my boss keeps canceling our meetings

A reader writes:

I have a problem at work that I’m not sure how to address. The meetings I request with colleagues are frequently canceled or rescheduled, particularly with my boss.

My boss is very senior in the company and has a busy schedule. He ends up rescheduling at least 50% of my meetings with him, probably more.

I have a relatively senior position in the company for my age. I also “grew up” professionally here and I think it affects how I’m viewed in terms of authority and respect.

On a personal level, it starts to become pretty demoralizing to repeatedly be given the message that other things take priority over what I’m working on. Obviously, some things that ARE more important and I respect and understand that, but it feels like a regular occurence.

More importantly, at a certain point, the cancellations make it hard to get stuff done. I’m often asked, “Why did this project take you so long to complete?” I want to say, “Because it took two weeks and three rescheduled meetings before I could get feedback from you.”

Are there ways to keep managers from bumping me? Is this about commanding respect (something I’m still working on as a fairly young person in my role)? I want to do the work and accomplish things, but I don’t know how to work around this problem.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. Ann Nonymous*

    Maybe you can employ a method where you have a fall-back decision where you say that you have a question whether you should do Option A or B. And if you don’t have an answer by X date, then your selection will be B. But couched in nicer terms.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      This is absolutely the way to get a straight answer from busy, important people. Show that your decision is based on best practice or standing instructions or previous experience, and set a realistic timescale.

      With some people this will prompt a quick “Yes, great” reply because they can process the whole thing in the time it takes to read your email. It also makes their response more urgent if they need you to change tack.

      1. Emily*

        For the same reason, always try to put all the information they need to make the decision in one place if you don’t want them to procrastinate responding.

        I have a report who will often make references to documents or assets or decisions that I could find if I went digging through my email or documents folder or scrolling back through our chat history, but if that’s what I have to do just to see everything I need to see in order to answer her question… there’s a good chance I’m going to triage that email into a “needs to be researched before responding” category instead of just answering it right away, because at that moment my goal is to triage my inbox, not go through my emails one by one doing everything that each one requires before moving on to the next. And if I’m really busy, those “needs to be researched” tasks without hard deadlines can keep getting pushed back. But if my report had just pasted that information directly into the email itself instead of obliquely referring to it, I wouldn’t have needed to do any further “research” and could have answered and filed the email before moving on to the next.

        e.g. Don’t ask something like, “Should we offer the same discount this year as we did last year?” without reminding me what last year’s discount was. Don’t ask, “Which customer groups should get each version of the Black Friday mailer?” without attaching all the versions of the mailer to that email. You’re looking at them when you write the email – I’m not, and I have too many balls in the air to have memorized the details of all of them, or at least, to be confident that what I’m remembering is correct without verifying it first. If you make me have to go find the resources myself it’s going to take me a LOT longer to reply than just the time that elapses between starting to look for them and finding them, because at my level, working through/responding to things as they arise is a surefire way to miss deadlines and drop balls (or end up working 50 hours weeks because you wasted 10 hours’ worth of time working on things that were less urgent and subsequently had to work late to finish up the things that were more urgent). Triaging incoming requests by priority and difficulty is very necessary for busy folks.

        1. Shadow Moon*

          A thousand times, YES!! I call this leading with the details. It’s so useful and helps both parties.

        2. Mike*

          After lots of head banging with management I accepted that I had to change how I communicated. Add in a few trainings and I’ve come up with the following:

          1. Pre-think about what information they need to make the decision you are asking for. Provide that in as clear and concise a way as possible. Do not make them dig or hunt for it.
          2. Be clear and concise about what you need from them.
          3. Give options. Be honest about the pro/cons of them. I do like to throw in the “Or is there another direction you’d like to go” to indicate that I’m open to other options. Give a recommendation and justify it.
          4. If there is a time constraint then state that in the beginning (or subject line even). I’ve found that the reasonable people appreciate being told if there is a time constraint.
          5. If there is time critical information that you need then keep telling them and do it in multiple ways. Use words like “this is a red flag” to make it clear that something isn’t right.

          With #4 I’ll usually say “if I don’t hear back in time I’ll proceed with _____”. However, that is really dependent on the issue and if I have the authority to take that action (for example, I’m not authorized to make purchases so I can’t make that the action).

          I’ve generally found that the more effort and thought I put into my requests the better my responses have been.

          1. Cheshire Cat*

            The only thing I’d add to this is to use bullet points instead of walls of text whenever possible. It highlights the relevant information and allows the recipient to skim while still reading the most important information.

        3. NW Mossy*

          A perfect explanation of “if you make it easy for people to answer you, they will.” Anyone who routinely gives me quick-hit requests rapidly climbs my list of Favorite Colleagues.

        4. Seeking Second Childhood*

          A director once told me “never make someone read to the bottom of a thread unless they want to.” so if i need to reference something at the bottom of an email thread, I summarize it at the top. IFF they think it’s critical they can scroll down.
          “Please don’t try to talk Customer into buying blue teapots. Jane’s email on last Tuesday (below) clearly quotes Customer saying “any color EXCEPT blue”. And she adds that blue teapots are trademarked to JoeCompetition.”

      2. Sedna*

        Strongly seconding this- I’ve worked with a number of genuinely busy bosses, and if they can process and respond quickly and easily to a problem, they’re much more likely to respond. Trim it down to the minimum, suggest solutions where feasible, use their time with you well. (In my experience busy people will also appreciate you for valuing their time!)

