Higher level employee presents an obstacle to project completion

Dear Joan:
I am jointly responsible for a project with an individual who is not communicating information to me that I feel would be helpful in successfully completing a project. This individual is at a higher level in the organization and tends to feel more comfortable communicating at his own level of the organization. I am able to eventually get the information I need but its timeliness affects my ability to plan well. 

This individual is viewed by peers and his own employees as a poor communicator and a procrastinator and ends up fighting fires because he "sits" on things until they become a crisis.

I would like to not only complete a successful project but to build a positive communication style with this individual, as I am sure there will be a need for cooperation on future projects.  

The tricky part of your situation is that he is at a higher rank than you are. However, there are still several things you can do, so that you don't get the same reputation he has for late work and poor communication.

To make sure you are protected from any fall-out regarding a late project, discuss the matter with your boss. But don't complain to your boss or expect him or her to act on your behalf...yet.

The purpose of your discussion is to explain what has happened in the past and present your plan for the future. Tell your boss before you begin that you are only looking for his or her opinion or your plan. If you complain to your manager, he or she will feel compelled to step in and fix it for you. This could put your boss in an uncomfortable political position. You should only ask for this kind of assistance if everything you try fails and his behavior seriously impairs your own performance.  

When you describe the problem to your boss be careful not to insert your own personal judgment and criticism. Simply state how his lateness affected your finished product. Include the interventions you took to improve the situation and how he responded. Above all, you want to sound professional and concerned about the end results. You don't want to sound whiny, gossipy, vindictive or blaming.  

Your initial plan should be designed to make it easier for him to meet your deadlines. (If this plan doesn't work, try to find a way to get sole accountability for the project.)  

For instance, perhaps you can give him shorter deadlines. If you really must have the information by the end of the month, ask him for his portion by the middle of the month. Even if he's late by two weeks, you will still get it in time.  

At the start of each project, meet with him to discuss the information you will need and the necessary deadlines. Discuss the importance of those deadlines. Send a summary memo to him with copies to your boss and people who have a vested interest in the project. In your first meeting, set up some subsequent meetings. Knowing he has to face you soon in an up-coming meeting will provide extra incentive to be ready with the information.  

If the information you need follows a set format, perhaps you can design a form or worksheet he can use that will facilitate collecting the information. Sometimes, disorganized people need a tool to help them get started.  

Offer to collect the information yourself. If your poky friend collects data from other people or from a computer program, perhaps you can do it for him. Suggest that he must have more important things to do and that you would be more than happy to take this off his shoulders. Besides, it may give you some extra exposure to senior level people. If he's procrastinating, he probably dislikes doing it and may welcome your offer.  

If the information you need can be broken down into pieces, you may have better luck requesting it that way. Procrastinators put off tackling projects they perceive as large and time-consuming. Perhaps you can ask for one fourth of the data earlier and at least get a start on your finished product.  

If you break down your projects into smaller requests, tell him in advance what you are doing and explain that it may help both of you start working on the project earlier and won't be such a burden at the end. Explain that you will be sending reminder memos, since this is a new procedure and it will take both of you a while to get used to this system. Then send him a reminder memo with a relatively short deadline. He won't have time to stuff the memo somewhere and forget about it; it will be due soon and procrastinators usually work on whatever has the shortest deadline at the moment.  

It sounds as though you have been discussing your dilemma with other people, which may be how you found out about his reputation. Be careful about who you tell. If the story is repeated, it will sound something like this: "…If you think that’s bad, you should hear what John Smith told me about how he is screwing up John's projects..."  

The only person who really needs to know about how it is affecting your work is your boss. He or she is the one who evaluates your performance and discusses your career advancement with others. If there are a few others who receive your work and are annoyed with your tardiness, subtly mention that there is a problem getting the information you need from upstream. If they say, "Oh, I bet I know who the problem is!" smile knowingly and say nothing.  

In the end, he will probably do himself in. In the meantime, you will learn a great deal about how to manage upward. It will be great preparation if you ever have to report to a boss with the same problem.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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