At work: how to turn down a project?

Not sure if you’ll get the gist of things from a brief explanation, but here goes: The VP I work with every day–for some intents and purposes my “boss”–is notorious for throwing out mysterious projects with mysterious deliverables and deadlines, and incomprehensible explanations–and then screaming at underlings for not getting everything exactly right. And then making them go back and try again, with little more explanation than before.

I’ve figured out that he’s a living embodiment of the Peter principle, and he’s terrified of looking incompetent before his own boss, the CEO. And it’s with the CEO ultimately that all these mysterious projects originate. And furthermore, the reason that the projects Mr. Peter-principle hands down make no sense is because Peter-principle himself can’t fathom what the CEO really wants.

So he wants two things: the ability to tell the CEO that “somebody’s working on it”, and to have a person available to scream at when CEO asks why hasn’t anything been done.

Soooo . . . tonight right as I’m about to leave, Peter-principle calls and informs me that he just wants to met me know that he’s about to call the CEO that I’m in charge of a high-level marketing promotion for a product that isn’t even being rolled out by my own company, but the sister company across the street. He had mentioned something about the product the week before and said he’d like me to come up with some ideas how to promote it within certain channels, but that’s a far cry from being put in charge of the whole thing.

He was utterly flummoxed when I told him that I did not want him to call the CEO with any such message, that would like more info and would like to talk with him again next week about it.

And I’m 90% sure that I’m going to tell him “no”. I know next to jack about this particular type of product, and though I’m a quick learner I know that I’d be stuck with developing all of the supporting materials myself.

So I’m looking forward to a fun Monday. How can I tell Peter-principle that hell no, I don’t want to be in charge of this project without making myself look uncooperative or incompetent? (I did see the e-mail Peter-principle forwarded to me that he had received from the CEO: a one sentence request that PP assign “someone” in our company to handle it. Not me by name.)

The only out I can see is insisting that Peter-principle introduce me to the head of the sister company let him and me undertake mutual evaluations and due diligence on whether I’m right for the job. But knowing Peter-principle, all of that will just sound like obstructionism vis-a-vis his one and only goal: getting the CEO off his back for today, just today.

Can you understand the situation as I’ve described it? Ever faced such a conundrum? Any ideas what to do?

Thanks in advance!

Koxinga, conqueror of the Dutch and master of Zeelandia.

Let me get this straight. The CEO wants something done, puts your boss in charge of it, and your boss wants you to do the actual work.

And you want to turn down the assignment and (I’m guessing) keep your job.

Your best bet without looking “uncooperative or incompetent” is to either hammer out a set of measurable goals, resources to draw on and a timeline


Spend the entire meeting talking about the new guy in the department whose work has impressed you so much and suggest to your boss that this would be a really good project to show off new guy’s talent.

Unless it’s a real mis-fit, you can’t say no. What you can do is detail all the other projects you have going on and show him that you do not have the resources to take on this new project without something else slipping. Look at how long it will take to simply scope out the project. Will you need to hire additional people? What’s the budget for this? Is there a deadline? And so forth. I’m sure you know all this far better than I. Then you need to put a positive spin on this, so your boss can report to the CEO that he’s had a productive conversation with yourself about this proposed project, that you’ve raised issues that need to be dealt with before the company can start and that he’s dealing with them.

Tell him you will be glad to take on the project if he can give you a basic set of guidelines, such as a budget, requirements, timeline, etc. It isn’t that you don’t WANT to do the work, but that you are so swamped you can’t possibly fit in all the extra work with what you have on your plate already unless you have very detailed instructions and possibly some help from other staff members.

Thanks. You’re right, of course: as it comes from the CEO I can’t really turn it down–I guess I need to keep myself reigned in and not get into quitting mode too early. 'Cause of course, what I am really so sorely tempted to do is simply to tell the VP to go fuck himself, in retaliation for the half dozen or so useless “projects” he’s inflicted on me before now, and that I was foolish enough to have taken seriously. And for his general attitude, of course. Maybe I should have put this in the Pit instead.

But until that fine day that I can give him a piece of my mind, I still do have a bit of a conundrum on my hands. If I’m stuck with the project, I really dread the prospect of having to fly blind and unsupported as has happened with everything else he’s given me, because this is a project of some consequence for the company. And I also need to separate my burgeoning hatred for this twerp from my actual work, whether it incorporates this new project or not.

