A reader who manages a shrinking team asks how much extra work the remaining workers can possibly do, in the July 14, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.
My boss just laid off five members of the team I manage and directed that we pick up the slack. So we’ve each been doing multiple jobs. At first it seemed like a challenge and everybody got to it, but now it’s killing me and my team. We all want to prove we’re worth keeping in this grim economy, but we are working over 60 hours a week, some of us including Saturdays. Our “normal” was around 45 hours, maybe 50 when there was a crunch. I need minimum two new staff to stay on top of the work, plus new software and tools. I’m afraid some of my employees will get sick, and others will get fed up and quit (me included). There’s only so much people will take. What do you advise?
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning famously wrote. I don’t know whether he had met Elizabeth Barrett yet, or he might have said “peoples’ reach,” but you get the point.
We’re all capable of doing more, and challenges test us and often make us better. But Browning never suggested falling into the abyss by reaching too far.
There is no easy, certain or risk-free solution to your problem — especially as the job market spirals down as a result of the pandemic. But tolerating unreasonable work demands is no solution, either. It’s worth discussing options. I’m going to present one, and ask readers to propose others so we can talk about them.
Your boss seems motivated to find out what your limit is. A good boss who tests you will closely monitor your health and manage accordingly. A lousy boss will keep piling on the work and kill you softly and slowly. You should ask yourselves what kind of boss you have.
More important to me is how you manage your boss. My advice is to tell your boss the truth. I know that’s risky, but part of your job as a manager is to speak up. You’re expected to get the work done, but keeping your own team members healthy is also your job. As you note, losing more of your team because they are over-worked is another risk — to the company.
Over-worked and candid
Insecurity can lead an employee — including a manager like you — to interpret unreasonable demands to work longer and harder as a threat: “Do or die!” An insecure manager won’t dare to confront the boss candidly for fear of getting fired. Does your boss want to hear the truth from you? Or does your boss not care? Getting the answer requires a frank conversation. Then you need to present your boss with a realistic and honest choice.
One approach is to say yes to your boss’s extreme expectations, and to qualify it with “but…” Yes, but.
How to say it
“I’d like to give you an update on our productivity. Since the layoff, the new requirement for the smaller team is to add A and B to our deliverables without increasing company headcount. I’ve outlined a plan. Please have a look. As you can see, YES, we can deliver A and B. BUT, to deliver one or the other, we need to transfer one more company employee to our team. To deliver both A and B, we need to transfer two more employees to our team, and we need some new tools. In either case, we can keep up this level of performance for about six months. Then, as you can see in my projections, the stress on the system and my team will adversely affect product quality and delivery schedules. I know this is not what you’d like to hear — it would be great if we could do A and B with current resources, but it puts the rest of our operation at risk. Can we discuss the trade-offs, what is the best choice, and what is a realistic business plan and delivery schedule?” (A related approach works when negotiating salary.)
Of course, you will have to think through your own plan in your circumstances. But this is part of your job. The company is trying to do more with less, when what it needs to do is decide what its priorities are and choose what has to go.
The cost of consent
If you avoid the discussion with your boss, and are fearful of appearing uncooperative or even incapable, you’re likely to dig the hole even deeper. When you’re already over-worked, quiet compliance just makes the boss think you can do even more. So the weight on your back will likely be increased. There is no good outcome for you. That’s poor management and poor business.
Where I’ve seen this happen in particular, even in good economies, is with managers who are insecure because they lack a college degree, or they are insecure about their skills and judgment. (See impostor syndrome.) They consent to staggering workloads to avoid appearing somehow unqualified, or to avoid calling attention to themselves. All of them almost invariably burn out or take it so far that they get fired.
It’s your job to do the best you can so your company will succeed, and sometimes that means working harder and longer in a crunch. But don’t make it your goal to prove you can do whatever is demanded, that you can figure anything out, and that you can be counted on no matter what. That’s the path to catastrophe because you will lose your job soon anyway — perhaps after you become very sick. The only outcome is doom.
Our reach should exceed our grasp, but not kill us. Never over-promise just to “prove” yourself. Part of what you’re paid for is to tell your boss the truth, even if it’s bad news, as long as your assessment includes proposing rational, prudent choices to protect the business and the employees that make it successful. Don’t say “Can do!” to what can’t be reasonably done. Say YES, BUT — and outline the options and their costs. Otherwise, you’ll either go out on unemployment, or get carried out on a stretcher.
There is no easy answer to this problem. So let’s talk about the hard but honest answers. When the chips are down and your company asks the world of you, how much should you deliver, and under what kind of deal? How would you explain it to your boss? Would you even try? What risks would you face? Are there any benefits?