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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What You Should (and Shouldn't!) Say When Your Boss Has Unreasonable Expectations

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There are many words you’d use to describe your boss, but reasonable wouldn’t be one of them.

You get it—your manager has a lot on her plate, which means it’s easy for her to lose sight of exactly how much she’s asking of you.

But, while you can understand why these totally unworkable demands keep cropping up, that doesn’t mean you want to keep shouldering the burden.

How can you successfully manage up and tell your boss that her expectations are unrealistic—without seeming whiny, lazy, or unreliable? Here’s how to politely push back in several common situations.

When Your Boss Gives You an Unreasonable Deadline...

Your supervisor dropped by your desk to tell you he needs a major report compiled. And, that’s not even the worst part: He needs it by tomorrow. You know that even if you brewed a gallon of coffee and pulled an all-nighter, there’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to get it done in time.

What You’ll Want to Say: “Are you kidding me, you insensitive monster? Sure, I’m good at my job—but, that doesn’t mean I have a magic method for cramming five days’ worth of work into a mere eight hours.”

What You Should Say: “I understand that this needs to be a priority. However, I’ve reviewed the requirements for this project and I know I’ll be unable to do a solid job with this given the current deadline. Could we push the due date to Friday?”

When Your Boss Assigns You Something That Definitely Isn’t Your Job...

You know you should stay away from uttering that dreaded, “That’s not my job!” spiel in the office (there are far better ways to send that same message). However, what about when your manager tries to rope you into a duty that’s undoubtedly outside of your job description—like picking up her dry cleaning or bringing her dog to the groomer? Well, then you’re entitled to push back a little bit.

What You’ll Want to Say: “What is this—The Devil Wears Prada? I’m not your personal assistant and it’s not my job to cater to your every whim and desire. Schedule your own dentist appointment and leave me to do my actual work, you tyrant you.”

What You Should Say: “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out because I have the charts for the sales presentation and the graphics for the new marketing collateral on my to-do list this week and am planning to dedicate my full attention and energy to those. We decided together during last week’s one-on-one that those were pressing priorities.”

When Your Boss Keeps Piling on the Work...

Your supervisor obviously fancies you a productivity superhero, because he keeps doling out all sorts of tasks and assignments without any sort of concern for the towering pile of work that’s already on your plate. You’re feeling beyond stretched thin and you know you need to speak up before your ever-growing to-do list literally suffocates you.

What You’ll Want to Say: “Take a look at this, why don’t you? No, this isn’t my handwritten version of the entire encyclopedia. It’s actually my to-do list. So, why don’t you take your seemingly innocent, ‘Hey, are you busy?’ elsewhere and find somebody with a little less work, please and thank you.”

What You Should Say: “I appreciate that you trust me with this assignment. However, I have a lot of work on my plate for this week. Can we sit down and talk through what I’m currently working on to figure out what should be prioritized?”

When Your Boss Assumes You’re Available at All Hours...

It doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend, holiday, or your week-long vacation that you’ve been warning your manager about for months—she still assumes that she should be able to get in touch with you anytime, anywhere.

What You’ll Want to Say: “As much as I love your frequent inbox pings when I’m trying to enjoy my time off, I’d love to remind you that—despite popular belief—I actually do have a life outside of the office. You keep haunting me like a bad dream and my sanity is hanging on by a thread.”

What You Should Say: “In order to use my time away from work to truly relax and recharge, I want to remind you that I typically don’t check my inbox when I’m not in ‘work mode.’ I’ll make sure to get right on top of those things when I return to the office and my normal working hours.”

Managing up is always tough—but especially when your boss obviously doesn’t have a grasp on what’s realistic and what’s totally unreasonable.

While you might be screaming on the inside, it is totally possible to push back in a way that’s polite and professional. Use the above examples as your guide, and you're sure to set some healthy boundaries with your manager—without seeming like you’re shirking responsibilities.