The common mistake people make when negotiating workloads

The common mistake people make when negotiating workloads

More and more people are swamped at work. With companies restructuring, merging, and downsizing, many professionals are ending up with more than one job, more than one boss and more pressure to get everything done, regardless of shrinking capacities and competing priorities.

The difficulty with growing responsibilities and reduced capacity across the board is that it’s not always easy to push back on the ever-increasing workload. 

  • How do you tell your manager that you can’t deliver?
  • That you’re too busy or don’t have time?
  • How do you push back on unrealistic expectations and overly optimistic time lines without coming across as someone incapable of getting the work done, or someone who doesn’t want to get the work done?

The answer for a lot of people is that they don’t. And this is the most common mistake I see when managing workloads. People don’t push back. They suck it up. They work like a Trojan and then pay the price by attracting more work, more pressure and more unpaid overtime. Not to mention the fact that they are training their manager that they can always deliver in this unrealistic environment, and the more they deliver, the more they are expected to deliver… and the cycle continues.

How to push back without pushing back

There is a simple, elegant and effective strategy you can use to help you hold your boundaries and reinforce what’s possible, feasible and practical, without sacrificing your sanity or pushing back on someone more senior than you. It’s a way to say no without actually having to say no. Here’s how it works:

Manager : I need this report by next Monday. The Director needs it for the pre-summit briefing.

You : Ok great. Quick question. I’ve also got the Dunning project due on Monday, the audit information to compile by Wednesday and I’m covering for Claire and Tom for the next two days while they are at the client site. I’m concerned I won’t be able to deliver on all of these priorities in this time frame. Are you able to let me know which of these priorities I should focus on in the coming week? 

Manager : Hmm, I didn’t realise you had so much on. Perhaps I’ll give the report to Joshua. Thanks for letting me know. For now just focus on the audit information first and covering for Claire and Tom. You can push the Dunning project out to next week.

Why does this work so well?

The main reason this technique works is that managers are often so stretched themselves that they are not always across the full workloads of those in their teams. It’s hard to remember who is working on what, and when things are due. Managers tend to pile up their staff assuming they can handle the workload, unless they are told otherwise… and that’s the kicker. If you don’t tell your manager what you’ve got on your plate, they won’t always think to ask. If they don’t ask and you don’t tell, you’ll get more and more work.

Food for thought huh?


As a professional People Whisperer, Author and Speaker, (and one of YMag’s Top 10 Women to Watch in 2019) Anneli supports women to increase their visibility, confidence and personal power for greater professional impact in male-dominated industries.

Anneli’s flagship masterclass for Women in leadership has inspired women from all over Australia to step in, speak up and stand out through a focus on building a presence, improving visibility and strategically managing the right professional impact.

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