How To Say No When Your Boss Wants You To Work All Weekend To Complete A Project
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Imagine that it’s Friday afternoon and your boss walks over to your desk and tells you the following:
Boss: I need you to come into work this weekend to help finish the Johnson proposal.
You: When is it due?
Boss: Monday at noon. We hoped to have it done today (Friday) but things took longer than expected so I need you to come in over the weekend to help out.
At first blush it might seem like any response other than ‘yes boss’ would be tantamount to career suicide. But that needn’t be the case. Note: I’m assuming that your job doesn’t have a formal weekend shift. I’m also assuming that this isn’t one of those cases where it really is an emergency and everyone truly does need to work all weekend.
The most important thing to understand is that requests to work all weekend usually stem from the boss’ anxiety about getting the project or task completed. There is a rarer case in which these requests stem from a boss’ need to bully or intimidate, but I’ll address that in an upcoming article. For now, we’re going to assume that our boss is anxious but not evil.
When the boss is anxious about completing the project, they’re first likely to conflate working all weekend with task completion, and second likely to prioritize concerns about the work over concerns about their people. Parenthetically, some leadership styles are especially prone to deprioritizing people issues in favor of work issues. (You can read my Forbes article “Which Of These 4 Leadership Styles Are You?” to learn more about this).
So your first task is to assuage the boss’ anxiety about getting the task done on time. You don’t ever want to say the words “don’t worry” because that will only serve to make the boss more anxious. Saying ‘don’t worry’ communicates to the boss that you really don’t understand their anxiety about the deadline, which only makes them more anxious. Instead, say something like “I hear you, this Monday noon deadline is mission critical.”
Second, it can often be a good idea to clarify where this deadline ranks relative to all your other priorities. You might try saying “relative to my other to-dos, is this number one on my list?” There are bosses who don’t manage their anxiety well and their franticness can lead them to flail about, throwing every single resource available at a project, without ever stopping to carefully analyze the most efficacious process for completing the work or whether this project is even truly that important. So you want to, very gently, help them analyze just how important this project really is, and asking them to rank priorities is an easy way to accomplish that.
Third, give the boss a plan for how you’ll accomplish the project (preferably one that doesn’t involve sitting at the office all weekend). Maybe you could say “I can rearrange my schedule for Monday morning, and I’ll have the other two employees come in early, and we’ll be able to complete the task well in advance of the noon deadline.”
Now, that by itself might not be enough to immediately assuage their anxiety, so you can take it a step further. Ask them for all the relevant information about exactly where the project stands at this moment and then provide them a detailed breakdown of how you will complete the task. For example, you could say:
“I’d like to get all of the details about exactly where the Johnson proposal stands at this moment, and then I will give you a detailed breakdown, hour-by-hour, of how we’re going to finish the proposal. This way you can see exactly what we’ll be working on, and the likely time required to complete each step.”
And if you still need to go even one step further, offer to provide them with quick updates every 30-60 minutes as your working on the proposal.
One issue that starts to become obvious as you go through this scenario is that it might have been possible to preempt this situation in the first place. Anxiety drives the boss’ franticness, and a lack of transparency often drives their anxiety. In lots of workplaces, it’s not uncommon for a Friday afternoon to arrive and for a boss to say:
“Hey, where do we stand with that proposal? What, it’s not done?!?!? Holy mackerel people!!! That’s it, I’ve gotta take control! And so everyone is working all weekend!!!"
Knowing how often situations like this occur, we probably could have guessed that this was coming. But had we been giving the boss project updates all along, and a real-time plan that shows how the proposal is going to be completed, there’s a good chance the boss would never have reached this level of anxiety.
Interestingly, by addressing the root cause of the boss’ anxiety, we didn’t need to actually say the word “no.” And if you can solve the underlying problem without actually having to say the word “no” (which the boss will often hear as prelude to an argument) things run much more smoothly.
Mark Murphy is author of the New York Times bestseller Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All, and They'll Give You Even More