Dealing With Unreasonable Requests
Asserting Yourself Effectively
It's Sheila's last day before a long-awaited break, and she's been working hard to complete her work before she leaves.
However, in the middle of the afternoon, her boss comes in with news: Sheila's company has just been contacted by a possible new client, and, as she's the team's best sales rep, her boss wants her to meet with the client tomorrow.
When Sheila reminds him about her planned time off, her boss asks that she reschedule. He says that the client is too important for less experienced reps to handle, and, since Sheila's not actually going away on vacation, he thinks that there's no reason why she can't attend the meeting.
Many of us are approached with requests that seem unreasonable. If you want to stay productive and happy in your role, it's essential to know how to deal with these demands.
"Unreasonable" means "beyond the bounds of reason and fairness." This is clearly quite subjective, and what may seem reasonable to one person may seem quite unreasonable to another. So, what could an "unreasonable request" actually encompass? Let's consider the following situations:
Short Time Frames
A request could be unreasonable because of a short deadline. For instance, your boss pops into your office at the end of the day, demanding that you finish a low-urgency task before you leave. To meet his request, you have to stay quite late.
Unless there's something deeper going on, this seems unreasonable.
Errors, Ignorance, or Miscommunication
Requests can also be unreasonable because of a simple error or a miscommunication.
For example, imagine that your colleague is pressuring you to complete a project as soon as possible, because he believes that the deadline is immovable. However, this belief stems from a miscommunication with his boss, who has overstated the deadline's importance.
Requests can also be unreasonable, because the other person doesn't realize how much work they entail. For instance, a new client may request a complete overhaul of his website in just two days. But he may not understand website design, and may have no idea how much time and effort the project will involve.
A request could be unreasonable because it violates your, or generally held, ethics or values.
For instance, imagine that your boss is in an MBA program. He has to travel next week to meet with several new clients. Because of his grueling schedule, he asks you to complete his homework while he's away, so that he doesn't fall behind. This would probably go against your ethics and values!
Be careful, though, to consider how your own ethics and values relate to the general ethics and values of your organization. Something that seems unreasonable to you may seem quite reasonable to many others, and this can leave you in a difficult position.
Tasks Outside Your Normal Responsibilities
Requests that fall outside your normal job responsibilities might also be unreasonable. For instance, imagine your boss has "volunteered" you to pick up a client at the airport on Saturday, which is not a usual workday. This will cause you to miss your son's soccer game, which you'd promised you'd attend.
Requests can be unreasonable due to changing priorities. Imagine that your client has clearly defined the scope of a project, and you've agreed on the compensation for this work. However, midway through the project, she decides to go in a different direction and asks that you redo the work – without additional pay.
Deciding If a Request Is Unreasonable
When someone makes what you feel is an unreasonable request, it's tempting to agree to it, without even thinking, because you feel pressured. Or, you might say "no" to something that is actually a completely reasonable request. This is why it's important to know how to think about requests, and decide if they are, actually, unreasonable.
First, identify why it feels unreasonable. Is it because you don't have time, or because it's outside your area of responsibility, or because you won't be compensated for the extra work, or because you don't have the resources or expertise?
Your emotions provide an important clue here. When someone makes a request that leaves you feeling resentful or uncomfortable, then you need to look at the request and ask yourself why it seems unreasonable.
Ask yourself if it is genuinely unreasonable, or do you simply not have the resources – material, financial or time-related – to deliver on an otherwise reasonable request?
Next, look at the nature of the demand, and its context. For instance, in some organizations, work peaks around a certain time, or a crisis may dictate that you need to accomplish goals outside your normal responsibilities. If your organization is experiencing a workload spike or a crisis, then not accepting the request could harm your team.
Ask questions so you can better understand the reasons for the request. Why is the task important? Why is the deadline critical? It's essential to find the answers to questions such as these, because they'll help you avoid misunderstandings and resentment.
Once you have more information, look at the request from the other person's point of view. What might seem unreasonable to you may seem perfectly acceptable to him or her. Consider the situation and the pressure that person might be under. Does the request still seem unreasonable?
