A. In situations like this, people often automatically say “yes” out of fear, says Jim Camp, a negotiations coach in Dublin, Ohio. “We have a real desire not to let down our bosses,” he says. “People are afraid if they say they can’t do it, they look incompetent or incapable.”
Matthew J. Kaplowitz, a psychologist in Manhattan who specializes in executive coaching, says employees generally don’t trust authority and find it hard to be honest about things like handling more work. “When we deal with authority, it’s an uneven game,” he says. Because people today are especially fearful about losing their jobs, they are reluctant to say no to their bosses.
Q. What can you do instead of saying yes to a work request?
A. At first, express gratitude that you’ve been asked to take on something new, because it means that your boss believes in you, says Tres Roeder, president of Roeder Consulting, a project management consultancy in Cleveland and author of “A Sixth Sense for Project Management.”
If you think you may already have more work than you can handle, tell your boss that, because you’re juggling other time-sensitive projects, you need to examine the details of this new task to determine if there’s some way you can fit it in, Mr. Roeder says. You may find that you won’t be able to, but automatically responding “no” without any consideration gives the impression you just don’t want to deal with it, he says. “And you don’t want to be known as the person who always says no unless they get the perfect assignment,” he adds.
If the work needs to be done immediately, tell your boss what you’re already working on and then let him or her do the prioritizing, says Evelyn Williams, a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who teaches organizational behavior. “Ask what you should do first. Should you stop working on X and Y and finish this new project first?” Framing it this way creates the feeling of a partnership between you and your boss, rather than putting you in a subservient role, she says.
Another option is to act as a quarterback, bringing in others who might be able to help. For example, Mr. Roeder says, the new project may require a lot of financial data, so you could say, “Let’s get someone from finance to help with that data, and I will see to it the rest of the work is completed.”
Q. By agreeing to take on extra work, you’re creating a crisis because you can’t get everything done on time. Is there some way out that won’t reflect badly on you?
A. Start by estimating how long the project will take — then decide whether there is any way to fit it into your week. Think about quick ways to achieve milestones in the project and what kind of deadline is realistic, then take that information to your boss, Professor Williams says. Simply telling your boss that you are overwhelmed and can’t get the work done could make you seem less competent, she says.
If there is no way for you to do any of the work in the allotted time, take responsibility by saying you accepted the assignment without having thought things through, says Mr. Camp, author of a book on negotiating called “Start With No.”
“Let your manager know that in hindsight, you realize you should have asked him what was most important, so you are doing that now,” he says.
Q. Is it ever a good idea to try to squeeze in the extra work, even if you’re already feeling stretched?
A. If the project could improve your skills or get you noticed by those who can promote your career, it may be worth losing sleep over, Professor Williams says. “Think about it strategically,” she says. “Will the task or project be a good thing for your career? Will it build your network?”
Your manager may be handing you this new project with the intention of pushing your limits — to improve your professional capabilities, Mr. Roeder says. If that seems to be the case, try to fit it in.
Q. What can you do in the future to help manage your work commitments?
A. Give short, weekly status updates about your workload to your manager, Professor Williams says. “Managers can’t see into every employee’s world,” she says. “You have to tell them what’s happening in the trenches so they can make better allocation decisions.”
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