My Team Constantly Back-Burners My Priorities

Jun 3, 2014
9 Min Read

When you work on a team that must collaborate on competing priorities and yours always seem to be the last to get added the “to do” list (or sprint if you’re doing Agile), how do you advocate/influence the team to give your work/tasks priority over their own? Do you just say, “OK guys, it’s been two months and I still haven’t gotten any support from team member X to finish the Acme project. Are you going to have some cycles next week?" What if they say, "Sorry, still working on the Jones project, maybe next month?"

Four of our workplace experts have weighed in on this question to give you four points of view.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

First, do an honest assessment: is your priority really more important than the others? If the answer is yes, to choose the best course of action, first get to the root cause of why you aren’t getting the resources you need. You’ll likely find that it is either a personal issue, a relationship issue, or a systemic/process issue.

• Personal Issue: Something about you, your actions, or your communication. Have you clearly stated what you need, by when, and why? Explain the reason for the urgency of the project. Do other team members understand the importance of this work? Be assertive in communicating the interdependencies. Try articulating how it helps move your collective mission forward.

• Relationship Issue: Have you built trust? Do the other team members respect your work and your viewpoint? Might there be some passive-aggressive behavior going on? Less straightforward to identify, you’ll have to sit someone down (someone who will give it to you straight), explain your concerns, ask for advice, and be sure to ask some hard questions as well. Be prepared to hear something you might not like.

• Systemic/process issue: If it’s neither of the above, perhaps the total workload is unmanageable and the focus is on the wrong things. Review workflows and your methods around how work gets prioritized.

Alison Green says:

I love the way Eva has laid this out. I completely agree that the first step is to objectively assess the team’s priorities as a whole and how your project fits into that, setting aside your personal investment in your own projects. And if you determine that your team members really should be prioritizing what you need from them, then I’d next make sure that you’ve really explained the context to them for why what you need is important. If that doesn't get you anywhere, your team may need a different method for making decisions about time allocation. A system that depends merely on the good will of others in lending you their time, when different people have different perspectives on what’s most important, is a system doomed to break down like this.

That’s where your manager comes in. It’s her job to keep her eye on the big picture and to give guidance and direction when pieces of that picture are out of harmony. Ultimately, people may want to stay focused on the work that’s nearest and dearest to them, but your manager is responsible for ensuring that work is moving forward and not being stymied by people making prioritization choices different than her own.

Alexandra Levit says:

Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not all that surprised that your colleagues aren't tripping over themselves to prioritize your projects. It sounds like you are approaching them with the attitude "I need you to help me with my projects," and what exactly is motivating them to do that?

Here's a hard truth about the business world: other people don’t care what you want or need. Human beings are selfish creatures and want to know what’s in it for them. If you need your colleagues' assistance, you have to make them want to help you.

How do you do this? First, examine the situation from their point of view and determine their work priorities. What do they have to get done, and how are they being evaluated? Then, in your initial approach, talk about what they want and how your completed project can help them get it.

Since I don't know what your projects are, I can't offer you specific wording, but here's an example from my own career. Once upon a time, my colleague Alan knew that one of my job responsibilities was to find and publish the latest Internet marketing statistics on our team’s blog. He needed my help convincing our supervisor to buy us access to a new monitoring service. While this new service would benefit Alan and his team, he knew it would also benefit me.

Here's what he said: “Alex, I think this new service would help you research your stats in half the time. If you could mention this to Paula, that would be great.” I had no trouble supporting Alan’s cause because he had made clear that it was going to help me as well. It was a win for Alan because he got his service, a win for me because my research time decreased, and a win for the company because productivity went up!

This approach does take a bit of extra time and consideration, but you'll more than make up for it by cutting nagging time and more quickly harnessing your colleagues' cooperation.

Anita Bruzzese says:

The real problem appears to be that you lack influence with your other team members. How to get some? First, make sure you're not whining about not getting what you want. You need to be upbeat and positive so that others want to listen to your message. Support them in what they do with words of encouragement and respect, and they will be more open to helping you. In his book, "Enchantment," Guy Kawasaki talks about not holding your actions over someone's head such as saying, "Yeah, I helped you so now you have to help me," but instead saying, "You're welcome. I know you would do the same for me." That can embed that thought in your teammate's subconscious and set the stage for reciprocity.

For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

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