Unreasonable requests: how do you push back?

Some jobs or projects have clearly defined boundaries. But many of us end up taking on  responsibilities that aren’t listed in the job description.

This works out fine as long as the redefined job is properly resourced, properly valued, and has a reasonable–okay, feasible–set of deliverables. Otherwise it’s a train wreck.

How do you handle this situation? What language do you use to a) notify your manager that you believe the job parameters have changed, b) set the scene for renegotiation, and c) get yourself a better deal?

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5 Responses to Unreasonable requests: how do you push back?

  1. Travis Young says:

    Unreasonable requests are so common these days it would be easier for most professional workers to recall those rare occasions when they did not have a day or week with an overwhelming workload, project or frustrated superior breathing down their necks.

    The “push back” has become the popular vernacular for standing up for yourself when faced with excessive demands/expectations or poor behavior on the part of a supervisor, colleague, or management team (i.e., the Board or Executive Committee).

    In nearly every instance, the most appropriate (and effective) approach is to simply provide the offending party or entity with an clear, non-personal, professional assessment; plus offer an option that does address the issue.

    For example, “If you want all of those old files cleared up before the end of next week, it certainly can be done. The way it can happen is if you provide me with two staff members or temp workers who can devote full-time and maybe a bit of overtime for an entire week to accomplish this task. For a single individual, who still has other important duties to perform, it would take a minimum of six to eight weeks to complete those many files. Would you like me to call a temp agency? Or, is it better to adjust the time frame that really can get met during the normal course of business, barring any unforeseen project emergencies?”

    In a different kind of example, you could send an email, “It seems in the staff meeting yesterday things got heated. It is unlikely you wished to demean, criticize and publicly embarrass me so as to lessen my credibility in the eyes of my coworkers. Nonetheless, it seems like that occurred, which will certainly not help bolster the effort and cooperation needed to keep the team on the right track.
    In my estimation and from my observations of others’ reactions, if left unaddressed, the comments made about my confusion as to which direction you wanted to go has created tension and dejection in others and me. While this may not have been the intent, it seems to have undermined the goals you are trying to reach. If the accomplishment of a goal is best served by confident, dedicated and clear thinking workers, wouldn’t it be best to have another meeting where any unnecessary tension can be addressed and also to set an example to foster positive, cohesive attitudes in our team? If you agree, please let me know when to set a meeting for this purpose?”

    In both of the examples above, please note there were very, very few “I” or “me” words. The key in any pushing back is to de-personalize your comments and give an objective, straightforward depiction of the issue at hand.

    It is only in our minds we need to suffer unreasonable demands, expectations or poor behavior. It is not always your job to do exactly what your boss tells you to do. It is, however, always your job to hear their dictates or directions as professional requests and offer your assessment of anything that gets in the way of agreed upon duties or your functioning in a reasonable manner, including someone’s crappy, abusive communication style.

    Before you push back, one important note: wait until you are in a calmer, less agitated state. You can write-out your angry version of what you want to say, and later communicate much more neutral and powerful thougths.

    The Push Back Process — Step 1: Get out the anger in a safe environment or the right person! (Never a coworker!) Step 2: Write what you want to say in your most down-and-dirty, no editing way. Step 3: Rewrite your comments by putting as much as possible in the third-person, objective case. Cut out every “I” and “me” possible. Depersonalize their intent or behavior (no matter how nuts it may have been). Step 4: Offer an alternative to them that is reasonable and better for you.

    Not easy to do in these kinds of situations, but so well worth it. As you get through the apprehension of practicing this process, you can become a powerful communicator and less-stressed worker.

    Travis Young (Business Consultant/Career Coach)

  2. This is great advice! I especially liked the part that begins: “It is only in our minds we need to suffer unreasonable demands, expectations or poor behavior. It is not always your job to do exactly what your boss tells you to do. It is, however, always your job to … offer your assessment of anything that gets in the way of agreed-upon duties or your functioning in a reasonable manner, including someone’s crappy, abusive communication style.”

    That said, I can’t imagine myself writing, “It is unlikely you wished to demean, criticize and publicly embarrass me so as to lessen my credibility in the eyes of my coworkers” to an abusive boss. The fact is, on some level it was probably that boss’s exact intent. Is he or she likely to change the behavior as the result of being called out on it? Don’t know the answer, but my instinct would be to avoid rather than confront.

    • Travis Young says:

      Your point about avoiding confrontation is well taken. I commonly advise clients to simply talk their frustrations out with me and then ‘let it go.’

      Pushing back should be a rare occurrence, not a step taken at every slight or feeling of being overwhelmed by too much work. While this should not be a common type of response, it is important to have it in one’s communication ‘toolbox.’

      Additionally, confrontation, when it’s time to do so, is not for the person who hears the message to change. It is done for us to regain our dignity and perspective regardless of how the other person receives it. Then we can get back to work knowing we have been clear about who we are, how we wish to be treated and what we can humanly contribute.

      Can one be fired for confronting a supervisor who exhibits poor behavior or advises a boss that what they are asking for is really too much? It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

      In the present business landscape and professional work places the very real threat of lawsuits over management/owner impropriety is very prevalent. In my experience, the vast majority of executives/owners would prefer to keep the peace than incite furor in employees who can create true legal and financial consequences for an organization of any size.

      Pushing back, from time to time, is needed in a market place where the perceived, albeit unattainable, need for superior performance is creating stressed-out and manic business environments (and workers) in every type of industry.

      In the example I gave it would be very appropriate to reply in this manner, especially if the supervisor was chronically critical and angry with subordinates. Yet, discretion is the better part of valor, as your insight inferred. Pushing back is not a long-term cure, it is a measure of communicating sanely when the craziness has just gone a bit too far.

      When used judiciously, all parties are often better for it.

  3. Despina says:

    Is there any relevant legislation dealing with the unreasonable requests from a boss? Imposing unreasonable requests is another form of harassment intending to stress, undermine the self esteem and humiliate the worker?

  4. shweta says:

    My work doesn’t necessarily come from my boss.. it comes from many internal business heads. However many times Im thrown stuff by them that is a part of their responsibility and not mine. However my boss doesn’t like to displease anyone.. so I can’t take his help in telling the others leaving me on my own to push back work. I don’t know how to say “hey its not my work but your’s” in a nice way or a way that it doesn’t get pushed back to me! I get a feeling from so many in this company that they all just want to push back work and just becoz I’m unable to do so eithe rI land up doing it or appearing too aggressive and not collaborative if I push back. Any suggestions?

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