how can I let coworkers know “no” is an acceptable answer?

A reader writes:

I am a project manager who works mainly on projects with our most junior team members. I love it! I get to be a mentor while learning a ton from web developers right out of college. One thing I have noticed is that they have a hard time saying no when I ask request something — as in, “Can this be done today?” or “Do you think this is a good idea?” I’ve made a career of being able to tell clients hard news, I really don’t mind!

I don’t want them to overwork themselves because of what they perceive I need done. Not to mention that a lot of the time, we really don’t have the budget for it! I know project estimates are the key to planning, but sometimes I need to be able to have a quick conversation about these things.

Prefacing everything with “it’s really okay if you can’t” feels patronizing. Is there any better way to let them know that not having time/budget to not do a thing is okay?

You can address it in the moment when it’s happening or you can address it with a bigger-picture conversation.

In the moment, try changing the way you’re framing these requests. For example, “Can this be done today?” sounds like you might be saying “I need you to do this today.” (Think of how your boss might say to you, “Can you call Cecil back?” She’s really telling you to call him, just being polite about it. Your coworkers might be hearing your requests in the same way.) So try being clearer about your wording. For example: “Ideally I’d like to get it back today, but if you have other stuff going on, it’s fine if it takes longer. What’s realistic on your side?”

You’re dealing with junior folks who need you to spell out assumptions that you’ve previously felt were obvious subtext.

Similarly, with your other example — “Do you think this is a good idea?” — you probably need to make it clearer that it’s a genuine question and you want their real opinion. For example: “I’m thinking about whether X is the right way to go, and I want to make sure I’m considering all the pros and cons. What do you think of it?”

The other option is to just talk to people one-on-one and say, “I want to make sure you know that when I ask if you’re able to do a project today or by a certain date, I’m genuinely asking. If you have higher priorities or think it will take longer or had planned to leave early that day, I want you to tell me that! I think you’ve been assuming I always want to hear yes, and I want you to know that’s not the case! You’re the expert on your own schedule and what else is on your plate, and I’m relying on you to tell me if the timeframe I suggest would be hard to pull off.”

Of course, keep in mind that people who aren’t skilled at reading professional nuance may end up applying this in contexts where they shouldn’t. There will probably be times where you are saying “this really needs to be done today” and they might not pick up on that. You can resolve that by being clear about that in the moment too, but be aware of that if you choose this approach.

As a general rule, though, the more explicit you can be about assignments and expectations, the better (with everyone, but especially with less experienced people).

{ 127 comments… read them below }

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    OP, I feel you.
    I have a hard time figuring out when things like this go from “not understanding workplace norms” to hints or passive-aggressive refusal. And having to rely on them for estimates in project plans makes it even more nerve-wracking.

  2. Amber Rose*

    Sounds like you just need to stop using Yes/No questions. Very few employees are going to feel comfortable saying no to anything, but they probably will feel comfortable saying “it’ll take me three days.”

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      This. I like the phrasing “with all the projects you currently have, what is a reasonable time estimate to get “new thing” completed in?”

      It’s not yes or no, and allows them to give you time estimates based on all of what is on their plate (not just what you know is on their plate).

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      It’s also helpful for a manager to follow up “How long will this take?” with “When will you be finished up with your current projects to start it?” so the new employee starts getting the idea of time-on-task vs elapsed time until deadline. Another useful thing to ask about is relative priority of those current projects. New employee might be thinking “last in first out” — but a business usually operates on “highest priority first”.
      ie If your job is to feed & groom horses, you need to feed them first every day even if your manager asks if you could try out some new mane-braiding equipment and take pictures for the company website.
      (Although if it’s the CEO, it’s not a bad idea to ask him if he needs the pictures soon enough that you should find someone else to feed the horses this morning.)

      1. Antilles*

        The other thing with new employees is that you often want to mentally take whatever timeline they give you and extend it – new employees usually have not yet learned to be conservative with float room and add extra time for the normal randomness/delays/etc that pop up.

    3. Glitsy Gus*

      Yeah, that is how I’ve started phrasing things. “We need X done. What is a reasonable target date?” If they tell me something way too far out I can then ask if it is possible to have it done sooner, but by having them let me know how long they think it’ll take gives me a snapshot into the bigger picture.

      1. Working Mom*

        Yes – give more context as opposed to asking, yes or no – can you do this today? The EE probably hears (even though you don’t mean it) “I need you to figure out a way to do this today.” Instead – offer some context/insight. If it’s a client deliverable – you could phrase as, “Let me know what’s a reasonable timeframe to get X report back. I need to prep the client as to when they can expect to receive it – and ideally I’d like 2 business days with it before I pass it along. So, with that in mind – let me know a realistic time frame when you can get it to me, and then I’ll be able to add my 2 days – and then give the client the estimate delivery date.”

        I know it’s wordy – but it might help to provide that extra context – let them know that you’re tailoring the delivery date to the client (or leadership, whatever) to adjust to what’s reasonable for them. Then when you have scenarios where you can’t do that and really do need to say, “I really need this report by Friday” you can express that other projects may take a backseat. For example, “I really need this report by Friday. I know you’re already working on X and Y, and I think we can put those on the backburner this week as this report is a higher priority. I’ll let client/leadership know that X and Y will be delayed by a few days, as we had a high priority client request come in.”

    4. Bubbles*

      This is a great comment! I think you’ve clarified well the base issue: no matter how clear you are on communication, the best thing to do is the most basic thing. Change from yes/no to quantifiable answers. Empowering employees to set boundaries and manage their own time healthily will always benefit the company. Teaching junior staff how to do this by running through specific examples is awesome. OP, if you find they are having trouble arranging their priorities, take note of the projects that are affected, then do a real-life training with the team. “Here are 15 tasks that need to be completed between the 4 of you. How would you assign these tasks and what do you think are the most pressing?” Guide their thoughts so they understand where you are coming from when you ask how long certain projects take.

    5. Anonomoose*

      This actually sounds like it’s worth bringing in some of the agile project management stuff. Give them a board of tasks, get them to tell you how long they think a task will take, and then give them priorities for those tasks.

      If you need to drop something in, it can either go at the top of the task list, which means they should do it now, or at a place in the list that’s appropriate.

