It’s flattering to become the “go-to” person that your boss can rely on. However, if you find yourself handling someone else’s duties in addition to your own, or if you’re stuck on humdrum projects while your co-workers get to participate in marquee initiatives, chances are good that you’re being taken advantage of.
Fortunately, there are ways to turn such a situation around. Here’s how to set boundaries with your boss without damaging your career:
Before you initiate a conversation with your boss about the issue, consider the techniques that will ensure success. For example, your boss may become defensive if accused of piling on work or taking advantage of you. Instead, frame the conversation as a “mutual” problem.
“Demonstrate an understanding of what’s most important to your boss and the department by having a ‘we’ conversation, not an ‘I’ conversation,” advised executive career coach Tammy Gooler Loeb.
For example, you could explain how focusing on a narrow selection of tasks (i.e., those you were originally hired to do) will contribute more effectively to the organization’s goals. If you feel left out of key initiatives, explain how your skills make you a better bit for those.
Above all, make sure you’re not labeled a complainer or malcontent by blaming your teammates for issues; calling them slackers will likely earn you no sympathy from your boss. It’s better to keep things positive, by devoting your meeting time to solutions. Offer to train a junior developer in routine tasks, for instance, or negotiate a reprioritization of your workload.
If your boss doesn’t know what you’re working on, or what’s important to you from a professional development standpoint, he may keep giving you routine work. Make sure he’s not taking your true talents for granted.
“Most tech managers have no idea what’s on your plate,” suggested Laura Rose, a business consultant who formerly worked as a developer, QA manager and project manager. “What’s more, they generally don’t care who does the work, as long as it gets done.”
Review a list of everything you’re working on with your boss, she advised. Seeing your entire schedule of projects and tasks in black and white may help your boss realize that you’re bearing the brunt of the workload.
Then, use the opportunity to reconfirm goals and deadlines, and work together to prioritize your schedule of projects and tasks. Your enlightened boss may be willing to stagger deadlines or let you delegate certain tasks to co-workers.
Be fully transparent about the consequences of your current workload, as well as its impact on stakeholders and clients. This approach provides common ground and suggests that you and your boss are equals looking for a solution.
Finally, continually review your career plans and goals with your manager, then reference those discussions when he asks you to tackle tasks or projects that you no longer feel passionate about.
(A quick side note: Some tech pros have taken this best practice to another level: they list their projects on a whiteboard or Kanban board, so their boss and co-workers can see what they’re up to.)
Saying “I won’t” or “I can’t” are career-killers that you want to avoid. Instead, say “yes” to your boss’s requests, but set limits by asking for something in return (such as a raise, promotion or comp time), or by stating how long you’re willing to commit to the project.
For instance, if your boss asks you to perform maintenance programming on a proprietary enterprise program, ask when the maintenance lifecycle is scheduled to end. Then ask if you can handle the first two months, train your replacement, and move to a high-priority project that offers great strategic value to the company and your career, Rose suggested.
Bartering is actually an effective way to set boundaries; your boss may continue to cross the line unless you find a way to respectfully and tactfully take a stand.
You’re ultimately responsible for your own career interests. But if push comes to shove, you may need to pursue an internal transfer to another team or seek employment with a new company.