What can I be asked to do and how to deal with impossible requests?

I would like to ask you what your approach to “impossible” tasks is. Recently I often find myself in a situation that I feel helpless. I believe I cannot say no to my boss, because I am not paid to refuse his commands, I am paid to execute them. Sometimes I just do not know how. And, yes, I do communicate my frustration to my boss that I do not know how to solve the problems, or that I need resources that are not available. He just would not listen to me.

I was already thinking of quitting the job, but I do not give up easily. I believe you cannot quit the problems; they keep coming after you until you solve them. That’s why I am looking for some effective alternatives.

Thanks for your eventual input.

jhack's picture

Not much detail here. Do you have directs who can take on other tasks? What makes this request impossible: not enough time, violates the laws of physics, way beyond your skill set?

Have you listened to the Juggling Koan podcast?

Please give us more to work with...

davefleet's picture

I agree with jhack. Can you define the problem more clearly?

His recommendation to listen to the Juggling Koan podcast, if you haven't already, is also excellent.

Aside from that, we need a little more information to help.

tlustoch's picture

Ok, so I am a leader of a group of 15 people. About a year ago the whole group has been organizationally transferred to a different division. That is the way I got a new boss. An example of an “impossible” task could be this: I have a DR who worked in quality assurance. Now he is expected to do coding (writing software), what he can do, but he is not very experienced in it. Furthermore he works on a project that is lead by one of my people. The PL of the project was a great coder, but he is not a very skillful PL, yet. My boss sent me for 2 months to Switzerland to a customer. I told him that I see risks when I leave these people alone. They need everyday coaching to manage the project, as it is for the first time they do it. Nevertheless, I am in Switzerland now, and I hear that I did not train the PL well enough, because he has complained to the customer about the lack of technical competence of the mentioned colleague. :-(

Another very difficult problem for me was when I was supposed to do a pay raise plan for my people. I asked for some kind of guidance (budget, limits, anything…), as this was for the first time for me and additionally in a new division. He has sent me an XLS sheet with some calculations which I proved to be wrong. I complained, but he insisted it must be in that spreadsheet. So I did it how I could. Right after that he has sent me comments, whom I gave too much and whom I gave too little. So I adjusted something and sent him again. Again it was wrong, and he send me also the numbers how it should be, already annoyed. After all this I was supposed to communicate the numbers to the people and explain them why they get what they get. I have to admit I acted cowardly and told them that this is what my boss told me to do and I do not understand why. I told them what I think they did well and where they can improve, and that it has nothing to do with the numbers.

I could go on with the examples. But these two I find the most serious.

Thanks for your interest!

WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

I guess that proves the old adage "be careful what you ask for."

First scenario. Nothing much you can do here. Agree that the PL needs some more experience / training, and give the PL feedback about how to handle that situation in the future.

Second scenario. You asked for a tool and you got it. You didn't like it, but you got it. So, use it the best you can. Try to get the raises as fair as you can, explain to the boss why you want people to have those raises. If he overrules you, then you're overruled. Never undermine your boss, that's just suicide. You might disagree, but that's between you and him, not to involve the directs.

If you can't work with it, you have to find a new job.

tlustoch's picture

Thank you for your comment. What you write is essentially what I did. But that is not the point. I believe that we could have avoided these problems (and some more) if we cooperated a bit better. My boss knows I am from a different division and that the culture was a bit different there. Nevertheless he expects me to know all the details and contexts of my current position. When I ask for a general help, he always says that he would like to explain me everything what I need to know. But as soon as I need something specific, he is not helpful at all. Either he gives me really trivial information or he just says that life is difficult.

I have even once tried to contact my boss's boss. I told him that I had difficulties with communication with my direct superior and that this way I cannot work as efficiently as I would like to. That was probably a mistake. A week later my boss called me that we need to talk. The first thing he told me was: "I have heard you were complaining about me at the old man". It was like trowing at me a bucket of ice cold water.

All I want is to know better his needs and priorities to be a better help for him. And I would appreciate if he could better understand my possibilities so he'd know where he can count on me and where I come short. Any Ideas how to make this happen?

I remain thankful for all your comments.

WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

So tell him that. Let him know that you want to be his most productive team member and make his life easier. Ask him what you can do to make that happen.

I was thinking about your comment that he was good with general information, but not specifics. Perhaps he feels that you're not solving your own problems.

When I have a direct who wants to know exactly how to do something I'm left with the feeling that if I'm going to take the time to detail it out, I could have done it myself.

