situation, the manager genuinely doesn’t realize how much it’s bugging the employee, and getting a better sense of that can be the nudge they need to take it more seriously. (That probably doesn’t mean saying “I’m crying in my office every day over this,” but more something like “I know how busy you are, but this is causing me really significant stress on a near-daily basis.”)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 88 comments… read them below }

  1. Leatherwings*

    Your manager sounds like he’s difficult to “manage up.” I work with someone like this as well and the only thing that’s worked is giving artificially early deadlines. When the person inevitably misses it, I have more standing to point out the missed deadline and pressure them to get it to me as soon as possible.

    People who don’t manage their time well like this can be so difficult to work with. I hope that you are able to try some of AAM’s suggestions and update us!

    1. gnarlington*

      This is what I was going to come into the comments to suggest. Give him artificial deadlines way ahead of what your actual deadline is. I think this can work when you know, on average, how late his responses will come. For example, if he’s usually three days late with responses, then this can be effective. But the OP says it can range from hours to weeks, which is a huge spectrum. I’m wondering how effective this can be. The direct approach might be better here.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Yeah, if the boss is usually a day or two late, I can see this working well (and in that case I wouldn’t even think of it as an “artificial” deadline, but rather a necessary step in the process, since the boss probably has many other things on his plate than just reviewing OP’s projects).

        But OP has to have the initial work done by the time she shows it to the boss, which means if the boss is consistently a week or more late with responses, OP is probably losing a lot of the time she needs to get the work done in the first place!

    2. Manders*

      That was exactly what I was going to suggest–if your manager’s consistently about a week late, make his deadlines a week or a week and a half early. That’s what I did when I worked for a boss who couldn’t make his deadlines, in a field where turning in work late was NOT an option.

      Some other things I did:
      * Created a color-coded spreadsheet with the status and priority of all the work I had to get done. I saved this on a shared drive, but I also printed it off and left it on his desk every morning so it would be the first thing he saw (with permission, of course).
      * Talked with clients right when we got assignments about deadlines so I could make sure everything was prioritized correctly.
      * Talked to him about scheduling blocks of time just for work (I also controlled the calendar).
      * Created a system for rush fees so clients would have to pay a premium for a short turnaround and my boss would have more incentive to buckle down and get the work done (again, with permission).

      To be honest, though, managing up like that is exhausting and stressful. I ended up leaving that position for one where I have more control when it comes to getting projects out the door.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        These are great. Also made me wonder if she could also build in more cushion with the clients? Like under promise, over deliver.

        1. Manders*

          That’s what I ended up having to do. After enough incidents, you get a sense of who’s flexible and who’s not and who only hints at deadlines that are a huge deal rather than stating what they need clearly.

          My favorite clients were the ones who built some cushion time into their own systems too. I actually had one client offer me a job because they loved how I handled scheduling around deadlines, but by that point I was pretty fed up with scheduling for other people. Now I only have to touch the office calendar when I’m booking a conference room!

    3. AD*

      These are all good suggestions, but what if the manager knows your *actual* deadlines, and giving him soft deadlines won’t work in that case? I’m genuinely curious as to how people have dealt with that situation.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Well in my situation, the person wasn’t meeting or keeping track of initial deadlines. Giving artificial deadlines in a more explicit way (an IM with a hard due date worked for me) and following up in the days leading up to the fake deadline worked best. Part of the reason the person was missing deadlines is because they weren’t keeping track of them in the first place.

        In my experience, it’s rare that a person consistently misses deadlines, but is aware of those deadlines. In that case, the boss is intentionally missing them and prioritizing other work on purpose and OP might need to reorient expectations around that.

        1. Aurion*

          I actually think it’s common to have people miss deadlines while still being aware of them! I’m assuming you mean “person doesn’t know when X is due”; in my experience, it’s far more common to have people go “it’s due at the end of the month; still have two weeks” for a week and a half, and then look up and go “oh shit!!” and either madly scramble to make the deadline…or madly scramble but miss the deadline. Even if they make the deadline, it causes stress for all involved. Sometimes the deadline is an internal one and missing it eats into the buffer time of other people, but technically the product goes out to external clients on time and thus the person has less incentive to change (as opposed to missing a drop-dead external deadline where you’re screwed if you miss it).

      2. M from NY*

        I found a new job. Business closed within the year. It was exhausting managing up for someone that refused to change and constantly blamed me for his unprofessional behavior. Karma took her time but now he has to punch clock for others which was all the “revenge” I needed.

