Security? What security?

Continuing our series of on-the-spot coaching advice, chartered engineer and qualified management coach Janet Wright answers your engineering management dilemmas.

Job security is an issue that we are all dealing with more and more. As the recession starts to affect the amount of cash in our businesses, most of us are finding that we are being asked to make economies Either that or we feel we are the victim of economy measures, and both scenarios can make us feel just a little less secure in our jobs.

In this article we look at two staples of insecurity. First, the nightmare of working for two bosses, both of which are calling for you to prioritise their work. And second, the all-too-familiar slashed budget. What does it mean, and is it the precursor to something more sinister?

The two case studies are generalised versions of real dilemmas we have received here at E&T magazine. Although the information and advice given here conforms to what we believe to be best practice, the advice given is not a substitute for legal advice.

Working for two bosses

Q: I work jointly for two managers who are always saying that their work is a priority. Whose work do I prioritise?

A: Many of us just look up from the grindstone one day to find that we have several people who believe that we work exclusively for them. When there is only perception for a contract then negotiating around conflicts of interest can be tricky. At least we do have our contract of work to fall back on if an amicable agreement cannot be reached.

So you're not alone. However, in your case you have the advantage of both managers being legitimate. How can you successfully work for and treat both with equal priority? You know the answer to that: you can't.

This conflict has not been caused by you, so why take responsibility for resolving it? Full marks for your efforts, however, whatever you have attempted has not yielded any long-lasting success, or you wouldn't be seeking my advice.

I think it's time to metaphorically 'bang' your two managers head's together. If they are fully aware that they share you as a resource then they cannot abdicate from their responsibility of prioritising their work for you. However, it is your responsibility to highlight this to them.

It's unfortunate that many managers use a reactive rather than proactive management style. That is to say, that they 'pile on' the work and wait for an employee to call "time-out". The problem is that it takes courage to call out because many employees have the perception - unintentionally or often intentionally fuelled by the manager, that this would be demonstrating weakness. And who would promote a 'weak' employee to more senior roles?

Again, shame on them! This is because once the employee does pluck up the courage to call time-out (often after the issue has grown far larger than it ought to have done); the manager will own up to his or her responsibility and get involved in resolving the problem.

The trouble is that if the employee, for whatever reason, cannot find the courage to highlight that they are struggling then they close down their options; maybe they look to change role - to get away from the issue, or they choose to do nothing. This leads to undue stress that will ultimately impact performance.

I encourage you to be courageous and call a time-out with your managers. By all means be actively involved in the meeting, but resist the temptation to offer solutions. It's their responsibility to find a solution and yours to confirm that it is workable.

My budget's been axed

Q: My budget is being cut next year, which is very disappointing as I feel I've used it to maximum effect this year and started up a number of good projects that are already bringing in returns. How do I communicate this to my manager? It will also mean some of my projects will have to close.

A: Budgets; the bane of every manager's life. Why do they cause so much heartache? It's all down to the differing approaches companies employ to manage their finances and the way that they communicate to staff, or not, as the case may be.

Some companies use budgets as a guide to spending while others treat them as fixed and immovable objects; this tends to be sector dependent. In some companies your performance is measured against hitting budget, while in others it's about coming in under budget. Some budgets are constructed top down and others bottom-up. 

How does your company manage its budget? If you're not sure then ask. However, if your manager has no real budgeting authority then he may be difficult to pin down on this topic. If your company budgets top-down then no matter how much involvement you, or your manager, have in the budgeting cycle you will still end up being given a number to manage and it's likely to be less than the one you were hoping for.

In my experience, it always pays off to build a relationship with your finance department. This way, you can keep abreast of changes that may affect you. Being proactive means remaining in control. If you're reactive you become a victim of circumstance and this will have an impact on your performance. 

You feel that you've used your budget to maximum effect. Does your manager agree? If you do not have an effective mechanism for keeping your manager apprised of the projects then it is unlikely that he will be in a good position to defend you in financial reviews. 'Indefensible' spend is a prime target for cuts. Even if your manager expresses disinterest in progress reports, find a way to keep him apprised.

I'm sure an element of your performance includes managing your budget. As you sit down with your manager to set your 2009 objectives, you have a perfect opportunity to share your frustration; but from a project benefits perspective rather than a monetary one.

Translating the returns you mention into a monetary value is the language that appeals to accountants. What savings will the projects you're currently running yield? Will they reduce capital spend or bring efficiencies in headcount - more output for the same staffing levels, perhaps? How quickly will these savings be realised? If they will be seen within the same financial year as their implementation then you're in a much stronger position to negotiate and trade benefits against some of the proposed cuts. What other bargaining points might you be able to bring to the table?

It might be that senior management is imposing cuts to see which departments push back hardest. These departments will be perceived as the ones most deserving of budget relief. However, it's unlikely that the company will increase the overall budget number. It is more likely that you will be competing for the same pot of money as everyone else looking to protect his or her budget. You must build a strong case and be prepared to fight your corner.

You have to decide how much effort you want to expend defending your budget. It's important that you fully understand the chances of success before you embark on this; the most sensible approach may be to accept that you will not get the funds you need to carry out all that you had planned next year. Redirecting your efforts into reviewing what you can do rather than what you will not be able to do might be a far more sensible approach.

Like any successful negotiator, knowing at what point it will be most wise to 'walk away from the table' is critical.

If you have a management related problem that you would like to see analysed then write to

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