Your boss is the first one in the office and the last to leave. She’s in every meeting, at every event, and flooding your inbox with updates and to-dos. If you’ve ever had a workaholic boss, then you understand what a struggle it can be.
In an effort to look like a committed team player, you may model her behavior. Soon you realize the demanding pace is unsustainable, and that the constant pressure to accomplish more — better and faster — can be a straight path to burnout.
But there can also be benefits to working with a demanding manager. Leaders with high standards can instill a culture of excellence among their teams. They may inspire employees to develop new skills, set ambitious goals, and achieve results.
The key to reaping the upside of reporting to a workaholic boss without it destroying your well-being or making you look like a slacker is to set boundaries. With clear communication and small tweaks, it’s possible to define limits and push back against unreasonable requests.
Although you may fully recognize that your current work pace is unsustainable, you may neglect to approach your manger because you fear a backlash. After all, no one wants to appear lazy and uncommitted. Unfortunately, avoiding difficult conversations only perpetuates the problem.
Workaholism is the result of deeply ingrained habits and beliefs. It’s possible that your workaholic boss may not be aware you’re suffering. Chances are, he may be receptive to changes if you approach him respectfully.
I encourage my coaching clients to do this by having two types of conversations, inspired by the work of Harvard Business School professor, Michael Watkins:
- The expectations conversation: In order to set stronger boundaries, you first need insight into what your boss perceives you can and should achieve. Watkins suggests asking clarifying questions like, “What are the few key things [you need me to] accomplish in the short term and medium-term? What will constitute success? When? How will it be measured?” From there, you can negotiate unrealistic deadlines to make them more attainable.
- The style conversation: This conversation gives you the opportunity to revisit how you and your boss interact. Watkins says the main goal is to pose questions such as, “What kinds of decisions [does your boss] want to be involved in and where can you make the call on your own? How do your styles differ and what are the implications for how you should interact?”
Based on your manager’s responses, pinpoint where boundaries need to be reset. For example, your boss may prefer to get daily updates face-to-face, which presents a big demand on your time. You may propose shifting to weekly updates via email, explaining how it frees up both of your schedules.
Prove You’re an Efficient Executor
It’s your job to prove to your boss that clocking 80-hour workweeks doesn’t make you a better employee. Your ability to be efficient, lead, and make an impact is what makes you a top-performer.
Sometimes people fall into workaholic habits because they’re not good at managing their time. Workaholics are notorious for getting sucked into busywork.
Start by taking control of your time to the extent that you can. Eliminate unnecessary meetings. Delegate tasks to your direct reports or others on your team. Master the art of gracefully saying “no” to new responsibilities.
As you power through projects more efficiently, make your accomplishments visible to your boss. In one-on-one meetings, emphasize the results you accomplished–not how many hours you logged to get it done.
By highlighting your knack for execution, you will gain your manager’s trust and prove you’re capable of getting things done during normal working hours without logging overtime.
Curb Constant Communication
People who work for workaholics often complain about the expectation to be constantly available. If your boss has a tendency to send messages on evenings or weekends, it may give you peace of mind to respond instead of going radio silent.
You can let your boss know that you received her request and will address it first thing on Monday, for example. This shows you’re proactive while setting a clear limit that you won’t be working off-hours.
Keep in mind that busy periods are inevitable. It’s wise to pre-determine your conditions for compromising your boundaries when it’s truly important. Certain seasons, emergency situations, or high-profile clients may warrant you intentionally giving up a little work-life balance every once and a while.
Once you set limits, make sure to follow through. Boundaries are useless if not enforced. Maintaining them may be hard, but your well-being and happiness are worth it.
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