      3. Low Level Bureaucrat*

        I always thought this was a great option, until I had a super negative reaction to it recently. Trying to get final response on a policy change from half a dozen upper level directors and gave ~2 weeks for a response, stating I would proceed with the change if I hadn’t heard by then. One sent a hostile email back saying it was inappropriate to demand that timeline and ultimately complained to my boss about me. Luckily, she had my back, but now I’m afraid to use this even when I need to!

        1. Workerbee*

          Sounds more like that particular person has problems with follow-through and just resented being held accountable–but that’s just my interpretation from too many years of dealing with vastly higher-paid, impossible-to-get-an-answer-from people. :)

          1. AnnaBananna*

            Yep. She kicked an ant hill. Oops. It happens, and NORMAL people wouldn’t respond that way. That said, it’s good info to know as I guarantee there are other areas of working with them that are super touchy. *eyeroll*

        2. AnonEMoose*

          I think about it this way…if a tactic or approach is successful in 19 cases, and not successful the 20th time, maybe it’s the person who responded poorly who is the issue, not the tactic. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to re-evaluate based on feedback, but I balance that with considering things like whether the feedback is entirely valid or may be an outlier.

          No approach is always going to be successful, but a single negative response just means that one person reacted badly. And it’s entirely possible that’s more about them than it is about you. So I’d suggest talking with your boss about how she’d like you to approach it in future, and go from there.

        3. Emily*

          When I’m doing this with senior colleagues who I don’t work with as regularly, I will usually slightly rephrase it and say, “To stay on track, I’ll need to proceed with X course of action by 12 PM Friday, so please send your input by 11 AM if you have any, or let me know if you won’t be able to make that deadline.” Depending on the issue, there might be wiggle room to give them an extra day, or maybe I can swap things around to push out the due date on project #1 by putting project #2 in its slot instead, or maybe we can agree on a compromise where I produce a slightly different project that still meets minimum standards without needing their input.

          But in fact, very few people ever write back saying they can’t make the deadline (and the ones who have generally have very good reasons and are willing to work with me on a solution). I think it comes off a little bit less “bossy” to offer the “let me know if that deadline isn’t realistic” option – I think people are more ruffled by hearing that from someone they don’t work with very often than they would a close team member, like, “Who does this guy think he is, ordering me around!” As opposed to someone, even senior to you, but in your own management chain who understands your work better and is more closely aligned on goals with you.

          1. Ophelia*

            When I was in this situation as a very junior employee, I used this tactic, and also:
            – Made my “deadline” the deadline by which I would then need to physically go find people to get answers, rather than the deadline for sending things to the printer or whatever;
            – Used–with my boss’ permission–liberal “our” in my emails – “we will need to do X” etc., to make it clear that I was speaking on behalf of a larger team, but not just going out on my own.

          2. Low Level Bureaucrat*

            This is a good approach, thank you! I definitely think it was partly that (as Workerbee guessed) this person did not like being held accountable to do his job in a timely manner, but I could have slightly changed the phrasing to make it seem like they still have more control.

        4. Cheshire Cat*

          You had a good reason for the deadline, but possibly didn’t include it in your request? If you ever need to send a similar email to theis person, maybe include a statement along the lines of “Jane City Council Member/State Legislator/Cabinet Member needs the information by …” or “Vendor has a sale on this item but it ends on …”

    2. sofar*

      LOVE this tactic. I’ve gone with, “My instinct is to do option B, and I’ll finalize that by Tuesday and send out, unless you think option A or another tactic is better.” And then, later, I’ll sometimes send out my draft of Option B and ask if there is any feedback before I send it out on Tuesday.

      That gives busy person a chance to simply replay, Yes sounds great! Or “We need to discuss, please hold off.”

      1. EinJungerLudendorff*

        I like the idea of sending out a draft version. That lets people judge really easily if they like what you’re planning to do, and if they should respond.

        The word “instinct” did give me pause though. Maybe it wouldn’t raise eyebrows in your job sector, but doesn’t that make it sound like you base your decisions not on expertise and experience, but on gut feelings? Unless everyone else trusts your instincts, it seems like most people would want a more grounded and clearer justification than that.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      My former boss called this “negative option”-ing someone and was a big advocate in the interest of keeping things moving. It’s really effective, and I actually find most good high-level people tend to like it because it shows your thinking/problem-solving and lets them just jump in to say, “Yes, thanks!” or only when their intervention is needed.

  2. Triumphant Fox*

    I agree this probably isn’t personal. With such a busy manager, the more leg-work you can do so that he can be in and out quickly, the more successful you’ll be. Have everything ready for review, summarize the take-aways or the key questions. If he cancels, flag what it will mean, but also make it possible for him to view via email. If there are long discussions that need to happen or brainstorming that isn’t taking place, that’s much harder to work in. If that’s the case, make it clear what he’s missing and it’s impact. Offer something he can respond to or another option. Can you take a first crack at something and get his feedback instead of wanting to think through things with him first? Can you lay out the options you see so he can quickly get his head into the mindset of your project? “The way I see it we can either do X, X and Y or Z, but Z will take more work from Department 1. Do you have thoughts on the initial direction so we can get started?” is a lot easier to answer than “I wanted to talk about project.”

    1. Lily Rowan*

      I agree with all of this — when a meeting is cancelled, you can email saying of course you understand, but were hoping to get feedback on X part of the attached memo (copied into the email), which you know he wants to send out by Tuesday, so if he could find a minute to just take a look at that, it would be helpful.

      Or whatever!

