Boss With Unrealistic Expectations? Here’s How to Manage Them, According to Harvard

Boss With Unrealistic Expectations? Here’s How to Manage Them, According to Harvard


Profile Picture

As the world is adapting to what is now the “new normal,” Fairygodboss wants to be there for you every step of the way. Keep reading for timely advice and join our Navigating the New Normal group for continued support.

If you work for a boss whose expectations are consistently unrealistic, chances are, this transition to the “new normal” of working has been even bumpier for you. Not only do unrealistic expectations make it harder for you to do your job well — in the current climate, especially, they can be a major burden on mental health. 

On the receiving end of some unrealistic managerial expectations? Here’s how the Harvard Business Review advises putting your boss in check — without damaging your professional image.

1. Before communicating anything to your manager, make sure you’re feeling as calm as possible. 

In her Harvard Business Review piece, Liz Kislik, an advisor to Fortune 500 businesses who’s taught at NYU and Hofstra University, recommends doing what you can to feel grounded before approaching the convo with your boss.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

2. Show your boss that you’re on the same team — even if you don't totally feel like it right now. 

“You and your boss theoretically have a joint mission and some common goals, and showing that you’re on the same page may give you the leeway to explain some of the practical realities,” Kislik wrote. “One senior leader I worked with had no interest in learning about or taking into account practical details of implementation... His team would struggle to make good on his commitments, and would be blamed by customers and other organizational groups for incomplete or unsuccessful execution.”

While coaching the members of his team, Kislik told them to acknowledge the manager’s requests without labeling them as unrealistic. 

“This sounded something like this, ‘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?’” she shared. “Although the leader still comes up with grand plans, over time, he has learned to tolerate hearing more details about what’s workable and what’s problematic, and often works with team members to come up with solutions that are more implementable.”

3. Pay close attention to how you and your boss communicate. Is there anything specific you can do to communicate more clearly? 

And if there is anything you can easily identify, offer that up to your boss as a piece of helpful feedback.

“It’s unlikely that your boss plans to be unrealistic or unfair. It’s much more likely that they have a rationale that they haven’t conveyed clearly, or may not even recognize themselves,” Kislik wrote. “Rather than just thinking ‘This is ridiculous!’ keep checking to be sure you understand and are delivering on what your boss actually wants.”

4. Once you understand what makes your boss tick — use that knowledge to manage them.

By assessing your manager’s specific style and motivations, Kislik said, you’ll be able to adapt your approach accordingly. Ideally, if your manager is at all self aware, they’ll understand that you having this knowledge will benefit them in turn.

“A publishing CEO client I worked with learned to catch himself in the act of having visionary digressions if his staff asked directly whether he was having a ‘blue-sky moment’ or focusing on current plans,” she said. “(Another) senior executive was only able to right-size her goals when her staff used a drip method of bringing small bits of countervailing data to her attention over a number of days.” 

At the end of the day, Kislik added, your boss’s expectations can’t be avoided. It’s best to do what you can proactively to make those expectations more manageable — whether the tactics you use are subtle or a more direct.

“When all is said and done, for as long as you stay in the job, you’re still responsible for helping your team and your boss be and look successful,” she wrote. “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.”