When your boss overloads you, blame yourself

Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Communication, Computerworld Columns, Managing self | 2 comments

At work, do you ever feel like one of those circus performers spinning plates on the top of poles? With a dozen different projects going at once, you spend your time frantically running from one to another, attending to each just enough to keep them all spinning. You’re exhausted from the relentless pace but know that the best you’re going to do is avoid the crashing disaster of letting them drop. And it feels like none of the projects will ever end.

You’re caught up in what’s commonly known as thrashing, spending a disproportionate amount of your time switching between projects. Every time you set one aside and pick up another, it takes mental and emotional energy to stop one train of thought and remind yourself where you left off on the other. When you do this too often, you spend most of your time switching and little of your time in productive work.

And when this happens, most of us curse our bosses for giving us too much to do. We blame them for our stress and lack of productivity. But you shouldn’t blame your boss for this. It’s as much your fault as it is hers.

A boss’s job is to get as much done as possible with the resources available. Many managers interpret that as meaning they have to heap as much work as possible on the people they supervise. Some of them may try to gauge how much you can accomplish without thrashing, but most will just keep giving you things to do to make sure you’re doing as much as possible.

So why do I say that it’s your fault as much as your boss’s? Because it’s your responsibility to be productive, to monitor your own work and to let your boss know what’s realistic to expect given the time available and the circumstances you’re working under. In other words, it’s not your job to willingly agree to everything your boss tells you to do.

I’m not suggesting that you should just start telling your boss no when she asks you to do anything new. There are appropriate ways to make sure that you avoid thrashing and give your organization the best return on its investment in you. When you find yourself thrashing, or concerned that the next thing your boss requests will push you over the edge, you have options.

Ask your boss to clarify your priorities. Calmly list all the things that you have to do, then tell her how many you feel you can address effectively at one time, and ask her to rank them in the order she wants you to work on them. You’re not saying you won’t do them. You’re just asking for guidance to ensure that you address the most important goals first.

Clarify the impact of being overloaded. Again, calmly list everything you have to do, then tell your boss how many you feel you can address effectively at one time. If she tells you that you must do them all at once, explain the impact of thrashing on your productivity and the total amount of time you’ll need to finish them simultaneously rather than in sequence.

Either way, you’re not being intransigent or refusing to work. You’re simply giving your boss the information she needs to get the best from you. It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that you have limits. In fact, self-awareness and honesty are signs of self-respect and professionalism.

Although it’s tempting to blame your boss for overloading you, it’s not reasonable or fair. It’s your responsibility as a professional to ensure that you can produce the best results possible given the constraints of your work. And it’s part of your job to let your boss know honestly what you can and can’t do.

 Copyright 2014 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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2 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, in my case, it is my bosses fault. He has overloaded me since one of his top managers was kicked out of the country and he decided not to replace him since he and I could split the work. However, he also is divorcing his wife and is having a mid life crisis. He is busy with picking up girls and partying. He does not come to the office and is not working in the field the way he should. This has, in effect, overloaded me because regardless of whether he is here or not, the work has to be done.We have people that depend on this company as their livelihood. I have taken on the extra hours, extra work, and in addition he cannot handle all his personal crap. This also falls on me as a favor, which of course happens three or four times a week. I am not going to leave until after our busy season is over, but I am leaving. He gave me two part time people to help with administration but neither of them have any experience and are also kids or friends of his so I cannot give them things they do not want to do. And have to lead them by the nose for everything they will do.

  2. Excellent advise in plain English. I am a psychotherapist, but always start with the salient problem before getting to the root cause.

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