        1. Artemesia*

          I am watching a similar business fail for this reason now. The boss doesn’t do his job but pulls money from the business. What can go wrong with that? All he had to do was lift a finger and let his excellent staff make it work, but he couldn’t even do that.

    4. Quiet*

      Oh man, I’m going through this right now, and you said it exactly right. It is nearly impossible to “manage up” with this person. I have a good relationship with this person, but this giant, glaring blindspot drives me batty and stresses me out.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    In advertising, you live and die by whether your account team can get you comments on time!

    I like the Positive Discipline approach (because sometimes bosses and coworkers are like children!): Decide What You Will Do. In my case, that means emailing documents for comments and including a statement in the email like “I need comments by 2 PM. Otherwise [I won’t be able to make changes before close of business/I will assume it is good to go to the client/Less-Experienced Junior Writer will be working with you while I’m at a client meeting].”

    If you’re not senior enough to just implement this approach without asking permission, I would bring it up in the convo you have with your boss — “when I have everything done on time but I need to wait for your comments, it leads to late nights for me or late submissions to clients, so can I start sending stuff on my own if I don’t get your approval in time?”

    1. Manders*

      Ooh, yes, this is brilliant. The LW would have to do some serious self-reflection before starting it, though–*is* her work really good enough that the review process is just a formality, or is the boss catching mistakes that would be worse than blowing a deadline?

      1. Karo*

        Yeah, that was going to be the one caveat I added to my statement below – Typically when my manager reviews my work, he’ll either approve with no changes or make minor changes that certainly help the message but won’t have a negative impact if those are missing. If that’s not happening – if the manager is consistently making important changes – then this isn’t going to work.

        1. designbot*

          If they’re constantly making important changes, I would suggest finding a way to review an outline or minimum viable product earlier. For big decisions that I know other team members will want input on, I figure out what the minimum viable product is (sometimes this is a series of sketches, or an outline, or a poorly-rendered version of something we’ll do a nice rendering of later), take it to that point, then have a meeting to make sure that the necessary parties are heard. Big decisions shouldn’t be a surprise at the point when the producer thinks the item is “done” in the first place.

      2. OhBehave*

        This is exactly what I was going to post. Does he have to make numerous changes to her work? If so, is he providing feedback to OP about what was missed or incorrect? No? Then many of the suggestions made here may help. I think an open and honest meeting is really needed here.

    2. Karo*

      I’m a huge fan of this in my own work. Pretty much everything I send for review includes a note that if I don’t receive comments by a certain time, I’m going to proceed on the assumption that it’s been approved.

    3. designbot*

      This is what I do too, was just scrolling down to suggest it! Oftentimes I do not even get replies to these types of emails, but at least you can point to and everyone knows you tried.

    4. Anna*

      I also work in an environment where I am constantly “nagging” people to get their comments/documents/approval/files to me. I have to do this with a lot of different people with whom I have different kinds of relationships (both internal and external people, people above me, contractors, ect.) For some of these people, and for things that I CAN move forward with, I find the “Please respond by X, or Y will happen” very effective. Because at least, if they don’t respond, I can just keep going. And it puts the pressure off of them, too–they can decide if they care enough to respond, and if they don’t, then they can just consider it dealt with.

    5. Edith*

      This is an especially good tack if the manager is dragging his feet because he doesn’t think OP’s work needs his approval– if he thinks it’s an unnecessary step. The work we don’t think we should have to do is often the work we do last.

      1. JessaB*

        This is a really good point. It’s possible that the answer is not “remind the boss of deadlines,” but “work with boss to change the policy that requires sign off on every darned product.” ARE these products things that would fail if not signed off on, or is this just corporate silliness possibly formulated because employee x ten years ago was garbage at this and so they implemented this across the board rather than actually managing the employee?

        If you can get a policy in place that requires less oversight, this might work better into the future than requiring it on everything.

    6. KarenD*

      This is exactly what we do as well. In our case, the “bottleneck boss” really is just completely overwhelmed at certain times (unfortunately, this is not fixable, just when things must be done),. It’s important to understand that we’re actually asking him to do two things: First, review the action item and second, provide feedback. Knowing that he only has to do the first, unless he spots something that needs to be changed, has made a big difference.

      So the deal is we send it to him X amount of time before Y deadline. If we don’t hear from him before Y, we proceed. He knows there’s a window of a few hours post-Y where the action item can be walked back if he spots something major (it’s a pain, but it can be done), but in all the time we’ve been using this system that’s only happened a few times, and only once did something get all the way through the process that should have been caught.

  3. B*

    If possible, try pushing your deadlines up. If you want something back on Thursday have it due on Tuesday. I realize this may not always be possible but it could be helpful.