    2. KTB*

      I totally agree with this. I’m dealing with a similar matter at work and was taking it really personally until I sat down with one of my colleagues yesterday and found out that the issue was team-wide. Obviously, that eliminated the personal aspect of it. My boss also tells me that I’m the person on the team who “gets stuff done,” so she generally trusts me to just take care of things without a lot of check-ins.

      I’ve found that short questions, ambush style work well, as do emails with the action specified in the subject line (ACTION REQUIRED, APPROVAL, etc…) She doesn’t really read her emails, but will usually attempt a search if I tell her that I’m waiting on something in her inbox.

  3. Close Bracket*

    You could consider how many of the meetings need to be meetings and how many could be handled other ways. Can some of the issues be handled with a phone call? Can some of them be handled by dropping in between their other meetings or at the beginning or end of the day? One of my leads is in a different state, and my other lead just doesn’t hold meetings and also doesn’t read his email (neither of which is my problem to solve). I’ve had to find other ways to get decisions from them. There’s a guy who gives me technical advice who I have settled on printing out what I need help with, walking over to where he works in the lab, and sitting there until he can spare 5 min to answer my questions. None of it is ideal, but I get my answers and am able to continue working, which is the desired end result.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      I’m still proud of myself for perfectly timing my “drop-in” on a big boss once — I had emailed him my question, to no response, and getting on his schedule was going to take forever, so I swung by his desk at 12:50 with my papers in hand, and he was neither eating lunch nor in another meeting. VICTORY.

    2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Yup. On my last project, the team lead was unbelievably busy and I usually couldn’t even schedule meetings with him. I started watching to see when he took a smoke or coffee break and we had some of our most productive conversations walking to and from the canteen or smoking area. Sometimes we’d have phone calls while he was on his way to the office and make decisions that way.

      The desired outcome here OP, is that you get the information or the decision you need, not that you have a meeting specifically. Sometimes that can be done in 5 minutes if you are prepared and can say “Option A, B or C? I recommend B because of X but Bingle in IT says C is faster because of Y”.

      Since your boss is busy, they will greatly value your ability to make efficient use of their time and their attention span. I certainly appreciate this in my colleagues.

  4. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

    My boss tends to bump my requested meetings more often than others because she generally relies on me to just handle things. I’ve ended up developing a plan kind of like what Alison suggests (alternate methods of getting info other than meetings). My tactics for my boss are:

    If it’s a quick yes/no type question, then I’ll basically ambush her when I catch her between meetings/out of her office with “I just need a quick yes/no from you so I can move on X.” That lets her know upfront it’s quick, and why I’m grabbing her.

    If there are multiple items I need to meet with her on, I write up an outline for her and leave it in her inbox. The outline looks like:
    “Project X – Need information A, C, and D to proceed.
    Project Y – Quote approval needed (see attached)
    Project Z – Need about 20mins to present options”
    That way she knows up front what I’m working around and can do her own prioritization with all the relevant facts together. I print them out for her because she gets inundated with emails and only gets to check periodically. A printed sheet lets her just pick it up and glance over between other things.

    1. CMart*

      This is what I’ve seen my managers (who themselves report to Very Busy Important People) do. The baseline level of trust I think is also extremely important – what really needs VBIP’s eyes and approval, and what can be entrusted to their team to handle and then brief them on.

      I get cc’d on a lot of e-mails that boil down to “Hi VBIP, attached is the deliverable for Project X. We’re recommending This and That because of Reasons. Let me know if you disagree or have concerns. I’m presenting on it tomorrow at 1pm. ”

      And then lots and lots of face to face reminders about things that truly need VBIP approval and buy-in. Passing in the hallway, “you have 15 minutes this afternoon to go over Project Z?” Walking by their office, “Hey, Project Z approval is coming up, you able to make the meeting this morning?” And as far as I can tell, they don’t mind those reminders because they trust their team to know what is truly worthy of their time.

    2. GlitsyGus*

      I do something similar with my manager that helps. When I create the meeting invite in the body of the message a put something like:
      Meeting to review Project A (final deadline DDMMMYY)
      1. Need approval on Quote
      2. Need finalized timeline
      3. Need clarification and advice on best course for Part C.
      etc.
      Having the baby agenda, with the final deadline of the project right there at the front, not only help her prioritize, but sometimes I can get an email back from her letting me know she reviewed the quote already and it’s approved, the timeline is attached with all department buy in and given all this can we make it 15 minutes to go over Part C, rather than the hour for the whole shebang?

      It saves both of us time in the long run.

  5. Lucia*

    I assume you already flag the meeting as “blocker” or “urgent”. I’d advise you to be more aggressive. Ask his secretary to let you know when he’s doing something trivial and interrupt by reminding him that his silence is costing the company problems with X Y and Z.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I don’t know if I would recommend going that far. First, we don’t even know if he has an assistant. Second, it’s not a good look for the LW to be determining what is trivial and what isn’t.

      1. The Rafters*

        This. Last time someone under my boss (but above me) *ordered* me to give her work “priority,” I very quickly and firmly reminded her that she was not my boss and that I already had been given my assignments by OUR boss. She very quickly cooled her fanny after that.

          1. Iain C*

            It’s a long way down the scale from c—, and we’re well aware of the American “misuse” of the word. I think you’re safe from too many blushes.

          2. Eleanor Shellstrop*

            It’s not comparable to the c word in the UK. In some areas of Scotland it’s practically a term of endearment. It’s also an old fashioned women’s name

          3. londonedit*

            Yeah, it’s nowhere near the c-word. It’s a vaguely amusing term that’s probably not something you’d say in polite company, but certainly isn’t hugely offensive. We mainly find it giggle-worthy when Americans talk about ‘fanny packs’ (which we’d call ‘bum bags’).

