What Do You Do When a Clueless Boss Makes an Unreasonable Request?

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Mar 12, 2014

I recently have written about bosses being addicted to detail, or wasting time by not appreciating the cost of asking a question.

Several people came back to me and asked me to write about the other side of this problem — when your boss stays so high level that they don’t know what’s going on and don’t understand what needs to be done.

These types of bosses are frustrating because they just want things, big things. And when your boss lacks any understanding about what it takes, it’s hard to negotiate a do-able plan.

Here are some ideas about how to make your conversations with a big picture (clueless) boss go better.

1. Manage the moment

When your boss says to you, “Make it so,” just say, “Will do.” That is what this type person needs to hear in the moment.

Resist the need to start explaining what it will take to make it happen.

That’s because if you say something like, “here are the things we need to consider to make that happen. We need to do this first, learn this, and fix this before we can complete that…” you may feel like you are going forward.

But, what your boss hears is you stalling, putting up roadblocks, or giving excuses about why you can’t do it.

Solution: Stop explaining. Give him the, “YES and GO” feedback in the moment.

Then, once you are off on your own you can study the situation, get input, break the task down into steps, start solving problems, etc.

2. Always stay in the Big Picture

When you go back to your boss, your BIG message is — “I am making progress.

If you need some help, resist the urge to explain or show your work, and keep it a “big picture” request.

For example: “I have broken this down into four areas. All are moving forward but one. I need you to make a decision on this one and then I can continue. Here are two choices.”

Keep all of your details, sequence, and process to yourself, and reveal only what is truly required to your boss.

Dealing with impossible requests

A colleague of mine describes this by saying his boss does not understand the gap between WANTING and HAVING.

It can be very stressful when your boss always seems to be setting you and your team up for failure by making impossible requests that sometimes make no sense.

“I need you to completely redesign the product to be cloud-interoperable with space ships, medical databases, and organic farming. You get no extra budget, you can’t delay anything else you are working on, and we need an initial demo in three weeks.”

As much as you want to say “Are you an idiot?” your best bet is still to manage the moment and say, “Let me get started.”

Then circle back with a few big picture options. (Always big picture.)

  • Option 1 — A superficial, political, check-the-box. If there is some part of this request that makes sense, propose a small win – “Our next version of the product will contain the right foundation to connect with medical databases. In three weeks we can mock-up a user-interface for what the eventual product may look like.”

(I find a lot of times these unreasonable requests are political, shallow, and buzz-wordish in nature, and if you can offer a shallow, face-saving solution, that might be all you ever need to do.)

  • Option 2 — A real plan, but free of detail. Here are the major [big picture] building blocks, costs, risks and timeline for a real project plan to accomplish this. This needs to fit on one page. Detail will never help you talk your big picture, high-level boss out of a bad idea.

3. Bleed the energy out of the idea

There is a reason why you can show the costs and reality of an impossible request later and get a better outcome than if you try to counter it in the moment.

It’s because another aspect of these “big idea” requests are that they are often fueled by the excitement of the moment (Management by shiny object).

If you try to counter the idea at the peak of excitement, when the idea has the most energy, it’s much harder to shut down than if you wait. Later, the impossible idea will have less power, energy, and emotion tied to it.

So if you take the approach of saying, “OK, let me get to work,” you not only win in the moment, but you give yourself a much easier job of combating the idea later on.

Make nice in the moment

The other thing to note is that bosses like this often don’t really understand what they are saying when they ask for things!

So if you made your boss feel good in the moment when they asked, their defenses will go down. Then they will quickly lose the plot, and they will have not have the ability to debate your real plan and recommendations.

If you have a clueless, big-picture, unreasonable boss, I’m sorry. They are indeed out there.

Protect yourself and your team by making nice in the moment, and then, structuring a big-picture response that won’t kill you later.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

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