Dealing with work stress when expectations keep changing
May 20, 2019 9:21 AM   Subscribe

I work in an office that's very fluid as far as what people are doing and who's in charge. One person shifts their expectations minute-by-minute and can't articulate what they want. How do I deal with this?

It's a small-ish ad agency, around 25-30 people. The person in question is the head of accounts, and he is under a lot of stress which I get. I've started doing data analysis, but we're really starting from scratch on this.

An example of how things change, he wanted a report for Company A, Executive A on Topic A by May 28. Then it was for Executive B on Topic B the next hour, and it was moved to due today... Then it was moved to due by noon on Topic C. Are you as exhausted as I am? What he wants isn't clear either.

I feel overwhelming dread every moment here now. I was going to ask for a big raise and promotion since I'm doing a much higher level job, but I think perhaps I should just find a new job. Strategies to deal/cope/advice on if this is unworkable are all appreciated. I don't know how to succeed. I'm not alone in the feeling here as far as this particular area goes, our other data person said "I don't know what you want." after multiple backtracks and negative feedback from the head of accounts. Oddly enough, I hear second hand that he raves about how good my work is, but there have been comments in meetings like "Now back to OnTheLastCastle's pathetic dashboards." That's pretty unprofessional.
posted by OnTheLastCastle to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd suggest looking into something like agile-scrum software development methodologies; it attempts to defuse the issues around scope and delivery by having the business participate in the process. It develops realistic expectations and empathy for the delivery team.

I'd probably sell it by saying something like "It seems like we're having a difficult time getting on the same page for your requests, and we hate to disappoint you- but we are breaking new ground here. Can you join us for some planning sessions each Monday where we review what you need, and a short daily meeting where we talk about issues?"

Corralling scope creep and managing change is important to your ability to collaborate and deliver, and your head of accounts is likely reacting to external pressures as much as anything else- by building a strong collaborative approach through something like agile scrum, you're much more likely to build the understanding around what happens when a report request changes.

Writing reports really is writing software these days.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you look at your job as trading your time (and expertise) for money, then as long as you are doing that during your time, you're good. I have a job that changes a lot and my mantra is "I'm here to do what my boss wants to be done."

...while you're looking for a new job.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I work with someone like this. I’d suggest trying to understand their context and which factors they’re trying to optimize for.

I’d also be very direct - hey John your request changed since an hour ago, what happened? The directions keep changing and it’s not manageable. What are you thinking here?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:38 AM on May 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

At some point, you have to be unafraid of them escalating on you when you don't deliver on their unrealistic demands. Who decides what work you prioritize, or is that left up to you? If it is someone else, ask for their help in managing these requests. Insist on written details for each request and they can ask for a deadline but not demand one. This is a typical scenario for reporting work, including vague details that change and moving deadlines. You need a strong front with you, your coworkers and any bosses to push back. If you have no such support, then it is time to think about another job.

Example: If he has asked for 3 different reports, you can tell him you are still working on #1 when #3 comes in. If it is a change to #1, request formal confirmation of the change and he can now negotiate for an earlier deadline but it is not guaranteed. A change in the middle sometimes means a later deadline due to the lost time on the original request.
posted by soelo at 9:55 AM on May 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I work in an agency about the same size, although in a different role. I get asked for things by half a dozen people at the same time all the time, and my mantra has become "So what's the priority here?" often followed by "OK, but if you want A by noon, you're not going to get B by 3 o'clock."

We also learned to ask why the rush, and often it turns out they're neurotically trying to over-please the agency owner or the client, and the deadline isn't really a deadline but their own little game to outdo another manager or get approval for providing something ahead of time. We try to suss that out and make them cool their jets to a reasonable temperature to do the work without a panic. (By now, I know what a real deadline looks like, e.g. a trade show with a firm schedule, and at that point we really do rev things up. But you have to be aware of people who like things to feel revved up all the time. That way burnout lies.)
posted by zadcat at 9:59 AM on May 20, 2019 [11 favorites]

My guess is that your head of accounts has been over-promoted, and knows he's in over his head. He's trying to do a job that he's not sure he's capable of, and working out a bunch of his personal issues around communication at the same time.

If you think the guy is basically ok & it'll all come good once he settles down a bit, then stick around & start setting & holding firm boundaries in the meantime. Repeat back each thing that you're asked to do, check that you've understood it, and that it's really what they wanted. When the new super-urgent thing comes in to distract you, check that all parties really want you to stop thing A and work on thing B instead. Exhausting, but possible.

