BLUF: Is it realistic to expect your team to meet deadlines set for an overwhelming amount of priorities? How do you manage expectations and your folks faced with that?


Four months ago several departments that mirror my own in sister divisions went through layoffs. My team must now do the work for the whole business. Essentially, one department doing the work of three, to put it in terms of actual numbers we went from 60 employees across three divisions to 20 centralized.

The internal customers that they once served and that we now serve are unwilling to adjust timelines, deadlines or deliverables. And I am now faced with a very large, (in my experience) amount of priorities both in short and long terms.

Realizing that the economy is what it is, I can’t be the only manager to have face this. Which is why I am reaching out for advice. On a daily basis I have to explain missed deadlines and my team’s morale has dropped significantly. I simply don’t have the staff to handle the additional workload.

Thank you for your assistance, any advice is appreciated,




Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

It's a tough spot to be in.  We HAVE been there, and it's a test of your managerial and leadership character.  We believe you can do it!  Here are some specific recommendations.

1.  Listen to the juggling koan podcast, where we talk about how we have to be willing to make choices about what work gets done.  Pay attention to what happens at the bottom of the pyramid.  I'm pretty sure there's a story in there about Mike taking over an organization...if there's not, write back and I'll share it.

2. Do NOT complain or be miserable WITH your directs.  (Privately you can do so, though I will tell you even that shows, and I'd recommend you avoid doing so privately).  You work for the company.  Your first obligation is ALWAYS to the firm (except in cases of ethics).  You're going to have to probably intervene when your folks start getting down and complaining.  Say, "folks, let's not go there.  We're going to stay positive."  Optimism is a force multiplier, pessimism makes us less creative, less energetic, less helpful to others.  If some continue to naysay, give them feedback about that.  It's unprofessional.  Simply because they think something is true doesn't mean they get to utter negative thoughts to the detriment of the rest of your team.

3.  Set an example that THE WORK CAN BE DONE.  It's okay to say it's hard.  And, say, we'll get through this.  We'll figure it out.  We're professionals.  We will treat our customers as best we can.  We will ignore mistreatment, and work hard.  We'll prioritize.  I'll ask you for more than you think you can do, and we will probably all look back and be surprised we got so much done.

4.  Guard against the idea that not everything can be done.  IT CAN BE.  While I know you're thinking, "no it can't"...refer above to the part about optimism.  When you say, as you did, "I simply don't have the staff..." - that is a self fulfilling prophecy.  If you're thinking that, you're doomed to failure.


I'm not kidding.

5.  Listen to our cast about assumptive goal setting.  Assume it all CAN get done, and then work backwards from there.  What would have to happen - with that amount of work and this amount of resources - for us to do it?  Get out of the box you're clearly in.  Stop thinking it can't, and assume it can...and see what creative thoughts, or interesting approaches, or new processes, could be used to get you there.

6.  AFTER you've done that (and worked at it, not just thought about it for 5 minutes), then start thinking about the LEAST important things that either ARE being done or that NEED to be done.  Most people would call this prioritizing...but we don't.  We call this step DECIDING WHAT YOU ARE WILLING TO GET IN TROUBLE FOR NOT DOING.  That's the essence of prioritizing in these kinds of crunch times.  

You're probably thinking, "wow, I have to choose to get in TROUBLE?"  Well, yes.  You're already not getting all the work done, right?  Not only do you not go home every night with every bit of work done, but you've said don't have the staff to get this work done.  I can't imagine you would say the latter if you were getting everything done. 

But think about you going home without all your work done.  Why do you do THAT?  Because you've made a decision to not do it.  And you know there's some risk.

What I'm recommending is to do the hard work of evaluating all of this new work, and MAKE CLEAR to yourself and your team what the priorities are.  You can only do this professionally if you have FIRST thought of #5 above.  Do NOT work from "I can't get it all done" - that will just cause you to keep everyone at the same pace as before, meaning pretty much that you're going to fail soon...and YOU would be responsible. 

Put everything in a prioritized list, and the stuff at the bottom is the stuff you're willing to get in trouble for.  I PROMISE YOU your directs are right now doing some things they ought not to be, and this exercise forces THAT stuff out the bottom of the pyramid.  Just because they are doing it doesn't make it as important as anything else.  This is Darwin's law applied to workloads and scheduling...and you're responsible to see that it happens.

7.  Finally, measure more and report more.  Don't try to hide what you're not getting done.  AND!  Let everyone know what you did get done.  Talking about successes and creative new solutions used to increase output always seem to get left undone when everyone gets in a "we can't do it all" mood.  You're responsible to see that that which DOES get done gets talked about.  And the more you report status, the less others will think you're trying to hide your failures.  Hiding your failures is only seen as an invitation to find out how bad things really ARE in your world, and now is not the time to encourage others to start looking for less than perfect performance.

It's a hard place you're in, but it IS navigable.  Hope this helps.


regas14's picture
Licensee Badge

I've been waiting anxiously for someone to respond to Manon's situation.  Imagine my disappointment when your response did not include a silver bullet solution to resetting the expectations the organizations places on a team and controlling unrealistic work loads.

 I've reread your guidance a few times and each time I want to defend the position of, "We're being asked to do more than we can possibly get done," I realize that you've already addressed my excuses.  

