How to handle unreasonable work requests

How to handle unreasonable work requests

Here’s a familiar scenario: your boss or client asks you to increase performance, revenue, or volume without a commensurate lift in budget or resources.

At many points in my career, I’ve been faced with the predicament of sky-high performance expectations that can’t be fulfilled. The inability to manage expectations can damage your professional relationship — but this challenge can be easily taken care of by staying organized and communicative with those involved.

Here are several ways that you can handle situations where a compromise is necessary.

1.Sort out what work is doable and what is overwhelming you

Faced with this dilemma, I have often needed to push aside the initial panic and fear of disappointing my clients or partners and think it through: can I explain exactly why these expectations are too high and why they cannot be reached?

If not, this may be a matter of being given too much at once and is still a problem that can be solved one step at a time. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and think something can’t be done until you buckle down to actually do it. But if you’re up against too many obstacles, approach the work objectively and outline the tasks needed to complete the results you’re asked to deliver. This will give you a starting point to work with at the very least.

2.Ask a seasoned expert in your field

You aren’t the first person to be met with an unreasonable work request, and you won’t be the last. Ask a colleague, manager or friend in your industry how they have dealt with the same problem. Has your same task been done before?

One person’s stress-free approach or simple steps to handle the seemingly impossible can help you put the task into perspective. What have they been able to achieve under the same time constraints and budget? Do they have a strategic approach to managing expectations? Maybe they have a great method of covering their bases early on in the process by mapping out a worst-case scenario or keeping everything in writing. Humbling myself in this area has helped diversify my professional network and cultivate meaningful relationships with other experts.

3.Emphasize examples of how realistic goals are fulfilled

I have never had a client that is interested in hearing why not. Instead, I use past examples of work my team has achieved with the resources we are working with.

Highlight previous wins that show an increase in capability, but take note of how each key performance indicator was reached by re-tracing your steps. Maybe your last marketing campaign surpassed the original goals you set, and you’ve been asked to do it again – only better this time. Were your past wins due to the time of year, the budget for original content production or having a real-time moment on social? Did you use special software to give your campaign a boost? Before agreeing to start what you can’t complete, use previous wins as a roadmap for what you can do.


What is most important to your client or boss? Listen to how they discuss goals and look at how the work you’re given fits into a bigger picture.

If community growth is key and your client wants increased numbers within a target demographic, will they care more about quality or quantity? If you can’t have both, focus on what will give the results your client will be the happiest with. I have often found myself unable to fulfill every need, but I always start with working towards a single core goal of the project, leaving the nonessentials for later.

5.Focus on the positive

Highlight what’s working. Track the progress you’re making and show what you’ve achieved since you began your project. I have a personal rule to never report only an isolated downturn, setback or obstacle.

For every piece of bad news, you can have something good to show for what you have been working on. Showing due diligence on your end, whether it’s with a report or status call, makes it difficult for anyone to attribute unmet goals to your own negligence. This is a simple way to cover your bases, showing that you are doing everything you can to get to where you’re asked to be.

6.Don’t wait

Before signing a contract or scope of work and before you say “Sure, no problem,” explains why the goals and workload aren’t aligned and make sure that your client or boss is aware of this. Communication is essential to protect yourself from being the scapegoat for attempting the impossible. You can begin to manage expectations before you begin working on your project. Explain what you will do in order to work toward the goals outlined, but that those steps may not suffice in achieving them because of what you’re up against.


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