Has your boss just asked you to do something you know you don’t have the skills, time, or expertise for? Handling an unreasonable request from your boss is tricky. If you push back and say you can’t do it, you risk looking lazy, incompetent, or both. But if you stay quiet, you’ll set yourself up for failure.
So do this instead: Smile, say, “Sure thing!” and then schedule a meeting a day or two later to “discuss the project.”
Now you have a chance to talk about your manager’s expectations in a more neutral setting and find a compromise. Here’s what to say during that meeting, depending on the nature of the request and your own workload.
Ask your boss to clarify your priorities. She might have no idea that you’re overloaded right now—or maybe she does, but this new project is so important that it takes precedence over your other ones.
Come prepared to outline the top four or five responsibilities taking up most of your time at the moment. Say, “I’m more than happy to take on this new project, but I can’t give it the attention it requires without putting something else on the back burner. Here’s what I’m working on—what should I prioritize?”
Ask for support. Your boss may have unthinkingly given you something you aren’t equipped to handle, but you can still get it done–and prove you’re a team player–with help from a coworker. She may even have assigned you as a vote of confidence, knowing it will be a challenge that can help you grow. But perhaps it’s still a bit too much of a stretch for you.
Begin with, “I’m really excited about the project, and I think it could teach me about [the area you’re unfamiliar with]. But since I’m so new to it, would it be possible for me to get some guidance from a more experienced member of the team?”
Rather than list all the components you don’t feel comfortable handling, start by establishing the desired results. Remember, your manager might want to get you out of your comfort zone intentionally–or just might not grasp how hard the project is. But you won’t know that until you figure out his end goal.
Start the conversation with, “I’d love to hear more about how you define success for this project. Are there any benchmarks I should aim for? What about specific insights or skills you’re hoping I’ll pick up?” Once you’ve pinned those down, you can work backward to determine what additional resources you’ll need to achieve them.
Saying “that’s not my job” is always tricky. But if an assignment lies far outside the scope of your responsibilities and won’t help you develop your skills in the area you do work in, you have an obligation to explain why.
If you don’t have the right equipment, team members, or access to information, and someone else does, it’s important to point that out. This way you won’t come across as just protesting against more work–you’ll be helping solve the problem more effectively.
Tell her, “I’ve started working on the assignment, and I’m already seeing some obstacles. Because I’m not in the traditional position for this project, I’m [mention the problems you’re having or that you foresee]. Can we brainstorm some workarounds?”
She might say, “You’re right, this one should go to [so-and-so].” Or, she’ll offer the support and resources you need to do the project. Either way, you win.
Very rarely, a boss will ask you to do something that simply cannot be done. This isn’t an excuse not to try; on the contrary, you should work as hard as you can so you’ll have something to show.
However, you also want to manage your boss’s expectations so he isn’t blindsided when the request isn’t completed. And you don’t want to waste time on a futile undertaking, either.
Tell him, “In the past few [days/week/month], I’ve been able to [mention the progress you’ve made]. But I don’t think the is feasible, because . . . ”
Lay out the core issues, along with any solutions you’ve tried or considered.
Finally, say, “Is there an adjusted goal you’d like me to work toward? I know this project is important to the organization, and I’d still really like to realize some aspect of it.”
In most cases, your boss isn’t trying to be unreasonable—she just doesn’t know that you don’t have the necessary resources, expertise, or time to make it happen. By communicating clearly and calmly with your boss, you can resolve the issue without harming your reputation.
Aja Frost is a marketing and communications specialist at Ericsson.