    1. KHB*

      It could be helpful in the short term, but in the long term it just reinforces the message that deadlines are optional. If you give a deadline of Tuesday but seem happy enough when he gets back to you on Thursday, what he learns from that is that you didn’t mean what you said, so he can ignore what you say in the future.

    2. Just a Thought*

      This was my thought as well. I am the type of person who likes to get all my work done early, so if I tell you I’ll have something by Tuesday, in my mind that means I’ll have it done by Monday. But I know the rest of the world doesn’t work that way, so I typically pad deadlines so people give them to me by my internal early deadline. Does that make sense.

      In another vein I have two very good friends who are always late. So when I make plans with them, I always plan for them to be late. Some people just are unable (or unwilling) to learn how to get things done ontime.

  4. East of Nowhere south of Lost*

    I would ask for a policy clarification that could mean if you send it to him and don’t hear back in days that that means its approved and you can move on. If he trusts your work and is just rubber-stamping it, that might let him off the hook for most things. Sounds like he’s either taking too much time, or is not taking hardly any time at all with the approvals., if its the second one, he might go for this approach.

  5. Graciosa*

    From the other side of the desk, standing appointments really helped me. It creates a fair expectation about when I’m going to get this done (my team has access to my calendar).

    They don’t wonder what happened to it, and whether it would be pushy to ask (I’ve been very clear that if it’s not back after the scheduled window when I do reviews and approvals, it is completely proper to ask).

    I have dedicated time to address things I need to address to support my team, and I don’t have to worry that something got lost in email two weeks ago and one of my employees is sitting there wringing his hands for it and afraid to ask. (No, I’m really not an ogre, but sometimes it takes time for new employees to trust that).

    I like the way Alison positioned the conversation and I’m not suggesting the OP get obnoxious about this, but fundamentally the manager is there to ensure the work gets done. That really means we’re there to give the employees what they need (if I could do it all myself, we wouldn’t be in this situation!). An employee shouldn’t hesitate to politely communicate what that is.

  6. Joseph*

    I think bringing workflow improvement suggestions (as AAM mentions) is really a good idea. Assuming your boss is a reasonable person, it’s probably not that he intentionally wants to ignore you, it’s just that he think about “oh yeah, let’s review the OP Report”, then a client calls and a different team member sends an email and so on, and suddenly it’s the end of the day. Giving specific suggestions on ways to fix the workflow can really help here.

    As another option, you can often “fix” these sorts of problems by intentionally compensating in your project planning. If you know he’s usually a little late, you build two days of float room into the date you promise the client. This may not be an option depending on client/industry, but it’s worth thinking about.

    Also, as a side note, while I generally support the idea of remote work and the ‘paperless’ office, this is one of the scenarios where the old-school method is clearly superior. It’s a lot harder to forget about my memo when I physically hand you a thick sheet of papers that sits in the corner of your desk as a reminder of “read Joseph’s report”. And I can physically stop by and you have to look right at me and admit that you haven’t opened it yet.

  7. C Average*

    Once he does get around to reviewing your work, does he tend to offer much feedback, and does it tend to be helpful? Does it produce any actual follow-up work, or is it a check-the-box sort of thing? Is it possible that he procrastinates about this because it doesn’t feel important or urgent to him? And (what I’m really getting to) is , would it ever be possible to eliminate the review requirement altogether, and maybe leave it up to you to ask him to review specific items when you really feel that his input is needed, rather than seeking it every time?

    Obviously in some workplaces, the boss’s review would be totally non-negotiable, but if yours offers some wiggle room, it might be worth exploring.

    1. Marty Gentillon*

      Asking questions about this makes since even when the review is non-negotiable. By understanding the purposes of the review, you could solve some of them using other techniques (peer review for instance) and then streamline the parts that your boss really needs to approve of (he might really only need to review a small summary our, due to other processes he can be confident of the other details.)

  8. hbc*

    Can you maintain a list of all the stuff that is out for review with relevant deadlines and other information? It sounds like he’s getting overwhelmed, so if you have a practice of sending him an email every Monday with an updated list, he should be able to triage better. I’m thinking it should include the due dates, priority for you, likelihood of his review actually mattering (call it something other than that), and the steps you’ll take if you don’t get back a review by the due date.

    It’ll almost certainly help him triage, but even if he doesn’t pick up the speed or let go of a single review, at least you can spend less time worrying about whether he’s forgotten something.

