Negotiating a Supervisor’s Unreasonable Request


I am sure your supervisor, one way or another, has surprised you with an “unreasonable request” during the last minutes of the day or perhaps a monumental task just before a three-day weekend. At first you were probably overwhelmed by the request, and incapable of performing and producing effective results. An unreasonable request is something out of the ordinary, which requires more than you can handle, within the specified period allowed. On the flip side you simply cannot say “No!” – perhaps it would mean occupational suicide or at the very least you’ll be stigmatized as slouch or an incompetent. So what do you do when you receive an “unreasonable” request from your supervisor at work? I have a three point system to help you through this process. The first step is to take in the information and attempt to accommodate the request.

1. Accommodation

The first principle of compliance is to accommodate your supervisor’s request the best you can. You do this by first gaining all the information you need to succeed; take notes, ask the proper questions, see what the “end piece” looks like, and if time permits use the “what if” scenario approach. You must remember you are an employee, employed to serve and fulfill the organization’s agenda, which usually comes through your supervisor. You want to be known as a “team” player, and not one who complains each time you are given a task. Accommodating is simply having the right attitude each time you are asked to do something, and doing the best you can to comply with the request. Now, what happens if you cannot meet the obligation? I would recommend, “modifying” your strategy.

2. Modification

Once you have engaged in your task and begin to encounter some resistance or obstacles, you must go back to your boss to modify the original request. Modifying the request doesn’t mean you change your supervisor’s vision but the process to get to the outcome changes. Just how does one go back to the supervisor to tell him or her that their own request is “unreasonable” in itself? Well, your timing, approach, and words play a big role in modifying the original request. Go back to your supervisor and explain to him or her what you have already done, the obstacles you have encountered, and your solutions to make it happen using a different approach, and don’t’ forget to ask for their input. By doing this you’re sending the right message that “I’m on the job!”, and bringing solutions to the table not just complaints. A modification of the original request brings both supervisor and employee into a solution based approach based on communication, feedback and teamwork. Now, what happens when a “modification plan” goes bad? You have one final stage – I call it an “explanation with a deviation plan” approach.

3. Explanation with a Deviation Plan

Let’s be reasonable. If you have earnestly attempted the first two stages and cannot seem to get anywhere, perhaps the task was outside of your talent pool or simply it was an unreasonable request. So what do you do now? The last resort is to go back to your supervisor and give an explanation of why things are not working. At this stage you must be honest and come with a plan, which deviates from its original design. A deviation plan has many options:

  1. You can deviate from the original plan as long as your supervisor approves of your tactics to get the job done.

  2. You can ask for more resources such as “tools” or man power, or…

  3. You can simply be honest and say, “I think I am in this project too deep, and you need someone more competent to do the job.”

The latter is the last resort but remember the agenda of the organization is more important than your ego. If you can’t handle the project, then swallow the “pride” pill and move on. You must learn and grow through this process.

What would you add to this equation? 

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