Priority versus Importance

By Silver Rose

Priority versus Importance

In my coaching practice, I work with quite a few managers who are director level or above. What might surprise many of their employees is the angst each of them suffers as they wrestle with the impact that “being the boss” has on relationships with the co-workers who report to them.

Their angst is well-earned. It comes from several areas:
(1) Dealing with employee issues such as hurt feelings, work-related stress, co-workers who cannot work together as a team, and the endless reporting in the media of lawsuits by employees for legitimate as well as imagined wrongs.
(2) The manager’s sincere desire to work as a team instead of in a “boss/subordinate” relationship. (Most really don’t enjoy “having to boss people around.”)
(3) A hypersensitivity to sending the message to employees that their contribution is of equal importance to that of the boss.

Perhaps what we’ve forgotten, in our zeal to make sure that employees’ self-esteem remains intact, is the conversation about importance versus priority.

If the boss wants something done and you ask, “Is this more important than the task I am doing?” and she says, “Yes,” is she telling you that her job is more IMPORTANT than yours? No, she is telling you that what she wants done is of higher PRIORITY. You might not agree. To be blunt, that doesn’t matter. It is your job to do as she has asked.

A significant part of any boss’ role in the organization is to establish priorities for the department that will ensure its success. That’s what she is held accountable for by her boss. By the way, sometimes she chooses priorities that turn out to be wrong. When that happens in a healthy organization, she is held fully accountable. She doesn’t get to blame her staff. The buck stops at her desk.

A number of years ago, a straight-shooting boss of mine told me, “Your job, in a nutshell, is to make me succeed.” At the time, I thought, “Well, you egotistical so-and-so.” Now I understand what he was saying. The delivery may have been questionable but the message was valid. I worked for the department. He was head of the department. Therefore, I worked for him and my job was to make him (and therefore the department) succeed.

A smart boss will find a way for employees to do this enthusiastically. However, being nice is not part of a manager’s job description. Just because your boss might not have a personality that makes your heart sing, it doesn’t mean that you get to decide whether or not you follow his instructions. (By the way, of COURSE you shouldn’t put up with any abuse or carry out any instructions that are illegal or unethical.)

When I was in my early 30’s, I got a new boss that everyone agreed was a jerk. He once told me that, even though I had the title of department manager, my job was that of a “glorified office manager” (his words) and that I was overpaid. I went to a friend of mine who was President of a very successful company and asked his advice on how to handle it. He said, “Just put your head down and do your job.” It was good advice. I did everything I could to make my new boss successful (admittedly with gritted teeth). My efforts were not enough. He got fired. I stayed. And the “higher ups” noticed I had been a team player during a difficult time.

Here are some ways to help your boss succeed:
1. Make sure the goals you are given are specific and measurable so that it’s very clear when you’ve achieved them.
2. Use the word “priority” versus “important” so that all are clear. Instead of, “How important is this?” ask “What priority does this have in relationship to my other tasks?”
3. Don’t vote on a request (even in your head if you can avoid it). Just do it. Preferably with a good attitude.

The Law of Attraction says, “You attract more of what you focus on.” If you are focused on making your boss/ department successful, how successful do you think you might be? Think of what THAT would do to your self-esteem!