      Not a big fan of slavishly following agile, but some self organizing for developers can be really effective. Plus, practice will make them better at giving you estimates for how long a thing will take, which is a seriously useful skill for beginning devs to develop

      1. azvlr*

        Also coach them on how long a task should take. At Old Job, I had no metric for how long tasks actually took others doing a similar task, only arbitrary times that were the same for each project no matter the size. I agonized over this, and never got a straight answer from my manager about it.

    6. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

      One thing that has helped me is, when a client asks if they can have something in, say, 5 days, I will go back to the project team with a timeline that reflects the 5 (or however many) days and ask if this timeline is doable, and if not, what would a more realistic timeline look like. That way, they hopefully don’t feel like they have to say they can do a 10 day project in 5. Then I can go back to the client and tell them what is realistic and why. Or we figure out that the project can be done in 5 days. That has worked better than just asking the yes/no question, having the team say yes and then having them hate you. :)

    7. Product Person*

      Coming here to say that. “What you think about it?” is way more likely to yield a true answer than a yes/no question that may seem to require a yes in the view of someone less experient.

  3. Spidey Cents & Sensibility*

    One of my personal pet peeves is ‘most’ people interpret “as soon as possible” to mean, NOW! And, I have a feeling this is a version of that. Speaking as clearly as possible and discussing what your requests mean can be the difference between success and failure to produce. Good luck!

    1. Kevin Sours*

      “As soon as possible” does imply a great deal of priority. I wouldn’t use it unless you expect that person to potentially drop current work to get to it. I like “at your soonest convenience” for things that shouldn’t linger but don’t need immediate attention.

      1. Antilles*

        Yeah, “as soon as possible” basically implies that it’s drop-everything priority and if my current task has any float room, then I should push that to the back burner to get yours ‘as soon as possible’, before coming back to what I’m currently working on right now.
        …At least until you start labeling everything AS SOON AS POSSIBLE and get into ‘boy who cried wolf’ territory – either “if everybody says their work is ASAP, then by definition, they’re all equally urgent” or “yeah, right, I saw how you said you needed last week’s report ASAP and then it sat in the same corner of your desk for a week, you’ll get it when you get it”.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Oh boy. The corner of the desk thing super resonates with me. A boss did not believe in her ability to lead people (justified, she couldn’t) so she filled in with whatever leverage she could find. One of her ways of levering things was to tell people Thing was needed ASAP.
          She never realized her entire department was laughing at her, when YET AGAIN, Thing sat there for weeks well past the imaginary due date.

      2. soon to be former fed really*

        As soon as possible does not mean immediate priority to me. Give me a date on which you need whatever you need, even if it’s tomorrow.

        1. Julia*

          It does seem to imply it for a lot of other people, though. I don’t want to receive an email from my boss that says “do it ASAP” and then go, okay, this is my soonest possible completion date, and then have her be frustrated because I didn’t do it urgently enough.

          Whcih reminds me: OP, if yu tell someone that it’s okay to do X amount of time, please actually mean it. I’m sure you’re great, but some bosses need this reminder.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Do it as soon as possible. To me this means handle the fires first, then do the ASAP thing, then do regular work. The only thing more urgent than an ASAP is a thing that I need to work on NOW.

            Additionally, the problem with ASAP request is that the requester keeps coming back and checking. It’s nice just go get that off my plate. Not meaning you, OP, I am sure you are very nice. I am just talking in general terms.

            1. Uldi*

              And all of this kind of proves just how generally uninformative “as soon as possible” really is. To some it means, “Drop anything not urgent and do this,” and for others it means, “Do this when you have the time.”

    2. Chronic Overthinker*

      I dislike “as soon as possible” as to me it indicates that that task is now a higher priority than my other tasks. Give me a quantifiable deadline like “by end of business today” or “before our 2 pm meeting on Thursday” if it isn’t a higher priority item.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        I like this. Unlike most people apparently, I don’t hear “as soon as possible” as a demand to drop everything. I hear it as “as soon as possible, and therefore not as soon as is impossible.” But I’ll admit it took me many years of business maturity to get there.

        1. James*

          Context matters. In my office “as soon as possible” means “This is your number 1 priority, drop literally everything else, you don’t get lunch today because you’ll be working on this”. This usually comes up when someone screws up some procedure or policy and we need to work to get it corrected before it gets any worse.

          “As soon as you can” means as soon as you’re reasonably able to get it.

          But like you said, it takes a while to learn the difference–and there will be a learning curve when you go from one office to another. Part of being junior staff is learning this stuff.

    3. NW Mossy*

      One of the challenges with “ASAP” is that it comes with a timeline implied but not stated. It makes it hard to discern the requester’s expectations, so it really requires some follow-up to pick that out.

      As an example, if I say I want to buy a new yoga mat “as soon as possible,” my mental timeline on that is a day, maybe two – that’s how long it’ll take for me to get to a store to buy it or order one off Amazon and have it sent to me. But buying a house “as soon as possible” is more like 60 days at the fastest, but could be many months because it’s a complex transaction.

      Where it gets tricky is when you’re dealing with a counterpart that isn’t well-calibrated on how long the thing they’re asking for normally takes – their “ASAP” is almost impossible to parse. Some use that to mean “I think you can get this done in a matter of minutes/hours,” while others are thinking “I’m guessing this takes a month, so if I got it back in two weeks that’d seem really fast.”

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      ASAP is my pet peeve. We cover it in orientation. ASAP is not a deadline, and you need a deadline for every project. If they don’t give you one, pitch one and see how they react/counteroffer. (Then, I get to do training with the people who tend to assign work and tell them the same thing. ASAP is not a deadline; delegees need a deadline.)

      Now, sometimes the deadline is “two hours ago”, but that is still good information that helps you prioritize.

      And I work in an industry where everything means NOW! unless someone explicitly tells you otherwise. :)

    5. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

      Yeah, I used to think ASAP meant NOW! But now, when I ask someone when they need something and they say as soon as possible (and refuse to give me a day or time, then I cheerfully get it to them as soon as possible (which may or may not be now).

  4. Free Meercats*

    “You can address it in the moment when it’s happening or you can address it with a bigger-picture conversation.” Why not both? It will probably take both, anyway.

    And look at your communication style. If you ever say “Can you do X” when you mean “You need to do X”, and other times say “Can you do X” when you mean “Can you do X”, you’re not communicating clearly.