Preferably someone comes to me with their issue and a proposed solution. Then we can discuss their solution and any sticking points.

Now, maybe that's not what you are "really" doing. But it might be his perception, which is more important than reality. :)

jhack's picture

Your boss not only tells you what he wants you to get done, but also exactly how to do it.

You should focus on goals in your discussions with the boss. What code do you need written? (He shouldn't be deciding which person writes the code. That's your job. You are trying to earn his respect so that he will let you do this). Likewise with the budget/raises.

If you keep coming to him with the "what" and insisting he let you decide the "how" then you may have an opportunity to prove yourself. This is the moment of truth! (Years back, I got in an argument with my boss on just this topic, and we 'agreed' that if the project I insisted on running my way failed, that he would fire me on the spot. I succeeded, he looked good, and we got along fine after that). Yes, this is risky, but the rewards are tremendous.

Some bosses are pure micro-managers and will just never change. If that's the case, you have to decide whether this is the right situation for you.

Have you listened to the podcasts on "Managing your Boss" from January 2006?

asteriskrntt1's picture

If I can try to add to John and Will's comments (try being the operative word), I wonder if you also need to listen to the DISC profile podcasts and access the cheat sheets. If your boss will not or cannot give you detail, maybe he is a High I and is just not detail oriented.

Thus, you have to find new language to help him/her give you the instruction you need because it is not their nature to get to the fine detail. Just a thought.


hchan's picture

If I may also "try" to add to *RNTT(the secret identity)'s, John's, and Will's excellent comments,... a few points to think about:

1. Get help on details and how-to from other people. It looks like your boss doesn't like to be involved in details. I see this a lot in senior management. They don't want to know the details. Their job is to tell us what they want done, and our job is to figure it out.

Some sample of non-boss resources:
- Human Resources for personnel & compensation things
- other co-workers on how to train a new PL (OK.. you might have to pay for a lunch for two. it will be worth it.)
- forum like this
- google

2. If you feel that you need more direction as you can't read the boss's mind (yet), then ask 3 questions: What Why and When. And ask to meet with them a few days later after you plot out the how, and run through it briefly just to make sure they are OK with it.

And usually, they won't have any problem with the way we lay it out. Half the time, they don't really think through a project before giving it to us. This is actually a good thing because it gives us more freedom.

3. Like what Will and John said, bosses don't want to solve problems for us. Before you go to him with a problem, figure out some kind of possible solutions. Having the solutions for them will allow them to use it as a springboard for their own thinking... resulting in either a "yes"," no", or "Why don't you try this?" Any of these answer make them feel better about how smart they are than "I don't know either" -- very likely if you come to them with a problem, and they can't think of an answer. They are annoyed when they have to admit that. ;-) (We are all annoyed when realizing that may be we are not that smart...)

And for this question you have:
[quote]I would appreciate if he could better understand my possibilities so he'd know where he can count on me and where I come short. Any Ideas how to make this happen? [/quote]

If I were you, I would try one of these two ways:
1. If he is quite open, then you can set up an "expectation meeting" with him, and be prepared with a list of what you can -- and cannot-- do. Have an agenda and a list of your points. It will help you get everything covered in a structured and non-whining manner.

2. If you are not sure how he will take the first method, wait until the next time he assigns you something. Then tell him first what you can handle, and then ask him for resources on the things you need help. Don't ask HIM to help you, but ask for resources. If he can't find any resources, he will volunteer his help. (Resources being things like -- people we can ask help from, or a tool, or something like that).
Be sure that he knows you fully intend to take on the project yourself, and only want resources so you can do the best job. It is not because you cannot do it.. you just ask because you want to do an A++ job.

Perception is Reality... Will was right on on that. Don't let him think you are whiney or weak. It will likely taint everything you do in the future.

tlustoch's picture

Thanks Will, I am afraid that he really thinks of me that I cannot handle my own problems. I believe it is not true as I did my job for last 7 years to a general satisfaction. I understand your point about doing things yourself rather then explaining to DR. If it is one time thing, sure. Salary raise will come next year (so we hope) and I would not need his assistance, had he explained it to me the first time. I absolutely agree that perception is reality. That is why I want to do something about it.

John, thanks for your comment, too. That is exactly the point. My boss tells me "what" and far more often than I would like I have no idea "how". I start asking for details and that annoys him. No, I do not believe he is a micro-manager. He tries to give me the freedom. He is just frustrated that I do not meet his expectations. That is what's bothering me. I look like an i***t (uneducated person) and I am used to belong among the best.