      1. zora.dee*

        My boss recently asked me to start a daily list of all of the current issues I’m working on and the next steps and what questions she has to answer. At first I really bristled bc I felt super micromanaged, but then I realized it’s actually for her, because she could not keep track of what she was supposed to be responding to. Which is also kind of annoying, but the result is that we are getting all the little random things done much faster because she sees them every day until she answers me.

        1. Marty Gentillon*

          One way to make this less manager driven would be to maintain it yourself. For instance, if you can keep a board of yellow sickies for each item you are working on, and a specific area for “boss input” then she doesn’t have to track this, and you control the list better. Also, no need for meetings to put together the list.

          1. zora.dee*

            oh no, I don’t make it in a meeting. That’s exactly what she asked was for me to make a list each day of everything that I’m working on, but with anything I need from her flagged or attached. The earlier system was me sending multiple emails per item per day because she was never getting back to me. This is much easier.

            Another part of the reason for this is she travels a lot so she’s out of the office and can’t answer quick questions in person. I felt like she was micromanaging because she phrased it as wanting to see my “Workplan” every day, which drove me crazy bc I feel like I am an adult who can manage my own work. But I’ve realized it’s really a list for her of what is currently outstanding and reminds her to do things.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      This was really helpful for my former manager who was like this. One additional thing I did was actually re-attach the documents/emails/whatever for review. The more I could help her reduce the amount of work she had to do to do the work, the better.

  9. BRR*

    If the other suggestions don’t work, which I would try first, can you have someone else review your work?

  10. JT*

    Does your manager have an assistant that you can get assistance from? When I worked as an assistant my director (the office’s big boss) was pretty bad about signing off on things, reviewing work, etc. It was because he was so wrapped up in his own work it just piled up. I knew he was holding up other people’s work at times by not setting time to review things. So I would make it a point to set up time with me for a office paperwork needs sign off time. He seemed to be more agreeable to me sitting with him going through his reviewing tasks then the actual employees he was checking.

  11. NJ Anon*

    My boss is like this too. Agree that it helps when you are physically at the same location. I will literally go sit in her office and not leave until I get what I need. Fortunately, she realizes this shortcoming of hers. She has good intentions but a short attention span.

    1. LQ*

      I’ve had this happen with a couple of people on projects. For at least one it is because she is constantly bombarded with questions when she’s alone, but if someone else is in there they are much less likely to stop and talk. (Though more leadership likes to hang out when it is the two of us…)

  12. coffeeandpearls*

    You could ask him it’s OK to send him Outlook calendar reminders for the day before (or maybe two with this guy) before you need it. I worked with a very smart, successful absent-minded professor-type and the constant reminders were not offensive to him and often encouraged.

  13. animaniactoo*

    LW, one thing that I think is important reframe – particularly when speaking to your boss – is that the worst thing that happens from a company perspective is not that it causes clients to question your abilities/business practices, but it causes clients to question *the company’s* abilities/business practices.

    At that point, from this perspective, he is not causing the clients to think badly of you and causing you stress, he is potentially losing clients for the company. That’s something that should alarm him much more than your dissatisfaction with getting the reports back late. That’s what I would lead off a “How can we solve this issue?” conversation with.

    1. Christopher Tracy*

      This. Making it about you probably won’t incentivize him to change his ways, but pointing out how this is negatively impacting the company might.

  14. Elder Dog*

    Maybe managing up by not telling your boss when it needs to get to the client and only telling him what his deadline is will work better.
    Often people who don’t manage time well only look at the final deadline and completely forget other people have stuff that has to be done after them that also has to be fit in before that final deadline.
    Don’t give him a countdown, or if you must, give him one that ends with enough time left it lets you get your part done after him.

    1. Elder Dog*

      If you have to give him a countdown including the final deadline, it may help to include all the steps that have to be finished after he does his bit, including estimates of how much time that will take. He may be thinking it’s something like Monday, OP hands X off to me, Friday morning I hand it back to OP, magic happens and the client gets it Friday afternoon by FedEx.

  15. some1*

    This is the good thing about being an admin – I can block time off on my boss’s calendar to follow up on my work!

    1. harryv*

      My suggestion would be similar to this. Block off an weekly meeting block of 1 or 2 hours where you can ‘catch up’ but in reality, it is forcing your boss to review the docs at the spot. It’ll save you from emailing back and forth and you can answer question at the spot. Your manager can review and approve. This should work for most type of work.

  16. Gene*

    No, don’t give artificial deadlines. You’ll just be training the person that missing the deadline is No Big Deal because the product still gets out on time. I can see putting a bit of float time into the schedule, we do that a lot because things happen.

