Dear Crucial Skills,
My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment and this stresses me out completely. A few examples:
(1) We were presenting to senior management and had agreed to drop several items from the presentation based on specific logical reasons. Two hours before the presentation, he decided we needed to add those items back into the presentation without reason.
(2) We were launching a high-visibility product—from senior management’s perspective—and he tried to change the launch material that was already delayed going into production. If we had done as he wanted, we would have missed the launch deadline and faced huge embarrassment.
(3) We were in the middle of an event and he texted me asking to change the schedule during the event!
Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment. How can I successfully communicate this with him?
Dear Stressed Out,
Great question! And thanks for sharing the detailed examples. Often we have to work back from our emotions to the story that drives them, and then to the facts behind our story. As I see it, you’re dealing with the following:
• Emotions: Stress and frustration.
• Story: “My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment.”
• Facts: The three incidents you describe.
Challenge your story. I want to begin by challenging your story just a bit. As humans, we often make what psychologists call “The Fundamental Attribution Error.” We attribute others’ bad behavior to internal dispositions (as you do when you suggest, “My boss likes . . . “), and ignore external factors that might be influencing his or her behavior. Take a bit more time exploring why your boss might be leaving things open to the last minute. Here are a few possibilities:
• He is distracted by other tasks and doesn’t really attend to your priorities until the last minute. Then, when he finally gets his head in the game, he wants to make changes.
• Other leaders he must accommodate don’t pay attention to your priorities until the last minute. Then they demand changes, and your boss passes them along to you—as if they were his.
• Perhaps some situations are so fluid that they really do require last minute changes. (I’d be surprised if this last one is actually true, but it’s worth considering.)
A robust solution to your problem needs to address all of these influences. If you focus too narrowly on motivating him, without acknowledging the reasons for his last-minute meddling, he’s likely to feel attacked and become defensive.
Determine what you really want. Focus on what you want long-term for the organization, your boss, yourself, and for your working relationship. Take pains to avoid a self-focused perspective (such as when you say, “Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment.”) Instead, focus on the benefits you want to achieve.
Trust me. If you are feeling stress, then others are as well. And the organizational costs of these last-minute changes can be profound. I’ve seen organizations grind to a halt, as managers stop taking action and making decisions because they fear others will second-guess them at the last minute. If you can introduce greater predictability and stability, you will be helping your organization, your boss, and many others—including yourself.
Establish expectations that work for everyone. In our Crucial Accountability course we teach a skill called Describe the Gap. The gap is the difference between what you expect and what you’ve observed. In your case, the gap is between what you expect and what your boss and other stakeholders expect. Your conversation will succeed to the extent you can align these expectations.
I suggest using principles and terms from project management best practices to describe your expectations. A good process involves the right people (your boss and other stakeholders) at the right times, before decisions become last-minute.
Learn how project management is done in your organization and use what you discover in the conversation. Your goal will be to have your boss and other stakeholders commit to following a project management process that will make their lives easier, and improve the effectiveness of the organization.
Move important decisions forward in time. Since the problem is that your boss isn’t making decisions until they are urgent, a part of the solution is to create this urgency earlier. Project plans are supposed to do this by establishing checkpoints that involve people early in the process. However, this involvement only works if people take the plans seriously—if the checkpoints create a sense of urgency.
You need to make sure you are getting people’s mind share and serious involvement when you need it—early in the process. If you can’t get serious involvement early, then count on getting it at the last minute.
Get permission to hold people accountable to the project plan. Your first test will come when your boss and others skip project checkpoints or arrive unprepared. Talk with them in advance about this potential. If they don’t get their heads into the project on time—as called for in the project plan—then the whole planning process will break down, and you’ll be back to last-minute changes.
Some organizations even introduce a shorthand way of referring to the negative cycle. One I work with calls it “Skipping the D” and “Hijacking the D” (meaning “Skipping the Decision” and “Hijacking the Decision”). Everyone knows what these phrases mean and they use them as reminders to hold each other accountable.
I hope that some of these suggestions will work for you. Let me know how it goes.