Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. Here, writing for HBR.org, she tackles a common problem; dealing with a boss who has unrealistic expectations. It is a practical, real world approach that can keep expectations within realistic parameters.
Whether your manager is a front-line supervisor or the CEO, every leader occasionally has unrealistic expectations. But some bosses are unrealistic most of the time. They don’t take into account the facts on the ground, or they habitually refer to their past experiences at other companies rather than to the people and events in the current organization, or perhaps they report to someone who’s even more aggressive or overly optimistic than they are.
When you work for one of these folks, you can feel like you’re being set up to fail. It can be dangerous to defy a superior, and even arguing your point can feel unsafe. You may have relevant data or experience that counters the validity of your boss’s directions, yet there can still be a lot of pressure to comply with every demand.
Instead of just caving in or deciding it’s time to update your resume, try these approaches to gain better balance for yourself and strengthen your relationship with a demanding boss.
Manage your body to manage yourself.
If the pressure of your boss’s demands has put you into fight-flight-freeze mode, first calm yourself so you can gather your thoughts and take measured, appropriate action. One of the best ways to quiet your agitation and escape what’s called the “defense cascade” is through “sensorimotor” or grounding interventions which bring the overly reactive mind back to the body. Using a simple anchoring practice will calm the body and signal to your brain that you’re not actually in immediate physical danger. An unobtrusive technique I teach my clients is to feel their feet in their shoes. Whether they’re sitting or standing, they can use this grounding mechanism quickly and unnoticed by others, just by pressing their feet against the floor, noticing their heels and toes in contact with the hard surface, reminding themselves to exhale fully and to inhale again, and then to think about what they want to say or do.
Agree in principle; then share realistic details.
It may not always feel like it, but you and your boss theoretically have a joint mission and some common goals, and showing that you’re on the same page may give you the leeway to explain some of the practical realities. One senior leader I worked with had no interest in learning about or taking into account practical details of implementation; instead, he ignored any impediments and made somewhat grandiose statements about what his team would accomplish, assuming that valuable initiatives were easy to execute. His team would struggle to make good on his commitments, and would be blamed by customers and other organizational groups for incomplete or unsuccessful execution.
I coached his team members to describe the steps they could take to get results that would be a win for him, and to open discussion with lead-ins like, “Let me share with you a way I think we could do this with the least disruption” so that they were steering toward workable solutions rather than presenting him with problems he didn’t want to hear. Another approach we took was to acknowledge his requests without labeling them as unrealistic. This sounded something like this, “I understand you want X. I’ve already tried to do Y and I have these concerns about Z. Can we talk about what the next steps could be?” Although the leader still comes up with grand plans, over time, he has learned to tolerate hearing more details about what’s workable and what’s problematic, and often works with team members to come up with solutions that are more implementable.
Send up some trial balloons to get rapid, usable feedback.
It’s unlikely that your boss plans to be unrealistic or unfair. It’s much more likely that they have a rationale that they haven’t conveyed clearly, or may not even recognize themselves. Rather than just thinking “This is ridiculous!” keep checking to be sure you understand and are delivering on what your boss actually wants.
After I reminded a frustrated CFO to think about the risk-averse CEO’s underlying motivations and not just her demands, the CFO was able to develop multiple scenarios and spreadsheets that helped the CEO chose a plan of action she felt was simultaneously bold and safe. We planned out language like, “Take a look at these scenarios, and let me know which aspects match your sense of things, and then I can build them out,” and “I know you’re concerned about the risk of too much investment too quickly. Did I capture the scenarios and factors you’re looking for?” An iterative set of interactions like this can feel time-consuming, but it keeps you from straying far off-base and fosters a sense of partnership that will help you develop trust for the future.
Gauge whether you’re gaining traction with your boss or not.
Assess your boss’s style and approach to determine if you’ll get a better response by behaving proactively or reactively. An agency owner I worked with liked to indulge in flights of fancy, and parlayed them into unrealistic expectations. When his staff learned to stay close and share relevant information frequently and consistently, the owner’s thinking became more down-to-earth. On the other hand, a publishing CEO client learned to catch himself in the act of having visionary digressions if his staff asked directly whether he was having a “blue-sky moment” or focusing on current plans. A third senior executive was only able to right-size her goals when her staff used a drip method of bringing small bits of countervailing data to her attention over a number of days.
When all is said and done, for as long as you stay in the job, you’re still responsible for helping your team and your boss be and look successful. And as frustrating as it can be to work for an unrealistic leader, your goal should be to satisfy as much of the organization’s mission as possible while maintaining your sanity and self-respect.
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