    It sucks, but at some point you may just have to tell your boss “I need this by end of day Tuesday, or we will miss the deadline.” If he doesn’t get it out to you, … miss the deadline. He won’t change unless there are consequences, and right now you are protecting him from the consequences of his (in)actions. It like a toddler who wants to touch the hot stove; you snatch him away time after time, but he still wants to touch it. Let him touch it once, and he won’t touch it again.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I think it’s possible to do both – give artificial deadlines WHILE working with the person to meet deadlines more frequently. It sounds like boss is missing deadlines anyways (hence why clients might look down on OP), and the expectation is that OP fixes it. If she doesn’t fix it and lets the boss to “touch the hot stove” it could come back to hurt her instead of making the boss do the right thing.

      This just totally depends on the work situation, though.

    2. Jamie*

      This. This is something I struggle with when swamped and artificial deadlines would not help…I’d just add in the buffer.

      What would work with me is a quick standing appointment to go over the list because I’d rather just get everything done than have to explain why it wasn’t done and then paint myself into a corner of needing someone to keep deadlines when I don’t. I don’t like to be confronted with my own hypocrisy. :)

      If the boss is truly that busy he should look for someone to be his back up on this when he’s buried.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Hi Jamie!!!!!!!!

        I agree with your last statement. I’ve gone through this recently with someone who’s taking on new responsibilities and is legit swamped. But I can’t manage this person’s time, nor can I make them ask for help. It’s been frustrating–though we’re finally starting to get caught up.

    3. BRR*

      I sort of agree with the first part. If this is a regular thing, it’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Expecting someone to meet deadlines is perfectly reasonable. The only reason I don’t completely support it is that the LW needs things to still get done.

      For the second part my concern would be that it affects the LW too much to just let a deadline pass. She mentions client’s perception of her so letting deadlines pass could do more harm than good and might cost the company revenue in the end. I just worry that someone will say it’s her fault even though it’s her manager’s fault. If not I would totally do it.

  17. Robin B*

    I used to have this problem, and boss acknowledged it was a problem. So now I sit at his desk until he reviews and and signs off on the work. It’s made life easier and my clients get answers faster–so I look better.

  18. Artemesia*

    I may have missed this already suggested, but has the OP tried to schedule a formal meeting to go over the product a few days before the deadline. There are some people who can only focus if you hold their hand. And then when they say ‘oh, I haven’t read it, can we do this later’ at least you are in person and can say ‘we are up against the client deadline, it has to go out, let’s go through it now so we don’t fail the client. I have 3 areas I particularly want you to look at; I need your opinion on paragraph 4 on page 3, the budget on page 10 and the summary statement on page 15. I think the rest is pretty solid.’ That way the boss has made input and has been handheld through the process. Obviously one has to make judgments about tactics that will work with the particular person, but if he is a doofus who can’t organize, this kind of structure may work. I once worked with a guy whose office was known as the ‘black hole’ because what went in never came out and this did work for me as he wasn’t vicious just incompetent. (and yeah a manager who doesn’t meet deadlines like this is incompetent.)

  19. Coalea*

    OP here – and so excited to read all this feedback on my problem!

    After re-reading my own letter, I think I’ve conflated several issues, and each one probably needs to be handled a bit differently.

    One type of delay that I experience is with the company-mandated reviews. The majority of the time, this is more of a sign-off without substantive feedback. In these instances, the “If I don’t hear from you by [date], I will proceed and send to client” approach would work well here.

    The bigger problem is when I’ve sent something to him for review with a request for specific feedback (for example, asking for confirmation that I’ve interpreted data correctly), or when we are collaborating on a project where each of us is responsible for different sections. These are the types of items that he tends to delay the most. I see that a number of readers have suggested creating artificial deadlines for him, but I’m not sure that would work, since he’s aware of the overall project timelines – and is even aware that he’s delinquent in getting things to me.

    We have a standing weekly meeting during which we could discuss these issues; unfortunately, at least once a month he ends up cancelling it so he can use the time to catch up on work that’s fallen behind!

    As several of you have noted, managing up is exhausting! I appreciate the helpful suggestions to try and do it better!

    1. Liz*

      Here’s another possibility: when you send it to him, make sure the subject line is very descriptive, e.g. “Teapot report for Important Client: feedback needed by 7/21/2016”. And if the deadline is imminent and you really can’t proceed without it, flag it as urgent.

    2. animaniactoo*

      Possible to say “Can we reschedule for tomorrow rather than canceling? I really need to go over Project X with you.”?

