Dealing with higher ups at work
September 20, 2007 3:09 PM   Subscribe

How do I tell higher ups to take a hike but have them walk away smiling?

I have multiple bosses at work. Only one of them is my real boss and he is very kind, considerable and a stand up guy to work for. The others, while not my bosses on paper, are people who are higher ups and hold some indirect control over me (future reference, money etc.)
Everyone wants me to do stuff for them (write reports, sit on committees etc.). I am happy to oblige most of the time but not always (especially when I am swamped with my own work). While I don’t get a thank you when I do stuff 8 times out of 10, I do sense a lot of passive-aggressiveness those two times I cannot. How do I tell say no to these people but have them walk away on a positive note? I’ve seen some people do this so tactfully and I want to be one of them.

More background: I work in a small field so I want these people to remember me as a stand up guy. How would you do it?

PS: This is not a question about how to say no. I can do that just fine.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It would help if we know how you say no to them right now.

Personally, I'd look very apologetic and tell them that I'd love to do whatever it is they're asking, but that I'm working on another priority right now and just can't devote the time.

If they're still passive agressive about it, chances are the problem is them, and not you and your delivery of the bad news.

Good luck!
posted by LN at 3:16 PM on September 20, 2007

there's not much you can do to make someone thank you for your work, but smiles and laughter go a long way toward making people feel comfortable.

the next time someone asks you when you're swamped, you could just say, "thanks for thinking of me, but i'm already working on X, Y, and Z, and i don't think i would be able to put the time into Q that it deserves."

i would, however, bring up all your extra work at your annual review. it might not be a bad idea to let your current boss know about all your extra work as it comes along, too.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:24 PM on September 20, 2007

I’ve seen some people do this so tactfully

Well if you've seen them... how do they do it?
posted by ClarissaWAM at 3:31 PM on September 20, 2007

Ah, the joys of "results-based" matrix management. I understand your problem all too well.

As it sounds like you have a single line manager (George), one way is simply to defer to him: "I'm sorry, but I'll need to check about that with George". This isn't just a trick, really do consult with George and get him to prioritize these requests on your time. Assuming your boss is as good as you say, he should not have any problem with doing this. Use this strategy to begin with, and for anyone who won't take no for an answer.

Secondly, you can do your own prioritization: "I'm sorry, I can't go to that widget marketing meeting, I've got a prior commitment."---If you're interested---"could we reschedule?"---If you're not---"I'm snowed in with one of George's projects right now". Be as truthful as you can. Make it clear that it's not about them, it's about work conflicts. If this isn't effective, you can always fall back to the first strategy.

Finally, learn to talk to your other bosses in language that they can understand. The book Dealing With Difficult People has been tremendous help to me. It's helped me avoid a lot of conflict, and even given me some insight into my own failings.
posted by bonehead at 3:34 PM on September 20, 2007

"I'm a bit swamped now but I'll be able to help you xxx (in an hour, tomorrow, next month, etc)". Pad your time a bit. If it's important enough, they'll find someone else to do it.
posted by edjusted at 4:14 PM on September 20, 2007

Talk to your boss. He's the one who's supposed to manage your workload. Ask him what he would prefer you do in these situations. If other people are asking you to do things that would take you away from your real job then it's his job to run interference.

I would say if it's not actually your job, and the fact that you do it some time and not others bothers people, then you shouldn't do it ever (unless your boss can work something out with the other bosses).
posted by winston at 4:57 PM on September 20, 2007

I agree that the best approach here is to blame George (your direct manager)

"I'd love to do that Steven, but George has me on all these other important tasks. Sorry"... Make it clear that George assigned the tasks. If Steven is George's boss, he can then go to George and ask him to take you off the first tasks. If George then says no, it's George's problem, not yours! :)
posted by ranglin at 5:20 PM on September 20, 2007

It's not about blame (though this does take the direct pressure off of you), it's about communicating clearly that your responsibilities are defined by your primary boss, and that your extra managers need to check with him before giving you more work. Don't let someone drop a report in your lap, make them check with "George" first.

In the second mode, you're taking ownership of your own job. If George is a good guy, he'll be happy you're doing this; it takes worrying about you off his plate, as long as you do the dance well, of course.

