When Your Boss Expects Too Much

Remember in The Devil Wears Prada when the down-to-earth new assistant “Andy” played by Anne Hathaway decides there is no way she can please the she-devil magazine editor (played by Meryl Streep)?

Andy also wrestles with whether or not she is going to let the devil/editor get the best of her.

Do you remember what she does?

Andy quits participating in the drama and lets the boss know she’ll do her best to do what’s most valuable but will not kill herself seeking the devil’s personal approval.

Andy realizes she also r-e-a-l-l-y wants the job for the opportunities it will provide her. But, it is not worth her sanity.

That’s what makes the story interesting.

That’s worth thinking about if you have a boss that expects too much from you.

What To Do When Your Boss Expects Too Much

Does your boss boss you around for fun and games? Or does he/she over-commit you to others? Or keep piling more on your already-too-full plate? If so, this message is for you.

However –and here is the important caveat — you must be prepared to fight (responsibly of course) for your own sanity (i.e., freedom, choice, and power). Yes, you must be prepared to stand up for yourself.

One thing I’ve learned in my study of personal responsibility is this: If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will? There is a self-fulfilling prophecy here that can create a virtuous spiral up or a vicious circle down. It’s your choice.

Disclaimer: I must admit I’ve never had a truly over-bearing boss (except for myself) that I recall. In fact, I have not had a boss in nearly 20 years.

But I have coached many clients to deal successfully with unreasonable bosses, and I’ve had more than my share of over-bearing clients  — or prospective clients — that I learned to successfully negotiate.

So what is a responsible employee to do when the boss expects too much?

First, realize your value.

You are earning your keep, right? And not just adequately, but fully? The key to being able to say “Back off” to an overbearing boss or client is to be producing at a high level. And it is even better if you are bringing it at an exceptional level.

Only if you are clear (to yourself) that you are providing a valuable service will you have negotiating power.

Second, don’t expect your boss to play fair (though most will when confronted).

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of bosses who don’t believe in sustainable pace or fair play even though they repeat the language. This is where your courage and commitment to be treated fairly comes in.

If you shy away from standing up for yourself, you risk continual frustration and eventual burnout, not to mention never being able to deliver against impossible expectations.

Third, stand up for yourself by asking for clear priorities.

Often the best way to raise your hand and signal for help is to reveal the cards in your hand and show that they add up to impossible.

Say, “This looks like an exciting new project, Boss. Do you want me to prioritize it against all of the other number 1 projects you’ve assigned, or would you like to sit down together and help me re-balance my load?”

Fourth, be ready to walk.

The real question is this: Is any paycheck worth trading your dignity and self-respect for? If you say you can put up with it for another month, quarter, year, or decade until “X” happens, then what are you going to do to ensure you build up no resentment, carry no grudges, and don’t get accustomed to the treatment? After all, it is your choice — completely.

This may not be the safest way to keep your job. But then keeping such a job may be the highest risk approach to a sane and rewarding future.

Think about this: What would happen to overbearing bosses if every decent employee refused to work for them?

I know that you are more able and more powerful than you give yourself credit for. Sticking up for yourself may be the best thing you can do for yourself and for so many others who deserve not to have to put up with lousy bosses.

What do you think? Leave a comment about your thoughts and experience.

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.

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7 Responses to When Your Boss Expects Too Much

  1. Keith Patton says:

    Depending on who you talk to on my staff, I may be or may not be the “overbearing” boss. I assign work to my team members on as equitable basis as possible. Some employees are better organized, work quicker,are more talented and just plain smarter than others. Some have a poor work ethic, cannot self prioritize and need constant reminder of what the definition is of a professional. I’ll give you one guess which ones think I am an “overbearing” boss. Those same individuals are the ones who usually sandbag, resulting in me having to shift part of their work load to the more productive members of the staff. Some members are always ready to step up to help meet team objectives, others don’t unless it meets their own need for recognition. In the long run, the whiners are devisive to the team by sowing discontent and passive agressive behavior that simply impacts the efficiency of the team. As they say, there are two sides to every story.

  2. Pete Hottenstein says:

    As stated above not all employees are created equal. When running a team the leader must recognize this fact. Keith highlighted well what happens if all team members are treated like robots of the same caliber. Additionally, the leader has the responsibility to provide training and growth opportunities. If staff don’t take advantage of the opportunities it may be time to look for new staff.

    Interestingly enough the latest Agile methodologies promote the idea of teams organizing around skills and abilities of the individuals.

    • You make a bunch of good points Pete, highlighting some, uh, responsibilities, of all parties. Regarding your last point about agile methods, sometimes peer feedback can be far more motivating than feedback from one’s manager. This is especially true in performance mode when feedback is about the work, immediate, continual, and as much affirming as correcting.

  3. Maria Matarelli says:

    An important point here is that if no action is made, then the status quo may appear to be acceptable. The problem with this is that the unreasonable boss is being enabled by the lack of action by those afflicted. I’ve seen this occur with a company that let too many people go to try and cut costs, but the problem is that they let go the high peformers. Cutting people based on cost alone without taking into account the amount of value being delivered, will inevitably pile more work on those competent that are left while the under-performers continue to not pull their weight. In these situations, I have encouraged others to stand up for themselves and not take on more work than they can handle to try to bandaid the need for maintaining the work to be completed. There is no benefit for the high performers that are left to over work themselves to overcompensate for management’s poor decisions. It isn’t until management feels the pain of their poor decision that anything will be done about it. Enabling them through unappreciated and unnecessary self sacriice is not the answer. Excellent points, Christopher.

  4. Well put Maria — this is a vicious cycle seen all the time, perhaps because we too often manage by the numbers alone (combined with fear) rather than a combination of numbers, courage, common sense, and wisdom.

    Managers, please re-read Maria’s description of the cycle. When your high-performers start to exit for any reason other than you promoting them in your own organization, start looking to see how you might be shooting yourself in the foot.

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