advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My manager asks the impossible

I work for a publishing company. A few days ago, my manager asked me to prepare some mock-ups of the jacket for a book we’re working on. That’s something I don’t usually do, nor do I have the best software for it (and I was also really busy). When I said it would probably take me 2-3 hours to complete, he seemed genuinely shocked. He thought I could have it ready it for him in 30 minutes or so! My guess is that he was hoping to get it in time for a meeting he was about attend – but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some gas-lighting going on too. It’s not the first time my boss has made this sort of unreasonable request – nor the first time I’ve had to push back. Is there a better way to handle this in the future? – Name withheld

In my experience, some managers come to view their employees’ time as if it were a magical well, in some fairytale world:

Infinitely deep, and there for the taking.

Tasks are assigned without any thought given whatsoever to an employee’s workload, job description, or expertise. Your job is to remind your manager—gently—that you both live in the real world where your time, resources, and capabilities are, in fact, limited.

It sounds to me as if you’ve been reasonably successful with this in the past – or at least you haven’t been fired yet. So good for you. Nevertheless, here’s some verbiage you might try the next time he makes a similar request:

Absolutely. I’d be happy to do that for you. Unfortunately, my plate is already pretty full. Can we sit down later today and discuss the scope of the project, and when you might need it by..?

Absolutely. I’ll have an estimate on how long that might take to complete by the end of the day…

Absolutely. Let’s get together later to discuss which of my current priorities I can set aside—or drop altogether—so I can focus on this…

The trick of course is to say no without actually saying “no”, and in that way avoid appearing insubordinate. That’s why it’s best to lead with an enthusiastic “yes” before walking him through the total impracticality of what he’s asking. Keep in mind too that by doing so you’re not actually lying. Nor are you refusing to do the work (even though you may want to). It’s his timeline that’s the real problem – that and your manager’s “drop everything and do this now”-attitude.

I’m reminded of something I once heard, or read about “secretary pools” in the 1950s and 60s.

Prior to that time, secretarial assistants often sat around “filing their nails” while they waited for whoever they worked for to give them something to do. That was until so-called efficiency experts figured out how much time and $$$ was was being “wasted” this way, however. To cut costs, they came up with the idea of shared secretaries to which anyone might go as needed. That way, they all stayed busy, and the organization could cut staff.

The problem was that all those idle hands actually served a purpose. Whenever someone needed something done right away, a secretary used to be available to do the work immediately. But with everyone’s time scheduled down to the last minute, suddenly there wasn’t. As a result, deadlines were routinely missed, and overall organizational efficiency suffered as a result.[1]

The point is, if your manager wants someone to do his bidding at the drop of a hat, he’s gonna need to hire someone specifically for that purpose.

Finally, handling that gas-lighting can also be tricky. Depending on your manager’s sense of humor, however, you might try reminding him of Hofstadter’s Law the next time he asks the impossible.

It states that things always take longer than you expect…“even when you account for Hofstadter’s law.”[2]

All managers—including yours—would do well to keep this in mind.



[1] In Scarcity (2013, Henry Holt), authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir discuss the importance of deliberately incorporating “slack” into organizations as a means of increasing operational efficiency (pp. 183-189).

[2] Hofstadter, Douglas R. Godel, Escher and Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. 1979 (Vintage), p. 152.

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