My husband has a phrase: 

If a job is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well.

I find this expression very helpful as a counter position to the idea that doing the job well is essential if that job is worth doing.

I have had the experience myself of being given a job that can’t actually be done. Or maybe it can be done but not properly. Or not in the time frame. Sometimes auditor recommendations come into this group – to make something completely safe they suggest a control that slows the work down too much, or requires loads of extra work. And let’s face it: many a senior leader dreams up something they want to see – say 90 per cent customer satisfaction - and insists that people on the ground deliver it without providing them with the tools, resources or opportunities to do the job well.

Years ago I was given a job that involved a complex negotiation with another team. My team would not allow me sufficient autonomy or authority to do the negotiation. They spent forever discussing and drawing up the parameters and rules for the negotiation. Once I was allowed to go off and have the discussion I had very little time to listen and work with the other team. I more or less had to announce my negotiation framework. The other team correctly challenged the position which they felt was one sided. The discussion fell apart soon afterwards. I had been given an impossible task – to get a very advantageous settlement – and not allowed enough time or flexibility to engage in some collaborative and lateral thinking with the other team.

A friend of mine is a sales manager for a house builder, and his basic job is to ensure buyers are happy with their home. But the construction process is flawed and many of the homes have significant defects. He is powerless to change the process or culture on the building side, and he has little authority to order remedial work. So his job is impossible. He cannot do what he is paid to do – which is to make the customer happy. He is carrying considerable stress as a result of this and feels like, as he says, “the meat in the sandwich” – blamed by the home buyer and resented by the construction team. Another example would be a doctor who has been told her job is to save lives when this is not always possible or desirable – she may as a result feel like a failure every time someone dies.

What should you do if you have an impossible task or an impossible job?

Firstly “call it out”. Recognise why the job or task is impossible and tell your boss. It would be helpful if you could elaborate why the job cannot be done, but also have some suggestions on what it would take to achieve it – different processes, new technology or additional staff. This could be a difficult conversation as some managers just “want the job done, and now!” rather than receive a problem. Do what you can to help solve it. But always bear in mind that your own sense of self, your own competence and your own well-being are more important than pleasing your manager. Consider changing your job if you cannot change the terms.

But there are occasions when the task is, as my husband warned, just not worth doing. I was on a remuneration committee once where inordinate time was spent on the finer details of a very complex bonus system. Unfortunately many of the criteria were not open to management action (e.g. the performance of the investments) and the scheme was so granular, working on percentages of a percentage, that the scheme was useless at motivating and incentivising the required behaviour.

We all hate our time being wasted. Doing something that isn’t actually wanted or needed, or can never be effective, can be very demoralising. Senior managers need to treat the time of their staff as a precious resource, to be deployed effectively. The best way to avoid these issues is to keep communicating: creating a culture where questioning and challenge is expected and welcome, and for the people at the top to continually seek feedback on how it is going on the front line.

Have you ever had an impossible task? Did you just get on with it, or did you try to change things? Leave your comments below or tweet @KateDaviesNHHT.

Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.