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How can I push back diplomatically against an overwhelming amount of tasks?

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Anonymous User at Taro Communitya year ago

As a Senior software engineer working at a mid-size tech company, I’m still learning how to properly push back when others Sr SWE & managers or Directors from Web or Mobile team tried to get me to do tasks that do not match my own priority.  As much as I like to be nice and support others, I agree that I can only do so much.  I brought this up with my direct manager and my Director (L7 Senior Manager & L8 Director), and they told me to loop them in when I face overwhelming pressures from other engineers/ cross-functional teams. My direct manager also told me they wants me to be able to focus on big project initiative, and they see that I am on track to be the Tech Lead given my current trending.

While I do appreciate that my boss gives me words of assurance and direction and offered to step in to fend off those pressures during my one-on-one call, I recognize that I would have to be the person who is good on establish priorities and be able to push back on people. I cannot really rely on my boss to do the push-back to fend off the pressure given that with the recent layoff, we are short on staff.

Wanted to get some thoughts and suggestions on "How can I push back diplomatically against an overwhelming amount of tasks"?

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(4 comments)
  • 13
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    Staff Eng @ Google, Ex-Meta SWE, Ex-Amazon SDM/SDE
    a year ago

    “I’d love to help, but can presently only allocate time during my office hours to consult and can’t accept new projects without them being prioritized through the intake process here (link), and having one of my current priorities superseded. Any additional out-of-band work threatens my current deliverables and I am not able to delay these without explicit approval”.

    If it’s really higher priority than your current work they can prioritize it through a normal process. If it’s not, you shouldn’t be doing it. Helping people do things the right way is still helping them. Randomizing your own work to serve every random request isn’t responsible.

    If your team handles high priority requests during on-call, you can also refer them to on-call with the caveat that production issues will be given preference, or let them know when your next on-call shift is, but this is giving them too much power IMO and any high-pri things that on-call would handle should still follow ingestion and prioritization process. Sideband work sources are a bad time for everyone.

  • 9
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    Anonymous User [OP]
    Taro Community
    a year ago

    Here's also a response when ask on ChatGPT on How can I push back diplomatically against an overwhelming amount of tasks?

    Pushing back against an overwhelming workload when dealing with engineering managers and directors can be challenging, but it is important to ensure that you are able to maintain a manageable workload and a good work-life balance. Here are a few strategies you can use to push back diplomatically when dealing with engineering managers and directors:

    1. Communicate your workload: Be transparent with your manager and director about your current workload and the number of tasks you are able to take on. Explain how additional tasks would impact your ability to meet existing deadlines and deliver quality work.

    2. Prioritize and organize your tasks: Break down your tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks and prioritize them based on their importance and urgency.

    3. Provide data and evidence: Use data and evidence to support your position, such as past performance, current workload, or industry standards.

    4. Propose solutions: Offer alternative solutions or propose a timeline for completing tasks.

    5. Be Professional: Be respectful and professional in your communication, refrain from making excuses or complaining, and try to find a solution that works for both you and your manager and director.

    6. Have a clear understanding of company goals and strategy: Align your request with the company goals and strategy, show how it can help achieve those goals and objectives.

    7. Seek support from peers: If you feel that your concerns are not being heard, seek support from your peers.

    It's important to remember that pushing back in a diplomatic way, with facts and evidence, and with alternative solutions will help you to be heard, respected, and seen as a valuable team member. And also remember that, it's not only beneficial for you but also for the team and the company to have a manageable workload, so don't be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself.

  • 11
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    Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero, PayPal
    a year ago

    Oh wow, that ChatGPT response is pretty good! Lee's response is great as well (as always). My response is pretty similar to both, so I'll try to keep it short.

    My process whenever I got any new work request was:

    1. Have a clear list of my current priorities, something like a Google Doc with projects for the half with high-level notes on impact/effort required.
    2. Tell the person that I think their task is important, but I'm currently booked. I describe the list from #1 at a high-level and ask them if it supersedes anything there and why. Essentially give a preemptive "No" but leave the door open.
    3. If they really believe their thing is more important, have a deeper discussion with them and loop in my manager.

    Zooming out from this though, a big part of dealing with an overwhelming amount of asks is to flip the mentality to empower yourself:

    • Before: I need to desperately fight to protect myself while making as many people happy as possible without working >8 hours per day too often.
    • After: I will work exactly 8 hours per day, and everyone has to fight to convince me that their new task deserves some of that time.

    Once you flip the mentality, you'll have the confidence you need to properly push back and people will take you more seriously. If people detect weakness, they may push you more to take on their ask, and it can snowball into a really bad experience.

    These are not directly related to the question, but I think these resources may be helpful as high-level advice around communication and preserving relationships:

  • 6
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    Engineering Manager at Blend
    a year ago

    Here's some off-the-cuff thoughts

    • Clarify areas of ownership – Sounds like there's poorly defined areas of ownership; it's odd to me that other managers/directors are telling other engineers from other teams what their priorities should be. Once reorg settles, there could be opportunity to clearly define areas of ownership.
    • Reorg thrash – I would take this is as part of the reorg thrash - I think in this kind of environment, where there's confusion, new teams, new managers for teams, one of the best things to do is "nothing", just wait for things to settle down. Acknowledge their request and tell them you'll circle back with them once you get a chance to sync with mgr/team on priorities.
    • Push your manager for clear priorities – make sure you and your manager are aligned on what you should be working on for the sprint/quarter. Write it down, date it, and check-in with them on a weekly/bi-weekly basis (whenever your 1:1 is with them); if they doesn't have time for 1:1... then find an alternative way to make sure you/your mgr/your pm are all on the same page.
    • 5-15min checkins – if your boss doesn't have time for a normal 1:1, propose a 5min-15min check-in every week or two weeks just to touch base. Tell them what you want to cover during that time (give an agenda ahead of time), and if there's nothing on the agenda for that week's check-in then just cancel. (show your manager you value their time)
    • Tag/cc your manager only when necessary – as a senior engineer, I'd expect that you'd be able to discern what you should/shouldn't be working on based on your priorities; I'd suggest only looping and tagging your mgr when you really cannot solve the situation yourself. And then once the situation has been resolved give them a quick summary/tldr of the situation, what was asked, how it was resolved, and what are next steps. (b/c your mgr is stretched thin, they don't need to know everything, but still prob want to be looped in)