    1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      “(Think of how your boss might say to you, “Can you call Cecil back?” She’s really telling you to call him, just being polite about it. Your coworkers might be hearing your requests in the same way.) ”

      I read this and had an actual AH HA moment. When I read the original letter, I read “can you get this done today” as very clear. But then I read Alison’s parenthetical and realized “can you…” is the homonym of sentences.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I used to say “Can this get done today? Is that realistic?”

        I changed the subject from “you” to “this task.” Less pressure. And more focus on the task itself, which is the true determinant of whether it can get done.

    2. Well Then*

      Yep, I’d recommend both. A big-picture conversation would feel weird and condescending with a more experienced person, but for new grads, it’s likely to be very clarifying and helpful. This is part of mentoring!

      1. Kevin Sours*

        Different people have different communication styles. The assumption that it’s merely a junior employee unfamiliar with “professional nuance” is a bad one. If somebody isn’t picking up on how you are communicating priorities, you *need* to sit down with them an hash it out. It’s probably a different conversation with a senior person.

        Clarity of priorities will lower *everybody’s* stress levels and it’s worth the risk of over-communicating to make that happen.

        1. Well Then*

          I think you missed my point. I didn’t make an assumption that it’s exclusively a junior employee problem – the LW explicitly said that these are people who are new to the workplace and she acts partly in a mentoring role to them. Of course, in a different situation, it might be necessary to have this type of conversation with someone more experienced or senior, and my point was that that might feel condescending or awkward, even though it would be needed. In this situation, where the employees *are* junior, the LW doesn’t need to worry about that, since guiding junior employees in this way is one of the purposes of professional mentoring.

    3. Close Bracket*

      And look at your communication style. If you ever say “Can you do X” when you mean “You need to do X”, and other times say “Can you do X” when you mean “Can you do X”, you’re not communicating clearly.

      lolling pretty hard over here. On last week’s thread about asking vs. telling, I commented that I have trouble with directions that are phrased as suggestions, and the responses were split between “managers need to be clear” and “how about you take doing what your boss says as a workplace norm.” Ha.

      I actually just had a conversation that started with a “Can you…?” and I had to spend several minutes parsing what he was really trying to say (hint: he wasn’t asking about my capabilities).

  5. Moose*

    I’m in college and I use a casual “no is an acceptable answer here” after the question. People generally laugh at first but then sometimes will use it.

    1. Sara without an H*

      Hi, Moose — may I steal this? I can think of several situations where I could have used it.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I’ve used this phrasing too, or “Can you (thus-and-such)? I mean that literally, like I am asking if you are able to, not giving a thinly veiled directive.” My husband has some baggage from an ex who expected him to mind-read, so he’s still working on not making up his own meanings to what I say, and he finds it helpful when I am as clear and as literal as possible.

    3. Amy Sly*

      When I was selling and trying to add on something I thought they might want but they hadn’t asked for (like a different shape arch support or a clearance shoe) I’d go with “It won’t hurt my feelings if you say no.” I also use “I understand if the answer is no” when making unusual requests from customer service people (like asking if the Goodyear guy could do something with my license plate).

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      You & me both. I’m the mother of a 13yo and I use that to get the distinction through to her.
      “Please do X now.” vs “Do you want to do X? No is an acceptable answer.”

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        My second-grade teacher learned this the hard way when she asked 7-year-old Me, “Would you like to read this out loud to the class?” and I politely said, “No, thank you” and went right back to reading silently on my own. That was 40 years ago and she still remembers it.

  6. Retro*

    I’m also a project manager, but a relatively junior one! I really appreciate that OP wrote about this issue and actually noticed that junior team members tend to do this because I was in this situation a year back! It wasn’t until I was feeling decently swamped that I knew I needed to have a conversation with my boss about my work load and this issue was addressed.

    Adding onto Allison’s advice, I think it’s also a good idea to guide your junior team members on how to prioritize tasks. Sometimes it isn’t always immediately obvious which projects or tasks are more important unless told by a superior. That type of decision making is developed as you progress in your field. Not only is saying no perfectly acceptable, knowing why you’re saying no can make saying no easier. (What a tongue twister of a sentence.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      when I have people I think are not that confident in their prioritizing, I will say, “I’d love to get this today, if that’s possible. What else is on your plate, that I might have to wait for, or that I can find a way to remove?

      It becomes a collaborative process.

  7. Oh So Anon*

    I don’t know if this is entirely about reading professional nuance. Especially with entry-level folk, they may be hesitant to push back on a request because they want to develop a reputation for being helpful and agile. And to be fair, a lot of the “never say no” types get praise for being reliable.

    Again, maybe this is something that people who struggle with professional nuance will also have trouble with, but helping junior employees to understand that their default should generally be to find a way to fit requests into their schedule. Before getting to no, it may be more helpful for everyone involved if they ask about whether this request can bump something from their other priorities. It’s one of these things where saying no is acceptable, but only if there’s no mutually agreeable way to make a “yes, but…” option work.

    1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      This is great, because ultimately as the manager, no is not the final answer. The work probably still has to be done and if it’s something that a junior employee can do, it’s best they do it for many reasons. Learning how to say no is important, but equally important is learning to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Junior employees should be learning to judge how long it will take to finish, what resources they need, who else to involve on projects as well as if they are capable of doing the work.

      1. TootsNYC*

        actually, I would say that “no” is not the answer I’m looking for.

        I’m looking for, “I can’t because I have X to finish” or “I don’t think so, because it’ll take me longer.”
        or “Not today, because I have to leave early, but I ought to be able to focus on it tomorrow”

        Or even “I’m not sure”

  8. Sara without an H*

    Yes to all of the above. And OP, don’t confuse being “patronizing” with being explicit. Given the age of the people you’re working with, they may really not know how to parse your questions. “How long do you estimate it would take to do this?” may be a better starting point than “Can this be done today?”

    1. Amy Sly*

      Agreed. And frankly, it’s better to explicit and come off as occasionally patronizing than to find out things aren’t being done correctly because people are overloaded and rushing through stuff they don’t know how to do. You’re the boss; you have to accept that sometimes your reports aren’t going to like what you tell them. Would you rather be known as the person who gives too much direction or too little?

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yep. I work with tons of entry-level people, and most of them appreciate the extra guidance on prioritizing and help managing their workload. It can take some time to develop workload management skills.