This totally changes my perspective.  Thanks for such great advice that addresses every excuse I can think of.

dad2jnk's picture

Mark is giving good advice in all points.  In my experience, the base of your response to the situation is in #7.  Measure more allows you and your team to break down a seemingly gargantuan teetering mountain into individual tracks.  Meaningful metrics allows you and your team to stabilize the mountain and bring it to a manageable size.  As you achieve the metrics you have set, you should celebrate success and bring a more tangible positive culture to your team.

Report more (report up) brings transparency to upper management who needs to manage the risk to the firm of consolidation.  They will help you prioritize your work load and provide air cover as things fall off the list.  If big rocks start falling off the cliff, transparency will make it clear to management when more resource is needed for your consolidated division.  Remember that It is critical to report in a manner that is effective for your management team.  They will think in "messages" rather than detail.  Drowning managers in detail sounds like whining but communicating messages and conclusions, backed by high-level metrics relevant to the firm will be seen clearly as being in the best interest of the firm. 

Report more (report to your team) will bring transparency to them as changes of priority to meet the key deliverables of your team are communicated from management.  Share the metrics with your team before sharing with management so they are not surprised by conversation at the water cooler.

MTC (my two cents).  Good luck and I believe you CAN do it!


maura's picture
Training Badge

What an eye opener.  This is a thread I'm going to want to return to every time things get hectic.  THANK YOU for this.

RichRuh's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge


Awesome response.  PLEASE make this a cast!


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

Soon.  I've intended to respond to one of these "new work overwhelming me!  FOUL!" for years... and had late last year finished this cast roughly.


asteriskrntt1's picture

Awesome.  Just awesome.

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

More to come, years to go.

MAnon's picture


Thank you for your well written, compassionate and thought provoking reply.

Since reading your post I've started to implement the suggestions you outlined with mixed, but expected results. By 'mixed' I mean to say that many of my directs continue to gripe about the situation, but it IS getting notably better.

Though I've managed to resist the temptation to complain in front of directs,  there are times when it's certainly a struggle. I understand when you say that I shouldn't complain (to myself) that the work can't be done, but when you say, 

"Guard against the idea that not everything can be done.  IT CAN BE.  While I know you're thinking, "no it can't"...refer above to the part about optimism."

There's a difference between optimism and "Embrace Reality" (Horstman's (your) 9th law) Where do you draw the line? And if you determine that you come down on the side of reality, which is to say, that the workload/priorites/deadlines actually are too much, what do you do?

Please don't read this as being argumentative, many of the issues I face can and will be solved by hard work and smarter approaches to things (as you've outlined). But what can be done when faced with a insurmountable situation? Thanks again for your reply,


asteriskrntt1's picture

I know this is easy to say and hard to do.  Your attitude is key.  If you believe something is insurmountable, it definitely is.  Change your mindset to surmountable, you just don't know how to overcome everything yet. 

One day, I might tell my story in the Forums.  I am not where I want to be in my life by any stretch, but I know I can get through any challenge somehow someway.  And not on my schedule.  But dammit, it is going to happen.

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

If you've never done it before, how do you know it can't be done?  :-)  If your goal is to be RIGHT, do the analysis, and decide that your prediction of the future is accurate.  But...if your goal is to be EFFECTIVE, you won't let a billion analyses sway a belief that you can do it.

You make a good point which I don't feel is argumentative at all... it's just apples and oranges.  I'm recommending your attitude matters, and analyses which lead to a decision that it can't be done not only WILL be proven wrong at some point, but they also don't help you.  

Think of it this way: if you believe it cannot be done, (to use your words, that's your 'reality'), can you reasonably argue that that knowledge helps you get closer?  I think that thinking means you wont' get as far as the guy who believes it's possible.  Analyses show God doesn't exist...but I still believe (while accepting the analyses).

Scary thought: you don't get there, after embracing reality, and someone else does...but you don't know it.  I promise you, if you told me as an exeuctive later it couldn't be done... I'd be thinking, "sour grapes".  Frankly, I'd think that even if no one else did it.

Drucker1900's picture

I only wish I had this type of advice about 2 months ago.  Spot on.  I think one of the major challenges that many managers have - myself included - is the "perfectionist" syndrome.  It's hard to continuously report out - even if on a more frequent basis than usual - that you & your team continue to be unable to meet all your deadlines.  It's a heck of a tough place to be in, even though I agree that the above advice is terrific.  I also think that this "issue" has indeed become far more prevalent since the recession.  Expectations up, resources down.  And I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Thank you for the great insight!


SMcM's picture
Licensee Badge

I recently conducted some audits in different parts of my company.

They all have the same level of staffing, same amount of equipment etc. The only real difference they have is the actual staff they have - a very big difference. The sites with a positive - can do - management team were performing by far the best. These sites were doing what the other sites said couldn't be done - even though they all have the same resources. it was a big eye opener for me. My nature is to have the attitude that it CAN be done. But I know I will sometimes moan about it in front of my team. I will make sure I always come across as positive my staff from now on.

Brilliant comments in this stream.



Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

...that this cast comes out tonight, Super Bowl Sunday.

Again, pretty sure.... FOUR PARTS.

Had great fun writing and recording it.

Cheers all and Go Packers!


MAnon's picture


Mark & Mike,

I can't thank you guys enough. Although I fully realize that this thread and the accompanying podcast addresses the concerns of many other managers; when listening, I can't help feeling that it's directed personally at my team and I.