I could take the bull by the horns, if you'd stop replacing it with a squid...
July 11, 2007 5:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I communicate to my boss that I would like to be more proactive, when he continually drops last-minute projects on me?

I got my annual performance review today, and overall it was very good, except that my boss' boss (with whom I interact directly about 50% of the time) added a comment to my evaluation that essentially said that he wants me to be more proactive.

Well, ditto! I'd love to be more proactive than I am now...but nary a week goes by that he doesn't drop a last-minute, extremely time consuming project on my desk which is to be done to the exclusion of all other things I am responsible for. I find that I spend what downtime that I do have by anticipating and reacting to the hurried nature of his suprise tasks for me. His deadline is always, "I need it done yesterday." No sooner do I think I have a moment to breathe and collect myself, and the cycle repeats itself. Basically, I've learned from experience that I may as well forget about coming up with any long-range plans for my team because his needs will always trump my 'wants'.

I can sometimes delegate parts of these projects - I have two subordinates who report to me - but never the whole thing, because of the technical nature of the projects, and my boss' boss' expectation that I be directly engaged in what he hands me. I'm making the guy sound like a tyrant and really he isn't -- he's a nice person, generally easy to get along with, but I think the key here is that he does not have much of an appreciation for what he's asking me to do, the time and resources involved, and the fact that I have daily responsibilities that are going to require some of my time no matter what. Interestingly, my direct boss doesn't feel the need to overload me like this; he'll generally ask for status on my work, give me small assignments here and there, generally trusts me to know what I am doing, and is sympathetic to my state as the victim of his boss' ninja-style approach to assigning tasks.

I'm not necessarily asking for advice on how to shirk the workload. There isn't a big enough staff to pass the buck even if I wanted to do so. I'd really like to know if there is a way that I can successfully communicate upward to my boss' boss that his management style is directly hindering his expectation that I be more proactive?
posted by brain cloud to Work & Money (6 answers total)
Would it be out of bounds for you to request a meeting with your boss and his boss?

If not, schedule a meeting and discuss it like humans. You seem to have a good grasp on it and don't sound like you're complaining at all. If I was working with you and you described it the way you did above I would be glad to work with you. Especially if you come prepared with a list of solutions for how these situations could be handled better, for all of us.

If you can't do a meeting...
My first thought is... drop the ball once. Fail to deliver on something in some non-trivial but survivable way. Use this as a trigger for the meeting, or to reduce their expectations of what kind of miracles you can deliver.

This is pretty passive aggressive though. Hopefully other people will have better ideas.
posted by Ookseer at 6:33 PM on July 11, 2007

You really should respect your boss (especially if he's a nice guy.) Go to him and say "Why is our boss thinking I'm not proactive? How am I supposed to be proactive if everything is a last crisis emergency? Shouldn't you be talking to our boss about how many times I save our nuts from the fire?

You see, you've realized it... Your boss is a bad planner. He embodies crisis management.

Your boss, likely, as you've said, doesn't think there's as much of a crisis. You need to communicate these things better (without emotion. Then later, if necessary, with emotion.) Ask him to estimate how long he thinks the 'emergency' will take. Then give yours (and time yourself.) You need to educate your direct boss about how much the 'crises' take...and you need him to better represent you to your mutual boss.
posted by filmgeek at 6:42 PM on July 11, 2007

Your boss's boss is paying you a compliment. They think you are capable of more than your current responsibilities. This is a great opportunity for you.

Sit down with your boss (and your boss's boss, if appropriate) and discuss your (and their) responsibilities. Suggest that you could take on a portion of your boss's responsibility and own it (best is a part they don't like, but that interests you). Alternately create a new project area (not just a single project) and take primary responsibility for it. You'll have to decide which works best in your situation. What ever it is should be a logical extension of your current responsibility.

Pitch it to your boss (or your boss's boss) as career development and/or as a way to take work off their shoulders. Make it clear that you will want and need guidance and advice on the file/client. This will also give you an opportunity to prioritize your own work and help your boss with his time management problems (but don't tell him that).

