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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Reality Check: How to Handle Unrealistic Expectations From Your Boss

Wanting to impress your boss is natural. You work hard, your manager and colleagues notice, and eventually you’ve made your way up the ladder. Pretty clear, right?

Well, what happens when your boss isn’t exactly on the same page—or even planet—when it comes to his or her expectations of your performance? It’s a delicate situation. On one hand, it’s never fun to tell your manager you can’t handle your workload—whatever the reason. But on the other, you’re setting yourself up for failure (and a whole lot of stress) if you keep quiet.

I’ll be the first to admit that telling a manager he or she has unrealistic expectations isn’t easy, but with a little guidance, it’s totally doable. Before you pull your hair out or give yourself an ulcer, here’s what I suggest:

1. Do an Insecurity Check

OK, so before we go any further, you have to make sure what your boss is asking for is in fact, unreasonable. While you may feel a deadline is too tight or a task is beyond your capabilities, your boss might know better. Managers—good ones, anyway—will often push you to stretch beyond your comfort zone to help you develop new skills. After all, knowing how to do everything all the time feels great, but without new challenges, our skills become stale pretty quickly.

If your boss is pushing you to do more and you’re feeling overwhelmed, first ask yourself why. Is it because you really can’t do the work? Or is it because it’s something new that you’re not too comfortable with yet?

Figuring out where the stress is coming from is a good first step. And if you discover the real reason for your anxiety is simply insecurity or inexperience, give yourself a chance and take your best shot.

If however, that isn’t the case, read on.

2. Consult Your Colleagues

Even if your workload is something that only you can do, your office mates—especially those with a bit more experience or expertise—may have some great tips. And I’m not talking just about the work. If you’re feeling frustrated with your boss’ expectations, chances are other people have been there, too.

Ask around the office, and see if any of your co-workers can provide insight or expertise on handling the workload or handling your boss. For example, if you check in with Bob from accounting, you might learn that your boss tends to lean on employees she can trust. Without that insight, you may have assumed your boss was simply a disconnected taskmaster. And while this information won’t magically lighten your workload, it will guide your strategy on addressing your overflowing plate.

3. Make a List

Once you’ve determined your manager isn’t simply helping you along your career path and you’ve chatted with your colleagues, it’s time to figure out exactly why your manager’s requests are unreasonable.

Whenever I’m facing a challenge, organizing my thoughts in list format always helps, and this situation is no exception. Write down everything that’s on your plate, especially the demands you think are unreasonable. Then, think through why you’re feeling challenged to get things done.

For example, it may seem obvious that the reason you’re stressing about a project is because your boss gave you the assignment on Monday, it’s due on Friday, and you don’t have enough time to get things done. But is that really the issue? Sure, time will always be a consideration, but what’s preventing you from dropping all your other obligations to get this one done? Does your boss even know what else you have on your plate? Make a list of everything you’re working on that will be impacted by the new assignment, including who else is involved and the corresponding deadlines.

A detailed list and timeline of what you’re already working on will not only help you see your workload in its entirety, it’ll give you the backup you’ll need for the next step.

4. Talk to Your Boss

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but given our natural motivation to meet or exceed our manager’s expectations, this is by far the hardest step in the process. Fortunately, you have a great list in hand to help walk your boss through the challenges you’re expecting. Here’s how to approach that meeting:

  • Do it Early: The instant you suspect your boss is overestimating your capacity to get the job done, after you’ve completed steps 1 through 3, speak up.
  • Be Confident: Telling your boss you’re anticipating challenges meeting his or her expectations may feel like admission of failure, but it’s not. Approach your conversation with your boss with confidence—but not cockiness—and your boss will see that your concerns are coming from experience, not insecurity.
  • Have a Plan: It’s one thing to voice a concern, but when a deadline is at stake, solutions are what’s really needed. If you know your boss is asking too much, it’s fine to say so—your list will back you up here—but make sure you have some alternatives ready when you do. Maybe it’s extending the deadline on another project or enlisting the help of a few colleagues with more experience. No matter what you do, don’t go to your boss empty-handed.

If your manager seems to have lost touch with reality when it comes to his or her expectations, getting a handle on your own first is key. Get to the bottom of what’s really stressing you out about your boss’ demands, and be prepared to have a constructive discussion about why he or she might be expecting a bit too much. If you’re prepared and thoughtful, chances are you’ll exceed expectations anyway.

Photo of stressed man courtesy of Shutterstock.