  9. louise*

    I have a similar issue with our graphic designer. I send a work order, and when I send him an email with “hi, what’s the ETA on this?” and the response is always “I’ll get right on it!” or “Yes, it’s the top of my list.” I’ve literally tried saying to him “no, give me a “please check back on Wednesday” or “I will have that done by 4 pm today” or “that project is impossible and will never be fulfilled in your or my lifetimes” and he resists. Somehow he was trained (at a previous workplace, I assume) to believe people asking for ETAs are not querying for information but people passively-aggressively telling the graphic designer to get a move on. It’s a really negative cycle because he says “I’ll get that done soon!” and I have no idea if that means “within 2 hours” or “by end of week.”

    1. Oh So Anon*

      Here’s the thing, though: even if people asking for ETAs are being passive-aggressive about asking you to get something done ASAP (which, IME, that’s often what’s going on), it’s still on your graphic designer to provide actual ETA details, albeit briefly. If it’s a situation where ASAP isn’t possible, then be clear and apologetic.

      1. louise*

        I think he’s been in situations previously where if he gave an actual day and date ETA, people would either argue (“can’t it be done faster?”) or not believe that that was a realistic timeframe. So now he is Captain Vague.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          Dude needs to either learn to be more firm with people who’ll argue with reasonable timelines or start borrowing authority if clients aren’t taking his reasonable estimates seriously.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I said this below, but I always made a speech to new colleagues about that (I was the deadline-monitoring-and-enforcing person).
      “When I want to say ‘you’re not doing this fast enough’ or ‘I need this to happen sooner than it is,’ I will explicitly say that. But if I ask you ‘when’ questions, I need an honest answer, because I am going to make plans on that. I can plan for tomorrow, and I can plan for Friday–but it’s more important that I be accurate. Don’t try to make me happy. Be realistic.”

  10. Sara M*

    FWIW I have this problem all the time in life. People perceive me as giving orders when I’m making requests–random people over whom I have no authority, so it’s really weird.

    Some of it has to do with forceful personality, a naturally stern expression, and strong confidence. I’m just like that and I can’t change it. (I’ve tried! I can gentle it a little bit, but not a ton.)

    I’ve had the best results from saying, “No is an acceptable answer. Could you please help me with X?” or “Could you please help me with X? It’s okay if you can’t, there are other people I can ask.”

    I had to learn that while I myself am very comfortable saying “no” (see personality above, heh), other people just don’t process the way I do. So I try to remember that not only _some_ people aren’t like me this way, MOST people aren’t. That seems to help.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      I am by nature a strong individual. My way is:

      “Do you have time to give me a hand with X?”

      It doesn’t quite emphasize the “no” opportunity, but does let them know I’m being mindful of their workload with the ask.

  11. SarcasticFringehead*

    Something I used to do when I was tutoring and didn’t want to steamroll students was to include the “no” answer in the question. Instead of “can you call Cecil today,” for example, I’d say “can you call Cecil today, or do you need to push it to tomorrow?” That way they can say they need to push it without feeling like they’re contradicting an authority figure.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I found it helpful to demonstrate that I knew what roadblocks might be in their way.

      Can this get finished tomorrow, or do you have too much on your plate / is there a snag I don’t know about / am I underestimating how much time this will take?

      But I tend to say “I’d like this to get done tomorrow” instead of “can this?” if indeed I DO want it done tomorrow.
      If I don’t have a strong need for it tomorrow, I don’t say “can this get finished by,” and instead I say, “When do you think this will be able to get done?”

      It’s taken some effort to train myself out of some of those conversational patterns to be truly explicit with what I’m asking.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Definitely show that you know of things that can be more important or in their way, OP.

        I had stuff come up where grandboss said, “Do X.” People were really worried about my task Y. So I had to set rules of thumb, such as unless I let them know otherwise they should do what grandboss said. But there were rare occasions where I said, “If anyone including grandboss asks you to do something else, either let GB know to come see me OR come get me and tell me GB stepped in. We absolutely need to finish this Y within the hour.”

        Surprisingly, this worked out quite well. And we never had problems. I tackled different scenarios of things that came up as they occurred. And they also learned my patterns. If I put one person on something and said, “Do the best you can”, they knew I was not in a major rush. If there were ten people working on something I would tell them this has to be done by x time this morning. And they believed me because I would not waste labor like that if it weren’t true.

        It takes time to build that trust. And it’s up to the leader to be consistent. Being consistent is super important.

  12. IT But I Can't Fix Your Printer*

    I’m a non-developer working with a lot of developers, some very junior. I try to give context when I ask “can we do this?” For example, “Grandboss asked us to try to make this work as an exception for Company Bigwig. It doesn’t have to be a perfect or elegant solution, but is there something we could put in place today to get it done?” “I’m suggesting X because I heard that it worked on the Teapot Spot project last year, but I’m not the technical expert so it may be the wrong path for Teapot Handles. What would you recommend?” “My biggest priority for this Big Teapot Lid enhancement is that we be able to use the same template if we need to add Ginormous Teapot Lids in the future. Is what I suggested still a good idea in that case, or does that background change your answer?” These kind of questions also give developers the opportunity to develop their own analytical skills.

    1. Dan*

      In that spirit, (and thinking about a prior letter where a boss was worried about showing weakness), letting your staff/colleagues know what your weaknesses are is actually a favor to everybody. It helps give some context on when pushing back is appropriate (and even necessary) and when you’re completely in your lane and people don’t need to worry. I have a boss who is an expert in some areas that I’m not, and not an expert in some areas that I am, and he HATES talking about things he’s not an expert in. HATES it. So he doesn’t, and the project suffers from time to time as a result.

    2. Amykins*

      As someone who has been a developer for over a decade, these are *excellent* ways of framing those questions to developers. Make it clear what your needs and priorities are, and it gives developers the opportunity to see the bigger picture of what is needed and help problem-solve in a way that works for everyone.

    3. Anonomoose*

      Yes to all these, as a sysadmin..context is great, because then I don’t just have to tell you no when something isn’t doable, but can suggest other routes

  13. Dr. Dread*

    I like asking the question like “Do you have the bandwidth to do this today?” which makes more clear that they are in charge of managing their own time and priorities.

    1. Oh So Anon*

      Except, though, if they’re entry-level, they kind of aren’t? They’re in charge of giving their manager enough information to set and monitor priorities.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        If they’re entry level, I see it as my responsibility to help them learn to manage their own priorities. IMO, YMMV

      2. TootsNYC*

        I agree–if people are entry level, even if they don’t report to me, I think it’s my obligation to model good decision-making. So if I were supposed to direct some of their work, I’d use the bandwidth, or maybe I’d say, “Do you think you have enough time?”
        I would probably even specifically say, “what else do you have on your plate?” so that they’re kind of forced to list it out and not just say, “sure I can do it” without analyzing.