If it's essentially the culture & work-style of the place that sucks, and this guy is just an egregious example - then bail. It sounds like my worst possible nightmare tbh.
posted by rd45 at 11:04 AM on May 20, 2019

Sometimes a person like this is not used to making or bad at communicating "decisions" and this is part of their thought process - but instead of internalizing and sorting it out, they're directing you to follow every random thing that pops up in their mind.

Bizarrely, being less responsive to communication can help try to train this head of accounts person to slow down on the rapid-fire changes. If you only check your email twice a day, then it starts creating the expectation that you can only change your course... twice a day. Being interrupted while "heads-down" will kill your drive (as you've learned) so maybe you can simply be un-interruptable for long stretches. But this depends on your work environment.
posted by meowzilla at 11:34 AM on May 20, 2019

I have found this guide on How to say No very helpful.
posted by rockindata at 3:35 PM on May 20, 2019

The only thing I can think of - and it may be completely unworkable in your circumstances - is: can you somehow get him to commit to some minimal process in handing assignments to you? Like: when he gives you an assignment, he should be ready to give you at least 30 minutes of his time to discuss. And: some kind of review of your deliverables before the due date? Perhaps even a weekly review of current projects?

These are rational things to ask for. But yeah, I get that he’s not especially rational.

Is he presenting content to clients without even looking at it first? That’s fucked up.

This may be a situation where all you can do is document as much as possible to CYA while trying to find a different job.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:41 PM on May 20, 2019

Document each request. At reach new request, remind them that you already have a request under a deadline, and ask them which one takes priority. Document that response and act accordingly. If they say "both" or "they all are", be honest and either say okay (if achievable) and ask which one is least important in case something comes up and one needs to be delayed, or say some other thing to the effect of "you sharing your relative priorities will help me act in your best interest of we can't get everything done in time." If they then inside it all had to be done in time with no excuses, time to sit down privately and have a talk with him to the effect that you want to give him what he's asking for, but unless he's willing to be responsible for you working nights and weekends, you may not be able to accommodate the new deadlines/new items. Rinse and repeat.
posted by davejay at 4:32 PM on May 20, 2019

Thanks, all. That's very helpful. Lessening communication isn't really possible as he will just pull you into a conference room. I once asked him very early if he could email me requests so we could have them both in mind and review, ask questions... he looked at me and said, I do quote, "No. Never." I'll be frantically trying to write down what he says and it'll flip so fast I have to scribble it all out.

I think this is unworkable and I'll be looking elsewhere. Which is too bad as if I'd put in for a promotion I think I'd be making quite a bit more, but also always feeling like I was under the chopping block as a scapegoat. Anything I do deliver on is generally never mentioned again or used.

The final thing that will make any data person sprint out of their own skin is I know he's changed my numbers before in presentations and powerpoints that were sent to a big board of directors. So that's not ethical or cool. I appreciate everyone's opinion, I don't think this can be salvaged because he wants a miracle when I'm finally just here putting things in order.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:55 AM on May 21, 2019

I would try to put stuff in writing and document it. Personally, I find that details can lost or confused in verbal communication so I always try to follow up with emails recapping what we agreed upon so it's there, on the record. I see that your boss won't put requests in emails (he sounds like a dick) so I would still be sending him emails to confirm what you're doing if this is really a problem. I've definitely had weekly check-in emails with bosses - maybe you could do it more frequently than that.

This would be harder, but if you could convince your boss that your team needs to use something like Trello, Basecamp or something like that, it would make duties, deadlines and expectations crystal clear and easy to track.

But it may just be that your boss is terrible and you need to get out. If you think you could get a promotion, I'd still try to get it because it'll put you at a higher level for jobs while you're looking. Any chance you could promote your way to having a different, less dick-ish boss?
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:19 PM on May 21, 2019

If anyone wants a final data point, he this morning told us to put data in "tables" and pointed to a bar graph. We said, wait that's a bar graph? He got angry. A few minutes later when I said okay, we'll put the data in tables and I pointed to the bar graph.. he got even more angry and said, "NO! That's a bar graph."

So... he's kind of not on a reality plane with the rest of us, I'm realizing.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:37 AM on May 22, 2019

Is this actually your boss, or an internal customer?
posted by soelo at 8:16 AM on May 22, 2019

No one in my company reports to anyone but the owner who isn't actually around much ever. It's very strange. The person who was supervising me couldn't view my timesheets even I was told a year into working here.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:39 AM on May 22, 2019

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