      2. Door Guy*

        Also, as someone who has an assistant (of a sort) who does hound me over things THEY think are more important, it is incredibly annoying. Raises the hackles when they bring something non-urgent or that they could handle no issue and harangue you about it while you are in the middle of something time sensitive. Every customer is important but that doesn’t mean that outside of a select few they get to jump my queue of other equally important customers.

    2. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      Whoa. That’s really aggressive. If someone did that to me routinely, I’d be pretty put off by that.

      1. Emily*

        Yes, people who abuse high-priority/urgent flags by applying them to everything drive me up the wall!

        One of the tactics I use to improve my concentration is I do not allow Outlook to pop up a notification for every single incoming email in real-time – my brain is just not built to be able to ignore them without losing focus every couple of minutes every time a new one pops up. Because I might couple a couple of hours in between checking email, I do have rules set up so that if an email is flagged as high-priority I do get the pop-up when it arrives so I know when there’s a good reason to interrupt what I’m doing and check email.

        I have a special seething hatred for the woman in my department who marks every email she ever sends me Urgent when almost no email she ever sends me is actually Urgent. Her inane requests keep breaking my focus and it makes me want to wait as long as possible to respond out of spite (I mostly resist the urge, but it’s there). It’s like she uses it to mean “this email is about a valuable project that’s important to the company” instead of “this is an email that needs immediate attention,” or something. (That also might be too charitably assuming there’s any rationale at all behind her abusing the flag.)

        1. Jerusha*

          I’m reminded of Ivan Vorpatril’s viewpoint, as he explained it at the beginning of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (Lois McMaster Bujold). Basically, if everything that crossed his desk was labeled “urgent”, then none of it was any more urgent than the rest, and he could simply ignore the “urgent” flag altogether.

    3. Samba City Sara*

      Whoa, no, do NOT do this. This will come across really badly and make you seem aggressive and unreasonable. Don’t be that person. No one likes or respects that person!

    4. Mediamaven*

      I probably wouldn’t do that. As a boss, I don’t need someone to determine whether or not I’m doing something they would consider trivial. And I would be very irritated if someone started marking meetings urgent unless they truly are.

      1. NW Mossy*

        If one of my directs took this approach with me, it’s a giant dashboard warning for Questionable Judgment. I don’t expect or need my directs to know everything I know and consider in deciding how to spend my time, but I do expect them to be aware enough to realize that they don’t have all that info.

    5. NotAnotherManager!*

      Do not follow this advice.

      First, assuming there is even an assistant, don’t put her/him in the position of assessing whether or not the boss’s conflicting meeting/activity is “trivial”. (And, even if it seems trivial, it may not be – some of my peers use innocuous calendar event titles for top-secret or very sensitive things – I can assure you the HR director’s not putting “Fire Chad” on her calendar invite title.)

      Second, telling your boss that his not meeting with you is causing company problems is not at all the framing you want. It sounds accusatory and like you can’t do your job without his input. You want to sound solution-focused and collaborative rather than combative or passive-aggressive.

      I report directly to a C-level person, and we have a weekly meeting. I get bumped sometimes, and, during certain periods of the year, I get bumped a lot. If I can’t move forward without my boss signing off on something, I just email her what I’ve got, what I think we should do, and when I’m planning to proceed absent different direction. The month we both kept having conflicts, I just sent her a “virtual meeting” with a list of status and question bullets, and she responded to that with her own.

    6. ShwaMan*

      You should also examine if you can get agreement from your boss on types of things they don’t need to sign off on. i.e. “Hey Boss, can I assume that I have authority to approve/finalize all Teapot Design documents? I’ll email them to you, and if you want to make changes, let me know within 2 days or I’ll assume it’s approved.”

      Bosses like this often simply don’t delegate authority often enough, and I believe you can coax them to make changes like this… they will still feel in charge, but you’re saving them valuable time.

  6. Markus Oh Really?*

    I support an extremely busy senior manager and let me confirm that one-on-ones -with all direct reports- are always the first to go when schedules get crunched. And they always get crunched. It is almost certainly not personal. My boss is aware of this and so she consistently makes her self available by email, text, a quick phone call. Whatever she can do to keep your progress moving forward, she will -IF she knows that it’s holding up your work. One thing you might want to try is if your meeting with your boss is crucial to keeping a project moving, you might want to let their assistant know ahead of time, so that if/when it gets bumped, the assistant can let your manager know about the urgency and immediately schedule a quick follow-up.

    1. sofar*

      Co-signed. My former boss also had a very unreasonable boss himself who would request meetings with him at the last moment or add him as “required” on various other meetings. What was my boss going to do? Reject his own boss, or cancel our meeting? Usually it was the latter.

      But we had an agreement that I could shoot immediate sign-off needs to him via Slack and he’d respond quickly. For lengthier stuff, I’d send him bulleted emails (and he specifically requested I re-send to bump those to the top of his inbox every day he didn’t respond).

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      This is exactly how my boss is, and it is definitely not personal. I might not get the meeting, but I get the answers I need, particularly if I state that we’re at an impasse without her feedback.

  7. Rugby*

    “commanding respect” is not something you should be aiming for in your relationship with you boss. Rescheduling meetings has nothing to do with how much he respects you and you should try to get away from that mindset because you’re just going to get more and more frustrated if you feel disrespected every time your boss has to reschedule a meeting.

