Strategists in Human Capital!
Affinity International Consulting presents Futurepoint

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


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 under performance, 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 1960's 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 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”

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

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

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