        And then I’ll have more info, and I can also demonstrate some of that decision-making: “That’s from CEO, hm? We should check before we bounce that, so let’s assume you have to do it first. And maybe let’s ask your boss if we can bump Project X behind this, becuase Z reason.”

        I don’t make the decision, but I run through the possible criteria, and then we go find out.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Annddd…It’s harder for new people to gauge how long something will take. It’s good if the boss has some idea of what an average person can do for a given amount of time so as not to overload.

        However there have been times where a light touch is all that is needed. For that, I would say, “Sally, just spend 15 minutes straightening this book case. Whatever you can do in 15 minutes is all we need.” I did get feedback from people saying, “I love how you build stops in to the task. I know when to stop and I don’t end up doing overkill and embarrassing myself.”

        If possible, telling folks when to stop is super useful.

  14. Mockingjay*

    Teach your folks the elements involved in work estimates, so they are prepared to handle these requests. While they might feel comfortable saying “No,” give them the tools to be able to say “Yes” with confidence.

    – Priority: Mary has 3 assignments; how does she pick the most important to work on first? Explain the criteria used to decide.
    – Execution: Reality always takes longer than planning. Factor buffer time into estimate. Always identify the hard due date. Address ‘What If’ scenarios: What should Joe do when Urgent Item is taking longer then expected? What problems should Joe be expected to research and resolve himself, and which ones should be escalated?

    – Expectations: For urgent tasks, identify criteria to be relaxed for expediency. Maybe skip the graphics on the report and concentrate on content with a quick spell check. Shorten the review cycle.
    If not, what preparations can be made to get things completed quickly? Document template ready to fill out, Mary cross-trained in some of Joe’s tasks so she can take daily stuff while he fixes Urgent Important Report, learn the database queries to pull info for the report?

    Mastering these skills are a slow process, but invaluable, both to you and your employee.

    1. Sophie Hatter*

      I like how explicit this is. I’m fairly young and need things to be spelled out like this in a work context-I suspect it’s an ADHD thing where if someone told me “Get this done as soon as possible” I would take that literally and neglect all other tasks because they said it was important, right? And mu brain has enough trouble differentiating between important or urgent and not.

    2. TootsNYC*

      +1, several times.

      I also will say, “If I can get this today, that would be great. But if you get to 3pm and it doesn’t look likely, please come and tell me, and I’ll make a different plan.”

      Or, “If you don’t get the approval you need by X, we will move ahead without it / tell me and I will go get that answer / contingency plan B.”

      That opens the door for people to realize that you understand things might not happen fast, and it also gives them a concrete action to take.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I love this. One thing that is good to note here is the check-ins. “If A is going slower than expected, it’s not a problem, just tell me by 3 pm that A is going slower than expected. We will look at the problem areas and make a plan.”

  15. Everdene*

    I have this issue with one of my reports who is the same age as my parents. Every few months he gets a ‘When I ask a question it is genuinely a question. If I ask if it’s ok to say no. If it’s an instruction it will be worded differently’. It’s really frustrating as i think that’s all fine until he gets annoyed again.

    (Yes, this isn’t the only issue. Yes, I’m working on it)

  16. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    As a project manager are you keeping track of what you assign out and have clear expectations about how long a project should take or what the hard and soft deadlines are? Do you have a shared tracking and prioritizing system in place — even if it’s just a great big white board? Are jobs triaged or color coded — Critical, Important, Routine, Low Priority etc. so that they know when you are assigning something where they should put it in their schedule? These are things to have in place if you don’t already. Then, when you ask, “Can you handle this?” YOU should already have a good idea of whether they should be able to or not and then they can let you know if there is something you haven’t taken into account like they are unexpectedly sick or planning to leave early.

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      A simple Kanban board really helps – even if it’s just yellow stickies and a grid.

    2. Anonomoose*

      I’d go a step further, and say you should be asking them to estimate how long the task will take. Not ” I need this by Friday, can you do it?” but “How long will it take you to do it?” “Three hours? Great, can you do it by Friday?”

      They’re new devs, so they’ll be wrong about this a lot. Build in lots of contingency

  17. tape deck*

    Also, if they are new to the workforce, they may be bad at estimating how long something will take, and therefore deciding when they can schedule something else. This is something I still struggle with.

    1. Dan*

      Adding to this a little… if I’ve worked with that data before, using tools I’m comfortable with, I can do things pretty quick and my estimates are good. If it’s data that I don’t know, then good luck, because I have no idea what the pitfalls in the data set are. (New data format and I don’t know the variable names, what they mean, and the significance of null values? It’s ginormous and blows out my local memory so I have to offload the processing to a different system? I won’t know until I try, so my estimates are junk.)

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      I’ve been working for 40 years, and I still struggle with estimating time to complete. I’m better at it than my coworkers, but that’s not saying much. Management doesn’t like my estimates – they are too long for their taste, but they end up being the most accurate.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I have shameless padded my time for years. I decided to add 25% to any estimate. That worked well most of the time. But every so often I would hit a project and, oh boy, if it goes bad I am going to run way over on that 25% estimate.

      This started me thinking about how to forecast Big Problems. I started off small for example, a malfunctioning machine could potentially lead to a Big Problem. So if a machine is not running well before I start the task, I then assumed the situation will get worse and factor that into my estimate.

      Low supplies is another good predictor of Big Problems. I need to assemble 1000 widgets and I have 500 bolts. Each widget needs one bolt. I am in trouble before I start.

      Unreliable cohorts is another vulnerable point that could go into big problems. Sometimes this can be helped along by letting the cohort get out ahead of me, sort of the idea of stuffing the pipe line. Depending on the person, I would be able to guess that by the 50% or 75% completion point, they probably had this one and things would be okay. So I would just watch the progress.

      Once I got more used to the job, I would put less padding on then the 25% on some tasks. Most of the time, I found I got the work done before the time I had estimated. I tried to keep track of how well I estimated, it was just like a little game to me. Anyway, it never hurts to hand things in before you say you will, as long as you have checked things over and everything looks good. The real problem is if the thing is not ready when you said it would be. Hence, my idea of slightly over estimating everything, especially when the job is new.

