7 ways to deal with unreasonable executive expectations during coronavirus

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Once costs are cut due to COVID-19, the next quick fix is to add more work and hope it all gets done. Here’s how the rest of us can deal with it when too much work comes down the pipe too soon.

It’s a difficult time in the world; many households are reducing their spending due to coronavirus. Companies see the decline in revenue and in a move that surprises no one, cut back their expenses. Those expenses, of course, are someone else’s revenue, leading to declines in income to business-to-business companies. Eventually, when there is nothing left to cut, organizations turn to the next thing: Starry-eyed ideas and hopes for increased revenue through more projects and higher productivity.

That’s right. You’re busy trying to figure out how to work from home and the boss’s boss invents three new projects. 

Here’s how to deal with unreasonable expectations from senior management

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

1. Don’t fight the bull

The matador, armed with swords, a cape, a funny costume, and his wits, stands very little chance against the bull head-on. Instead of going head-on, the matador uses wit, charm, distraction, and animalistic impulses, and deception to get the better of the animal.

I am not saying to use deception or treat management as unintelligent–they certainly are not. I am, however, saying that the simple, confrontational approach fails when working in an irrational system. If you say no in public, that can actually frame you as a threat to the leader’s authority. We’ll sum this up as Michelle, the hyperscale cloud program manager puts it: “Saying no gets you fired.”

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2. Use humor

Consider the all-staff meeting where the director talks about how we “all have to give one hundred and ten percent.”

During the Zoom call, you lean back in your chair, breathe out, go to your team’s Slack channel and write: “Whew. Finally we can relax a little.” 

This change in meaning tends to cause a simple human reaction: Laughter. The lightheartedness may be the only way to say that everyone was already working at an unsustainable pace, and hope is not a strategy.

Sometimes humor is the only way for people to hear things.

3. Don’t take it personally

Someone else decided the group can do 40% more work in the same time.

It cannot.

This is not your problem.

Continue to come in, work a modest amount of sustainable overtime, and let those deadlines go whooshing by. Jeffrey Fuller, a staff software engineer at Lucid, goes further “Don’t burn yourself out. Technology work is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

If you reward an unreasonable expectation with unsustainable extra work, expect more unreasonable expectations. That is how incentives work.

4. Seek a best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA)

Sometimes, the way to be most effective at your job is to act like you don’t care about keeping it.

Again, I’m not saying to pursue confrontation. What I am suggesting is that if you are mentally prepared to be downsized, outsized, right-sized or left-sized, then you can project the kind of confidence needed to stay in the role. That might mean reconnecting with old friends , it might mean working on the resume or seeing who is hiring. By building a funnel that attracts opportunities, you can be less needy about any one opportunity.

5. State what you will do

Today we are talking about emotion, not logic. Logic is fighting the bull. You could, for example, provide a list of the total number of hours expected already on all projects, how they add up to 120 hours a week, and you can’t take on more. Expect a response like “You’ll just have to think outside the box.” That is fighting the bull.

What you can say is what you will do, in writing “What I am going to do right now is make projects foo, bar, and baz my number one, two, and three priorities.” In three months, when foo, bar, and baz are done and everything else is a mess on the floor, you can point back to that email. You gave the opportunity for people to adjust your priorities and they chose not to. The key is to do this non-confrontationally on both sides. In six months, it will be “I told you so” or career advance–pick one.

6. Know the culture

The list above is simply what would work for me in the average of the companies I have worked for. As a consultant, I’ve seen a variety of companies- but likely not yours. Study what the people do who are successful and consider if you can ethically do those things. Those are likely a small subset of this list, plus small things like dressing up a bit, or down, depending on the culture. There are some companies, like Theranos, where the leaders simply lied about expectations right up until the company failed. 

If that is your company, you probably need a different article.

7. Build and cultivate relationships

Perhaps slightly cynical, it is our program manager, Michelle, who points out that during downsizing season, there are always a few “slackers who don’t seem to do anything” that manage to survive. The reason is invariable the strength of their relationships.

If you try this in an insincere way, if you give-to-get, it won’t work. Instead, this has to be authentic. Learn what coworkers like to do–if it is to talk about their kids’ homeschool, the newest Star Wars movie, or caring deeply about excellence at work. Ask them how things are going. Learn their children’s names. In the end, a little gentle ribbing about an unreasonable schedule is going to feel, to them, a lot better than a challenge about deadlines in a group. Have the empathy to understand that and seek to be the friend.

Relationships are an investment.Invest early. Invest often. Invest in relationships always.

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