How to Deal with Time Bullies

Addressing people who have little respect for your time at work.

Posted Nov 20, 2019

Ivana Divisova/Pixaby
Source: Ivana Divisova/Pixaby

How many times has this happened to you? You’re diligently working on your various work tasks, having organized your schedule well, and then your plans are thrown into disarray because someone comes to you you with an “urgent” request that requires immediate attention. Now you have to scramble, maybe working into the evening or weekend, because your colleague did not manage their project effectively and did not give you enough lead time.

You are dealing with a time bully.

This is a common experience in organizations and often represents a form of disrespect.  Disrespect for your work. Disrespect for your schedule. And disrespect for you. It can reveal that the perpetrator is concerned about his or her own objectives, indifferent to yours, and is content to push your needs aside. Such behavior is aggressive, unprofessional, and, sadly, often unnecessary.

Let’s be clear. Sometimes pressing issues that require quick attention do arise at work and enlisting the immediate assistance of others is unavoidable. However, too often the urgent matters that require us to drop everything and attend to the time-sensitive demands of others are simply due to poor planning and bad management.

Standing Up to Time Bullies

Depending on the specific situation you’re in, you may be able to do something about these unreasonable requests and avoid being victimized by unorganized or discourteous colleagues.  Fundamentally, this involves standing up for yourself and refusing to allow yourself to be bullied. As Warren Buffet advises, being successful means sometimes saying no. This requires some courage and assertiveness skills, but it's well worth it.

At my various jobs I have tried to demonstrate respect for the administrative assistants I work with by always giving them lots of time to work on anything I need help with. However, the admins have regularly complained to me about the time-sensitive demands more senior employees place upon them. For example, sometimes employees will insist mid-morning that a pile of photocopies must be produced by lunchtime. Such people expect the admins to drop everything they’re doing, which may include other time-sensitive tasks, and put this new request at the top of the queue.

I have repeatedly urged the admins to refuse to do it. I've advised them to alert their fellow employees that they will make every effort to oblige all requests, but that they cannot guarantee that last-minute demands can be accommodated. I also advise them to stipulate explicitly how much lead time they need for various tasks and, with the approval of their boss, make this official by circulating it in writing.

Respect Yourself

In the end, whatever you’re willing to put up with at work is exactly what you’re going to get. Have enough self-respect to demand respect from others. Unless the need for a mountain of photocopies arises because of some unforeseen development, a demand made at the last minute represents poor scheduling and a lack of professionalism on the part of others that should not be tolerated.

We have to be realistic. Not every employee can do this, and not all the time. Each of us needs to be adaptive, flexible, and understand that sometimes demands will be made of us that take us out of our comfort zone, require extra effort, and adjustment of our plans. That’s part of the world of work. However, when unreasonable requests become commonplace, or when you are constantly given pressing deadlines and then your output does not get acted on for weeks or longer, the demands being placed upon you are unnecessary and disrespectful. 

Years ago I read a wise refrain: "Givers have to set limits because takers never will." It is perfectly reasonable to ask why a particular deadline is so pressing and if an extension is possible. It is perfectly acceptable to insist on a sufficient amount of lead time for most tasks you undertake. And depending on how much credibility, power, or status you have at work, it is perfectly appropriate to simply say you can’t make deadlines that are unreasonably imposed. If you act like a doormat, people tend to walk all over you. Oftentimes the first step in garnering other people’s respect is demonstrating to them the respect you have for yourself.

Building a Civil Workplace

Research shows that organizational development efforts to make our workplaces more respectful and civil can be highly effective. One of the first steps in this process is identifying the respectful behaviours we want to be prevalent at work. One candidate for such civil behavior is always providing people with a reasonable amount of time to work on tasks and projects so that they are not unnecessarily stressed, overloaded, or pressed for time. This plays a role in creating a culture of civility in which our behavior displays that we regard others as equals, and appreciate the value of their time.

Depending on your role, position, or tenure in an organization sometimes you simply have to do what you are told and address the seemingly urgent matters imposed by time bullies. But hopefully you eventually achieve or command a status that allows you to minimize such behavior and serve as a role model for others of how to professionally manage your time and the time of others. Time is such a precious resource. It shouldn’t be misspent on urgent matters that never needed to be urgent.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Your Workplace magazine.