  18. Heidi*

    I feel like this question is the sequel to the post about whether it is better to ask or tell someone to do something that needs to be done. In that post, the OP was concerned about looking “weak” if she asked instead of ordered, and here, the OP is afraid of going too far in the opposite direction and having reports that are afraid to say no. Perhaps an up front disclaimer will help, like, “I’m going to depend on you to tell me if this is not feasible, but I’d like to have X and Y ready in time for our meeting on Wednesday.”

  19. NotMyRealName*

    Also, try to help them understand where your request falls in their priorities – “I need this more than x, but less than y.” My boss is mostly fabulous, but there was the one meeting that ended “I know I just gave you 7 items with a number one priority”

    1. Dan*

      I had a boss where every meeting resulted in a new priority. Then she’d circle back about something she had given to me six months ago and ask how that is coming along. To which I’d usually say it hasn’t, because you’ve given me ten things higher priority.

      The corollary is that when everything is a priority, then by definition nothing is a priority.

      1. JanetM*

        Years ago, when I worked for lawyers, both of them were going on vacation at the same time. I made a list of all the things in my in-basket (I hadn’t been there very long, and I had inherited a HUGE backlog of word processing) and asked them each to highlight the top 10 things I should work on.

        They both, independently, highlighted every item on their lists.

        So, fine; they didn’t want to give me priorities? I attacked them in alphabetical order. (And I did get a lot done, because they weren’t there handing me new priorities. Although one of them did call in a few times.)

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Not very good at following instructions, then. “Ten” isn’t equal to “all”

      2. Ralkana*

        I have a coworker who flags every email he sends me as “high priority”, so consequently, nothing he sends me is high priority.

        1. old curmudgeon*

          That is one of my biggest pet peeves. There are folks at my office who abuse the HIGH PRIORITY flag on their emails to such a ridiculous extent that it becomes a joke. There are other people who have sent an email with an urgent flag maybe twice in a decade, and if I get an urgent email from one of them, you’d better believe I drop everything to handle it. The “EVERYTHING IS URGENT ALL THE TIME” bunch, not so much.

  20. Dan*

    I agree on the feedback to stop asking yes/no questions. Many have offered advice on deadlines, so I’ll touch on idea feedback. “Is X a good idea?” isn’t necessarily the best way to get what you want. You’re The Boss; “X” is always the greatest idea since sliced bread. What you really want to know is the drawbacks to X approach (all approaches have drawbacks, so “none” is a lie that people can be called on). If you’re considering two approaches, then just ask for a critique on both based on their merits.

    Sometimes my boss will ask me what I think the technical priorities in our project is and why. Then he balances those based on what he knows the political and funding priorities are, and sets/changes course accordingly. I don’t usually “get” to give feedback on the final list, but my opinions really are considered overall.

    1. Atalanta0jess*

      This. “Do you think this is a good idea” is unlikely to get a “no” because that feels really critical. Something like “help me think through the pros and cons of this” is more likely to get feedback that actually helps.

  21. Chronic Overthinker*

    I am an employee who has a hard time saying “no.” Most of the time when I am given a project or two, I can complete them within the deadline. However, there are times where I have already created priorities and suddenly something else is handed to me or I get an email request. Because of the nature of my position, I usually end up taking many various tasks of varying degrees of priority and difficulty. It can be difficult to juggle at times. However, through a bit of practice I have learned to say “oh I’m doing X and Y today, I may not be able to get to Z until tomorrow. How would you like me to proceed?”

  22. epi*

    The OP might also want to make sure they respond to “no” in a way that signals it truly was OK. If they sense that a junior person is just nervous saying no, or worried they will disappoint the OP, it helps a lot to respond in a way that shows this is normal and the working relationship will carry on. I like to offer something myself, so it’s clear I am not negotiating with the person while pretending to be fine with their answer. You can also thank them for the accurate information.

    E.g. if someone tells OP, “actually, I can’t do it today, but I will be able to have it done by Thursday,” the OP can say something like, “Thanks for letting me know, Thursday works for me. Do you think you’ll need support with anything else, because you’re making this a priority?” Or not connect it to the no at all: “Thanks for letting me know, Thursday works for me. While we’re talking, is there anything you need from me?” They can also say they will let the client/boss/requestor know so it’s clear that the OP has no reservations about relaying the coworker’s timeline, that’s how fine it is.

    I doubt the OP’s current response is scary but it’s worth thinking about being really clear there too, since these are ongoing relationships. When people see over time that it really is OK to say no, they’ll relax a bit.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      At a certain level of seniority difference *everything* you say is scary. Potentially including “hello”. I’ve seen a lot unawareness of how that affects interaction with junior employees.

      The analogy I’d use is “How does a uniformed police officer may a polite suggestion?” (Answer: they really can’t)

  23. TootsNYC*

    I have one of those jobs, and I tended to give people a speech when I first started working with them, saying, “When I ask, ‘when will this be done?’ I’m not secretly saying ‘you need to finish this.’ Don’t try to make me happy–I need a realistic answer. Because I will make plans around that. If it’s three days from now, that’s good info for me. The worst is if you give me too-optimistic an answer, and then you can’t deliver. So be realistic.”

    I also found good results if I would push back on their quick, slightly unrealistic answers. Or I’d frame it in terms of laying out the difficulties, and saying, “Do you think these will let you finish by Friday? If so, I’ll do X, but if not, I’ll do Y or come up with some other plan.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        YES! An on-going conversation, very definitely.

        I would point blank say, “I am not going to be upset if you don’t finish, but what I really need is for you to come tell me that you are having a problem or you will not finish in time as soon as you realize one of these two things is happening.”

        And they will test you, OP. They will come to you with a smallish problem and intensely watch your reaction. If you become upset or even nervous they will definitely make note of that. Stay cool, “Thank you very much for letting me know. Let’s see if we can build Plan B here. Oh, I know… let’s do blah, blah, blah.” It’s in these moments that you are building trust.

  24. James*

    Whatever route you go, the biggest thing is going to be follow-through. Every time you reject a “No” answer, you are undoing 10 times when you accept it (rough estimate, adjust for your workplace culture, and the longer you go on this the less important each individual instance will be). Managers say all kinds of things–“we have a flexible schedule”, “there’s no dress code”, “there’s no such thing as a stupid idea”–but within a week or so a smart employee will realize which are true, and which aren’t.

