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How to ask your manager “What is the Priority?” – (and get an answer!)

Step 1. Don’t! ….. That’s right: Don’t ever ask “What is the Priority?” to your Manager.

“But wait- how do I know what to work on first?” – “I have too much on my plate!” – “It’s not reasonable request.” “It conflicts with this other work I’m doing”….. etc.

Exactly! That is exactly why you do not say "What is the Priority?" to your manager. You may have heard to never pass problems up to your manager, instead provide recommendations - this is a similar concept. There are many more effective ways to proactively establish the priority and position yourself, and your team, for success without using "what is the priority?" as a cop out.

When it comes down to it, there are very few good answers to “What is the priority?” and without all the context, your manager is unlikely to be able to address your real underlying questions/concerns. Invest the time to ask a good question and you are much more likely to get an answer that you can run with.

Let us consider alternatives to “What’s the priority?”

  1. Is {This} a higher priority than {That}?

  2. Should I stop working on {This} to work on {That}?

  3. Will it work if I deliver {This} on {This Date}, so that I can get {That} done by {That date}?

  4. I know that {This} is important, I could use support from {Name} to make sure {That} is complete by {That date}.

  5. I’m concerned about the dependency of {This} on {That}. Which do you think should come first?

  6. I’ll make sure {manager} is aware of this new request so that we can prioritize it against {this} and {that} and I will get back to you by {date} with an ETA. Does that work?

The important component of each of these alternative statements is that you are still driving towards a priority, but you are giving the requester the tools they need to help guide you with the priority. In return you are providing recommendations and articulating potential solutions.

Don’t get me wrong, understanding the priority of something is critical to you and your team’s success. Conflicting priorities and lack of alignment between a company’s strategic goals and actual work being focused on is absolutely an issue for many teams!

“If it is important to you, you will find a way.
If not, you will find an excuse.”

Challenge yourself to be part of the solution. Help drive the priority conversations with specific alternatives. Manage up when you can and articulate changes to priorities positively to your team so that they feel their work is valued, even when pivots are required.


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