Workplace Wisdom

How to Manage Your Boss’s Unrealistic Expectations

A reader asked me to revisit my earlier post about crazy-making boss behavior and provide details about how to cope with some of the extreme behaviors.

Let’s start with the “Have You Gotten Any Better at That Yet?” boss. This type is confident that she knows exactly how various aspects of your job should be done — typically with the benefit of perfect information (who gets that?), significant experience (which you may not have had), and her more senior perspective (which you haven’t got, either).

Not only that, but she thinks she has a full understanding of all current related conditions (which you may, in fact, have, and which she may not — because it’s not her job). And she expects you to share her point of view on the present situation even if she hasn’t explained what it is or how to handle it. In fact, she hasn’t even been particularly explicit about what she actually wants from you.

On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to notice the gap between your reality and her expectations which, on some level, may be a kind of fantasy she has about how things are “supposed to be.” Nor has she taken into account what kind of resources or support you might need to get your performance and your results closer to her ideal.

Bring the Goalposts Back to the End Zone

Whether or not this boss is actually skillful at doing your job, if she’s unrealistic about the real conditions you’re facing, it will most likely be very tough to get her to change her mind about the adequacy of your performance.

Keep in mind that she truly doesn’t realize she’s being unfair — and she doesn’t mean to be. But because she doesn’t recognize that she’s assigned you a moving target, she truly doesn’t understand why you haven’t been able to achieve it.

You may need help from a third party — preferably someone who has worked with your boss successfully — to clue you in about the data or the coaching she hasn’t given you.

But you may also need to find — without infuriating her altogether — a way to persuade her to adjust her viewpoint and help you to satisfy it, rather than continue to hold you to whatever fantasy of a standard is in her head.

Make Your Work a Joint Enterprise

The goal is to get your boss to own part of the situation if she wants to take shots at it. Here’s a suggestion for a conversation-opener:

Sophronia, I can see that I haven’t met your expectations.

May I review with you the way I’ve been approaching this assignment and the things I’ve tried so far, so that you can give me some concrete feedback about what I should try next?

I’ve already done A, B, C — is there something I haven’t thought of that you know would get the result you want?

Let me try that, and then I’ll check back with you promptly.

Rephrase her response in your own words, to double-check your take on things and serve as verification with her. If you can’t execute immediately, at least follow-up quickly by sending a confirming email that lays out your understanding of what she told you to do.

And then do your best to execute and report.

When she keeps getting involved in your work, try to make your performance and results a joint effort — not just yours alone. If you can get her to act as your partner, then she’ll be more realistic and you’ll have a shared success — or your failure will be her failure too.

Onward and upward,

LK

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