I am a mid-level manager in a global software company. I have been working here for about ten years and I lead three teams. Right now I am working with my manager on our goals for 2024 and I can already tell that there is no way my teams are going to be able to deliver on all of them.
We have been pushing like crazy all this year with a promise that the pressure would let up at the end of the year. As it is, I have to talk someone off the ledge daily. Now I am looking down the barrel of another year of nonstop work. I feel terrible about this—like I am breaking a promise to my people.
My boss isn’t a jerk. I know she is being pressured from above. She would never say it, but I can sense the unspoken “if you can’t get this done, I will find someone who can.” There has to be some way to manage my people’s and my boss’s expectations more effectively, but I don’t know what it is.
What do you think? I am beginning to think that I can’t live with the kind of anxiety that is building up with no relief in sight. How do I manage this relentless tension?
Dear Pressure Cooker,
Well, this sounds like situation normal. Almost everyone I speak to is feeling this way. Here are the choices you have to consider:
- Negotiate for more (or more skilled) resources.
Carefully break down each goal into discreet tasks and estimate the time required to complete it. If you can show the math of what it will take to complete all of the required work, and how it will be physically impossible for your existing people to do it, you may be able to get more help. It is hard to argue with math.
You may get countered with “work smarter, not harder.” If you think that might be the case, be prepared to request the kind of training that would help your people to do that. (There might not be any.) With your experience, you probably know how long it should take people to do certain things—and some things just take the time they take. Doing this will also help you pinpoint if you have any team members who cannot get the work done in a reasonable timeframe. You may need to upskill or replace some folks. This can be hard, but honestly, sometimes people are in the wrong job and it isn’t doing them any favors to not address that. You can take a stand as long as you can show that you have really thought it through.
- Negotiate a reduction in distractions.
Of course I don’t know how much of an issue this is, but if your company is like anyone else’s, you and your people are probably asked to join any number of meetings that don’t contribute directly to getting the job done. Look at what those are, and do everything you can to get a few of those items off of the required list.
- Negotiate to reduce the deliverables.
This is the most obvious, and the one your boss is expecting from you. This is probably the least effective option for you at this time. However, I do urge you to check out the boss’s unspoken threat—you might be making it up. This is a classic way for people to needlessly ratchet up their stress levels. You can literally ask your boss what the consequence would be of not being able to deliver on everything.
You absolutely can and should:
- Work with your boss to prioritize.
In the spirit of wanting to under-promise and over-deliver, you can ask your boss to put each required outcome in order of priority. The hard truth is that if everything is a priority, that means nothing is a priority. I suspect your boss knows this as well as you do. So as long as you know your people are focused on the must-haves and will get to the nice-to-haves, that should help you manage your stress level.
- Work with your team to design sprints.
Since no one can go full-out all the time, work with your team leads to design one week of go-hard sprints and then one week of regular work. It isn’t a new idea, but I have seen it work well. You can read more about that here.
In the meantime, I hate to say it, but the intensity in most workplaces seems to be here to stay. You must decide whether you are going to live with it or try to find a more forgiving environment. If you choose to live with it, you have to find ways to take care of yourself and encourage the same for your people. Find one thing you can do to help you manage your stress and commit to it. Meditation, exercise, yoga—whatever has worked for you in the past. You also need to get some perspective. Breathe, do your best, remember that nobody dies in software development and that what gets done is what gets done, and be okay with that. A little perspective can go a long way.
I know it feels like you are breaking a promise, but the fact is that you have limited control over your environment. You can explain that to your people and share what you are doing to advocate for sanity. And at least now you know to be a little more cautious with your promises in the future.
Part of being a leader is choosing one’s attitude and what to focus on. This is your opportunity to do that. Your people will follow your lead.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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