    3. CM*

      I agree with the suggestions about proposing one or more solutions to this problem. Here are some ideas:

      You can ask for permission to send certain things without his signoff — in other words, clear this approach with your boss in advance. You could ask, “Is it okay if I send these things to you with at least 1 day’s notice, and if I don’t hear from you within a day, I can send them to client?” If you get your boss to confirm this approach in an email, you should be covered if anyone claims you’re not following company policy.

      You can propose more frequent standing meetings, 2-3 times per week, and use that time to actually have him review and sign off on things. I do this with my very busy boss and it works well; she doesn’t have to respond to my emails, because when we meet I tell her, “Here are the three things I need your input on” and she looks at those things while I’m in her office or on the phone with her.

      You can ask if there’s somebody else you can/should talk to for input.

      You can call with quick questions, or ask your boss if there’s a better way to communicate than email for issues on which you need immediate feedback.

    4. Random Lurker*

      I work in consulting and have this issue occasionally too. In addition to other suggestions about wording and discussing it in the 1:1 that sometimes gets cancelled, try this: set up (1 hr , 2hr) review sessions with him during which you actually do the review together (ie you direct the convo, focus him to areas where you need feedback, etc) so that it gets done then and there. You can do this by phone and WebEx, no need to be in person together–though that helps! Yes, this means you lose that hour or two also, but at least it gets done.

  20. AF*

    I second the face-to-face meeting idea. My division’s boss is really bad at this too, and sometimes, you basically have to be in front of him with the document for him to look at it, and not leave the room until you have the answer or sign-off that you need. It’s not that he doesn’t care that the delays cause you extra work, but he is easily distracted. Which is its own problem, but we can’t fix that. Good luck – please keep us updated!

  21. Kate*

    I am someone who is on the other side of the desk (in the manager role). I am overloaded with projects and requests (I’ve tried to address this to no avail), and often urgent, unplanned items will come in and upset deadlines for other projects. I do a couple of things:
    1. Try to keep staff in the loop on what is going on and the relative priority of different tasks/projects, so that they understand why I am responding to, say, fieldwork- or hiring- related issues more quickly than a report that is due in 3 months or a brochure for our department;
    2. Try to take myself out of the chain where possible – obviously some things I really do need to review, but I don’t need to review and approve every little thing, and it slows everything down when I try. This has the side benefit of building my reports’ capacity, but it does require hiring really good people and training them well. Not sure this will help you since you said your company requires review.
    3. Tell my reports not to feel bad about nagging me re key deadlines
    4. For some projects, setting up standing meetings is helpful. Some forms of feedback are more efficient to talk through than send written comments, and having the meeting on my calendar means it won’t get scheduled over (usually)
    4. Try, to the extent possible, to say no to “optional requests” – often folks from other teams who don’t NEED my comments but would like to have them. I’ve learned that I have to say no to many of these so that I can be more responsive to my team and projects.
    Would standing meetings help? Would it help to have a conversation with your boss to try to understand his priorities? Maybe he is missing deadlines because he thinks/knows a certain project is lower priority – he may have information that you don’t.

    1. Kate*

      Oops, I just saw above that you said you have standing meetings. Would it be possible to make these more efficient (eg, use the meeting to go over the data section that you have comments on)? If he knows that the meeting will allow him to get some tasks done, he might be less likely to cancel. (Maybe you are already doing this, in which case I would just nag him about getting it rescheduled)

      1. CanadianAccountant*

        I completely agree with this. Often I will tell my team I’ll review something on X day. However, often new more urgent client demands come up and I have to reprioritize. My staff won’t necessarily know everything I have on the go, but I am up front with the fact that I’m fine with them following up as needed (and I try to communicate the most effective ways to do this).

        I do a couple different things when I get behind on reviewing to try to help reduce the inevitable frustrations from my staff. First, I try not to send back last minute urgent changes. If I’m reviewing late and want changes made, I will often make them myself as I review, rather than sending them back for revisions that need to be made RIGHT NOW. In addition, if a client or my own manager follows up on something that is with me, I’m very quick to let them know that the response is with me for review and they’ll get it tonight/tomorrow etc. My team knows that I will take responsibilities for some of these unavoidable delays that come up due to my own workload and that helps build trust.

    2. Coalea*

      I appreciate the feedback from the “other side of the desk.” I guess one aspect of this issue that I struggle with is that my boss will tell me “I’m working on X and will get it to you by 1:00.” Well, 1:00 comes and goes. I might send an email or IM later that afternoon to check in and he’ll say “Sorry, I’ll get that to you first thing tomorrow morning.” This will go on and on for days or weeks, and I find it confusing. When I was in a management role, I would have let my direct reports know that I was behind and propose a more realistic timeframe for delivering what I owed them. My boss doesn’t seem to be able to do this. Any insights as to why? Anything I can do to help him? Do I just need to accept that if he says “1:00” he really means “sometime between 1:00 and 2 weeks from now”?

