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Pushed To The Limit

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

I’m a consultant in the midst of a big project, working with a mixed team of client staff and consultants. The project is full-on, and we are all off-site and out-of-town.

A client team member (I’ll call her Ann) and I have been given a big module to do. Although we’re both supposedly full time on this case, somehow I find myself doing all my work and some of Ann’s, too. I’m really fed up; when I work until midnight she leaves early and seems to have long, boozy dinners with her mates. When we get back after the weekend – that I’ve spent working! – I can tell she’s not touched a thing since Friday afternoon. I really don’t know what to do. Any ideas?

It sounds like you’re in a really difficult situation working phenomenally long hours, away from home and with a colleague who’s perhaps not as conscientious as you.

It also sounds like your team in general may not have very clear roles, responsibilities or accountabilities and this is exacerbating the situation. Unfortunately, this sort of situation happens a lot more frequently than you think. Some people can just sense when there is a diligent worker in their team and somehow this person ends up carrying a lot of extra work. So, what can you do?

We think that you have two broad choices.

1. Keep overworking on this project but take steps to ensure no repeats


  • You spend your time and energy delivering the agreed outputs rather than diverting them into this difficult issue. This way, you build a reputation for reliability and hard work.


  • You need a month’s sleep when it’s all over and you’re that much closer to burnout.
  • You’ve risked setting unreasonably high expectations for your rate of work for the future.

The most effective way to prevent this situation is as simple – and as difficult – as establishing clear boundaries at the outset of a project. It means having confidence in your own value and your knowledge of the norms of your firm to be able to say:

This is what my role is and this is what I will deliver. This is how much I am prepared to give and this is where I draw the line.

Sometimes, it just seems easier to do the excessive work than have to go through the discomfort of stating limits and risking coming under the microscope from senior managers as a result. However, overwork is unsustainable. To ensure you maintain healthy boundaries you just have to keep pushing back on those colleagues who try to get you to do their work for them!

Setting Boundaries

There are several elements to setting clear boundaries:

  • Figure out for yourself what it is you are prepared to do. Are you prepared to work weekends? Are you prepared to work late nights every night? Where will you draw the line?
  • Communicate your boundaries to your work mates at the start of a project or period of work.
  • Keep reinforcing them – push back on colleagues and managers who overstep the boundaries you established.
  • When things begin to be too much, send warning signals, don’t wait until you can’t cope.
  • And lastly, the tough one: make sure you perform! When you’re a high performer people are more likely to respect you and your boundaries.

Boundaries, especially in stressful situations, are very hard to maintain. The key lies in continuously re-establishing them.

2. Deal with the situation right now


  • If the case is long and you simply can’t last out, this offers you a chance of improving things.


  • If you need to bring in your boss, or Ann’s, to solve things, you might lose some credibility for not being able to sort things out on your own.

So, how to proceed? Here are three more ideas.

Walk a Mile in Ann’s Shoes

She may in fact have good reasons for the way she’s acting! Take a moment to consider:

  • Who set the parameters of the workplan? Chances are it was largely driven by the manager or partner from your consulting company, not Ann’s own manager. So she may think it’s fair enough to leave the ‘extra’ to you.
  • Employees in professional service firms do develop stamina for huge workloads and crazy hours. Ann may be working harder than ever before in her life – and harder than anyone told her she’d ever have to. Thus she may feel she’s already delivering well in excess of her firm’s norms.
  • What other work is she doing? Does she still have to cover off some basics in her day job? Even though you say she’s full time on the project, it’s rare for company managers to be able to step away so completely.
  • Lastly, have you ever suggested ‘adjustments’ to Ann’s work to improve the logic or clarity of presentation? Maybe you’ve physically taken her output and changed it yourself? She may feel disempowered by this, no better than a cog in your machine.

These considerations may lead you to feel you should make more allowances. If not, they will still have been a useful exercise to prepare for step 2.

Talk to Ann

We suggest you prepare for this conversation – don’t just blurt out your frustration. Take a few minutes to write down examples of times you carried her share of the work so that you have them clear in your mind. Also, try and jot down a couple of times she helped you out: being able to say something nice will come in very handy!

Find a time when you’re away from the immediate office and not totally stressed out, perhaps while you’re both out buying a sandwich.

Begin your conversation by asking her how she feels things are going with the project in general and your working relationship in particular. That might reveal some interesting perspectives. Treat her with respect and make sure you communicate to her that you value her work and contribution. Use an example of a time she helped you. Once you’ve established the appropriate positive rapport, you can broach the issue of the occasions when you feel you’ve been doing more than your share.

Remember, your goal is to find out if there’s anything you can do to help her produce more work and be willing to do so. If you find practical actions you agree on, make sure you follow up with her regularly.

It would also be a good idea to have a quiet word with your manager to fill him or her in. By taking along a proposed solution to your problem, you will look proactive.

Push the Problem Upwards

This may be necessary, depending on how things go with Ann. Even if the conversation went well, you may both still want clearer individual accountabilities. You could both ask your respective managers for a meeting, but ultimately, if there are issues of timing and scope changes, your manager will need to agree these with a separate person, namely the lead client manager.

In your meeting with your manager, you might want to establish first how s/he thinks the project is going. It could be the case that s/he’s picked up on the issues but hasn’t dealt with them, assuming you could cope.

Sometimes when we don’t voice how we feel it’s convenient for others to think we are OK, to save having to do something about it. Then, it is important that you voice how you feel in a professional and factual way, illustrating your points with the actual examples you collected for your talk to Ann. Since you know your manager will probably need to discuss the solution with client managers you’ll want to be as even-handed as possible, and fully cognizant of Ann’s perspective. Ultimately, you want your manager to alleviate the situation by re-establishing roles and responsibilities and clear accountabilities for your team

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