You do not know, how you helped me *RNTT! This opened a new world for me. I had the DISC podcasts on my iPod, but I did not get to them for some time. I've listened to all 4 of them last night and it was a revelation. My head is now like hit by a train after that much information, but I think I know now where the problem is. I printed out the cheat chart and it helped me to identify that my boss is clearly a D, I am an i, and my previous bosses were S's. All the years I have been used to handle them in a specific way and suddenly it does not work. Now I know why it does not work. What remains is to fix it. But I consider it a big progress so far. Thanks again.

hchan, sure I use other resources to figure out how to solve my problems. And it would not be the first lunch I would have paid to someone. The problem with What Why and When is that I get to know What, When is right now, and Why bothers him to explain. As I still perceive my boss as very open and I believe he struggles with our interaction the same way I do. I would like to take you for your word and ask you to help me with planning the expectation meeting. I have never done something like that, but I am willing to give it a shot. What do I need?

Thanks guys for your help so far. I am not quite there yet, but I feel I am on the right track. Mark and Mike were right - plenty of smart people here.

WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

I can see why you're in a quandary. D personality types are polar opposites to S types. Everything you did to work with an S will drive that D nuts.

BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front. That's probably the biggest change. State the issue up front. Don't soften it, don't lead to it, state it. And do it fast. That D will appreciate it, find it a breath of fresh air.

He probably feels that he has to root around in your discussions to find out what the issue really is; and sometimes he just doesn't have the time or energy. So change that, and watch your world change.

hchan's picture

Hi tlustoch:

Hope you got my PM. I've been cranking out the work before going on vacation.

Now that we know your boss is the high-D type, I will modify plan for expectation meeting based on what I learned of that type from Mark& Mike's cast. I had used Expectation Meeting successfully many times, but never with a High-D person. (Never had a high-D boss, which I guess I should be thankful as I am superlow in that theme --- 1-5-6-5). So this will be a good case study on how well can I adapt to a new situation.

I do hope other members (especially, but not exclusively, those with higher-D) will comment on whether they think this will work with them.

Basis of Expectation Meetings:
People come into a relationship with unspoken expectations about how the other side should behave. And when the two sides have different sets of expectations, both are frustrated.
Expectation meeting is just a semi-structure process for each side to verbalized those expectations so that conflicts can be spotted well before they cause problems.

My Process for a High-D boss would be:

1. Make three lists -- bullet points only (no narrative):
1.1 what you expect from your boss (like "Critical information on needs and priorities with assignment", "Improvement areas". "30-mins biweekly meeting for the first 3 months")
1.2 what your boss can expect from you (like "Thorough planning and ability to meet deadline", "No surprises"(**if things are not going well, you'll give him updates before things blow up), "Direct communication of problems"(**i.e. if you have problems with him in the future, you will go direct to him and not his boss)
1.3 things you want to know to make it easier to work together: This is for you to ask him what his preference is if you need to communicate with him (e.g. e-mail, phonecall, a drop-in, meeting request, written activity reports, etc.) When does he want you to elevate an issue to him, when you should just handle it yourself (this will not be clear, but it will give you a gauge), what is his "Hot Button".

2. Set up a meeting with your boss. No more than 30 minutes. BLUF as we've been told. Tell him it's brief and that it will make you more effective in working with him. Tell him you will have a list of what he can expect from you, and what you would look to him for.

3. Review the list. Cut down or add. With a high-D, may be try to have no more than 5 bullets in each cateogory.

4. Flip the list to start with what he can expect from you. Followed by your expectations of him (may be call it the "support" you need from him). Then ask about his preferred style of communication,etc.

5. Practice your spiel. Those bullet points will need to be explained. But you need to be brief or he'll get annoyed. So find the most economical way to say what you want.

6. When have a meeting, watch his reaction. As soon as it looks like he understood that point and is ready to move on, move to the new topic. Don't bother explain your feeling.

OK. That's what I would do. I would appreciate any comments. I am sure I could use the refined process some time in the future.

US41's picture

So you have a high D boss. That means that when they are under pressure, they are likely to give you marching orders and expect you to do what they say. Insubordination is a capital offense with them and likely to result in termination.

I'm a high D. Here are some of the successful strategies that my poor employees utilize in order to manip... *cough cough*... "handle" me.