      1. Â*

        LOL! I have no answers for you, but I love / hate “sometime between 1:00 and 2 weeks from now…”

  22. bopper*

    I had a boss like that…we write requirements and part of the sign off was getting the boss to sign off.
    Just emailing it didn’t work.
    I tried emailing with a subject in all Caps…”IMPORTANT: MUST BE REVIEWED” but that didn’t go over well.
    I think printing out the sign off sheet and and asking him in person to sign it worked the best…but he was often busy, so we watched his Work IM Chat status to see when it was “green” (no scheduled meetings) and would run over or have a coworker watch for when he was in the office.

    So to the OP, I find that asking people in person is the best…it is easy to blow off people in email.

    Like others say, if this a proforma sign off then just ask for the signature in person.
    If you usually get comments then schedule a review meeting and go through it step by step.

  23. animaniactoo*

    Just a head’s up – there are several comments here about face-to-face, but OP doesn’t actually have that option. They wrote “We both work remotely, so knocking on his office door isn’t an option.”

  24. Stranger than fiction*

    I’m wondering if, when she talks to him, if she can ask for more autonomy and send some of these things without him reviewing? That seems awfully inefficient to me that he has to review every single thing she sends out. If she’s consistently doing her job correctly,, he shouldn’t have to waste his time and hers doing this.

  25. AnonAcademic*

    OP, I sympathize. I don’t have this problem with my boss but rather a coworker at my same level (middle management). What I have done is slowly shift time-sensitive responsibilities away from them – I either find other people to do it or do it myself. Doing it myself is actually less work, more efficient, and less stressful than trying to prod her to produce the work.

    Of course it’s a bit different when it’s your boss – one of the hardest things for me is pushing back on dysfunctional dynamics only for my boss to not care and not be motivated to change them. I have learned to accept that until *I’m* the big boss, things won’t always be done my way, and really the consequences of his choices fall largely on him. So if your department gets a reputation for being flaky due to your boss, that may be an unavoidable consequence of his unwillingness to change. In that case it’s up to you whether you think it’s impacting your own professional reputation and trajectory (in which case it might be time to look for other opportunities) or if you can insulate yourself from the fallout and find ways to manage your frustration.

  26. AnonyMeow*

    Would it make sense to let your manager know in advance when he will get Item X from you for his review?

    I sometimes struggle with turning around approvals quickly for an outside agency we work with, just because I don’t know until they send me stuff for review that it’s coming. I might be having a light-load day and can get to it right away, or I might be having a completely hectic day (or two, or three), in which case the “need review” stuff just languishes in my inbox until I have some breathing room.

    If I know in advance that I’ll get Item X on Day Y, I might try to schedule other things accordingly (though not always possible), which should solve some of the bottleneck issue.

  27. Workfromhome*

    As many others have mentioned the “No reply means approved” is a great tool. I’ve had good success with it. I’ve had the occasional person say “You can’t do that if I miss something like that you need to remind me”. Then I feel perfectly OK about hounding the heck out of them the next time it happens. saying “you forbade me from proceeding so I will chase you until you reply”. But for the most part they either just let it self approve or become much more aware because they will look bad if something slips through and they didn’t review it when something goes wrong.

    For the other items that require his feedback to proceed I might send emails when things are getting close to trouble with the title Potential Project Delay Urgent!
    In a nice way saying The project will be delayed by x days if feedback is not received by X date. If I don’t receive it I’ll notify the customer of the delay and copy you.

    That tends to wake people up They tend to fluff off request from subordinates but pay attention to notice of p[potential delays that impact customers. They read these things looking for someone to blame for the delay and give them heck to ensure things happen on time only to realize THEY are the cause of the delay.

  28. Not So NewReader*

    Sometimes to fix something nearby, you have to go and repair something waaay over there.

    My suggestion to you is to look for ways to streamline your own work so you are not so pressed for time by the boss’ slowness. Tell the boss that you realize it’s a lot of work the two of you are handling and you are starting to think about ways to make redundant tasks easier.
    This example will sound silly but if you do this with several things you can begin to make things less of a chore. I have one recurring task at work, that requires my boss to make a particular decision. This setting comes up often. She was writing me a note saying “Do step 1,2, 3,4, then put it in an envelop.” It’s always the same steps for this situation. So I told her to use a post it note and say, “finish then envelop”. This probably saves her five minutes of writing and I know what she wants. Watch the tasks that come up repeatedly and see if there are ways to make those tasks go quicker.