Work hard on what ever it is. Report back to your boss a regular intervals and keep them in the loop, but learn not to bother them with the small stuff. Start by suggesting courses of action to your boss for their decision, but over time, just report your decisions back to them.

Your goal is to show your boss (and more importantly your boss's boss), that you're the go-to person on this project, that you can be trusted to take something on and deliver a result for your organization. A good boss likes nothing better than a report they can trust to get things done with minimal supervision.

Bonne chance! This is a door opening for you.
posted by bonehead at 7:30 PM on July 11, 2007

Propose to your boss that you keep a record of how much time you are spending on projects, including a breakdown of time spent on specific tasks of a project, to target time you can spend making pro-active plans. Once he sees how much time his stuff is taking up, he may change his ways. If not, you have evidence of the effect of his sudden and time-consuming projects on your work when you do have that talk.
posted by Foam Pants at 8:53 PM on July 11, 2007

Oof, I'd hate if someone constantly dropped emergency projects on my lap, and then complained on my evaluation that I wasn't being proactive. I think you're right to want to address it, and to be thoughtful about how you do, because this is a moment when things could go really well or really badly.

When judging our own shortcomings, we're more aware of the situational factors that play into them, and when judging others, we ascribe more to who they are as people. You know that you're someone who has it in you to be proactive, and that given the right conditions, you will be. All your boss's boss can see is that you're not proactive, and from his perspective, that looks the same as someone who constitutionally isn't proactive.

So, the fact that you do have it in you to be proactive will be welcome news to your boss's boss. You've got the chance to build towards the goal that you share, which is for you to be able to be more proactive. But if he feels blamed for your lack of proactivity -- even though it sounds like he does hold some of the responsibility for it -- that won't go over well.

So, if you have this conversation with him, get on the same team. You want him to know that you can be proactive, that you want to be, and that you can work together to create conditions where you can be. There are a lot of different things he might mean by wanting you to be more proactive. Get curious and ferret out what he sees and what he wants to see. (You might even find out that he sees a different cause-effect relationship between his emergencies and your proactiveness -- perhaps he gives you some of these short-term urgent projects BECAUSE he doesn't see you fully occupied pursuing more important, deeper ones.) The more you can listen and query and understand, the more he'll feel like it's a productive discussion, not blaming or defensiveness on your part. Then, after you've listened, if you have any seeds of ideas about what you might proactively do, mention them. Then, talk about what you'd need to be able to pursue them effectively. That's when you can bring up allocating time to them, and that you need to be out of crisis mode to do that.

One area of skepticism I'd have if I were him is about whether time is really what's keeping you from being proactive. If you're supposed to work 40 hours a week or whatever, that's either too little time and you're already working late, too much time and you already could find a few spare hours a week to manage new initiatives, or exactly enough time and not a moment more, which seems unlikely. So, ahead of your discussion, think about which it is, and what you need concretely -- e.g., if you had 10% of your time for your initiatives, would that be enough to move them forward?

Good luck!
posted by daisyace at 6:09 AM on July 12, 2007

As your first proactive act, I think you should request a meeting with your boss and boss’s boss (as everyone mentioned above). Not knowing a lot about what you do, I’ll have to be a little vague here. My approach in the meeting would be to say something like, “I really took to heart your comment about being more proactive. I see it as both a compliment and a challenge. I hoped you could give me some pointers about specific areas to focus on. I know that the nature of our industry means that there are a lot of projects that are time sensitive, and I could use some guidance on how to reconcile that with being more proactive.”

It would probably also be good to have some ideas of your own. You mentioned that you’ve at least thought of coming up with long-term plans for your team. Be prepared with one or two ideas that you’ve generated, and explain them at the meeting. If you get approval, next time you see an “emergency” project, you could say, “I’m working on X that we discussed last week. Can I get this to you on Wednesday instead of Tuesday?” Another possibility would be to request time to give your subordinates more training so that they can handle more aspects of those emergency projects, freeing you up for being more of a coordinator. You could still be directly engaged—maybe you’ll completely review each project before it is returned to the boss—but without doing so much of the grunt work.

A good supervisor should see your efforts to fully understand his (rather unspecific) comments as the mark of a smart employee. Good luck.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:01 AM on July 12, 2007

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