Let’s Get Real: Tips for dealing with unreasonable people

MP900443151It’s a common workplace dilemma: You start a new job, excited and eager based on what you were told in the interview. Within two weeks on the job, the bloom is fading.  A recent client framed the issue this way:  “My new boss is asking me to do things that are not part of the job, at least not the way it was described to me in my interview.  And, her demands are unreasonable – suddenly I find I have to work evenings and weekends just to keep up to her expectations. What do I do?”

The underlying issue here shows up in many relationships – any time someone else has unrealistic expectations of you. Yes, it’s often a boss, and often a new boss whom you need to impress or satisfy of your credibility. But it can just as often be your staff, your peers and your family, who expect and demand too much from you.  What can a person do when faced with unrealistic expectations?

  1. Scope the problem. Is this a short-term situation or an exception? There are many cycles in various industries where volume of work spikes.  There are also exceptional circumstances, like when a crisis require “all hands on deck.” If you are being required to step- up to a challenge that will be over in the short-term, then do it. In a new role it is important that you prove you are committed.  Leaders especially need to be available and visible during tough times.
  2. Don’t slap negative labels on the other.  It’s easy to take on a victim mentality and say things like: “He’s being unreasonable.”  Even if you feel that way, my guess is that the other person feels what they are asking for is perfectly reasonable.  Try becoming more curious. Ask lots of questions: Why does this need to be done now and not later; why is this is so important; how does this fit into the bigger scheme of things?  As Stephen Covey says, “Seek to understand before being understood.”  Often getting more information is the first step in effectively prioritizing and negotiating deadlines.
  3. Recognize leadership styles. There are some leaders who believe that the best way to motivate high performance is to keep piling on the expectations.  Either they themselves are motivated by the unreachable goal, or they were taught this method early in their career.  In fact, goal setting is a delicate science – a goal needs to be challenging enough to create energy (vs. boredom) and yet not so impossible as to be deemed ridiculous and dismissed. If you are working for someone who never stops making demands, you’ll notice they do this with everyone. It might be a simple leadership style, or an inability to empathize with others. That means it falls to you to gauge where your own healthy balance of challenge and ease lies.
  4. Show what it takes. Many leaders are actually unaware of all the steps involved in implementing their demands. In fact, the further away a leader is from the operational work, the easier it is for them to forget what is involved in making things happen.  If you seem to be too relaxed at work, they assume you don’t have enough to do. Don’t hide what it takes because you think it’s bothersome in the details. Share the details. Show the many draft copies not just the final version. Let them see you slogging away. Have your calendar show blocks of time for meetings and also for “deskwork.”
  5. Get good at estimating time required for the demands made.  Be ready and able to counter-offer demands with a more realistic expectation. Keep a log for yourself and pay attention to how long it takes to do the routine tasks that must get done. For one or two weeks do a time-study on you.  Once you are armed with factual experience, you can sit down with your boss (or peer or staff) and explain how your hours are being spent.  Here’s a new habit to take on: Instead of saying “yes” quickly when a new demand is thrown at you, politely say, “Let me figure out what’s required to do that and I’ll get back to you.”  Try not to agree to deadlines that feel unreasonable the minute you hear them. The more attention you pay to what you are doing, the more confidence you will have in pushing back.
  6. Involve others in prioritization. It’s one thing to say “I can’t do it.”  It’s another to say:” I can do this, but something has to give. We’ll have to think of what else can either wait or be given to someone else. What can we take off my calendar to get this done?”  Start from a position of wanting to accommodate and involve the asker in juggling priorities. Demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to take on emerging demands – but keep in mind that the work hours you have available are finite.
  7. Have a courageous conversation. This is especially important in the early stages of a relationship. You need to establish ways of discussing issues before they become full-blown conflicts. In the case of the new job, schedule a private meeting to discuss your perception that the role is different than what you expected. Perhaps it is changing. Perhaps the prior incumbent did lots of things that are not in the job description. Or, perhaps the new leader has seen skills, talents and experiences in you that she wants to make full use of. Whatever the reason for the shift, you need to be proactive in discussing what you are able and willing to do.   
  8. Say no. Unrealistic expectations and demands are a part of life. Whether it’s a customer, an employee or a boss, there are times when you will need to say no. Consider your personal history and comfort level with that word.  You may need to practice saying no.  Start small and say it more often. Eventually you’ll be ready to say no without feeling guilty, mean or unreasonable.

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