BLUF: Who is expected to set deadlines - my manager or I? If my manager consistently does not do so, is it acceptable to approach them with a request to agree on deadlines?

Dear all,

I am in a situation where I have 20+ initatives of varying length and importance that I need to be tackling - some of them now and others over the course of the performance evaluation cycle.

Upon reflection, I realized that my manager never sets any deadlines, except for things that she really wants done "by COB today". I am now stuck with 20+ items that need to be tackled at some point, but there is no clarity on whether they should be done in January or July.

To remedy this, I approached my manager yesterday and explained that I am having trouble finding enough time to work on my longer-term projects because dealing with the day-to-day business and short-term initiatives leaves almost no time to tackle the bigger things. I suggested that we have a meeting to review my list of projects, determine a) which ones are actually important, b) when they are due, and c) what, if any, trade-offs we need to make to meet the deadlines we agree on.

This sounded like a perfectly sensible and mature way of handling this to me ("Here's the problem, here's how I think we can fix the problem, here's where I need your help as my boss to make it happen") - but the "vibe" I get is that I was expected to prioritize and set deadlines independently, without consulting my boss. Unfortunately, prior experience suggests that she rarely "owns" the deadlines she herself sets, never mind those set by her direct report without consulting her.

I already have a lesson learned (namely, whenever she asks me to work on something that can't be done in half a day, I'll ask for a concrete deadline and, upon receiving it, indicate whether it's possible in view of the other deadlines she had set for me, or if we need to move something to make it possible).

However, I wonder if I was wrong from the start in the expectation that it is a manager's job to set deadlines, especially for longer-term projects where I may not have enough information to set a deadline independently without knowing fully the circumstances that led to the need for the project.

I also wonder if the way I handled the situation with my manager was professional and "adult", for lack of a better word.

Thanks a lot in advance!

mmann's picture
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You did just fine with your first attempt.

This sounds like a classic High-C/D conflict.  You made a conscientious effort to establish priorities (high-C) and your boss doesn't have the desire to spend the time to work with you on it (high-D).

Some initiatives have no deadline.  What would probably suffice would be to know:

  • Does the initiative have a deadline?
  • How is each initiative prioritized against the other initiatives?

I suggest you consider providing a weekly status report for your initiatives.  Put the highest priorities first, at the top.  If there's a known deadline, add it to the report.

If you have O3s with her, send it via email the day before.  The status report should be in the body of the email, not an attachment.


nkvd's picture

Thanks, Michael!

I met with her this afternoon and we went over the list of projects, assigning deadlines as we did. The comment I received at the end of the meeting is that this is not her preferred management style, that she has no trouble keeping up and on top of her multiple projects and deliverables without any such planning with her boss, that it smacks of micromanagement, and that she is making a special effort to adjust to my expectations on this one - even if she can somewhat see where this is coming from. To use her words, this was an overkill.

We do not do O3s, and while I tried sending her status reports half a year ago on my own initiative, they were never read (I know it because when I stopped doing it I didn't get so much as a single remark). As you suggested, I always included the report in the body of the e-mail (one-pager with a one-paragraph executive summary and a bullet point list of achievements, issues, and plans for next week), with an identical attachment in MS Word in case she ever wants a print out.

I must admit I feel somewhat disappointed - because I know from experience that if we do not do these priority-setting and deadline-planning exercise, I will quickly find myself overwhelmed once again. On the other hand, she is the boss, so I'm expected to adjust to her, not the other way around (she's more of an I and an S, by the way, whereas I have strong C tendencies with bits of D thrown in for good measure).

mattpalmer's picture

Assuming that your work has an impact on your manager's deliverables, then your manager should be setting deadlines -- if only because if you don't deliver, your manager (presumably) can't deliver.  Personally, I'm finding deadlines to be a great way to indicate that things can't take forever, give me an opportunity for feedback when the deadline *is* met, and to provide a "hook" at which we can talk about the progress of a task.  I'm a real deadline convert, myself, and would never consider setting deadlines and priorities to be "micromanaging", and if one of my directs wanted to claim I was micromanaging them by setting deadlines, we'd be having a chat on what micromanaging really is.

I'm curious about something, though.  Has your boss expressed any negativity about your work?  If you're not prioritising or delivering to an undisclosed deadline, then I would hope there would be some indication -- a comment, a ding on your performance review, *something*.  When that happens, then you can have a further discussion about priorities and deadlines.  If there's no negative outcomes as a result of your current behaviour, then presumably your boss is happy with your performance, and you don't need to change your behaviour for that reason.

However, deadlines are still great for your own benefit.  They fight Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time available) and the more you practice hitting deadlines, the more you'll manage to do it.  Being able to meet deadlines consistently is a great skill to have.  I'd set suitable deadlines purely for yourself, and deliver on them.  Keep track of how often you hit deadlines, too -- it's a nice accomplishment to put on your resume.

GlennR's picture

I heartily agree with MattPalmer's final paragraph above. I'd vote it "up" if I could.