How to Work for a Boss Who Has Unrealistic Expectations

Whether your manager is a front-line supervisor or the CEO, every leader occasionally has unrealistic expectations. But some bosses are unrealistic most of the time. They don’t take into account the facts on the ground, or they habitually refer to their past experiences at other companies rather than to the people and events in the current organization, or perhaps they report to someone who’s even more aggressive or overly optimistic than they are.

When you work for someone like this, you can feel like you’re being set up to fail. It can be dangerous to defy a superior, and even arguing your point can feel unsafe. You may have relevant data or experience that counters the validity of your boss’s directions, yet there can still be a lot of pressure to comply with every demand.

Instead of just caving in or deciding it’s time to update your resume, try these approaches to gain better balance for yourself and strengthen your relationship with a demanding boss.

Agree in principle; then share realistic details.

It may not always feel like it, but you and your boss theoretically have some common goals, and showing that you’re on the same page may give you the leeway to explain some of the practical realities.

Open discussion with lead-ins like, “Let me share with you a way I think we could do this with the least disruption” in other words, steering toward workable solutions rather than presenting problems the boss didn’t want to hear.

Another approach is to acknowledge the boss’ requests without labelling them as unrealistic. “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?”

Send up some trial balloons to get rapid, usable 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. Rather than just thinking “This is ridiculous!” keep checking to be sure you understand and are delivering on what your boss actually wants.

Gauge whether you’re gaining traction with your boss or not.

Assess your boss’s style and approach to determine if you’ll get a better response by behaving proactively or re-actively. One CEO 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.

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. And as frustrating as it can be to work for an unrealistic leader, your goal should be to contribute as much as possible while maintaining your sanity and self-respect.

If you need help getting the most out of your working relationship with your boss, please click on the link to learn more about our open and in-house group coaching programmes.

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