  8. RainyDay*

    Can you lay out the basics in the meeting invite, including deadlines you need to meet, and give your boss the opportunity to respond quickly via email? Or be very clear that you need to discuss X, Y, and Z, and it’ll be easier to do in person?

    I work closely with several heads of departments (including some in different time zones!) and it can be really challenging to discuss stuff in person. Meetings get rescheduled all the time. But, things need to be done in the meantime, so I try to be very clear in writing about what it is I need, when I need it by, and why I need it by then (e.g. the impact it’ll have). If something is REALLY tight, I’ll give my recommendation(s) and they can say yay or nay.

  9. Allypopx*

    I would also look at how many of your deliverables actually require meetings. You’re relatively senior now – do you NEED your boss’s input on all of these things, or are you just hoping for feedback? Is your boss trusting you to lean on your own skills and experience more? Can you go farther without them and just send a final product for approval?

    This isn’t personal. Clearly his time is scarce, try to make the most of any time you do get and try not to rest so hard on scheduled meetings if a quick call or an email would do the job.

    1. Clever Name*

      This is exactly what I’m thinking. If you’re fairly senior yourself, your boss is probably expecting you to handle certain decisions yourself.

      1. NW Mossy*

        And if you aspire to rise to your boss’s level at some point, handling that stuff well yourself is a huge part of demonstrating that you’re ready for a role with more responsibility. If you show me that I can delegate to you and you do well with it, I’ll back you for the next step.

  10. Anon16*

    This is timely! I’m having this exact situation with someone senior at my office. I offered to help him project manage some projects (he’s managing multiple projects), but we hardly find time to meet. I do think this if we met, it might benefit him in the future. We’re supposed to meet every other week, we meet monthly or less at this point. The projects I’m assisting on get pushed back too.

    I simply cannot help him if the projects get pushed back. Is this something worth mentioning, or should I be understanding about it? I’ve been pretty understanding, but I was wondering if it was time to just point out (nicely), that I can help him manage his time, but need more time initially upfront before I can really take over.

    What do you think?

    1. Anon16*

      I should mention that the culture of my office is a little weird, in that I am technically an Executive Assistant and this person is my boss’ second in command. However, I don’t have enough work to occupy my day-to-day so I suggested this as a bigger, more long-term project I can handle and she agreed it was a good way to occupy my time. So, in part, I am struggling to find work if the meetings don’t materialize (might be the bigger issue).

      1. HelloHello*

        Do you absolutely need the meetings to get started on the project, or would you be able to, say draw up a plan/outline a work schedule for yourself/mock up what you want the project or parts of the project to look like/outline outside trainings you could do that would allow you to work on the project more independently. I’ve found it can be really hard to get people’s attention when they think you’re going to be making more work for them (even if that more work in the short term would mean less work in the long term.) But if you make it clear you’re willing and able to take initiative and do the work yourself, and all you need is a yes or no from the person in question, they’re way more likely to give you some time.

        That method is how I’ve managed to get several projects I wanted to work on accomplished. I realized after several frustrating months that trying to force various stakeholders to sit down and discuss the project wasn’t working, so I just made a mockup of my personal vision of the project, outlined what would need to happen for that mockup to be become reality, and then presented it to my boss who was able to just say “yes, go for it” instead of taking hours to brainstorm and discuss things.

  11. engineermommy*

    I’m assuming you are checking his calendar when scheduling the meetings to be sure he’s at least free of scheduled activities, so if not make sure you do that first. (I’ve been surprised at how many people of all ages don’t know how to do this in Outlook). Then maybe look for patterns in the cancelled meetings. Are they always after lunch, or after an earlier meeting he has that loads him up on work, or in the mid-afternoon when work has been piling up all day? Ask if he has a preferred time of day for meetings like this. Some really busy people do better with meetings first thing in the morning, others like ones later in the afternoon.

  12. Anon for this*

    We’ve got a new high muckety muck (academia) who does this all of the time. At a certain level, crazy scheduling is to be expected because they’re all dealing with other high muckety muck’s schedules, but with our new person, it is so extreme. He has an assistant, of course but he seems to circumvent the assistant. He sometimes shows up unexpectedly more than 30 minutes early or more than 30 minutes late with no notice or apology. I don’t know whether it’s disorganization or what but it feels so disrespectful.

  13. Original Poster*

    Hi,
    This is all extremely helpful, the most important insight being ‘DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.’ Everyone is absolutely correct about that and it’s something I will be more mindful of in the future.
    My boss has an assistant who handles all scheduling of meetings and runs interference with regards to rescheduling and juggling demands on the boss’s time and I do try and take advantage of that.
    To be clear, I only request meetings when face-to-face contact is absolutely necessary because of the crammed schedule so it’s not really a matter of reducing the number of meetings.
    I like the idea of sending a follow-up email after a reschedule, to lay things out. Thank you!

    1. Allypopx*

      While it’s definitely not personal, your frustration is still super valid. We’ve all had conflicting priorities with bosses and it can feel like a huge roadblock, especially when they come back and ask us why something isn’t done. Try not to take it personally, but you can still totally get a stress ball or something for times when you feel like banging your head against the wall.

    2. Observer*

      Things that can help, in my experience:

      Lay out in the email how URGENT this is. eg This is the only item keeping me from moving forward on Project X. If we don’t have a resolution by X date, we are going to have a weeks delay costing us $Y. etc.

      See if you can jump into his office in between meetings or grab him in the hall as he’s walking for the shorter stuff.

