I am a manager of a large team. I like my work, the mission of the company is meaningful, and we make a difference in the world. I have a reputation for being a good manager and getting things done on time and under budget. My boss, who is fairly new—and, frankly, in over his head—is constantly coming to me with new projects and never seems interested in the projects we are already working on. He says he trusts me to get it all done.
My problem is that the strategic direction and priorities are constantly shifting and I can’t keep up. I can’t possibly get it all done, and my team is maxed out. I am becoming demoralized by not really understanding the point of what we are being asked to do. I know I need to talk to my manager, but I don’t want to come off as a whiner. How to proceed?
Dear Shifting Winds,
This must be so frustrating. It sounds like you do need to talk to your manager and get some clarity on what to focus on and the timelines for each item. You appear to have a low opinion of your new manager’s capabilities—and you may be right about him—but you also don’t know what he is up against. Until you actually know what is going on, I’d suggest to start off by assuming the best of intentions.
In any case, definitely get a meeting on the calendar and set the context carefully. Make it clear to your manager that you appreciate his trust; however, there is more work here than can be done and you need direction in prioritizing the projects. Tell him that to set priorities you normally use your knowledge of the strategic focus for the company—but lately you have been confused about what that is and you need his help.
To communicate with your boss as effectively as possible, first you need to assess his style. Which do you think would work best: Charts outlining all of the different projects on a big whiteboard? An excel spreadsheet with all of the project plans? A presentation with a little bit of story? Your manager needs a quick and easy way to grasp all of the assignments you are working on and how many hours are needed to complete each project. That will help him see how overworked your team is and will help you make the case for getting another person on board to ensure you can complete everything.
Having each project visually represented might also make it easier for you to see the point of each one—but even if it doesn’t, it will make it easier to talk to your boss. You can explain that your people get inspired when they understand the reason they are working away at something. Most people—especially millennials, research is showing—want to know the context and meaning for their tasks.
Next, rehearse, prepare, and be succinct. You won’t be perceived as a whiner unless you actually whine.
You are going to have to stand up for yourself and your people at some point. Many managers are so overwhelmed themselves that they will just keep throwing work at their people until someone cries uncle. He may be waiting for you to do just that.
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