No one wants to disappoint his or her boss. Even if you’re not always in agreement with your manager, if you respect him and generally want to do good work, you probably want to avoid doing anything that’ll make him unhappy with you. But what if this person has such high expectations that you think there’s no way you can live up to them? What happens if you start to feel like his growing expectations are setting you up for failure?
It’s important to note that there’s a fine line between a supervisor with high expectations who challenges you to do your best work and a boss with unrealistic expectations. The trick is to know which one you’re dealing with before taking action.
There are a few ways to spot the differences. A boss with high, but manageable expectations often has a record of successful employees that have advanced in their careers and moved into leadership roles. A manager with unrealistic expectations oftentimes has high turnover rates within his department and doesn’t do a good job of preparing his employees for advancement opportunities.
Whether your boss expects you to work with total disregard for work-life balance or expects high quality work delivered in an unrealistic timeframe, these pressures can cause a lot of stress and will eventually (or not so eventually) lead you to look for a new job.
Once you’ve determined that your manager’s expectations are truly unrealistic, you can take action—without putting your job on the line. The key is to “train” your boss to lower his expectations to a reasonable, sane level.
Your goal is to try and actually change your boss’ bad behavior. It’s all about setting boundaries and being confident, firm, and consistent in your approach.
1. Respond to Late Night and Weekend Emails with Timelines
Many managers today expect their employees to be tuned into their work email at all times. If this is the case with your boss, there’s probably not much you can do about it. In fact, I recommend always responding to emails outside of work hours if that’s an expectation that’s been set early on. However, my advice is that you don’t respond with actual answers or completed work—unless you’ve been given an unmistakable, urgent deadline. Instead, give a reasonable timeline for which you’ll complete the assignment; lay out a clear plan to avoid any subsequent confusion or further emailing. Try this:
I reviewed your email and the assignment details. I will be able to have X deliverable completed and sent to you by 2 PM on Monday afternoon. I’ll let you know if I have any questions as I’m plugging away.
Reply like this enough times, and your boss will start to recognize your boundaries. An acknowledgment of the request and a stated timeline provides peace of mind for your manager (you received and read the email) and reduced stress for you (you’re available outside work hours to read and answer her emails, but you’re not working 24 hours a day).
2. Don’t Wait to Be Told What to Do
If you have a boss that routinely waits until Friday afternoon to assign tasks that are due on Monday, take notice of this trend and work to change it. Instead of waiting for your assignment at 2 PM on a Friday, make a point to ask if there is anything you can get wrapped up before the weekend on Thursday afternoon. You might even suggest something to help things along.
Here’s what you can say,
I finished X and Y, and I’ve got some time left today to start looking at anything pressing for Monday. Let me know if I can begin working on [insert name of potential project].
Not only does this approach allow you to clear up your weekend and make it work-free, but it also shows that you are taking the initiative in asking for additional projects instead of surfing the internet while you wait for him to present you with your next task.
3. Team Up
When your boss gives you a deadline that you know cannot be met during reasonable work hours, instead of staying up all night or missing a weekend getaway you’ve had planned for two months, request to have a colleague team up with you on the project.
This allows you to further put boundaries in place and enjoy life outside of work. It can also have the added benefit of helping you build leadership skills. Suggest pairing up with a newer colleague or even an intern who is eager to prove herself. If you get the green light from your manager, you can delegate tasks and be the point-person throughout the project. The next time you receive an assignment that threatens to take over your Saturday and Sunday, approach your boss with this:
This is a meaty assignment, and I’m happy to be heading it up, but if Monday is the hard deadline, I think it’d be great to loop in [Co-worker Name] so we can divide, conquer, and turn in the highest quality work before the end of the workday.
Having a “can-do” attitude and putting in extra hours at work when needed is important and likely to happen from time to time, but when your boss’ expectations are extreme and detrimental to either the quality of the work or your personal well-being, it’s necessary to speak up and modify what’s expected so that you can thrive and make your manager happy. Never underestimate going the extra mile to prove yourself, but also be confident in your ability to draw clear lines between work and personal life.