1. Stoicism. Employees who show that they are clearly upset by raising their voices, getting tears in their eyes, and speaking about their feelings generally are dismissed as weenies who need replacing. Remember to be more like Mr. Spock with your high-D boss.

2. Action. High-D's want something to happen RIGHT NOW. They can't stand it when they ask for something and then days later the person assigned the task has not moved. Show movement. Get going right away and go fast!

3. Challenge them. The good thing about a high-D boss is that they are often open to having you counter their ideas with your own. It convinces them that you can handle things for them, and that they can stop thinking about something. A D's dream employee is one that they can delegate to absolutely without having to do anything other than say, "The problem is called "X." Please handle it." So, trying saying something like, "Hey boss, you want ____ to happen, right? I can make that happen, but I need your permission to delegate it in my team so I we can do it effectively."

Make counter proposals. Don't argue. Don't say "No, that's not a good idea." Don't say anything to give the impression you are defying them. Instead, negotiate and counter-offer. "We can do that for you, but I think I want someone else to be the one to work on it. I'll get you what you need. Trust me."

It works on me, anyway.

Be stoic, crisp, action-oriented, and negotiate for the right to make decisions about how your team works. Your high-D boss will begin to let go and start delegating to you, his easy-to-work-with, take charge action man who makes his own decisions, goes fast, and doesn't challenge his authority.

US41's picture

[quote="hchan"]My Process for a High-D boss would be:

1. Make three lists -- bullet points only (no narrative):
1.1 what you expect from your boss
1.2 what your boss can expect from you
1.3 things you want to know to make it easier to work together[/quote]

I'm a rather high-D. About as high as D's get. I'm most comfortable giving orders like in the military and prefer to be allowed to actually shoot the people who let me down or fail to do what I say. :)

When I read your lists above, I was already imagining myself firing you, hchan. The reason is because you are calling a meeting to talk about how we are going to do something else. D's don't like meetings about how we work together. D's don't like meetings at all unless they are the leader of the meeting.

D's only want to have a meeting to give out direction to people and brief them to achieve some progress or action against a particular task.

Your meeting, viewed from the eyes of a very, very high D, looks like a kum-bah-yah group hug "let's catch each other as we fall" team-building session that a high-I or S would come up with that creates delay, wastes time, and basically achieves nothing since as your boss, you have to do things my way therefore there is nothing to discuss.

I'd have to say that I think that anyone taking this in to a high-D is going to end up disappointed with the results. You'll get through your first bullet, the D will interrupt you, say, "Listen, I just need to you do X, and then we will be working fine together, OK?" Then they will send you away.

So, don't talk about how you are going to work together by holding a meeting in advance with a presentation about how we are going to get along.

When a particular task comes up, handle it then. Be crisp, be brief, take the assignment, say, "When do you want it?" Write it down, then say, "I'd like your permission to make some changes to the people you assigned."

The D will likely wave his hand and say, "Yeah, whatever. Just make it happen" and send you off fully empowered to run your team.

Don't have a meeting about how to meet with a D. That is a recipe for disaster.

jprlopez's picture

If I have NOT been doing manager tools, these would be my reactions:

1. I am not interested in how we should work well together, I'm only interested that you can do this piece of work for me.
2. If you want to do it your own way, fine. Just don't mess up or you'll be on my black book.

Here are some initial thoughts
Be direct with what you're asking for. Just make sure you've done your own homework beforehand.
Be prepared to provide alternatives but don't tell them they are wrong. A D values a person who speaks up when they have a better idea but doesn't make the D look bad.
Deliver even on the small things. This will build up your confidence and your boss' confidence in you.

Bear in mind, that with the reorganization your boss might also be thinking that your team has been pushed onto him and needs a bit of whip cracking to get you all into shape.

Leverage on your high "I". For example in the spreadsheet scenario, see if there is someone else who has done that before and approach them for the "how".

WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

I have to say I think you're getting some excellent advice from some very high D personality types. Take it.

Have I mentioned I really love these forums? 8)

hchan's picture

US41 - Thank you. I have to say I am so glad I have never had a high-D boss... Or if I did, it definite wouldn't last long. ;-)

I am definitely keeping your reply as a resource when I have to deal with a high-D. Hope they don't have the power to fire me.

WillDuke's picture
Training Badge

I work with High Ds all the time. As you can see from my profile (part of my signature) I am definitely not a high D myself. I don't mind working with high Ds at all, once I know that they are a high D. The secret is to simply not soft-pedal anything. Give 'em both barrels. Here is your information. What do you want to do? Anything else just frustrates them.

