How to Avoid Impossible Assignments – HBR Blog

by Priscilla Claman  

If you’re burning out, undoubtedly you’re aware of it. Burnout occurs when you expend more internal resources and energy than you take in. It’s not just a matter of working hard, which at the best of times can feel exciting and motivating. Burnout is exhausting — whether you are working hard or not.

In the office, a very common pattern of burnout is performance punishment. As a great former boss of mine, Phyllis Mayo, explained it: Performance punishment occurs when you accomplish something in an unbelievably tight time frame, and — along with a bonus or a pat on the back — you are rewarded with an even more challenging project with an even tighter deadline. What usually follows is another even more impossible assignment and so on, until sooner or later you fail, or burn out trying not to. The worst part? The performance punishment trap most easily afflicts those who are motivated by challenge and achievement, i.e., the most driven talent with the highest potential.

This cycle not only causes burnout, but can also be a real career killer. I once knew a bank vice president who was often tapped to lead mega-projects with tight deadlines. After a time, he could only accomplish these tasks by exhausting himself and working his project teams overtime (who were motivated only by his constant threats of termination). Instead of receiving the promotion he expected, his reputation as a slave-driving manager forced him to find a job at a different bank.

Sound familiar? Even if your story is different, every case of performance punishment almost always ends the same — in failure, burnout, or both. If you’ve fallen into this cycle, you will have to change your own behavior, not your manager’s. Why should your boss change if you’re going to continue accepting the assignments? Here’s what you can to do to break the pattern:

  1. Notice when you are being recruited for an impossible assignment. Just being aware of the pattern can help you fix it. Listen for flattering phrases like, “Only you can rise to this challenge.” When responding to the request, never use the word “no,” but don’t immediately agree. Stay positive, and don’t argue or complain. Play it safe and say, “I’d really like to take this one on. Can I come back to you in a couple of days with a plan of how best to do it?”
  2. Take the time to prepare a plan; one that won’t have you or your team working 80-hour weeks. Include in the plan the resources you need to meet the deadline realistically, such as extra people, software, consultants, etc. Try to predict what the bottlenecks will be and include them — along with potential solutions — in your plan.
  3. Go over the plan with your boss. With this step, be concise. Try a four or five slide PowerPoint deck, or even a brief outline next to a timeline. Be sure to include the work that you won’t be doing (“Martha’s team is going to have to take over hiring the new financial analysts.”). Don’t forget recommendations on how to get through the bottlenecks (“We will need George’s help to make sure the sign-offs are completed on time.”).
  4. Negotiate for the help and resources to get it done in a reasonable time frame. Be sure to paint a clear picture of what will happen if you don’t get what you need (“If George can’t get the sign-offs for another week, we will miss the deadline by two weeks.”).
  5. Establish a mutual understanding. Send your boss an email describing what you both have agreed to as soon as you can after the meeting. This way, you will have something to renegotiate if resources change or the deadline creeps forward.

Of course, the first time you do this you won’t get everything you want, but as you get better at estimating time and resources you will also get better at negotiating what you need. This prevention of snowballing assignments is a key skill for surviving in a dynamic corporate environment, and essential if you want to avoid burning out.

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See original article here.

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