Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Lisa Sterling, vice president of product strategy at Ceridian and chief people officer of the company, was reaching her breaking point.
By accepting the role of chief people officer in addition to her other responsibilities, she had taken on more than she could chew. It had been months and she was tired of suffering in silence. She needed to have a difficult conversation with her boss, but she was afraid that bringing it up would make her look like she wasn’t up to the job.
Her story is a case study a new Harvard Business Review article uses to explain “How to Tell Your Boss You Have Too Much Work.”
Learning how to have difficult conversations with your superiors is key to becoming a better leader, but what makes the conversation so hard is the power dynamics in the room. It’s a delicate balance: you want to convey your concerns, but you don’t want to appear like you can’t do the work you were hired to do.
Here are some tips to making that conversation productive.
No shame in asking for help
The first step towards having that conversation was Sterling realizing that it was ok to ask for help. She had never asked a manager for help before and was nervous about going to her CEO: “We worked well together, but I had this fear that [he] would second-guess his decision [to promote me] and feel that I wasn’t up to the job.
One useful thing to remind yourself if you related to that situation: your boss is not a mindreader. He or she only knows what you say. If you don’t ask for help, people may never realize that you need it. By making herself vulnerable and being upfront about her limitations, Sterling got “executive-level coaching” from her boss who gave her useful recommendations about how to delegate better in her new position.
Come in with solutions
Sterling didn’t come in just to complain, she knew she needed to use the one-on-one to offer steps about how her situation could improve. This is crucial. Complaining or venting is not productive, for you or your boss; specific actions are much more likely to be constructive, and they give you a voice in your own career rather than waiting for a boss to hand down a judgment you may not like or agree with.
Remember that your boss will also expect you to have some ideas about how to solve your own problems. As a boss herself, Sterling knew that her own boss would want to know how they could solve the problem “if you were sitting in my chair.”
Julie Morgenstern, author of “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning,” says there’s nothing heroic in overcommitting yourself and being a martyr: “You overcommit because you are ambitious or you want to impress your boss, but then when you fail to deliver — or deliver work that is rushed or of poor quality — it sends a message that you are not reliable.”
Let’s reiterate that: the quality of your work is going to be judged more important than the quantity.
Turning down that extra assignment and taking reprieves should not be seen as a sign of laziness, Morgenstern argues, but as a sign of a worker who knows their healthy limits.
Bosses can prevent these conversations about burnout from happening later by defining the scope of the role.
For leaders taking on these new roles, part of the job means being aware of what goals are attainable and what may be overreach.
Morgenstern advises telling your boss “to define the level of effort” needed for each assignment and “what a maximum, minimum, and moderate effort looks like.” Everyone likes knowing their place, and this definition keeps bosses and their reports on the same page of what’s needed on a daily and long-term basis.
For Sterling, her solutions involved this kind of prioritizing. She suggested that a non-critical project should get temporarily delayed and that another director should be hired to take on some of her work.
This conversation may not give you the outcome you want, but you’ll know where you stand
“If your boss is continually insensitive to how busy you are, consider it a sign that you may need to move on to a new job,” Morgenstern warned.
That’s the lesson Janine Truitt, a Human Resources associate for a large hospital, learned when she talked to her boss about her limits. She did everything right in her difficult conversation. She knew that her workload of handling hires across ten facilities wasn’t sustainable, and that things needed to change. She went to her boss and offered small and big solutions such as being clued in on projects at earlier stages, and hiring more people to handle entry-level hires.
Her boss was not receptive to any of her ideas and Truitt remained overworked.
In Truitt’s case, the conversation did not give her the outcome she wanted, but it had another benefit: it showed her definitively that the job was a mismatch for her. She knew from that day forward that her days at the company would be numbered. While this may seem to be sad, it’s actually a gift to know that, because it means you can and should move forward in another, more productive path.
In the meantime, she turned to her sympathetic co-workers to making her remaining time at the company more bearable. She worked with her colleagues to divide up the workload, “buddy[ing] up” on filling similar positions for facilities.
Recalling her old job, Truitt explained the business argument to not overworking your employees: “you need to make sure your employees aren’t consistently stretched beyond what is reasonable.”
Remember this: you do have some leverage, even if you think you don’t. What happens if bosses don’t listen to employees? Those workers will leave, taking with them their expertise and connections and costing the company thousands of dollars and days of management time to find a replacement. Being good to employees isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also the right decision financially.