That's why I suggest deferring to your line manager first. Watch how he prioritizes your time. As you get more used to this, suggest to him the order in which you want to complete your tasks. Later, you'll just need to give him quick verbal reports: "I'm working on the Murphy contract, and I'll get to that six-sigma meeting after lunch". When he tells you to stop bothering him, then you know he trusts you.
posted by bonehead at 5:41 PM on September 20, 2007

I'm agreeing with everyone who says that your immediate boss should be the gatekeeper and prioritizer for these tasks. But if you're not lucky enough to have a boss who's willing/able to play that role, then focus on the fact that you don't have time to do a good job of whatever they're asking you to do. "I'm sorry, I would love to help, but I wouldn't be able to give your project the attention it needs due to X, Y, and Z." The point of delegating, from your other bosses' points of view, is to get the project done well, on time, without them having to worry about it. If you make it clear that you cannot make that happen, they will (hopefully) appreciate your honesty and find someone else to do the work. You're doing them a favor by letting them know that you don't have time to do it right - so go into the conversation with that attitude, and they will feel it.
posted by vytae at 6:00 PM on September 20, 2007

follow-up from the OP:

I'd like to add that I am in academia. While it would be easy
to blame this on George, it is not such a good idea professionally. I do
want to be doing things for these higher ups (for future reference as I
am in a rather specialized field). Just not all the time.

To ClarissaWAM: I only hear of other people doing it [x refused to do
y's bidding but y isn't the slightest big upset] but never witnessed it.
posted by jessamyn at 6:19 PM on September 20, 2007

well, you may have to finesse it a little more. say no when you have to, but if you feel like they're not coming to you as much as you'd like, you may want to volunteer when you do have the time to take something else on. that will communicate to them that you are interested in participating when you can.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:45 PM on September 20, 2007

In my telling the higher up to take a hike, I would phrase it so that by taking a hike it is in his best interests. For example, "I cannot do that report right now. But you don't really wnat me to anyway. If I write that report, x won't get done and your department will look like they are slacking." Also present her with an alternative. "No can write that report right now. Way to wrapped up in putting out these two fires over here. You do not want me to write it anyway because my smoldering embers will flame up and burn us both. Why not have slug Joe in the other department work on it and get it going. If he needs help and I have the time, I can give him some tips."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:46 PM on September 20, 2007

I second JohnnyGunn's advice, and I'd like to combine it with what thinkingwoman suggested:

"I cannot do that report right now. But you don't really want me to anyway. If I write that report, x won't get done and your department will look like they are slacking (smile and laugh good natured-ly)."

"No can write that report right now. Way to wrapped up in putting out these two fires over here, and you know how that goes (smile) ..."

I guess what I'm really saying is to be all smiles and buddy-buddy with these other people when you're telling them to get lost.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:07 AM on September 21, 2007

what philomathoholic said is my basic approach -- to be friendly and emphasize my desire to help, while creating limits on when and how I will actually be able to contribute, saying "yes" to the idea of helping her reach the goal, while not necessarily taking on the actual tasks she had in mind.

Them: "Can you cook me dinner?"
You: "Oh, eating is so important. What a great project. I'd be happy to help however I can. Let's see, I can definitely bring my recipe book to lend to you tomorrow -- it's got some great stuff in it. And let me put you in touch with my mom -- she probably has some useful suggestions, too. I wish I had time to help even more, but you know how things go!" :)

Them: "Can you cook me dinner?"
You: "Oh sure. I'd love to cook your dinner. Cooking is the most interesting part of any meal-preparation process. And who's going to be cutting up the vegetables beforehand?"

Them: "Can I borrow your binder?"
You: "Oh sure! Let me tell you how to get it. Here -- here's the key to my storage locker (I put the binder in storage), and the U-Store-It is only a 45-minute drive away over in Smithsville. The box is the only blue one -- I think it's two-thirds back. Let me know if you have any problem, but I think it'll be pretty obvious. Or, if you'd rather, I can bring it back for you after I do my spring storage cleaning in March?"

Them: "Can you meet and walk me through the research?"
You: "Sure! I'd be happy to meet with you anytime here at my home office in Smithsville."
(This was the situation where I discovered this technique. I realized I could say yes to the concept of meeting while putting the travel demands on them. Realistically, it cuts the number of meetings that actually happen in half. But I am able to tell everyone I'd be happy to meet with them whenever they want, and I really am available to anyone who cares enough about the meeting to pay the travel cost themselves.)

