In the professional world, navigating unrealistic expectations is a common challenge. Often, we encounter demands for immediate results or exceptional quality that doesn’t match the available resources. While it’s our duty to clarify and push back on such expectations, we may face situations where that impossibly high bar is simply non-negotiable.
(By the way, if you need help learning how to professionally pushback, I have an entire webinar on the topic of “Setting Limits and Managing Expectations” in the Career Success Library.)
Here are some suggestions for how to deal with non-negotiable unrealistic expectations while maintaining professionalism and still caring for your own well-being.
Call in Support from Colleagues
When faced with a demanding and unmovable deadline or standard, one of the first steps is to seek support. This could mean delegating other priorities to colleagues or asking for assistance with the project at hand. Foster a team environment where support is a two-way street and remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a strategic approach to meet collective goals.
Engage Leadership for Negotiation
Sometimes, the key to managing these situations lies in the hands of your leaders. You can do everything within your power to push back but it’s only when leadership gets involved that people are suddenly willing and able to negotiate. (Amazing how that happens!)
Present your case to your leaders with evidence, highlight the consequences of making this impossible task happen,and offer potential alternatives. Leaders can provide the political weight needed to shift expectations, adjust priorities, or at least provide additional support.
Do What You Can with What You Have
There will likely be occasions when despite all efforts, the impossible expectation remains, and you’ll be left to do the best you can with the resources you have. This might mean putting in extra hours to meet a deadline, staying late or working overtime. However, it’s crucial to communicate that such measures are an exception, not a precedent for future expectations.
Set Clear Boundaries
It’s always helpful to communicate boundaries proactively. Let it be known that while you’re committed to delivering exceptional work, you have a lot of competing demands to manage and a lot of stakeholders with important priorities. Not everything can be a top priority. You can get everything done, but you can’t do everything RIGHT NOW. There are normal, natural limitations that everyone must work within. Additionally, make sure people know that your commitment to service cannot come at the expense of your well- being. This will help establish realistic standards for future tasks and can prevent a cycle of unrealistic expectations.
Document and Reflect
Keep a record of situations where expectations were unrealistic and how they were handled. This can be valuable for future discussions on resource allocation, deadlines, and project management. Reflection can also provide insights into how to better handle similar situations in the future. You may discover some patterns you can address with specific individuals to help train them on what “realistic” expectations really are.
If stakeholders understand the intricacies and challenges of a task, they may be more flexible with their demands. Often people think what they are asking for is easy, but they have no idea what it really takes. Showing them the true cost of a task in terms of time and resources can help them set more realistic expectations in the future.
Meeting expectations is certainly a key part of workplace performance, but it’s also our responsibility to communicate and manage these expectations realistically. It’s a delicate balance between pushing back and doing what’s necessary, but with the right strategies and a supportive environment, it really is possible to navigate even the most challenging demands.
If you need more help with prioritization and managing a heavy workload, consider joining the Task & Time Management Learning Lab. Learn more here.