How to respond when your boss expects the impossible

“We just got a new project assigned to our team. You have four weeks to complete it. Oh, and there is no change to previous projects priority and deadlines” – True story.

Do you remember a situation were your manager asked you to do the impossible? Impossible means there is no way you will be successful. No way you will meet the deadline. The reason it’s impossible is the lack of resources – Time, people, skills, trust.

How do we feel when that happens? We might feel a wide variety of feelings. Angry, frustrated, afraid, stressed. We expect our managers to support us and give us tasks we can fulfill within the scheduled timeline or give us the resources to be successful.

What not to do

If you don’t do anything and follow your manager’s directives, most chances are you will fail. When you fail, there is a good chance your manager will blame you for the failure. I’m not suggesting you refuse to do the work. I recommend challenging your manager first.

A good manager makes sure to set goals that are achievable. The goals can be challenging, they can be stretch goals. The manager should believe wholeheartedly that you can accomplish the goals while growing your team, not overwork them. He should also have an idea of how to achieve the goal (and keep it to himself to let you come up with your own strategy).

In 2005 the group I worked in won a bet to fly to Greece for a full paid family vacation organized by the company. That was an excellent incentive for a goal we knew we could accomplish. Yes we worked hard, we had to be innovative, we had to change some of the ways we did things before. We had to become better. We did, and we won. The assigning manager believed we could do the job. We had the resources and the motivation to do it.

How to respond to impossible requests

Here is a fact. Your team can only invest 100% of the work. For a long project, you can even count for 120% as people will grow and get better. If you need to invest more than 100% X allocated time, you will inevitably fail.

Failing has its consequences. The project will delay, your team will take some heat , and your boss will fail. No one likes to fail. Here are the steps that will help you reduce the risk of failure:

Step 1: Estimate what can you achieve with your 100% effort – when can you finish if you had no deadline or how much work can you complete from the overall goal with the currently assigned timeline.

Step 2: Share with your manager the results of step #1 and ask for additional resources to meet the assigned goal and timeline

Step #3: If the manager agrees – great! If he says “No, you can do it with the current resources” respond with “How am I supposed to do that? Can you share with me how you think this is possible?” Move the problem to his domain. Don’t be afraid to give your manager an opportunity to teach you something or to deal with the challenge.

Step #4: If the manager refuses to help (Rare but I have seen my share) say “Here is what will happen when we reach the milestone closure time. We won’t be ready as we lack resources, then the response of our customers will be and then what we should do? Who will take responsibility for that?”

What everyone wants to avoid

No one wants to be responsible for the failure. Especially if you can expect what will be the impact of being late or not delivering with quality and on time.

Use this method to help your manager understand the impact of his request. Let him know that he is responsible to provide you with the resources to be successful. Help him understand that he will enjoy the fruits of success if he will set you for success. Your manager’s role is to help you succeed.

Bottom Line

As managers we need to help our employees grow and succeed. It is our responsibility. Our manager has the same responsibility towards you. Make sure he understands that too.

Share your experience

Did you enjoy this article? Please take a moment and share it along with a comment that describes your takeaway. Feel free to mention me, so I get notified. That would be very helpful.

Thank you for reading this.

Nir Megnazi – Leadership Coach

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