I report to the general counsel of a large global organization and I have a team of seven attorneys. I routinely work at all hours of the night finishing projects my people committed to completing and then didn’t—and the deadline, of course, can’t slip.
My husband says I let my people walk all over me. I think we all have too much work so I try to protect them from burning out.
I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to wear my people out, but I also don’t want to be a doormat.
Am I a Wuss?
Dear Am I a Wuss,
You might be, but we don’t need to call anyone names, do we? It sounds like it all comes from the best of intentions. One of the hardest things about being a manager is keeping everyone’s energy and engagement high when the workload is crushing. Internal law groups are notorious for working their people to the bone, so if you don’t want to burn your people out—or worse, burn out yourself—you are going to have to be super strategic.
Here’s the thing. You have trained your people to think they can get away with making a commitment and not following through. The result is, when you give out work assignments, your team members know there isn’t much of a consequence for shoddy planning, so they plan shoddily. This needs to be corrected or you will just keep repeating the same pattern.
You need to start with naming and claiming the reality of the situation. Do your people have any idea how put upon you feel? You probably want to say “I am sick and tired of you leaving me holding the bag,” which is why you haven’t said anything – you know that isn’t going to be effective. So how might you express it? You want to craft a neutral statement with no blame or judgment. Practice with a friend to get the wording right—something like, “Lately, in order to meet deadlines, I find myself finishing work that you had committed to completing. This isn’t sustainable and it needs to change. Let’s talk about what we can do to prevent this situation in the future.”
Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:
- Be clear that deadlines are non-negotiable. Perhaps your team members think the deadlines you give them are soft ones. If this is not the case, you need to tell them.
- When you give out work assignments, spend a moment with each person to talk through the steps involved. Scope out the time requirement for each step so that the work can be broken down into manageable pieces. You probably don’t think you should have to do this, but sometimes you need to go back to basics.
- Rotate the crazy deadlines so that you take some, but not all—and so does everyone else. Make sure your team knows that everyone is expected to step up and go the extra mile when things get tight.
If it is really true that there is too much work, it is up to you to make the case for a new hire. This means that everyone, including you, needs to track their time on work projects in fifteen-minute increments. You will need this data to be convincing when justifying another body.
Your team members are going to have some good ideas, too. Put the reality of the situation on the table, listen carefully, and engage them in crafting a solution for moving forward. You clearly have empathy for them, which is great. Now you have to advocate for yourself—and from that position you’ll be able to craft something that will work. And you won’t have to put up with your husband’s criticism on top of everything else.
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