At least I’m starting to get some mild recognition and support from my own dept and from the sales team I’m supporting at another sister company. That helps, not only in terms of the ego boost but also gives me an idea that my fate doesn’t depend entirely on VP Peter-principle.

Oh well. This is one of the most self-indulgent threads I’ve committed so far, and I appreciate the responses.

Can you speak directly with the CEO to pick his brain? What I would do (and it sounds like we’re in similar positions, though mine deals with developing both the product and the marketing plan) is sit down, think of all the questions you can, present the high-level questions to the CEO, slightly more detailed ones to the VP and figure out who to go to for the more operational questions (i.e., vendor management, procurement, print production, design, copy, etc.). I’m not sure how large your company is, but you might need to hire some freelancers as well.

I hate getting an un-baked product and having to roll it out. But if you do it well, it’s also a great opportunity to shine. (Though, in my experience, it’ll probably result in a lot more work later on.)

How’s your workload generally? And how much of your resources and time is this project likely to suck up (include the time it would take to get yourself up to speed on the parts of it that are outside your experience)?

In other words, is it even marginally feasible to paste a regretful look on your face and inform Peter that you’re really swamped just now with projects X, Y and Z? Alternately, you could lay out your current projects and ask which of them he’d prefer to reassign to make room in your workload for this new project.

Failing that, I think **overly verbose ** has the right of it.

Going directly to the CEO might be bad politically. Letting the boss know that you’d need to speak to the CEO - and could he please set up a meeting? - to get the full details is another matter.

The other posters are generally right.

Your goal is to make the VP have to work giving it to you so that he will just assign someone else.

Asking for budget, resources, timelines, detailed goals, how current tasks you are assigned to will be hadled by who…etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc…gives you a good chance of loooking like a good employee but will encourage him to assign it to someone else that will just atke it.

{from bduck…having been in that situation}

I don’t really comprehend this saying no to a project business. If my boss asks me to do something, I generally plan on getting it done. The fact that he his vagueness borders on incompetance is besides the point. My job is to gather as much information I can about the goals, parameters and resources available to me from wherever I can and make due. With what they pay me to do my job and my education and experience level, I’m pretty sure I should be able to intelligently fill in the gaps.

And I can tell you if one of my staff refused a project without a damn good reason (like he was already working 70 hours a week) you can bet I’d be furious.

Now I’ve worked for incompetant bosses who basically ask you to “find me a rock” without specifying what shape, color, hardness or size they want. It can be frustrating, but sometimes you have to use that brain of yours and actually come up with stuff on your own. If he doesn’t like it, simply say that this was the best you could do with the information you were given and what would they like to change.

People seem to expect their bosses to be perfect. Most bosses are human and make mistakes or have imperfect information. The trick is for the boss to not be an asshole about it.

I agree - I should have rephrased. I also would ask the VP to set up a meeting between the two or three (if the VP wanted to facilitate) of you. That way he (the VP) doesn’t think you’re trying to go above his head.

Thanks again–this has given me a lot of food for thought, and I’m glad to have the weekend to mull it over.

The thing is, is that* I’ve been building something up some procedures in a long-neglected area of the business that I think has a real chance for success (but not so many deliverables to show so far.) It’s also an area of the busines that they’ve always paid lip service to developing but haven’t shown a lot of committment–I suspect because this VP doesn’t really know what to do with it, but has to tell the CEO that (familiar refrain) he’s “doing something”.

I have been putting in some long hours there, not only because I think it’s something that will benefit the company, but also something that will benefit me personally in terms of my resume–'cause I don’t intend to stick around here forever.

If I go to the VP and tell him that I’m working long hours on my current area, I antipate that he’ll tell me either to abandon it or to foist it onto clueless junior staffers where it’ll go nowhere. It’s the kind of thing* where if I don’t try, nobody else will, unless I really do want to work 80 hours a week.

*sorry, my verbal tics

I appreciate where you’re coming from. I wish I worked for you.