Them: "Can you meet and walk me through the research?"
You: "I'd be happy to meet with you. I always have free time during my office hours, 8 am to 10 am every Tuesday."
Them: "Oh, I don't get to campus until 11."
You [sadly]: "Oh, that's too bad.... I could meet you at 11 anytime after the semester ends!"
Them: "That won't work, this is due in two weeks."
You [sadly, you wish this unchangeable fact of the universe could somehow be different]: "Oh, between now and then, office hours are my only free time."

Them: "Can you serve on the admissions committee?"
You: "I'd be happy to help. The admissions committee is so important to our department. I want to make sure I have the time to devote to reading the applications thoroughly... so, I'll have enough time to do it anytime starting Spring Semester, 2009." (this is edjusted's suggestion)

Them: "Can you edit my paper?"
You: "I would love to do that! Your papers are always so interesting. Let's see, with my classes this month, I could devote at least two hours a week to helping you edit, maybe even three! How long do you think it will take?"
Them: "Twenty hours?"
You: "Okay, so [counting] I'd probably finish by about mid-June. When's your deadline?"
Them: "May"
You: [disappointed:] "Oh, I guess you'll need to find someone else then? I wish I could help, but what good does a half-edited paper do you? Hmm, what about Mary? Good luck, I know you'll find someone good." :)

Them: "Can you make prepare the slides for my conference presentation?"
You: "Sure, I'll help however I can. What images do you want? Do you have your speech outline done yet? Why don't you do that, and then we can sit down over the outline and decide what images would be best."
Them [two weeks later]: "Here's my outline"
You: "Great, so let's see.... height vs. shoe size... This would look great with some charts, don't you think? So, we'll need to find you someone who can do a good job with the charts. (I've never made a chart in my life, you know how we are over here in the qualitative branch of the department). But Undergrad Work-Study Bob does great charts, right? If you can get permission from Bob's Supervisor Betty, why don't you send him to me? I'll walk through this outline with him."

All the while, smile and relax, try to feel generous about your offers, reassure yourself you really are doing everything right. This advice might not apply to you, but I've noticed that people reflect my feelings back at me. So, if I feel guilty, even if I suspect I don't need to, some people do reassure me, but others act suspicious. It makes sense that if they see me acting guilty they'd suspect I was doing something wrong. So, part of this method is just acting confident and generous, so others treat you with respect and gratitude. In my first success with this technique, the meeting locations, I was surprised at how many "thank you"s I got for the offer to let people come meet me at my office. And those who didn't call back would actually apologize for not following up to schedule a time. All in all, it was a much more appreciative treatment than I was getting when I often jumped to the conclusion that I'd do the traveling.

Also, I don't know about your department, but during my time in academia, I came to peace with the fact that some of the professors in my department just happened to have really awkward people skills. It's not like business or something, where people get nowhere without social skills. Ignoring a little passive aggressive crankiness might be fine as well.
posted by salvia at 1:15 AM on September 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

To sum up, you can say "yes" to helping her reach the goal, while still negotiating which task you do, when, where, how, at what rate, and what barriers to entry there are to getting your help.
posted by salvia at 1:18 AM on September 21, 2007

In the poster's case, without clear lines of management, the approach is essentially the self-directed one. Salvia has illustrated it very well.

An additional sugesstion: discuss your approach frequently and openly with your boss ("George"). While he may not be able to act as a shield, he'll be your best advisor and sounding board for the choices you'll have to make.

For example: knowing which committees are import to sit on, and which ones are busy work, knowing who's projects you can delay and which you should pickup right away. In academic environments, office politics can be a bloodsport. Use him as your "back room" advisor.

One further suggestion: find an area you can develop expertise in, that you're known for within your department, a certain teching level, for example, or a foreign student liason. This will focus your higher ups on what your capabilities (and interests) are. "Oh don't give that to [anonymous], you don't want to bother them with details. [Anonymous] is doing this [important task within your expertise] instead". That's more of a long term project though.
posted by bonehead at 8:57 AM on September 21, 2007

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