my boss expects me to respond immediately no matter what I’m doing — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’m having a hard time with my direct supervisor’s expectations around response time, and I’m not sure how I should adjust or if she needs to adjust. In regards to email, she gets frustrated with our coworkers who don’t respond to her in two hours, and will call if they don’t respond in that window. She also marks emails as “high importance” so often that it’s meaningless. I try to gently remind her that general etiquette is to respond within 24 hours, and when reminded, she gives people the time to respond, which they do. Several people have expressed their frustration with her email response expectation to me.

This morning, she asked me if I was having trouble with my work-provided cell phone because I didn’t answer when she called two days ago. I was deeply focused on finishing a paragraph and planned to call her back as soon as I was finished –in less than 10 minutes. She immediately called my desk phone when I didn’t pick up my cell phone, and I answered because I thought it was an emergency. It wasn’t (she was complaining about traffic on her way to a meeting). We share an office. If we are talking through something, or a colleague stops by to chat about a project and the phone rings, she will stop everything to answer and leave everyone waiting. I find that rude to the people in the room. If I’m not in a meeting or deeply focused, I try to pick up every time someone calls. If I miss a call, I try to respond to voicemails as soon as possible that day. I was chastised for not immediately picking up when she called the other day. She will often call people multiple times if they don’t pick up and leave multiple messages in one day.

I’m not sure it’s relevant, but she has ADHD and I do not. She has a hard time focusing and jumps from project to project while I prefer to focus on one thing at a time. I think setting more reasonable response expectations will improve her relations with our colleagues, who view her as scattered and unorganized. And how do I find balance?

Can you name the issue to her directly? As in: “Is your expectation that I will always pick up immediately when you call and respond to emails immediately? If I’m focusing deeply on something, I generally let calls go to voicemail until I’m at a better stopping place. I do the same with email. I always get back to people within a day, or much faster if it’s time sensitive. But I work best when I can focus when I need to.”

And then, assuming she agrees this is reasonable: “Okay, then I’ll assume you know that if I don’t answer immediately it’s because I’m in the middle of something else, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I have a reasonable opportunity to do that.”

If she doesn’t agree that it’s reasonable, you’ve got bigger issues. If that’s the case — if she actually says that she expects you to always drop whatever you are doing to respond immediately, even if she’s just calling to complain about traffic — then how much to push back depends on what you know about her and what your relationship is like. With some bosses, the right strategy would be to just go on doing what you’ve been doing, answering her when you have time, and then if she complains, just say, “I was in the middle of X, but I’m free to talk now.” With other bosses, you might have success pushing back with something like, “I don’t think that’s feasible when I have projects that require deep focus like XYZ, and when I’ll sometimes be on other calls or in a meeting.” Choose your approach based on what you know about your boss (and maybe partly based how much energy you have for dealing with this, too).

But I don’t think you should spend energy and capital trying to improve her relations with your colleagues and how they view her. You have bigger battles to fight, and her relations with other people are hers to manage. But you absolutely have standing to talk about how you work best, and to try to hash out her responsiveness expectations for you.

One note: It’s not a universal work rule that people have 24 hours to respond to an email; that varies widely depending on the nature of the work and the nature of the email. Some messages do need to be addressed much faster than that. So you shouldn’t keep telling her that’s the rule, as she rightly might not see it that way. (That doesn’t mean the rule is what she thinks it is — to respond immediately at all times no matter what — but if you’re arguing for 24 hours in all cases, you’re probably veering too far in the other direction.)

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