But I’m guessing that if you were placed in a Chinese-culture office environment, where face-saving is a paramount virtue and passive-aggressive resistance is viewed as an essential survival skill, you’d quickly go insane.

Missed edit window:

I realize now that it might have made a difference in my OP if I’d indicated my location (Taiwan).

From observing the behavior of colleagues (and my wife’s colleagues, when she was working) I believe that in this office culture, oftentimes managers will do everything they can to get out of big, shiny new projects, 'cause they don’t want the responsibility and don’t want to be held accountable.

I confess that this has been a source of frustration for me in my own pet area of the biz. And now I find myself (maybe) adopting a bit of the same attitude toward a project I don’t want.

And though I wouldn’t characterize the VP’s giving me this project as a deliberate set-up, I do fear that he’s marking me as the guy to blame if this promotion flops.

I think that perhaps my slightly different take on this is due to the culture of the company I’ve worked for this past 10 years. Note that I’m NOT recommending this if your company’s culture doesn’t allow for it.

The most valuable job skill I ever learned was how to say “No” to additional assigned work.

My company is one where you must set your own (reasonable) limits, or else the managers will cheerfully work you into the ground. While technically we’re on a normal 40 hour work week, we’re explicitly told when we’re hired that we’re expected to put in a minimum average work week of 45 hours. Your average weekly hours are looked at when calculating raises/promotions/etc., as they assume that all things being equal, a good performer working 60 hours is getting more done than a good performer working 40.

I fell into the trap early on of accepting all work that came to me. I was usually working 50-55 hours a week, but often spiking higher, up to 89.5 hours on one occasion. (That particular week included two 24 hour days, which were alas not the last time I worked around the clock.) I had a number of friends who worked on one particular nightmare client - they had mandatory late nights (working until 9:00 pm) three days a week for six months straight, and were not allowed to take a vacation during that time.

I eventually came to the conclusion (with the frustrated prodding of my husband as a factor) that I was unwilling to work like that anymore. So I don’t.

I feel free to decline any work which I feel incapable of doing with quality within my self-allotted limits. There’s no need to be rude about it - I simply tell them that I am unable to do that project by the due date with my current workload. And then, unless they’re desperate, it’s reassigned to someone else and everyone is fine. In cases where they ARE desperate, I either ask for my current work to be reassigned, or evaluate the reasons for their desperation, and if it’s reasonable give my OK and work the extra hours.

Lest you worry, we’re a pretty horizontal organization, so I’d hear about it directly from my managers (who are mostly friends) if they objected. And I’m fine with it if I get the same pushback from my people - in fact, I usually tell them directly that I expect it, so that I know that I’m not burning them out by accident.

In the last few years, more and more new hires have been drawing the same sort of lines right from the start. It’s been kind of a culture shock for us oldies, actually. :smiley:

My work is generally project-based and I definitely pick and choose my projects - the job is a two-way relationship. The company gets my expertise only if I get a pleasant working experience in return - I will not work on a project if I do not want to. From a management standpoint, any other method is just bad business - forcing people to do undesirable tasks is the best way to get rid of valuable employees. And from the other side - taking on tasks that you do not want to do is self-demeaning and obviously utterly destructive to one’s psyche.

I do notice, however, that the vast majority of people are unable to comprehend this, which is sad.

In all cases this is a matter of resources and poor planning. As a manager, you have to make sure your people want to do their job. If they do not, get additional people to handle the tasks left over or replace the employee altogether.

The bottom line is the bottom line - misuse of people directly affects business. Any business gains resulting from it will always be short-term.

There are situations where one would be interested in short-term success where abusing people by forcing unwanted tasks onto them might lead to acceptable results. However, I am sure that this is a tiny minority.

I’m afraid that your bosses will say what they see as important is going to trump your pet project. When I assigned stuff I’d always go through what else the person was doing, since I could forget. In your case, I’d say put your project on hold.

However, what I would do is to get all the stuff other people mentioned in writing, by doing a memo on what you will deliver, when, and using what resources. After your boss approves it, tell him you’re going to send it to the CEO. If it doesn’t work, or is late, because you didn’t get the resources you said you needed you are a bit protected. But how are you going to grow and learn new things unless you take on jobs you’re not comfortable with.
He who gets in a rut
Is soon out on his butt