It’s Never Good to Tell Your Boss “I Can’t.” Try These Approaches Instead

One of my clients was distressed about how much his new boss was pressuring him. His boss kept loading him up with multiple new initiatives and demands to increase his team’s performance with no apparent understanding of how heavy his load was or how difficult it was to do each of the requested things, let alone do all of them. 

“I finally had to tell him, ‘I can’t do this! It’s too much!’” my client continued. “But he didn’t seem to want to do anything about it. He basically told me that once I got all the projects underway I would feel calmer, and that it was my responsibility to get the team up to speed, even though I know they’re already working as hard as they can.”

Don’t Expect Your Boss to Be Upset Just Because You Are 

“Okay, it clearly is too much,” I told my client. “But if you want your boss to ease up—or to help you out—you have to be able to show why it’s better for him if he makes some adjustments. When you say, ‘I can’t do this,’ he may hear, ‘I can’t handle this,’ and what he’ll remember is that there were things you couldn’t handle. Given his behavior, it’s quite possible that your boss will take your comments as emotional—and that perception could color the way he thinks of you forever after.” 

Next, I proposed several alternatives for talking about both the overload and ways to address it.

The ineffectiveness counterargument: “I’m concerned that the team won’t be able to handle this number of new initiatives, and the deliverables will not be sufficiently thoughtful/customers will be unhappy with the lack of attention/we’ll be at risk for errors, etc. We may even see some turnover in the team because they’re under so much pressure and feeling so distressed about not being able to meet their commitments.”

The request for support: “This is a very heavy load. The team can probably handle it, but we will need some additional resources. I can get more time from some of my team members if we let them work remotely this week, but we’re going to need some time and expertise from our colleagues in the XYZ Department. Would you please prep them so that help is there when we need it?”

The personal plea: “I’m overloaded right now. Given the required meetings and reports every week, it’s actually too difficult to meet all of these simultaneous milestones. I’d like to chat about what adjustments we can make to the schedule/assignments.”

The critical-path conflict resolution: “I’m happy to get these new initiatives rolling. Just let me know which of these existing projects can be paused for now, and then we can put them back on the calendar as soon as we get these other things completed.”

The coordinated group stance: “My fellow department heads agree that we’re trying to cover too much ground all at once. We’re going to meet on Thursday to map out ways we can handle this workload better, and we’d like you to join us at 3:00 that day so we can formalize a plan.”

Because each of these stances is assertive and practical without being whiny, using onwe of them will help you come across as more professional and less emotional than if you announce—no matter how kindly—that you can’t. They all focus on impact and what’s possible—and although the boss may still be disappointed, it’ll be harder for them to write anyone off.

Onward and upward—

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