      See if there are intermediate measures you can use – like a phone call of web conference where you can talk and share documents, even if you’re not in the same room.

      1. GlitsyGus*

        Especially if you are interacting with his assistant, it can also make it feel a little less confrontational, which is good.
        “Unfortunately, Bob needs to cancel your meeting this afternoon.”
        “I understand. I just need him to be aware that I can’t move forward on the teapot appraisals until I get his OK on my chocolate valuation list. Can you let him know that?”
        “Sure, no problem!”
        That way, even if it does end up running over, you have at least brought the timeline issue up BEFORE you’re in the position of having to explain yourself. Plus, he and his assistant will know it’s a time sensitive thing and keep it on the front of their minds for rescheduling.

    3. Door Guy*

      I second the “DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY”. I got that exact advise yesterday.

      Last week the officers of the company got super heated about customer complaints, not responding to customers in a timely manner, and not submitting quotes in time. They specifically mentioned the office I manage but didn’t give any examples. I spoke that day with my direct boss who told me that the home office had been having issues and that everything was fine.

      Friday night just as I was leaving I found out that my accounting clerk had been sending down to the president that I wasn’t contacting customers (even though I was, and the customer that hadn’t been contacted wasn’t mine).

      Cue mini-freak out on my end that I’m in trouble. I was able to speak with my counterpart at the home office who told me that he hadn’t heard a thing about me and that there were a few employees down there who had worked everyone up. Calmed me down a bit but still had it in the back of my mind.

      Monday (yesterday) was our monthly meeting where the VP who had gotten so worked up on the call comes up. I took the opportunity to speak with him and he explained that he hadn’t heard anything at all about me, they thought I was doing a good job (I’m still pretty new, I’ve only been fully running the location about 3 months), and that all his ire was because he’d gotten a nasty call from a customer that one of their reps had been dodging for 3 weeks. He reiterated “DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY”, that if they had anything big to discuss about how I was running/working they’d talk to me, with a recommendation of “Grow Thicker Skin”. (My customer side skin is pretty thick, but my “superiors” skin does need some toughening)

    4. Close Bracket*

      So phone calls won’t work, then. Strategically planned drop ins might, though. The advice above to work with his assistant to get a moment of time when he’s not doing anything important is actually good advice. His assistant knows what’s important and what’s not and whether he is working or taking a break to shoot the breeze. They would know if he can be interrupted. If a half hour meeting has to be rescheduled, maybe you can get part of what you need during a 10 min drop in.

  14. Red Fred*

    My boss is an SVP, and I run into this all the time… Believe what the others are saying, rescheduling has nothing to do with his level of respect for me or our team. When I have something super urgent, I’ll watch his IM status to see if it shows green (not in a meeting or on a Skype call) and then ping him to see if he has 10 minutes to discuss X and I need his feedback to move forward. It works 95% of the time, and when it doesn’t, he lets me know when he has availability (which might not show up on his calendar).

  15. Sockit2me*

    You would probably be better off if you were not so focused on oral feedback. It took two weeks to have a meeting to get feedback on something? That doesn’t seem like a big deal – every two weeks is a fairly standard regularity to have meetings with your boss. This doesn’t work for every situation, but in my experience most task-specific feedback (as opposed to big picture feedback) can be done in writing or sometimes with a quick call. Meetings are for topics that require extensive back and forth discussion.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      Depends on the environment though. We work in 2 week sprints / cycles where a delay of 2 days in getting information or a decision could completely derail the work we’ve committed to.

      Also if OP doesn’t have anything else to work on until they get that information or decision or whatever, they could be doing a lot of thumb twiddling.

  16. lawlady*

    One of our VPs does this. Along the same vein he’s extremely busy (I’ve seen his inbox…he’s constantly getting emails and alerts). Everyone in our building knows the best time to really have his attention and get your questions answered is when he is in the office and you can have a face to face conversation (our industry requires him to travel a lot).

      1. Door Guy*

        At my last job, before we migrated to “Office 365” and got a larger message storage limit, my GM used to have to archive every 2 weeks he got so many emails.

  17. The Happy Intern*

    This is super common in academia where your supervisors are not only running an entire lab’s worth of people and all the admin/experiments/grant-writing/etc. of that but are also in charge of teaching multiple classes – a common thing to do in places like this is to determine a regular time once every 2 weeks that works for both of you to have a mini catch-up meeting and it’s just a half hour block set aside to go over what you’ve done, what you plan to do, etc. and discuss anything that may have come up since last time. It’s not a perfect system for everyone but if you regularly need to schedule meetings this may be a way to get around the issue!

    Another thing you could do is maybe just send your boss a basic powerpoint or something outlining the areas you would schedule a meeting for that don’t necessarily have to be in person that he can flip through and send back with his comments?

  18. Lives in a shoe*

    I agree with the e-mail, text and phone call suggestions. I typically only see my boss in person 4-6 times a year (weird niche industry) and our meetings still frequently get bumped or changed. E-mail is our standard form of communication. If something is urgent or I really need her input, I keep it brief and let her know the exact timeline I’m working on.

    For example
    Subject: $$ for X need by 3pm Thursday

    Hi!
    Super quick. We hit a snag with project X. Code compliance requires Y it’s $$, Y++ is better, that’s where I’m leaning it runs Z $$$$. Ok to authorize Y++? Need to let Smith-Jones know by 3 Thursday.

    If she has questions or wants the backstory she’ll ask, otherwise she can just shoot me a quick yes or no and our project rolls right along without delays.

