How to handle the deluge of competing tasks from different departments

Stand up for yourself, communicator. Establish firm boundaries around your workflow, be confident enough to delegate, and learn when to say ‘no.’

How to handle competing requests

The best communicators have the flexibility of Stretch Armstrong and the endurance of Lance Armstrong.

It helps to also have actual strong arms with which to push back against the torrent of job requests that assail your email and slow your workflow. We’re talking about those “urgent” tasks that are inexorably last-minute, not well thought out, completely out of left field and due tomorrow.

You know the drill:

  • At 3:37 p.m. on Friday, your CEO emails, “Can you whip up a Quick PowerPoint for my presentation on Monday?”
  • At 3:42 p.m., an “important” email emblazoned with a flaming red exclamation point arrives from your company’s feared VP of Marketing, who wants a flyer for a thing next week—and he wants them now.
  • Meanwhile, Frank in Accounting has been riding you for weeks about those expense reports.
  • Sheila in IT also needs to meet with you pronto to discuss an urgent matter regarding a possible data breach, but you’re trying like crazy to finish the “monthly” newsletter that hasn’t gone out since April.
  • Oh, hey, your CFO is back from Brazil, and she finally has “bandwidth” to record that podcast interview. But it has to be today.

Of course, all this mess happens concurrently with your regularly scheduled programming.

How on earth are you supposed to juggle it all? Let’s review some ideas on handling competing requests from different departments.

Dealing with the deluge

Communicators are often gregarious people-pleasers whose first impulse is to say “yes.” It’s fine to have a “service” mindset, but you must establish firm boundaries around your workflow.

According to Ron Santomassimo, founder of Massimo Group, you should try to balance direct communication with delegating and diplomacy.

“There are several ways to diplomatically decline or redirect job requests,” he says. “One way is to acknowledge your appreciation for the requestor and their consideration for your services. Share that although you wish you could accommodate their needs, your current workload does not allow you any additional time to take on the tasks and do it in a manner that would best represent your work and their vision.”

In other words, very politely inform your colleague to take a hike. Or you can try to delegate the project.

Santomassimo continues: “Another way is to ask questions on the specific needs of the job, and upon gaining a better understanding of the job and the objectives, suggest an alternative colleague who would be a better fit for the job.”

This does not mean mindlessly scraping tasks onto someone else’s plate. Thoughtful delegating, Santomassimo says, should be about empowering those around you and giving them a chance to shine. Giving colleagues a shot to flex their strengths is a good thing—and it makes you look good, too.

Author, speaker and workplace communication expert Jen Brown also advises taking a tough tack—without casting too much judgment.

“Understanding that someone is going to be upset—no matter what—is crucial to handling these last-minute requests,” she says. “By using some variation of, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time to give that task the energy it needs,’ you’re meeting the issue head on and telling the truth.”

Brown cautions against attacking the offender with phrases such as, “You shouldn’t have waited so long!” or anything else accusatory. Instead, “You can offer to do a small, doable part of it, or decline the entire job,” Brown says, or you can respond with, “I’m happy to sit down with you for 15 minutes to brainstorm how it can get done.”

Ami Neiberger-Miller, founder of Steppingstone, says the key is to juggling competing requests is to “be proactive.”

“If someone shows up with a last-minute project, talk realistically about what can be done in limited time,” she says. “Before doing so—and before agreeing to do anything—make sure your requestor has fully considered the task.”

She suggests asking, “Does this project really need to happen now, or can it be delayed?”

How to stanch the flow

Projects usually can wait. Furthermore, you can prevent many headaches if you take the time to proactively educate your colleagues on what sorts of content, timelines and job requests are valid. Try these tips to stanch the flow of inappropriate requests:

Learn to say no. If you say “yes” to everything, you’ll quickly burn out and you’ll never earn respect. Stand up for yourself and your team, and be bold.

Create a job request form. To slow the flow of internal project requests, create a descriptive and educational intake form. Include questions such as:

  • “How does this tie to a crucial business KPI?”
  • “What are you hoping to achieve with this piece?”
  • “What would happen if we didn’t do this?”
  • “What would success look like for this project?”

Set realistic expectations for turnaround times on your form. Clarify the rules up front. Remember: Their lack of planning is not your emergency.

Educate colleagues on why something’s not needed. If you just reject jobs without explanation, no one will learn for next time. The more you explain up front, the less work you’ll have to juggle down the road. Proactive education—and reeducation—is the key to tamping down the job request deluge.

Or you can just plan to deal with “urgent video” requests the rest of your career.

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