Dave Conrad: How to work for a tough boss

May 24, 2019

Dear Dave: I pride myself on my work and my ability to get things done on time. I am happy to report that my co-workers are also good at what they do and they also meet deadlines.

But our new boss is very demanding — to the point that we cannot accomplish everything that she wants done. She has made it clear that she will not let up and that this is her management style.

I like what I do and I also like my co-workers. Is there anything I or we can do to help her understand that we cannot keep up with her expectations? — J

Dear J: I understand where you are coming from. The first thing I thought of when reading your question was the possibility that the quality of your work will suffer if you try to keep pace with unrealistic expectations. You and your co-workers may let some things slide or be patched up just to get work done on time. Your boss is new to you and has a mission of high productivity. Your team has a picture of realistic productivity. Comparing the two will tell you (and her) just what can and cannot be done.

It is not uncommon for new bosses to come into a new department and try to “shake things up.” Their philosophy is that they can always ease up as time goes by, but it would be very difficult for them to toughen up as time goes by. Unfortunately, your department is experiencing — or, dare I say, suffering — the wrath of a boss who wants to look good to her superiors.

I would say that many bosses are realistic when they set goals. But some bosses are unrealistic most, if not all, of the time. They may be reporting to someone who is more demanding than they are, and they have to pass along the expectations in the form of what you see as an unrealistic workload. Your boss may be caught up in a “get ’er done” mentality of her superiors and her upper management may even live for the “I don’t care what it takes, get it done” paradigm of thinking and management. They may even enjoy seeing employees hopping, and if the employees can’t take it, there are plenty more workers out there who can take their place.

When you work for one of these folks, you can feel like you’re being set up to fail. You know it is dangerous to defy your boss, and most certainly there is danger in simply telling your boss that the work is unmanageable. You must build your case, explaining why it is unmanageable, will cause errors, and will burn out good workers. Plus, good workers will choose to not come to work for your department, because of the excessive pressure from management.

Managing your case

I will tell you right now that there is not one working manager that would want to hear their employees just blurt out that he or she is too demanding, and there is too much work to do. I would bet money that most — if not all — managers would say or think to themselves, either like it or find something else. You may have plenty of relevant data or experiences that support your case, but to just throw it at your manager is not wise. Tact and diplomacy is needed; otherwise, your boss will stop listening and become even more embedded in her demanding management style.

Try to set up a meeting with her and have a couple of workers from your department join you — ones who can calmly create good dialogue. Your goal is not to insult her or appear to be whiners; rather, you want to meet because you really have some good proof of the negative impact of trying to keep up with a schedule that cannot be met. Listen carefully to what she has to say and agree with her in principle; but then share realistic details supporting your case.

It certainly might seem like you and your boss are at opposite ends of the argument, but you and your boss do have much in common, a shared mission and many common goals. I think if you show her that you’re on the same page with her, this may provide you an opportunity to explain some of the practical, detrimental realities. Simply, talk about what you have in common before talking about what you do not. This commonality of purpose is strong and will be a good way to generate shared solutions.

Remember, she does not think there is anything wrong; it is you who wants some concessions. It’s unlikely that your boss plans to be unrealistic or unfair. It’s much more likely that she has a rationale that she may not have made known. Rather than being an adversary, seek to understand why she is doing what she is doing. It is essential for you to start your meeting by showing respect and listening carefully to what she has to say.

In summary, for as long as you stay in your job, you’re still responsible for hitting goals and completing your tasks. And, even though it is confusing and unrealistically challenging to satisfy your manager’s demands, your job is to do your job and help your department achieve its mission as much as possible, while maintaining a great relationship with your boss.

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