Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 6;   February 7, 2024: Responses to Outrageous Demands

Responses to Outrageous Demands


From time to time, we might encounter a powerful person making outrageous demands, possibly accompanied by threats if we don't comply. At first, the choice seems to be between acceding to their demands or flat out refusing. There are other possibilities.
A stone cairn that looks impossible to build

A stone cairn that looks impossible to build. And it probably is. Most likely, adhesives are involved in holding this structure together.

If you are moderately competent in your field, and someone asks or demands that you accomplish something that seems to you to be impossible, it probably is impossible. What is in doubt is either the motive of the person making the demands, or their competence, or both.

At times, when a powerful person makes a request, sets an objective, or endorses a strategy, we recognize it as a bad idea, fatally flawed, flat out impossible, or even illegal. We consider saying "no" in some form. Saying No is a choice not everyone can make. It takes courage because the risks are real. Some careers have been harmed, and some positions lost. Yet, when the outrageous demands of the powerful are outrageous enough — when the only foreseeable result of acceding to their demands is failure and destruction — saying No can seem like the only option that preserves integrity, principle, and professionalism.

But if the person making the demands is powerful enough, we wonder how we can survive saying No. We worry about family, finances, and career. Saying Yes can seem like the only option that preserves family, finances, and career.

So the outrageous demands of powerful people leave us with a difficult choice. Saying Yes might protect family, finances, and career, but it places integrity, principle, and professionalism at risk. Saying No might protect integrity, principle, and professionalism, but it places family, finances, and career at risk.

Life can be complicated.

As I've noted previously, when you don't like your choices, choose to look for more choices. When faced with outrageous demands, there is one more choice that comes to mind immediately: resignation. It might not work for you in your current situation, but considering it carefully as a tool in your toolbox can prepare you if it's ever necessary. Let me take a closer look at resignation. In what follows, I refer to the person making the Outrageous demands as Oscar.

Recognize that you have power
It's The outrageous demands of powerful people can
compel us to choose between saying Yes to
protect family, finances, and career, or saying No
to protect integrity, principle, and professionalism
possible that Oscar wants you to resign because his power is so limited that your voluntary resignation is the only path that leads to an outcome that meets his needs. He has no ability to remove you from your role in a way that's safe for him. In other words, although Oscar is organizationally powerful, you have power too. Along with trying to decide whether to say Yes or No to his demands, think about what you want in exchange for Oscar getting whatever it is that he wants.
Outrageousness might be the point
If Oscar's demands are outrageous, the outrageousness might arise relative to assumptions you're making. Ask yourself, "In what world would Oscar's demands make some sense?" One candidate world is the one in which you no longer play a role, or, at least, no longer play the role you now have. In other words, the outrageousness is the point — Oscar is trying to find a way to remove you. If this explanation fits the data better than any available alternative, consider the possibility that resignation might be preferable to anything else that would happen if you try to remain in your current role. Seek advice from peers, mentors, a coach, or anyone who might have useful insight. Prepare yourself by finding an attractive position elsewhere. You might need it.
Resignation need not be an all-or-nothing option
When we consider resignation, we usually think of it in black-and-white terms: either I accept the outrageous situation and stay on, or I resign immediately. But often there really are shades of gray. For example, you can try to negotiate terms, as in, you'll stay on, but in exchange, Oscar will relax some portion of his demands. Or you'll stay on for N days, and, in exchange, Oscar will delay for N days announcing the portions of his plans that you find so troubling.
Resignation need not be termination
We usually regard resignation as a way of separating from the enterprise — termination, as it were. But unless your current position is at or near the top of the org chart, moving to another role in the enterprise might provide sufficient separation from Oscar to enable you to continue with your career while Oscar continues on his path to self-destruction.
Dividing the work can be the key
If you have special knowledge of the subject matter, you might know how to accomplish some part of the work that seems especially challenging to Oscar and to others. Oscar might be willing to surrender that portion of the territory to you, thinking you a fool for trying to accomplish what he regards as nearly impossible but which you know to be readily achievable. Such reorganization might take you out of Oscar's doomed path while simultaneously placing you on a path to success. These situations are rare, but they're easily overlooked.

Last words

Malice is by no means the only driver of outrageous demands. For example, some people who make outrageous demands are unaware of the degree of outrageousness of their demands. Formulating a strategy or a set of objectives and securing the time and resources necessary to carry out that work require a degree of competence in the relevant fields of knowledge. Recognizing the outrageousness of an outrageous demand also requires competence in those same fields. Because of a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, [Kruger 1999] [Brenner 2020.2] incompetence in aligning resources to objectives can cause people to be unaware of their own incompetence. Unless Oscar is competent in the relevant fields, his demands might be outrageous, he might be unaware that they are, and he might regard anyone who disputes his plans as incompetent or worse. Go to top Top  Next issue: Briefing Uphill  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 1121-1134. Available here. Retrieved 17 December 2008. Back
[Brenner 2020.2]
Richard Brenner. "Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect," Point Lookout blog, June 3, 2020. Available here. Back

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