How to Work for a Boss Who Has Unrealistic Expectations - HBR

Whether your manager is a front-line supervisor or the CEO, every leader occasionally has unrealistic expectations. But some bosses are unrealistic most of the time. They don’t take into account the facts on the ground, or they habitually refer to their past experiences at other companies rather than to the people and events in the current organization, or perhaps they report to someone who’s even more aggressive or overly optimistic than they are.


When you work for one of these folks, you can feel like you’re being set up to fail. It can be dangerous to defy a superior, and even arguing your point can feel unsafe. You may have relevant data or experience that counters the validity of your boss’s directions, yet there can still be a lot of pressure to comply with every demand.

Instead of just caving in or deciding it’s time to update your resume, try these approaches to gain better balance for yourself and strengthen your relationship with a demanding boss.


Manage your body to manage yourself. If the pressure of your boss’s demands has put you into fight-flight-freeze mode, first calm yourself so you can gather your thoughts and take measured, appropriate action. One of the best ways to quiet your agitation and escape what’s called the “defense cascade” is through "sensorimotor" or grounding interventions which bring the overly reactive mind back to the body. Using a simple anchoring practice will calm the body and signal to your brain that you’re not actually in immediate physical danger. An unobtrusive technique is to feel their feet in their shoes. Whether they’re sitting or standing, they can use this grounding mechanism quickly and unnoticed by others, just by pressing their feet against the floor, noticing their heels and toes in contact with the hard surface, reminding themselves to exhale fully and to inhale again, and then to think about what they want to say or do.


Agree in principle; then share realistic details. It may not always feel like it, but you and your boss theoretically have a joint mission and some common goals. Showing that you’re on the same page may give you the leeway to explain some of the practical realities. Then, describe the steps to get results that would be a win for him, and to open discussion with lead-ins like, “Let me share with you a way I think we could do this with the least disruption”. Another approach is to acknowledge his requests without labeling them as unrealistic : “I understand you want X. I’ve already tried to do Y and I have these concerns about Z. Can we talk about what the next steps could be?” Although the leader still comes up with grand plans, over time, he will learn to tolerate hearing more details about what’s workable and what’s problematic, and to work with team members to come up with solutions that are more implementable.


Send up some trial balloons to get rapid, usable feedback. It’s unlikely that your boss plans to be unrealistic or unfair. Rather than just thinking “This is ridiculous!” keep checking to be sure you understand and are delivering on what your boss actually wants. Use language like, “Take a look at these scenarios, and let me know which aspects match your sense of things, and then I can build them out,” and “I know you’re concerned about the risk of too much investment too quickly. Did I capture the scenarios and factors you’re looking for?” An iterative set of interactions like this can feel time-consuming, but it keeps you from straying far off-base and fosters a sense of partnership that will help you develop trust for the future.


Gauge whether you’re gaining traction with your boss or not. Assess your boss’s style and approach to determine if you’ll get a better response by behaving proactively or reactively.

For as long as you stay in the job, you’re responsible for helping your team and your boss be and look successful. And as frustrating as it can be to work for an unrealistic leader, your goal should be to satisfy as much of the organization’s mission as possible while maintaining your sanity and self-respect.


To read the original HBR article, please click here.

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