Everybody knows or has had that one colleague who makes it their job to wage an urgent war for your attention. Their email subject lines may read “URGENT” in all caps and include exclamation points. They may contact you after-hours, or in between your other responsibilities, demanding you drop everything, because they need this done tomorrow. They clearly feel their priorities supersede your priorities. They’re a time-draining nuisance, and they need to be stopped.
You know you need to speak up to set expectations or boundaries or simply save your sanity, but you also know that you need to preserve a collegial relationship. How can you do both? Career experts and a psychologist explain how you can stop letting someone else’s urgent stress from becoming your own.
When The Person Is Your Colleague
You cannot control your colleague’s reactions to tasks and deadlines, but you can control your own. “Anxiety is contagious, stress is contagious, but so is calm,” said Monique Reynolds, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change.
Reynolds said people often keep silent in the face of someone’s constant urgent requests because of a “reactive fear-based response that says, ‘I have 15 other things to do, but I can’t say anything, because this person will be upset, or they will think that I’m not competent in my job.’” If that is what is driving you, the next time this person reaches out with an emergency, take a step back in the moment and ground yourself so that your response will be less reactive.
Reynolds suggests if your colleague’s urgency is causing your adrenaline to spike, your heartbeat to race, or your stomach to flip-flop, take a long, slow exhale and a short break to calm down. She also suggests doing a “take-five” activity where you look at five you things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. She said this take-five task “helps ground you in the moment and take you out of that emotional, reactive brain and back into your prefrontal cortex” so that “you can plan out what’d you like to say, how you’d like to respond.“
Once you’re no longer in a reactive state, you’re in the right headspace to tell your colleague about your boundaries. Depersonalize your response by focusing on the timelines, not your personal capacity to get something done. “It’s not ‘I can’t handle this,’ or ‘I’m not fast enough at this project,’” Reynolds said. “It’s ‘What’s my personal workflow?’”
Don’t be afraid to escalate the situation to your manager and let them know the facts of the situation, said Elaine Varelas, managing partner of human capital consulting firm Keystone Partners. “You’re a ‘shared service,’ not a dedicated service,” she said. Communicating the challenge to a manager can be done without accusing the emergency-maker of incompetence by saying, “I could use some help with this. They seem to have deadlines that are presenting challenges for them, and so they’re pushing those unreasonable deadlines on me,” Varelas said.
Feel empowered to push back on the request by asking about timelines with questions like, “When did your boss give this to you?” Varelas said.
And don’t feel like you have to agree right away: Getting information is how you can figure out if the ask is actually an emergency.
“Always, as much as you can, stick to the facts about what actually needs to get done and why,” said Sumayya Essack, a career change coach and licensed social worker. ”People perceive urgency differently. One person’s emergency is simply another person’s to-do list.”
When The Person Is Your Client
When you’re delivering difficult news to someone outside your work organization, Varelas suggests starting with something positive about your working relationship before framing the challenge as something that’s preventing you from doing top-quality work. Varelas said your language can sound like, “I love partnering with you; we do great work together. I could do better work for you if you could give me three days’ notice as opposed to one.”
This way, the problem becomes about production process delays instead of the person. Then ask your client what a reasonable amount of time is, and if they can accommodate your time frame. You can acknowledge that emergencies can crop up occasionally, but you want to emphasize that this will be not be normal.
“You want to redefine what your normal working arrangements will be. Make sure that that an emergency is really defined as very much out of the ordinary,” Varelas said.
When The Person Is Your Boss
Defying your boss’ demands outright is usually not an option. But you need to speak up if you’re being overworked, because overcommitment will lead to job burnout. “Don’t take on the expectation that everything will all be done at the same time. You’ve got to be able to communicate, ‘Here’s how many hours this will take,’” Verelas said.
Be transparent that taking on your bosses’ emergencies will mean that other work will get de-prioritized. Ask them what they want you to cover first. “‘I’m happy to do this now, but it means this will be delayed,’” Varelas said professionals can say. “Part of you has to show you share this urgency without freaking out.”
The goal is to get your boss on the same page as to what you’re thinking. You can do that by walking them through your current priorities. “If they spring some emergency on you, you want to be able to say, ‘OK, I was working on this thing, which I understand is urgent, because of X, Y, Z. If I take this thing, I’m going to move this other thing to tomorrow. Are we all OK with this?’” Essack said.
When The Person Is You
If you are relating too hard to the colleague who makes everything an urgent priority, it may be time to get some perspective on where you are finding work fulfillment.
If the pressure to be an emergency-maker is coming from unreasonable standards in your workplace, then you should have a talk with your manager for the sake of your mental health, Essack said. “Hopefully your boss will be responsive and understanding to that,” Essack said. “If they’re not, you may need to look for a workplace that is more understanding.”
Reynolds said you should ask yourself, “Is it a work urgency, or is this an urgency because I don’t like having things hanging over my head, because I’m uncomfortable, because I don’t have the distress tolerance to handle a longer process?” If it’s the latter, think about what you are losing for your own career by thinking in this narrow way. “People who are really deriving a lot of their sense of accomplishment from finishing a to-do list aren’t taking that opportunity to work on bigger, more strategic, potentially more impactful goals,” Reynolds said.
If you are the emergency-maker, consider how your constant emergencies are making your team less effective. “If you look at your team as having a finite set of resources, ‘If I’m using up 90% of the resources with my urgency, then we’re not getting a lot else done,’” Reynolds said.