What to do when your boss says everything is a priority

Demanding or dare I say it, unreasonable, bosses are something I come across every day through my work with middle and senior managers. When we dig down to the root cause of whatever issue it is I’ve been asked to help with, for example burnout or underperformance, pretty much every time the answer comes up as too many priorities. And the person coming up with new priorities on top of the many plates someone is already spinning? Their boss.

Paul Jarvis, in his 2019 book Company of One, states,

“We now incorrectly assume that we must have numerous priorities and multitask to get ahead in business, even though working in this way can deeply affect (and hurt) our productivity”

If this issue resonates with you then fear not, my friend. Here are five steps that may help you as they’ve helped others.

1) Be prepared to say something

One of the first things I ask a coaching client is whether they’ve had a conversation with their boss about the incessant and unrelenting list of new priorities that pop up. More often than not, they haven’t raised the issue and so, the boss is most likely operating from a state of blissful ignorance.

In this instance, contrary to the popular 1960s song, silence is most definitely not golden.

Therefore, the first step is to be prepared to say something.

Planning for what you want to say, how you’re going to say it and the outcome you want to achieve are the three things that will help make it a more productive conversation. Brene Brown reminds us of this in her book Dare to Lead

Giving productive and respectful feedback is a skill set that most of us have never learned

Therefore, starting from a position of respect and giving the other person, in this instance your boss, the benefit of the doubt is key. Assuming they are like the evil and incompetent boss in the Dilbert comic strip is the way to make a bad situation even worse.

2) Get clear on the problem

As part of your planning of what you’re going to say to your boss, you need to define the problem and the impact it’s having on you and no doubt, your team. A concept called Affect Labelling suggests there is a power in putting into words the negative emotion we’re experiencing and clearly describing what’s causing us to feel a certain way. Doing so can reduce the issue’s hold on us to an extent.

As well as the emotional side of the problem, it’s helpful to provide data to help make your argument. One way to do this is to collate every single priority you have been given and how this relates to your time. In other words, because of all the other responsibilities you have such as people management, budget management etc. it might be that to respond to the many additional priorities you’re constantly given you’re having to work late into the evening and over weekends. As Chris Bailey says in The Productivity Project

“The more you get out of your head, the more clearly you’ll think”

And if you’re able to, try and show the impact too many priorities is having on productivity and service quality. For example, Mary Czerwinksi, Eric Horvitz and Susan Wilhite conducted a study  for Microsoft exploring what happens when people try and focus on more than one priority. When people were asked to focus on more than one priority at a time their productivity dropped by around 40%.

3) Come up with some solutions

As someone who used to line manage team managers, I loved it when someone not only raised a problem but then also gave some ideas for how it could be solved. It immediately helped the conversation get into a more positive, less blame-y, finger-pointing space.

Is it that the problem is not so much the priorities but rather the lack of people to deliver them? Job-Demands Resource Theory suggests that work strain and burnout is a response to an imbalance between demands on an individual (i.e. you) and the resources they have available to deal with those demands (i.e. enough people, money etc). Therefore, a solution might be to make the business case for another person to join your team.

Is the problem less about priorities and more about the number of interruptions you’re experiencing every day? A famous study by Gloria Mark found that interruptions and the necessary recovery time now consume 28%of a person’s working day. The study found that each employee spent only 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted. It took the average employee around 25 minutes to return to the original task. Therefore, a solution might be to turn off your email notifications, only checking your email at designated times such as first thing, midday and end of the day. Many managers have told me this has helped them get some much-needed time back to do more important work. And if your boss tends to send their newest priority to you via email, then another solution might be to ask them to ask you face-to-face so you can talk through expectations and implications.

Is the problem that you’re getting pulled in a hundred different directions each day and essentially, constantly stopping and starting different things? Melina R Uncapher and Anthony D Wagner conducted a review of a decade’s worth of research on the relationship between media multitasking and various aspects of thinking, including working memory and attention. They found that people who frequently use several types of media at once, or “heavy media multitaskers,” performed much worse on simple memory tasks. In other words, constantly dipping in and out of tasks and projects doesn’t help you to perform at your best. Therefore, a solution might be to block out different chunks of time in your calendar. For example, a chunk of time for ‘deep work’ such as writing a report; and keeping some buffer time, in the event an unexpected thing gets thrown your way.

4) Be assertive but not too much

Now you’ve got everything out of your head and you’ve come up with some ideas which help resolve the issue of too many priorities, you now need to have the actual conversation with your boss.

To ensure it’s a constructive discussion, and a win/win for both of you, you need to think about your negotiation tactics. In their book, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury talk about the concept of Principled Negotiation. This has four aspects to it:

  • PEOPLE: Separate the people from the problem
  • INTERESTS: Focus on interests, not positions
  • OPTIONS: Invent multiple options looking for mutual gains before deciding what to do
  • CRITERIA: Insist that the result be based on some objective standard

And the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, suggests there are five different negotiating styles, with compromising being the half-way style between assertive and unassertive; and cooperative and uncooperative. 

Still need convincing about the importance of being assertive but not too much? In a 2007 study, Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn found managers who were too assertive damaged relationships with their boss, peers and staff. And managers who were not assertive enough didn’t challenge others to achieve sufficiently tough goals. Moderately assertive managers were rated as most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future and as someone people would work with again.

5) Agree the new ‘contract’ between you

Now you’ve had the discussion and agreed a way forward, the next thing is to put in place a new way of working so neither of you fall into the same habits and traps of before. Why not use the Trust Triangle as the basis for agreeing how you’ll handle new, additional and unexpected priorities coming through? The Trust Triangle was developed by John Carter at the Gestalt Institute in the US and is undoubtedly one of the tools that has resonated profoundly with many of my clients.

Essentially, the model suggests to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect, you need to each be demonstrating the three foundation stones of:

  1. Straight talk i.e. honest conversation
  2. Listening to understand the other person
  3. Making commitments to each other

You can read more about the Trust Triangle here.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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