You might think that a high D is the traditional "jerk." I have found the opposite. They're very forgiving of errors, because they're so practical, if you say it up front. They don't expect perfection, but they hate feeling manipulated. So, if you have a problem, tell 'em. Just remember that the D has no concern for your "feelings." It's all a bunch of crap to them, and they'd prefer to deal in facts. Fact is...

If you need more than 15 seconds to make your point to a high D, go back to your workspace and boil it down. After 15 seconds you can have up to 2 minutes to elaborate. Extra points for quicker there too.

(Yes, this post is WAY too long for a high D.)

US41's picture

[quote="hchan"]US41 - Thank you. I have to say I am so glad I have never had a high-D boss... Or if I did, it definite wouldn't last long. ;-)[/quote]

Hopefully that is not the case. I have had a high S boss before, and she nearly drove me insane. Her incessant coddling of everyone, her inability to make a decision, her refusal to hold anyone accountable for bad behavior and instead to chastise us as a group, and her unwillingness to confront anyone which basically shut down all communication that was not hyper-fluffy, ultra-positive smiling.

We all have to learn to deal with the 75% of people who are not just like us. And believe it or not, there are high D's at my office from who's D behaviors I draw the conclusion they are jerks. And they me. And there are S, I, and C people with whom I have built very strong relationships thanks to Mark and Mike's training on DISC.

In August of last year, they challenged me to get to know a guy I work with who has the power to make my life miserable with whom I had a dysfunctional, silent resentment sort of relationship going. I struggled at first, but eventually learned that when I speak with him, I need to have all of my facts and research done, I need to remember his priorities, not mine, talk about what he wants to talk about, and approach him to "review the data and accept his analysis and expert input before we make a cautious decision."

He's as high of a C as could possibly exist, and thanks to a lot of hard work and listening to our mutual mentors here, now I can call him up anytime, and I can hear him smile and drop his guard. I remember that he wants to a lot of data, time to decide, and complete information. He also wants credentials, and I remind him that he's the one that everyone looks to as the expert.

We now have a solid friendly working relationship.

There is an S person at my office that I have been approaching recently to build a stronger relationship. She holds some of the purse strings in our company, and she can either kill me or help me. I choose help. So, I approach her slowly, put my hands flat in my lap, and speak slowly and softly with her. I try to ask how she is doing and approach with caution. She's opening up and becoming more of a help than a pain. When I forget to use S behaviors with her, she leans away and squints at me.

There are high I's at the office that I have to remember to tell "You rock" to on a regular basis and talk about how visible they are and how multi-talented.

I'm a high D, but I realize we are social creatures and if I am not willing to do half of the work, I can't expect to get along with anyone other than other D's. I'd miss out on a lot of help there: data getting researchers, supportive allies who care, and people who know how to market my ideas and get them publicized.

Don't give up on a D boss. A D boss can drive you to perform like you never knew you could. They can teach you some different approaches, such as how to kick in the door and storm in, how to be assertive and get your way, and how to get a group of people pointed in the same direction to accomplish a clear objective.

They have their weaknesses, but remember, just like anything else on MT, just do 50% of this stuff and you are doing more than anyone else. Be the one employee I have that comes to me with the bottom line up front and moving faster than comfortable, and let me know you are trying, and I can respect that and look to you to help me with support, conscientiousness, and influence. You can not only survive a D boss. You can build a relationship with them and thrive.

And having a high D kick in a door on your behalf can really be a neat thing to watch, too.

terrih's picture

Wow, very cool!

I am still trying to figure out what my boss is. :? I've listened to all the DISC podcasts but maybe I'm too C, it's still not enough data. :wink:

I almost think he might be a high C also, but I'm not sure.

I have a hard time getting in to see him. I work in a satellite building and he's in the main building. I kind of think his preference is to be dropped in on, but that isn't working very well. I have errands in the main building every day, and sometimes I luck out and he's there with his door open when I stop by. But I can't hang out forever waiting for him to get free if that isn't the case.

I tried emailing him asking when would be a good time to stop by. Didn't even get a reply.

When his admin gets back from vacation, I guess I'll ask her for suggestions. (I know, I know, shoulda done that first! :oops: )


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge


Careful waht you wish for. All the top people in most huge companies are ALL HIGH D. The higher you go, the more of us you'll see.