Q: My colleague is the workplace version of the boy who cried wolf. Every email is urgent, and he follows up with a phone call if I don’t immediately respond. I get many requests from multiple departments and there’s a set protocol. It isn’t right to always prioritize this person’s work. I also don’t want other people adopting his “urgent” practice either. How do I manage expectations and get others to be honest about what is urgent?
A: There’s a great saying that sounds like it suits your situation well: “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Every organization has expected turnarounds for different functions, and these standards should be established and clarified up front for any given situation. For example, the standard for a Client Services team might be to respond to customer inquiries within one business day. What are the standard expectations for your deliverables and are all stakeholders aware of them? The shared knowledge of standard processes is key. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will follow the rules all of the time; it also doesn’t mean that there are no valid exceptions to the rules. You and your manager need to take steps to address this kind of behavior while identifying what situations might qualify for an “urgent” exception.
If this individual is always marking requests as urgent because he has not managed his own schedule, your manager can step in the first time to let him know it won’t work and exceptions need to be run by her. After that, in similar situations you need to be empowered to say “No, I can’t do this work on this timeline—I can send you the final by Thursday at noon.” This will entail a conversation with the person to reestablish standards and let them know that their work will not always be pushed to the front of the line. His work can’t always be legitimately urgent—it’s more likely that his planning and organization needs to be more thorough. Prioritizing multiple people’s work is hugely important and challenging, and it should be less about the people and more about the project or issue. Make sure you and your manager agree on what (and who) is identified as most important for the business and structure your process accordingly.
Getting other people to be honest about what’s urgent and what’s not can be a challenge, so establish a practice of transparency to encourage the same in others. This is where your informal influencing skills can be applied. By sharing information about your workload and details of when people can expect things, you promote open communication about needs: “I understand this is high priority. I have two other urgent projects to complete today, so you can expect this by 2pm tomorrow—I’ll call you when it’s ready.” If you aren’t in a position of formal authority and need to develop influencing skills, your manager can provide support to establish the rules and help you handle colleagues who try to bulldoze through. You may need to “train” your coworkers. If you have the bandwidth to accommodate an “urgent” request, you might say “I can make an exception this time, but our protocol is a 48-hour turnaround and we need everyone to follow that process and adjust their expectations.” If it happens again, refer back to the conversation where they acknowledge understanding of the rules. Multiple follow up calls can be an annoyance, and a response of “I am working on it—I haven’t forgotten and you’ll be first to know,” can work. And make sure that happens. When people are stressed, they want to check that nothing has fallen through the cracks. You might say “I have the baton, I got your pass, I will pass back as quickly as I can.” Ignoring them will only make this worse. Open communication is what will reinforce to others that you hear them and you are addressing their needs.
You can’t always say “I need to follow the protocol, no exceptions” and not consider the variables of truly urgent or high-risk requests. You should know how to identify and prioritize these requests. When the CEO asks for something, it will take precedence over a routine report you’re preparing for a peer. Perhaps a major account is on the line or there has been an unexpected change in the timeline for a client project—these are items that jump to the front of the line. You and your manager need to work together to make sure you understand different needs of the business and that you feel empowered to make the call on how to prioritize for the most impact.
The main message for this colleague should be “You are not one of one; you are one of many.” If necessary, review the process and get renewed agreement on what the turnaround time is. People often forget and might just need a good-natured reminder. Your best course of action is to continue acknowledging requests, communicating expectations, and making exceptions as necessary, all with your manager’s support.