Over the longer-term, it's important to get a feel for what you will and won't stand for. Your boss or client might make a request that goes against your values or ethics. Or someone might ask you to work at the weekend, which goes against your commitment to spend a sensible amount of time with your family.
What is reasonable or unreasonable depends, to some extent, on your own career objectives. If you're determined to do well in a highly-demanding and well-paid career, then you should be prepared to make sacrifices, work long hours, and robustly exceed expectations.
If you want a life with a different shape, then you may have a narrower definition of what's reasonable. Be realistic about what you expect.
It can also be helpful to sense-check your assumptions about a request with a trusted colleague or your boss. This is especially true if you're working on an important project, or dealing with an important client.
Handling Unreasonable Requests
Once you've decided that a request is unreasonable, use the strategies below to handle it effectively:
Depersonalize the Situation
Imagine that your boss wants you to reorganize the files for a large project so that he can better find the information he needs. He wants it done by the end of the week – on top of the other work you have to finish. It's tempting to say "I can't do this!"
When we react emotionally to an unreasonable request, tempers flare, which can cause the conversation to spiral into a battle for control. However, you can keep the conversation rational by making it less personal. In your response, try to use the words "I" and "me" as little as possible.
You could say, "Under our current workload, those files could be reorganized by the end of the week if three of us do the job. Or, if you're willing to wait until next week for the sales report, you can definitely have the files reorganized by Friday."
This response is less emotionally charged because you kept yourself and your emotions out of it. By using the word "you," the response also showed your boss that you're attentive to his needs, and it gave him two options to consider.
Often, an unreasonable request can cause your blood to boil, especially if you're already overloaded with other responsibilities.
Do your best to calm down before you respond to any request (the "take ten deep breaths" advice really does work!) and learn how to manage your emotions at
work, so that you can quickly gain control of your feelings in tense situations.
One of the best skills to develop is the ability to say "no" diplomatically, yet assertively.
Assertiveness isn't just about saying no or being pushy. When you're assertive, you're standing up for your needs, while still considering the needs of others.
Explain calmly why you can't accommodate the request as it stands, using the evidence you gathered when you analyzed it. As part of this, show empathy for the other person's situation.
If appropriate, and depending on the nature of the request, negotiate a solution that benefits both of you. Perhaps you could extend the deadline, delegate the request to someone else, or offer to do another task more quickly.
Remember, though, that it will sometimes be appropriate just to say no. Our article "Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task offers several strategies that you can use to do this, while still maintaining a good relationship with the other person.
Review Your Responsibilities
If people regularly make unreasonable requests, revisit the scope of your role, or review your agreement with them. It might be time to negotiate additional compensation if you're frequently working on tasks outside your regular responsibilities.
You might also want to point out, subtly, that their requests fall outside the normal parameters of your responsibilities. Sometimes, explaining this is enough to prevent future requests, and at the very least, it highlights that you're going above and beyond your role to help them.
Be careful with this, though – people often prove that they're ready for promotion by taking on some of their boss's tasks. And everyone needs to "pitch in" when important jobs need to be done. Just make sure that things don't go too far!
Maintain Good Relationships
The better the relationships you have at work, the better you'll communicate with others, and the less people will come to you with unreasonable requests.
Focus on building good work relationships by being honest about your workload and schedule, respecting everyone around you, and showing appreciation when you receive help or advice. It's also important not to make unreasonable requests yourself!
Sometimes, unreasonable requests can cross the line into outright bullying, especially if someone tries to intimidate you into doing what he or she wants. If you feel as if you're being bullied, our article on Bullying in the Workplace has tips and resources that you can use to regain control of the situation.
On occasion, you may have to deal with unreasonable requests. Or, you might work with someone who makes unreasonable demands all of the time!
Requests can be unreasonable because they have impossible time frames, require expertise or resources that you lack, fall outside your regular responsibilities, or violate ethics or values that are important.
If you feel that a request is unreasonable, analyze it first to make sure that your initial assumptions are correct.
Then, cope with unreasonable requests by depersonalizing the situation, being professional with the other person, and being assertive.