9 Ways to Counter a Procrastinating Boss Who Slows You Down

Manage Up with Ingenuity for Faster Response Time

Posted Feb 04, 2018

We’re all rather ingenious at putting off what we’d prefer not to do. That exhaustive report due next week, bad news you need to share with your manager, the phone call to a moody client… But what if you’re right on track—and your boss is the repeat offender, holding up your progress? What if your work is less stellar as a result?

Source: Dreamstime

“Hey! Stop dragging your heals on my report; I need that report now!” isn’t the best option, though it’s crossed your mind. Last minute feedback can be a game changer for something you’ve put your heart and soul into, with little time to turn things around. Not to mention what it does to your morale. So what can you do?

More than you might think.

The best approach is to “manage up” in specific ways with this type of manager. You can take control of the situation and show them the way, similar to how a parent guides children (sans the patronizing). It’s a key career advancement and leadership tool, because it can make the difference of saving an otherwise great job.

Here are 9 specific tips on how to manage up with a procrastinating boss:

1. Go beneath the surface. First, understand why the dragging of feet and if you see a pattern. Is it fear? Indecisiveness? Lack of general interest? A little analysis will make your response more effective. For example, if your boss tends to vacillate or is afraid to commit to decisions, your role as a sounding board can help resolve a much broader issue. You can offer to proactively present pros and cons of situations to encourage decisiveness. 

2. Create a series of pre-deadlines. Look for ways to break larger projects into “bite-size” portions. For instance, rather than giving your boss all the copy for review by a set date—submit sections with staggered deadlines. Smaller demands are more manageable than big ones.

3. Add a buffer. We all know people who are notoriously late. Perhaps you’ve given them a slightly earlier time for arrival. Or maybe you’ve set your own watch a little early. Same concept. Without irritating your manager, give yourself more wiggle room in anticipation of The Big Stall. (Just be sure you don’t follow suit with your own personal log jam!) This may mean submitting projects earlier than normal or pushing back a completion date to allow for delays. Don’t get zinged by your boss’s inertia.

4. Put project requests in writing. Emails can be helpful reminders for your boss and provide gentle nudges, as they can easily be resent. Just be sure they illustrate your tireless efforts in a diplomatic way. For example, the good, bad and ugly cover note:

Good: “I don’t know if you saw this from Tuesday, but wanted to pass it along since the deadline is fast approaching (see below). Thanks.”

Bad: “Are you getting my emails? I still haven’t heard anything from you on this.”

Ugly: "I guess I can go ahead with this project because I haven’t gotten a 'No' from you.”

Always take the high road when managing up!

5. Keep your meetings interesting. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes. You’re more likely to respond to an engaging, fun presentation than a boring one. Make sure your meetings aren't real snoozers. Make them participatory. Same goes for all your communications. This may not make your boss jump to respond, but it can mitigate delays.

6. Over-communicate and give a “countdown.” Be specific and give updates on what’s needed (the more vague you are, the more wiggle room they have). For example: “The bid deadline is 9am Friday. As soon as I get your pricing data, I’ll include it with the contact. Will 3pm work for you? P.S. I really think we can win this bid if we’re timely!” Take control and keep your boss so informed, it would be hard to miss the deadline. Make sure you’re also giving updates about where you are in the process, so you’re modeling decisive, prompt action.

7. Present the payback (and risk). What are the specific benefits to your boss and department of prompt action? What will happen if deadlines aren’t met? Your boss isn’t a mind reader (often far from it!), so explain outcomes. Sharing that a top job candidate is already considering another offer can jolt a boss out of their seemingly frozen state.

8. Use emotional intelligence. Positive reinforcement can cement good behavior. When your boss responds on time, be sure to show appreciation with comments like, “Thanks for getting back to me on this so quickly; this will really help us achieve X.” There’s no overabundance of praise at any level, as long as it’s genuine.

On a similar note, use negative reinforcement to diplomatically discourage further dilly-dallying. Use “positive bookends” when you deliver negative information. You can achieve this in an assertive versus aggressive way: “I really enjoy working for you. However, I think it set us back a bit with the Smith account when we submitted the report a week late. If we meet their deadlines better in the future, I know we can build more business with them. (Discussion) Thank you for spending the time to talk about this!”

9. Offer a reward. In the same way you can get a child’s attention by offering a cookie, the same holds true with bosses who delay work (incentives work at most every age!) Explain you need just five minutes of your boss’s time to sign off on a project, and if you get it—you won’t need further input until later next week. The opportunity for professional log-jammers to painlessly cross off another To Do list item holds much allure.

It may sound like you’re doing some of your boss’s job keeping work on track. And that’s because, well, you are! You’re managing up and ensuring you get what you need. 

Procrastination comes in all shapes and sizes… “I’ll get back to you,” “Let me think about it,” “I’m working on it,”—you’ve likely heard it all. But let them be cues that it’s time to take action. (Please don’t procrastinate on it!)