    Another thing that can be helpful is to encourage your boss to write briefly, using words sparingly. Specifically I am referring to polite little things we say and it just adds on to the time used up. When I started with this boss I thought she was writing extra words to be polite. I told her there was no need to be polite, being clear and being direct was all I needed. She still randomly writes “thanks” and other nice things but at least she knows she will not offend me by giving me concise directions.
    My boss really does the heavy lifting of the two of us. I have many, many short tasks but she has long, drawn out tasks. I have gotten a feel for what takes longer and I stack the deck. I give her the shorter tasks first, so she can stuff the pipeline with work for me. While I am doing the 100 thousand little things for those shorter tasks, she can start to work on the longer tasks.

    This last one may or may not apply to your setting. If there are tasks that generate a higher amount of revenue than other tasks, you may be able to motivate your boss by pointing this out. “Hey, you know that Smith Contract is one of our better money makers, if you get A and B done, I can move forward and we can make our income for the month look good.” If this does not fit your setting you may find other ways to show the boss why something would make his numbers look good and that may strike a cord with him.

    Whatever you land on, it maybe helpful to use a mix of approaches. It will make you sound like you are thinking about each setting rather than just generally nagging.

    1. Kalli*

      This is a highly specific approach that will not work for most people in most circumstances. And of course, when something different is required, and it’s not done because of autopilot… and if someone is never thanked for their hard work…

      *cries in a corner*

  29. RAM*

    Can you make his job easier by reviewing your own work and letting him know what you’ve checked?
    ie: Overall, I got $4,000 for x. I checked this against report A and they match exactly.
    Or.. my results are 5% higher this month compared to last month.. Most of this was because of x, but y had an impact as well.

    That helps your manager not have to open up report A, find the number, compare to yours.. etc. If you’ve checked everything he was going to check, he might feel more comfortable just giving it a quick glance rather than digging into the details.. and you might be able to get faster feedback.

    1. Coalea*

      This would be an excellent solution, but unfortunately it’s not that type of review. I’m working on things like abstracts for submission to the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Teapots and Beverage Preparation or articles for publication in the Journal of American Teapot Manufacturing. A QC or fact-check is done by a peer, and the manager’s review is more to ensure that the materials are in line with the client’s strategic objectives. Sometimes these are “encores” (repeats of the same content for presentation at different meetings) and don’t require anything more than a rubber stamp; if they’re de novo, they need to be reviewed more carefully.

  30. TootsNYC*

    Honestly, I wouldn’t say “I.”

    I’d say, “is there something WE can do so that the approvals will come through in time for the clients?”

    We as a department. I wouldn’t want to imply that I’m alone in being responsible for fixing this.

  31. featherwitch*

    This could have been me 6-8 years ago. Everything had to go through one overwhelmed person for review before release, who often took days or weeks to review, causing an entire team to have to stay late, work weekends, etc to accommodate Boss’ schedule. Reviewing before release was and is a business imperative, as errors are very costly (like over $500,000). We proposed a solution of allowing other experienced employees to perform certain levels of reviews- problem solved!

    PS- a boss this behind should either learn to delegate or say no. It’s not easy…. but right now he’s not enabling you to do your work.

  32. stevenz*

    I had a boss who *never* returned anything until the absolute last minute, or later. We talked about it in staff meetings, and she would freely admit to it and we would discuss what to change – especially her – and all pretty much follow up, except her. No matter how much time in advance we got stuff to her, she wouldn’t get it back til the last minute, then we had a lot of work to do to “fix” whatever she thought was wrong.

    It took me a long time to figure out what was going on but the explanation I hit on made perfect sense. She likes the buzz. She was a very high energy, ambitious, competitive person and she was addicted to Adrenalin. She didn’t care what heartache or inconvenience her habit caused her staff, or the inefficiencies or poor productivity. She just couldn’t help herself.

  33. Anna No Mouse*

    I am seriously wondering if we work for the same person, except this more accurately describes one of my project leads, and not my direct supervisor. My lead will regularly give me lip service on how he’s going to review things I send to him, but not come through. He once made me wait FOUR MONTHS just to approve a project plan, despite my constant reminders. During that time he would even ask me about putting together a project plan, and I’d have to remind him I already did, and resend it to him.

    I wish I had some brilliant advice on how to deal with someone like this, but unfortunately, I’ve got nothing. Everything in my world remains status quo and nothing gets done on time.

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