When A Manager Is the Biggest Bottleneck in Your Work

It’s hard to be productive when your manager is a bottleneck in your work. How can you keep your productivity high when work seems to screech to a halt when it lands on your manager’s desk?

We asked our four career experts, and here’s what they had to say:

Alison Green says:

If your manager’s need to sign off on or give input on work is creating a bottleneck in your workflow, you have three basic options:

1. Point the problem out to your boss and suggest alternatives. For instance, you might say, “I know you get a ton of emails and documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? I was thinking it might be easier to review if I brought it to our meetings, or maybe there’s some of it that I can move forward with on my own.”

2. Experiment with ways to minimize her need to give input without totally cutting her out of things she needs to be involved in. For instance, on certain types of projects you might include a note saying “I’ll plan to ___ (send this to the printer/move forward as outlined here/run with these numbers) on Friday unless I hear otherwise from you before then.”

3. Plan accordingly. If you know that your boss is a bottleneck, you can cut down on some of the frustration by building in time for that delay from the beginning. For instance, if you know you’ll need her okay on a marketing strategy before you can start delegating to your team, take care of that piece of the work first. Get her your overall blueprint as early as possible, and then work on other pieces while you’re waiting for her response – as opposed to waiting until later in the process to approach her, when you might need a faster turnaround and be more inconvenienced if you don’t get one.

And keep in mind that even great managers can sometimes create bottlenecks for their staff, when they have higher priorities that demand their time. Sometimes that bottleneck just reflects the reality that there are more pressing demands right now – and that’s not unreasonable.

Alexandra Levit says:

This is a common problem, unfortunately, and one that requires you to manage up.  When you submit a new assignment, let your boss know through multiple channels that it’s ready for her review.  At the very least, email her and mention it to her in person if possible.  Passively sending over the assignment and waiting for her to do something with it is a surefire way into the bottleneck.  Remind her of the big picture (i.e. what larger initiative your assignment is a part of and why it’s critical) and give her a concrete deadline to respond.  A day ahead of that deadline, send a friendly reminder and re-attach the document in question.

If this strategy doesn’t work, it’s time for an assertive conversation.  Take her aside at a moment when she isn’t super busy or stressed and ask her frankly about the best way to get your work reviewed in a timely manner.  Is there a time of day or a submission method that works better for her?  Can you phrase your emails more effectively?  Talk in terms of the best interests of the group and the organization – you just want to be as productive as possible.  Hopefully, the talk will open her eyes and improve her behavior.

No matter what you do, your manager may still have the tendency to bottleneck.  She probably isn’t trying to make your life difficult – some people are just scattered and disorganized.  However, this situation doesn’t have to impact your job satisfaction or even your overall productivity.  While that assignment is in queue, don’t let this boss stop you from moving forward.  See what you can work on with other senior managers.  Engage in professional development.  Turn to another aspect of the same project.  Just keep busy and engaged until the assignment eventually returns to you.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

Together with your manager, create a system for her feedback and approval that can work for the both of you. It is in your manager’s best interest to keep your productivity up, so approach the conversation from that angle. Ask her what you can do to help her get back to you more quickly.

Make it easy for your manager to respond by communicating what you need from her by when. If you expect an extensive collaboration or thorough feedback, schedule a meeting specifically for that purpose. Don’t be shy when it comes to following-up. Managers appreciate a reminder when they have dropped the ball.

When your manager is well-aware of what you are working on, she will expect to review or approve your project plans and drafts, making it easy to get what you need. Keep your manager in the loop on your projects by discussing them during your one-on-one meetings, summarizing your active work in a weekly email, or mentioning what you are currently working on in passing or during a team meeting. You may also want to look into a tool like Intuit QuickBase to use with your team and boss.

From your own time management perspective, try to manage your workload in a way that you finish the items that need to be handed off first, leaving you with things to do still while you await a response. Lastly, when writing project plans or timelines, be sure to take your manager’s response time into account when you are planning your work.

Anita Bruzzese says:

You need to speak to the boss immediately. Doing anything else to fix this issue is purely guesswork on your part, and that’s bound to end up badly.

Explain in a private meeting with the boss that you’ve noticed some things are not moving swiftly through the pipeline, and you’re interesting in doing what you can to keep the work moving smoothly.  Every boss I’ve ever worked for has her own way of doing things, and it could be that things are getting stuck because of some small problem that she feels she needs to correct. Or, it could be that there is a far bigger problem and you need to be aware of it because it eventually could impact your job.

Bosses are often bottlenecks when they’re feeling insecure and want to ensure perfect results or are unclear or anxious about what they should be doing. By offering to pitch in, in small ways – and larger ways if you can – you can help to gain her trust so that she may be more willing to let work flow to you because she knows you’ve got her back.














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Suneera

    Hey, I have tried everything that’s mentioned in the article, however, my supervisor is being a damned prick. I have tried complaining to the boss, but she is in his favour. She believes that i am incompetent. The reason i am like this is because she does not give me any work to do! When i brought this matter up during the meeting, our relationship got from bad to worse. I am really at my wits end.

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