    Don’t let them walk all over you, obviously–sometimes “no” simply ISN’T an acceptable answer! But you need to be judicious here. Maybe use different phrasing when you want them to know that “no” isn’t acceptable vs. when it is.

  25. Goldfinch*

    Maybe it’s just your phrasing, but it sounds like you go into these conversations with little or no background info about the junior team members’ workloads. You should not regularly be in the dark regarding how much these people have on their plates. If you aren’t using project management software (like Zoho or Liquid Planner) to track workloads in your organization, I highly recommend advocating for it.

    Approaching colleagues with new work despite not able to clearly articulate your request’s position on their overall priority list—or whether it’s even feasible within the current budget!—sounds like sloppy chaos at a company level. You need institutional change.

  26. Undercover Bagel*

    A bit of a late comment but I thought I’d be able to weigh in. I’ve done a lot of mentorship from college student to new hire, and I’ve noticed that one of the biggest learning curves during these parts of someone’s life are 1.) learning to be self-accountable, and 2.) learning to have judgement (ie, thinking on your own as opposed to asking others to solve problems for you). I think it’s kind of a natural thing that people go through as they move away from having parents managing everything to self-sufficiency.

    Being explicit like Alison says really helps with this. I like to tell new hires up-front what I’m looking for, so if I need an ETA I’ll ask directly for a timeline. If I still get a “It’s at the top of my list” response, responding with a “That’s great, but what I’m actually looking for is a timeline or expected date of completion. Do you have an idea of what that might be? It’s okay if it’s not right away.” Also when new hires ask questions I’ll show them how to do things but I’ll also ask them things like, “What do you think we should do?” and make sure that they feel comfortable giving an answer even if they’re unsure. If I get someone who doesn’t handle cues very well I’ll be extra firm in boundaries, and watch and see if there’s other behavior that may be impacting their work.

    I hope that helps. Good luck!

    1. TootsNYC*

      what I’m actually looking for is a timeline or expected date of completion.

      I have sometimes used wording like, “When should the next person in the process be ready for the handoff from you? They’ll want to be ready when it arrives, or plan what to do if they have to wait.”

      It focuses them on the reason why you’re asking–we are all planning our workloads.

      And I tried always to have my own sense of what was unrealistic, and what a well-thought-out answer would sound like. If I didn’t think that what I heard was realistic, I’d say, “well, that sounds optimistic, have you factored in X? Let’s look at what else is on your plate, because I need a realistic answer, not something you’re saying just to make me happy.”

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      I get asked things like “When will it be done?”, “Is it done yet?”, “Aren’t you finished yet?” All. The. Time.

      Usually *while* I’m trying to do their intricate, tricky, and unpredictable task.

      Not the easy stuff, no. Everyone wants a hard ETA on the creative, problem solving, thorny & complex problem that could take 30 minutes if I’m in the zone, or two days if I keep getting interrupted while I’m working on it.

      If I tell you “I’m working on it”, that is often not the time to badger me for an ETA. You are likely to get “Another day for every time you ask me that while I’m working on it.”

      Seriously, some things are estimable, some things just aren’t. Problem solving and troubleshooting falls in the latter category.

      1. Amykins*

        “Seriously, some things are estimable, some things just aren’t. Problem solving and troubleshooting falls in the latter category.”

        This is true – but sometimes a PM asking for an ETA is asking because someone else is breathing down their necks for information about when that thing is going to be finished. As someone in tech who deals with PMs all the time, one thing that works very well for me is saying “I don’t know how long this is going to take because this is a complicated problem that will take me time to dig into, but I should be able to give you an update on my progress in [insert time here].” That at least gives the PM some kind of hard information that they can spin/use to make plans around/respond to emails with, even if it isn’t an actual “here’s when the work will be done” timeframe.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Yes. However, I’ve had PM/stakeholders who won’t settle for the truth, they want a hard date that they can beat the team up with. Then again, I’ve worked for some very dysfunctional places… ;)

  27. LGC*

    I really needed this post because I get this all the time! And it actually makes sense – when you’re in a more junior level, you might feel like you need explicit permission to disagree with your boss. (Which is something I forget often.)

    For me, I’m (for better or worse) willing to be assertive with my managers when needed. Understandably, a lot of people aren’t, especially in the pool I work with. So I’ll give this a try going forward myself.

  28. Ptarmigan*

    Today I was told of an “easy” request needed on an emergency basis within 45 minutes. It turned out to be 38 spreadsheet tabs of information. Ha. No. But that’s how my work life goes.

  29. Amykins*

    As someone who has been in a tech role for over a decade who deals with project managers saying “can you get this done today?” pretty much every day, I think there’s a few things happening here:

    – Often, people who don’t say no are rewarded for being “superheroes”, and if this is happening visibly, that effect and pressure can spread (even though “superheroes” often end up creating a lot of harder-to-see problems, like “oops our superhero just got a new job and quit and now there’s a lot of things that they did that people were relying on and no one else knows how to do them and if we’d known this was a problem we could have built a better process with more documentation but since the superhero kept quietly saving the day instead of pushing back now we’re scrambling and things are breaking”).
    – Even good PMs and bosses can be pressured by outside forces, like clients or grandbosses, and if they’re not protecting their team from that pressure, a “can you get this done today” sounds very much like a “if we don’t get this done today there will be blowback”.
    – From a team member’s perspective, there are plenty of folks who can easily see the smaller picture of their work but not as easily see the bigger picture of the needs they’re filling. It takes stepping outside of that role for a moment to consider what priorities would need to shift to make a thing happen, to make judgement calls about priorities, etc.
    – The act of figuring out how long something will take, reviewing priorities, contacting impacted stakeholders, etc is a thing that itself can take time and impact other deadlines, and a person might decide it’d be easier to just do the request rather than do that extra legwork.

    Overall I think the ability to respond to “can you get this done today?” with “Unfortunately no, as I’m working on critical item A that’s due first thing tomorrow” or “I’m not sure, I was planning on getting X done today but let me check with Mary to see if that can wait for next week” or “Sure, but that means the teapot report you requested will get delayed another day and I know you’ve been waiting on it – which is higher priority for me to focus on” – that’s a learned skill, and it’s critical to doing an effective job, and often it’s a skill that needs to be taught. But a workplace culture can also have a strong impact on whether or not people are able to learn it, so you need to make sure that pushing back as appropriate isn’t just “okay”, but actively encouraged.

