How Can I Make Sure My Team Meets Deadlines?

Aug 10, 2020

I get antsy when I haven’t heard anything as a deadline nears.

A reader asks:

I manage a team of folks who often say they’ll get something done, but then the deadline’s in less than 48 hours and they have nothing sent to me yet (after an earlier reminder). How do I remind them to get things done without panicking or nagging them?

I find myself sending frequent project updates, asking for updates, and doing lots of collaboration. Is there anything additional I can do?

Green responds:

Well, do you have any reason to think they’re likely to miss the deadline unless you keep following up?

If these are responsible people with a track record of performing well, give them the space to do their jobs. They know the deadline, and you’ve already reminded them once. You should be able to trust people to meet deadlines unless they’ve already given you reason not to. (And if they have given you reason not to trust them to meet their commitments, then that’s the problem, and the one you need to address.)

The fact that the deadline is in less than 48 hours and they haven’t sent anything to you yet just means that it’s not the deadline yet. They are assuming that the deadline you gave them is the real one. If you secretly are panicking when you don’t get anything earlier, that’s not fair to them. If you truly need it earlier, or if you need some kind of check-in from them earlier, tell them that when you’re first assigning the work. Don’t tell them the deadline is Wednesday but then get antsy when you haven’t heard anything by Monday.

Otherwise, you will annoy the hell out of them, make them feel you don’t trust them to do their jobs, and make them wonder if all your deadlines really have secret deadlines that they’re supposed to figure out on their own.

Now, that’s not to say that you should just delegate work and then disappear and just hope that when it comes back to you in a month, it looks the way you wanted it to. Particularly on large or important projects, you should stay involved along the way — to spot problems, give input, and course-correct if needed. But you want to build that into your plan from the beginning so that everyone is clear on what that will look like and how it will happen. For example, you might ask for an initial outline or a piece of a section of a written product by X date, or for a progress report by Y date, or to look at a small sample of the whole by Z date. That’s smart to do, because it will help you know early whether a project is on track and allow you to make any needed adjustments before tons of work has been done, and it will cut down on the angst you’re now feeling.

Build those check-ins into your schedule from the start and then you shouldn’t be panicking and wondering what’s going on with the work, because you’ll have a clear system to make sure you stay appropriately in the loop. Of course, don’t go overboard on that either — calibrate the level of your engagement on the basis of the skill and track record of the people on your team, and the difficulty/newness/importance of the project. With an experienced staff member who you know does good work, you might just need a single interim check-in on a monthlong project or none on a shorter project. With a newer staff member or one whose work you’re not confident in, or on a high-profile, high-stakes project, you might schedule more reviews or check-in’s along the way.

It’s too late for that on this project, of course, because you’re 48 hours away from the deadline. You’ve already issued one reminder, so at this point, you probably need to just sit tight and give people room to do their jobs.  At most — at absolute most, and only if you do have some cause for concern — you can say to people, “Is everything looking in good shape to meet our Wednesday deadline, or would it be helpful to touch base before then?”

By Alison Green