By: Jessica Mintz, Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
From the August 30, 2005 article:
When Andrea Tam, the production manager at a small clothing-design company in Vancouver, British Columbia, asked the owner what to do with 1,100 yards of fabric that couldn't be used as planned, she expected a quick answer. After all, there appeared to be two choices: find a new use for the fabric or let it sit on the warehouse shelf.
One week and multiple requests later, Ms. Tam still didn't have an answer. In the end, she made the decision herself. (The fabric is sitting in a warehouse in China.)
Ms. Tam faced a common challenge in the modern workplace: How to get the attention of busy bosses without offending them. Even well-intentioned managers can be distracted by an endless flow of meetings, phone calls, email and instant messages, pushing other important decisions out of mind. Yet many employees don't like to nag, fearing they may pester themselves out of a job.
Business-communication experts say workers shouldn't be timid about reminding the boss of unfinished tasks. The alternatives -- missed deadlines and simmering resentments -- can be worse. So they recommend that employees try to understand why the boss is forgetful and devise tactics to gently work around it.
"If we agree that you and the boss are working toward the same objective, it's only nagging if you're saying the same thing over and over again and nothing's happening," says Shirley Maxey, a professor of management communication at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
Ms. Maxey recommends workers start a task themselves, drafting a letter, for example, and then show it to the boss for review. "By doing that you also take on more of a leadership role, take some responsibility on yourself. You become a hero in the boss's eye by reducing the amount of work" she has to do, she says.
Ms. Tam, 26 years old, has tried a variety of techniques in her two years at the clothing designer. In the early days, she would walk over to her boss's desk and ask him about unfinished business, such as a $10,000 bill owed to a supplier. She would even throw in a joke in hope of lightening the mood. The boss "would throw a joke back and say he'd get on it. A week would go by without any 'getting on.' "
Next, she tried email -- even though his desk is just 10 feet away. She rarely heard back. After a year of sporadic responses, Ms. Tam says she found herself angry and frustrated at work.
Over time, she's developed a labor-intensive system to keep office work flowing. First, she sends an email requesting a meeting, to which he generally agrees. During the meeting, she goes over what he needs to do and assigns artificially early deadlines. She makes sure he understands what needs to get done. Back at her desk, she sends a follow-up email with the requirements and deadlines. As deadlines approach, she sends yet another reminder.
"I stress very clearly that in order for the company's deadline to be met, he must finish his part," Ms. Tam says. When there's money involved, she stresses the financial consequences. "After all, he is the owner, and that is ultimately what he cares about."
...David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, suggests that employees try to shield bosses working on important tasks. "Interruptions are a huge cause of forgetting," he says.
Kenneth Adams, a psychiatry professor at Michigan, recommends devising a signal to indicate urgency. But it's important not to use the signal too often. When every email is marked "urgent," he says, at some point "it doesn't get a rise out of you any more." One idea is putting important tasks on the boss's chair.
For one woman working at a public-relations agency in Boston, the experts' entire arsenal of nagging techniques has come in handy as she ferries deadline-driven work between managers and clients. "I feel like a pain constantly. But I'm paid to be a pain," says Juliet, 33, who asks that her full name not be used.
She emails, emails again, sends instant messages, and then tries the phone. If all else fails, she has been known to go into a manager's office and wait in the doorway until the manager does what's needed. She is not above bribes of candy or flowers, and she's even found herself at colleagues' desks, holding documents between their faces and their computer screens....
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