  19. lisa*

    One thing that might be helpful to keep in mind: It’s a lot easier to reschedule a meeting with one person than with multiple people. I often move my check-ins with my direct reports, but it’s not a question of not respecting them or not finding the meetings to be valuable–it’s just a heck of a lot easier to find a new time for the two of us to meet than it is to find a time when 3 internal and 3 external people are all free! (That said, I am usually moving the check-in rather than cancelling it outright–I only cancel them if one of us is out of the office or we both agree that we don’t have anything time-sensitive to discuss.)

    1. NW Mossy*

      Along with that, my directs’ calendars are a lot more free than mine, so they tend to offer the most opportunity for an easy reschedule. Most of what they do is independent work with minimal meetings, which often isn’t the case for my peer managers.

  20. Drew*

    Ooooh, timely question! I’m dealing with this right now. I was out of town all last week so I made sure to get a necessary project update in front of our CEO (two levels up) before I dropped off the grid. She asked if I was free for a phone conference at a specific time and I said I could make that work. Time came and went, no phone call (not a time zone issue because I didn’t go THAT far). Came in to work yesterday and it was still sitting on her desk, untouched, as she asked me why I hadn’t moved the project forward. At least she acknowledged that the ball was in her court when I told her, but she’s on a different big project with a deadline of the start of next week so my project is sitting idle for two weeks when I could have been moving on it.

  21. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    So, sometimes I’m the person that does this to people. I usually try to reschedule or suggest new times, but it happens mostly when work is very hectic and I’ve got a lot on my plate. There are some things that make it easier for me to do this:
    1. If I have a standing regular chat with the person and this is a one off meeting, I may decide to decline the one-off and cover the matter in the regular chat (not perfect)
    2. Maybe I don’t meet regularly with the person, but I see them a lot, I may do the same thing

    Some things that make it difficult for me to take meetings from folks in my team(s):
    1. They aren’t paying attention to my calendar — scheduling over other meetings, scheduling during times when I have to travel between customer locations and the office
    2. They aren’t giving me enough context to know why the meeting is necessary
    3. They give me WAY TOO MUCH context on why the meeting is necessary

    That said, I get the same challenges from my immediate manager as the LW struggles with, and finally I realized I needed to text them and set up my meetings to work with their schedule in order to get the answers I needed.

    1. 1234*

      2. They aren’t giving me enough context to know why the meeting is necessary
      3. They give me WAY TOO MUCH context on why the meeting is necessary

      What is the right amount of context as to why the meeting is necessary? Still trying to figure these sorts of things out for myself!

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        It varies by person and project (helpful, I know!), but I try to lead with the headline:

        RE: Meet to Finalize Solution to Purple Llama Dye/Pink Fur Issue?

        Jane –

        We have figured out what is making the purple llama dye go pink instead, and the chemistry division has two solutions for us. Can you spare 10 minutes today to discuss so I can get back with the Head of Color by the end of the day?

        Bottom line is that we can either relabel the bottles to pink or we can open each one and throw in a few dots of hyper-blue to recolor them. Relabeling is faster but will be more expensive; recoloring is more cheaper but will take longer – I’m not sure which fits better with the PR strategy on this issue and need your guidance. The attached spreadsheet shows costs and a high-level timeline.

        It looks like you’re free at 3:15, so I’ll shoot you a calendar hold and swing by then – let me know if there is a better time.

        Thanks,
        Wakeen

  22. Malarkey01*

    Second looking at the number and types of meetings you’re scheduling and see if you can reduce or combine them. I work with someone across divisions who wants to schedule a meeting for lots of things that could be emails/phone calls/even IMs. Really try to avoid meeting to communicate information and only use them for when a real discussion is needed. If you can consolidate issues and provide a clear agenda that would help too (include on the agenda the action/need like a. discuss project x cost overruns ACTION- decide to increase funding or scale back y)

  23. azvlr*

    I have been in a similar situation, and it truly did feel demoralizing. I was remote from the rest of the team, meaning my peers had access to my manager, in person, on a daily basis. The manager frequently cancelled 1x1s, which would sometimes be the only contact I had with them them each week. I could have probably handled it if emails didn’t also go unanswered.

    It (usually) didn’t affect my day-to-day workflow, so I didn’t see a way to address the pattern in that regard. It most certainly affected my morale. Over time, I noticed the impact of decreased contact compared to my peers. They had much more rapport with each other and an ease of working together, and on two separate occasions, I was forgotten (Even after being reminded, the manager did not send me a recognition I received, and also never followed up on an ergonomic desk set-up that had been delivered to the wrong location).

    All that to say that is you manage a remote employee, make an extra effort to keep meetings with them. Also, if the manager’s schedule is so tight that ever meeting gets rescheduled, the company should look at hiring another team or another way to spread the work around.

  24. LilyP*

    I’m often asked, “Why did this project take you so long to complete?” I want to say, “Because it took two weeks and three rescheduled meetings before I could get feedback from you.”

    Why wouldn’t you say that though? Obviously not in an angry or snarky way, but if your boss is asking that’s the perfect opportunity to let him know the work impact of this pattern. I’m curious why you feel you can’t say that directly.

    Also, another point to it not being personal, it’s often easier to reschedule internal meetings and meetings with fewer people. If your boss is in lots of external or big meetings it could just be that meetings with you are easier to reschedule and not about priority or importance at all.

  25. Kimberlee, No Longer Esq.*

    I agree that most of the time, it’s just the boss prioritizing what needs to get done, what’s urgent vs what’s not.