    1. Oh So Anon*

      That bit about superheros setting the tacit expectations for a group of employees is really spot on. It’s the kind of thing that’s important to push back against because it will set the tone for everyone else who joins your team.

      I remember when I was early in my career, the folks who were one step ahead of me but not necessarily my supervisors were superhero-types who quietly saved the day in the background but always made a big disingenuous show of telling newer employees to set boundaries and maintain their work-life balance, etc. Only problem is, any astute newcomer reading the room could tell that that’s the template one needed to follow to become a star employee.

      1. Amykins*

        My old boss at one of my previous jobs was one of those superheroes. Super nice guy, and a lovely boss. But he wanted to please everyone, so he was constantly just “fitting things in” and getting things done without any process behind it. Thankfully he genuinely didn’t expect his employees to be superheroes, but when he left the vacuum was just not fillable, because so many people relied on him going the extra mile, and there isn’t any documentation or process improvements created around tasks that are just thrown into the docket as a favor off-hours.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          That point about the vacuum is so spot-on. At the job I was referencing, my predecessor’s predecessor was one of those superheroes, and their off-the-side-of-the-desk accomplishments became a core part of our business. Their departure threw everyone into a permanent state of overdrive because, of course, no one leaves processes behind when they’re busy doing all the things. When I took over the role, it was far too big of a problem for me to fix.

          Some of this is really hard to avoid when you’ve got people who are good at what they do, enjoy being self-starters, and really care about providing as much as they can for their clients. When you have enough of those people around, it’s the sort of thing that starts to become baked into your department’s or company’s brand identity and value proposition, and that becomes difficult to walk back.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            I’ve been the person who has to come along, reverse engineer all the superhero’s stuff and document it after they’ve moved on for greener pastures. Then people want to know why I can’t “just do it” like they did.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I got lucky with the superhero stuff in one instance. I explained to a new hire do not do X like Previous Person did. Here’s the reasons why, a, b and c. Then I moved on to recurring problem Y, “Don’t keep jumping in like Previous SuperPerson used to, here is why, [reasons d, e and f].”

        This actually worked because of how specific I was. I pointed to specific tasks and I pointed out what went wrong when SuperPerson did the task instead of calling in other help. What I said was so specific that my goal was transparent, it was just logical. New hire readily agreed, yeah, this has to be handled differently.

        However if someone just generally states, “Don’t take on too much”, that’s not very informative nor is it that instructive. I would expect the new hire to just copy the Super Hero because what else is there?

  30. Retail not Retail*

    One time I told my boss “no” and laughed before asking him if he was serious. He was – he had no idea we didn’t have any of the tools necessary for the task he’d just asked me to do.

    I do get caught by a coworker who tells instead of asks so I’m careful when working with our work release crew to not come across that way. They can’t truly say no or refuse but they can say hell no that won’t work.

  31. former favorite*

    Throughout my career, I have really struggled with knowing my own capacity and with what I’ve come to realize is Project FOMO — if something sounds fun, I want to be involved. Junior folks may be struggling to accurately assess whether it is reasonable to do something today. One way to help might be to first ask how long they think it would take to XYZ, so that info is already top of mind when you ask if it’s reasonable (as opposed to saying “yes” and then immediately regretting it, my power move circa 2013).

  32. JSPA*

    “this would be great to have if it’s simple to implement. But it’s not something that should take precedence over other projects, nor is it something we’re budgeting for separately. How tight is your schedule? If you can give it a literal five minutes today, tomorrow or Wednesday, and message me a line or two of feedback on whether it’s something we can do simple, quick and dirty in the downtime from other projects, that’d be lovely. But only if there’s nothing on the front burner that’s close to deadline.”

    “Bing once suggested automating X. If you agree that it would make your job easier, and if you see a way to make it happen, you have my blessing to carve out a little time to do that, provided the front-burner tasks are all on schedule.”

    “I endlessly add to a wish list of tasks that might make our workday better. Stuff that makes my job easier, makes your job easier, makes the graphics render faster, frees time for sales by automating the recording that they’re doing by hand, helps our more difficult clients feel individually catered to, keeps us from running out of coffee in the break room.

    Realistically, we’re not going to actually follow through and complete more than [half / a quarter / ten percent] of them. Like fruit from a tree, we want to go for the ones that are sweetest and also in easy reach. Many items will hang on the list for years, or drop back off if they’re not particularly useful or not reasonably simple. And that’s fine. Items on the wish list are not meant to be tests of fortitude or multi-level treasure quests, and they also don’t displace any of our standard work tasks. If I put something on the wish list, or point you at something on the wish list that strikes you as not easy, not worth doing, or both, I want you to let me know, as soon as you have that feeling.”

  33. Zezet*

    What about if you ask “Is it feasible…?” Or “Is it realistic to…?” instead of “Can you…?” To me at least that would make the distinction quite clear.

  34. Michael*

    You could try something like:
    You: “How many hours do you estimate this will take?”
    Developer: “Probably three hours”
    You: “And what day this week do you have three or four open hours to work on it?”
    That way you are asking them for an estimate of time before a day, which makes it less likely they’ll underestimate and force it into today’s schedule. And saying “three or four hours” helps remind them that tasks often run long or need buffer time for things other that the actual development time, like emails or task management system updates.

  35. Bookworm1858*

    I assign work to someone who is under me but doesn’t report to me so I have similar situations a lot. I usually frame it as “I’m looking to have this done by DAY – is that reasonable based on your other assignments from BOSS?” And I’m working on building up that relationship since she also works in a different office than me so most of our communication is via email. It seems to be going okay.

  36. Orange You Glad*

    Before assigning work I’ll usually start with “What are you currently working on?” If the person is really busy and running up against a deadline, then I may wait to assign the task or explain that it’s not urgent and talk about where it should prioritized with their other work.

  37. calonkat*

    I know this is very late, but I’ve been swamped at work and home :)

    I had a boss who clarified with me that when something WAS urgent, she would tell me that, and otherwise, she just needed a timeline if I couldn’t get to it in a day or so. And she followed through on that! When she sent me something and said it needed to be done right away, I did it right away, or let her know if I had other urgent things going so she could prioritize for me or assign something to someone else. Otherwise I got it done quickly, but not urgently (or let her know that I was tied up). It’s all about the communication and making sure that they are hearing what you are saying!

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