Bad Boss BS: “Can you do this as well?”

Four 2d character looking nervous and a little overworked, stood close to but slightly apart from a 3d bad boss character.

Bad Bosses can sometimes overload us with work. A bad boss either doesn’t pay attention to our day to day reality, or they don’t care. They continually add new tasks, projects and responsibilities, leaving us feeling like the horse in Buckaroo. Sometimes there’ll just be too many tasks. Other times the issue might be more around coherence of responsibilities, as a boss turns anything that’s on their mind into a project for you to handle. So what should you do when you have a boss who has unrealistic expectations around our capacity?

What is reasonable?

Lots of bad bossing behaviour pushes us to question reality. Calibrating expectations is an important first step if you feel like your workload is unreasonable. Try to take an objective look at the tasks and responsibilities you’re being asked to cover. Make a list — and consider both the size and complexity.

Complexity can be internal complexity of the task (is it difficult or made up of many factors or stages). Or are there just lots and lots of stakeholders that you need to manage? Using a simple estimate of half-days each week on a task can give you a quick view of how much work you’re actually having to deal with. (We’ll get into more detailed estimation below).

It’s not always useful, but consider whether comparing your workload to a peer in the same role is a meaningful comparison. Be careful here. We all have aspects of our day-to-day reality that aren’t visible to others. Making judgements without the full facts could mislead you — undermining your position in any negotiation and possibly resulting in resentment of those around you who you consider to have less work.

Once you have a good sense of the work you’re being asked to do. Try to make an objective judgement of two factors. (1) Is this a reasonable workload for my role? (2) Why has the boss assigned me this set of duties?

These questions can be both reassuring and enlightening. Maybe you’ve been feeling overwhelmed, but on reflection it’s not the amount of work that has been overwhelming, but something about the timing or how it’s been organised. This new insight and information gives you a basis to ask for a change from the boss — or to make a change yourself.

Your answers might also give you a better understanding of what’s motivating your boss. Have you been asking for more responsibility, or suggesting that you’re ready for a more senior role? That might be the reason for the boss to give you more work. They might think they’re helping you prepare for the next step in your career. That should inform any future conversations you have about workload.

There’s always the chance that the situation isn’t reasonable, or the result of careful career orchestration. So how can you approach a conversation about feeling overwhelmed and overloaded by too many random requests?

Become a hedgehog

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins introduces the fable of the fox and the hedgehog to explain his idea of the “hedgehog concept”. The fable highlights that while the fox might be cunning and patient, it’s a poor predator for the hedgehog, who is perfectly adapted to protect themselves — curling into a tightly focused and well-protected ball when the going gets tough. Put another way, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Good to Great is focused on corporate strategy, and the hedgehog concept is used to provide tight focus for activities and strategies that an organisation enacts. We can use the same type of exercise to focus our careers and articulate our ambitions. We can then use that to talk about workload capacity and focus.

A hedgehog concept asks three questions — I’ve adapted these sightly to be more appropriate to individuals, rather than organisations:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What can you be world class at?
  • How do you contribute to the ‘economic engine’ that drives the organisation?

We can use the things we’re passionate about to provide purpose. Being good at something is good for us, our boss and our organisation — it gives us a sense of mastery. And our skills and strengths are how we contribute to the mission of the organisation. ‘Economic engine’ is the how the organisation generates value — whether that’s public value or profit. When we align our passion, mastery and personal contribution with the needs of the organisation, we’re much more effective — and it’s difficult for a boss to argue when we’ve thought about that and can articulate it clearly.

The answers to these questions should be realistic to give them power. It might seem ambitious to try to find an aspect of work that you could be the best in the world at — but start by thinking about unique skills or approaches that you’re confident in. Connecting your areas of mastery to organisational output will build a bridge between mastery and value. Adding in an understanding of passion gives you the three magic ingredients to motivation. It’s a recipe for identifying why you get up in the morning and turn up to work. These are also the ingredients that Dan Pink writes about in Drive.

When we feel overloaded, it’s usually the result of having too much on our to-do list. But to be truly effective and to go from good to great, stopping things is just as important as starting and doing things. Time, effort and energy are all finite resources. We can help our boss to be better by helping them make use of our skills, purpose and passion.

Negotiating with a hedgehog

Now that you have a clearer sense of your purpose and value, you can return to your list of responsibilities. Do they align and make sense? If not, this gives you the basis for a conversation with the boss.

Most bosses will have a duty to at least look as though they’re supporting you in your career. This gives you leverage to influence the opportunities you’re given. Effective organisations need to make the most of their people and the talents they bring. The real job of a boss is to harness the capacity we add. Their job isn’t creating work for us to do, it’s selecting the right work that makes the most of their team. If we can help them to better understand our contribution, we make it easier for them to do that part of their job.

A 2d character with some slight spikiness to their exterior.
You don’t necessarily need to be “spiky” to be a hedgehog — just well prepared and focused.

In preparation for the conversation, go back to your list of current work and see how it aligns with your hedgehog concept answers. If your duties lack coherence, consider adding a ‘context switching cost’ to your time estimate for each new task or area. Estimates vary in how much productive time is lost to context switching. And it’s inevitable that complex roles will span multiple contexts. But having a clear sense of the cost and lost time that your current workload creates is another useful insight to take to the boss.

Depending on your boss you might put more emphasis on the loss in productivity that comes from a lack of coherence and continual context switching. Or you might focus more on alignment with your personal ambitions and answers in the hedgehog concept. If you have an annual review focused on personal objectives, that’s a prime opportunity to use your answers to bring more coherence and focus to your workload. The trick is, the hedgehog concept and task list helps you construct a coherent case for making a change. You combine your personal perspective with the needs of the organisation — that means you’re not taking a problem or complaint to the boss, you can frame it as an opportunity.

As with most bad bossing, we can do some of the work to make it easier for them to be better. Give your boss a clear picture of what motivates you and how you bring value to the organisation. Also build a picture of the costs the organisation incurs through overloading you or mismanaging your workload. These two elements make it easier for them to spot problems and identify opportunities for a more reasonable, valuable and motivating workload.

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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danramsden

danramsden

I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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