    But for all you managers out there, I will say that some bosses have a bad case of what I call Busy Executive Syndrome, where no matter how much time you have on their calendar, no matter how much attention they give you at any given moment, they just *irradiate* a “You Have Exactly 35 Seconds To Spit Out Whatever It Is You Need To Say To Me” vibes and that is a whole other level of irritating.

    I’ve had bosses who cancelled or rescheduled meetings all the time but it didn’t get under my skin because when we did meet, I had their attention and we were able to talk through stuff calmly and without rushing. But when their time is both so valuable as to be nearly unattainable, AND the time you DO get isn’t quality, that’s when it really sucks. Don’t be that manager!

  26. Don't Send Your Kids to Hudson University*

    My chief frustration with meeting schedulers is the temptation to be tight-lipped about the purpose for the meeting, and seeing the meeting as the opportunity to provide context for an important decision or request for guidance. Those things are most helpful before the meeting, often via email, so you can decide collaboratively (or in collaboration with the person who handles the schedulee’s calendar) whether the meeting is necessary. Meetings might be the preferred way for the scheduler to handle the decision/discussion, but I think this boss is signaling that there is a more efficient option out there.

    OP, is it possible that you are bringing decisions to your boss or soliciting feedback where you really need to be making decisions more independently and simply updating him? Can you lay out any of these decisions via email with relevant context included/attached, so that he can review and respond when he has time? As a younger person in a higher level role, I can get tripped up by this too sometimes. I have had to catch myself and stop using meetings with my boss to seek approval and reserve them for issues where I really can’t make a decision on my own.

  27. Gail Davidson-Durst*

    This isn’t necessarily relevant for OP, since the boss has an assistant who schedules meetings, but I’ve found it’s helpful with my busy bosses if I’m the owner of the meeting. This allows a few advantages:

    1. I can put in the meeting invite what I need to cover with them. They’re less likely to cancel if the meeting has an agenda that says, e.g., “Need your signoff on Jonathan’s changes to X Policy to meet the 11/30 audit deadline.” Especially if it’s my regular 1:1 which can seem eminently cancellable unless I make clear there’s a specific thing I was planning to discuss.
    2. They seem less likely to simply cancel/decline (which they readily do with meetings they own), but will contact me in some form to ask to cancel/move, which gives me a chance to respond before the meeting just disappears from the calendar.
    3. It lets me set up what Emily so cogently described above. I think of it as the “Blue Apron Technique” – I put everything needed into/attached to the meeting invite so the user can open it and exert zero energy doing research or searching for documents.

  28. MissDisplaced*

    I find this to be something of a hallmark of a bad manager. Why?
    Because the need to constantly be involved in, and needing oversight on the work of subordinates screams they don’t trust and/or like to micromanage, while simultaneously blocking every hour of every day with meetings so you can’t actually meet with them to get their feedback. They become the bottleneck! It’s really pretty passive aggressive if you think about it.
    Now, granted some things or certain milestones really are that important, but I’ve seen so many poor managers insist on being ‘down in the weeds’ instead of trusting their people to make sound decisions.

  29. distribution guy*

    AAM: So this is an interesting topic for me. I’m a busy manager who sometimes has to cancel scheduled meetings. Maybe too often? However, when I clicked on the link to “The Cut”, I was informed that I reached my limit of free articles. I really enjoy your blog but I already subscribe to four newspapers and do not want another subscription simply to read your replies. Is there a way to read your replies without having to subscribe to a publication that I don’t want?

    1. LilyP*

      I don’t know if Alison approves of this workaround, but you can very easily get around that block by opening the page a chrome “incognito” window

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Unfortunately, no, they do charge for their content after a certain number of free articles per month. I realize not everyone will want to subscribe, of course!

  30. Mop.*

    I don’t know if this makes you feel better or not, but I am more likely to cancel on a report I trust and respect than one I don’t.

    It’s not great, but my rationale is that I can nearly
    always trust the judgement of my top performers, whereas with those who are either still developing, or (rarely) slipping in performance, I make the meetings a priority because I’m less confident about their ability to make a judgement call. Also, if they’re underperforming, I want to keep them clearly apprised of the performance progress or lack thereof.

  31. chickaletta*

    I second everything Alison said.

    As an assistant to a very busy senior executive, whose Outlook calendar looks a lot like Tetris, here are some tips for getting feedback from a person like that:

    – Use email. For really short questions that need a quick response, if your company makes use of texting/skype and it’s ok to reach out to your boss that way, use that too. A senior executive who has 7 back-to-back meetings all day will not appreciate wasted time and they will remember it too.
    – Use the EA as a point of contact with your boss. He/she is the calendar keeper. His assistant can get critical things in front of him quickly, she can manipulate his calendar to squeeze you in when necessary, she can tip off the boss that you need to see them, she can give you tips how to get in front of the boss, and she knows what his priorities are. A good assistant will help you get time in front of the boss – but keep in mind that she will prioritize as well and only push you to the front of the line when it’s absolutely necessary. Abuse that and it’s like crying wolf.

    1. chickaletta*

      In other words – build a good raport with your boss’s assistant. It will make your work life easier.

  32. DataBoss*

    I also wonder if you’re asking for feedback on things that you should have the power to make decisions for yourself. It may be worth asking your boss about which decisions you can make on your own and which you should be running by him.

  33. L. Robbins*

    I really wish the answer didn’t only appear at a publication with a monthly limit. Thankfully it isn’t a high number of columns that are only answered at New York magazine, but I can’t be the only person annoyed with this.

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