Servant Leadership Workplace-Deadlines

5 Tips for Setting Deadlines Well

It’s Monday morning. You’re back at work. Now comes a meeting with your manager.

Here’s one way it could go:

Your manager: “Can you get me a draft of the report for Client A by Wednesday?”

You: “I got a lot on my plate. Can I get the draft to you on Friday?”

Your manager: “What about Thursday?”

You: “If I skip the teacher conference at my kid’s school on Thursday morning, I can finish the draft by close of business that day.”

Your manager: “Teacher conferences are not my problem. I want the draft on my desk first thing Thursday morning.”

Alternatively, the meeting with your manager could go this way:

Your manager: “How was your weekend? [Conversation and further questions follow.*] OK, can we talk about the report for Client A? What else is on your plate?”

You: “I have to finish a presentation for Client B.”

Your manager: “Wow, Client B is our firm’s most important client. Congratulations for getting assigned to that account. When is the presentation for Client B due?”

You: “I promised it for Wednesday.”

Your manager: “Well, you should get that presentation done first. That’s a top priority for everyone here at the firm. When do you think you could get me a draft of the report for Client A?”

You: “If I skip the teacher conference at my kid’s school on Thursday morning, I can finish the draft by close of business that day.”

Your manager: “No, don’t be silly. The report can wait.”

You: “Does Friday work?”

Your manager: “It’s a deal. Thanks!”

I hope your manager is more like the second one than the first one.

And, if you’re a manager who aspires to be a servant-leader, here are 5 tips for setting deadlines well.

  1. Don’t be arbitrary. In the first scenario above, the manager didn’t need the report for Client A on Wednesday. The Wednesday deadline seems arbitrary. Arbitrariness is the hallmark of crappy leadership. Setting arbitrary deadlines is often just a power move used remind others who is in charge.
  2. Set deadlines by agreement, not by command. The worst leaders make decisions unilaterally. The best leaders – the servant-leaders – involve people in making decisions that involve them. In my experience, a deadline set by agreement is more likely to be met than one imposed from above.
  3. Use prioritization, not negotiation. The second manager tried to figure out what you were working on and how your work related to the interest of the entire firm. That’s good servant-leader behavior. The first manager simply negotiated another arbitrary deadline. Not good.
  4. Don’t act like a jerk. Deadlines at work sometimes take precedence over things at home – like the teacher conference in the cases above. Servant-leaders recognize the importance of deadlines. At the same time, they care about the personal things a deadline might affect. Jerks don’t care.
  5. Say thanks. In the deadline-setting process, think of yourself as an influencer and a persuader, not a commander and controller. Remember what management thinker Peter Drucker said: “Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.” Which makes thanking behavior so important.

What do you think? Are there other tips you would add for setting deadlines?


As always, we appreciate your views.


* Here’s what went on before the manager got down to the business of client reports: “3 Things to Say on Monday Morning.”