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How to Deal with Managers Who Pile It On

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Managers who fail to prioritize and focus your workload are abdicating a
responsibility they have to you. Still, partnering with your manager
will reduce your workload. Complaining will not.

The following is adapted from my book, The Simplicity Survival Handbook.
Follow up interviews have shown that people who have followed the four
steps below have a success rate of 80%, and better, in dealing with
managers who pass on too much.

Before you talk with your boss about managing your workload:
Do your homework. Know exactly which work is extraneous, how many
goals are too many, and where you think your efforts need to be
focused. Some guidelines for doing your homework, and figuring out
what’s extraneous and what’s important:
• Nobody can focus on more that three to five goals at a time.
Of the umpteen goals your manager just announced, which three do
you believe will add the most value to the company, your customers,
your team, and you?
• All work requires tools, support, training, and resources. Itemize
your entire workload. Which projects are so under-supported that
they are doomed to fail? Which projects lack true sponsorship and
commitment from key players in the organization?

By answering those two questions, you’ve identified your extraneous

Research tip: Ask for copies of whatever communication, reports,
presentations your manager presents to his bosses. Even if he hasn’t
focused your to-do’s to a critical few, the odds are that his few
priorities are in those reports! And his few need to be your few.

When you meet with your manager, acknowledge the pressures s/he must
be under. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Be empathetic
to how important all the goals must be, and how all the work must
get done at some point.

Ask: “Can we talk about which three things should be my top focus
for the next few [days, weeks or months]?” You can succeed!
The secret…
• Pick a short timeframe, and…
• Do not ask your manager to rethink goals or workload that have
been handed down to him/her

Something like… “Hey boss, I know we’re supposed to get these 4,321
things done within the next few months, and I’d never question the
wisdom of this list (…ahem…), but I’ve got some suggestions
for which three should be my priority for the next few weeks.
Of course, (…ahem…), I’ll keep the other 4,318 moving forward
while I focus on these three.”

Or, even better
“These are the three things I’d recommend we focus on first. Make sense?
(Of course, your Pass-On-Too-Much manager will want to up your
three things to five or ten or twenty. On to Step 4…)

Keep shortening the timeframe (from months to weeks to, possibly,
days) until, as partners, you both agree: “These three.”

Don’t challenge the length of the entire list or your manager’s
inability to prioritize. Instead, just keep narrowing the timeframe…
“Boss, thanks for helping me see that there’s only 347 things that
have to get done this month. Now, can we talk about which to-do’s
need to be checked off by this Friday? …Only 47? Great!
Now, which three of those should I focus on first?”

Or, even better
“Based on our long-term objective, I think these three things need
to be done first, as a foundation for everything else. Make sense?”

Most people avoid dealing with their manager’s inability to get
focused because they don’t know how to confront the problem
without confronting the person. By continually narrowing the
timeframe, you can get your manager to prioritize without going
toe-to-toe. It’s an indirect approach that some have called the
Nibble Method: taking small steps to get priorities set.

The upside is that you avoid confrontation. The downside: you’ll
have to continually go back for another nibble of focus. That’s
why some prefer a more direct method…

“Hey boss, I can’t do 47 things this week. I really need you to
help me prioritize this list.” …If that works for you, go for it!

Both approaches yield the same thing — less work, greater focus.
The only difference is where you spend your energy.

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