How To Tell My Boss I Can’t Do A Task?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a task that is beyond my ability.

I am assigned a task that is beyond my ability and knowledge or my skills. And, I have to work on it or I am in trouble. What is a smart way to tell the boss about this. He doesn’t like, “I will try my best”.

Signed, At A Loss For Words

Dear At A Loss For Words:

The best time to discuss this with your boss was when you were given the task. But, sometimes that is easier said than done, when the boss is assuming you know how to do it. If you can at least start the task, you should do so and make a good faith effort to accomplish it. That way you can show what you have done thus far but say that you cannot go further. If you don’t even try, your boss may think that you don’t care enough to make the effort.

Blanchard and Johnson and others have pointed out that there are two components to good work: Willingness and Ability. Someone may be unwilling because they are afraid of the outcome or they fear failure or because they don’t believe in the cause of they don’t want to support the person directing the work. Someone may be unable because they lack the physical ability to do something or because they lack the intelligence or thought processes to do it. They might also not have practiced it enough, not have clear directions, not understand the directions or have never used the material or machinery required.

Perhaps the way to talk to your boss is to say something about that concept, “Tom, I want you to know that I am willing to do this project, and if I was capable of doing it to the standards we need, I’d be working on it right this minute. But, the truth is that I’m not able to do it, because (tell him what you lack that would allow you to do the work). What do you want me to do at this point?” If there is some training that would allow you to do it, suggest that. If there is some other reason, say that. The key is to let your boss know what it is you lack that would allow you to be able to do the job. When your boss gave you the work he should have known whether you could do it or not by observing what you have already done. So, this situation is as much his as yours.

On the other hand, if you are dragging your feet because you don’t think you can do it perfectly or because it’s not your favorite thing to do, you may need to give it a hearty try and let him see that you sincerely made an effort. Just don’t wait too late to finally say that you won’t be able to finish the work. If you do that you’ll not only not get the work done, you will keep anyone else from doing it too. THAT would be when you’d get in trouble. Do what you can. Document what you have done. See if there is anyway you can get assistance and get the task done. But, if you really, truly can’t, you’d better tell your boss right away.

He may be frustrated or angry, but it’s bound to be less than if you wait until you should have the work done before you spring the news on him. A method I’ve used successfully is to walk in and start talking before I have time to change my mind. Once you blurt out what you need to say, you’re half way through the awkwardness. Best wishes to you as you deal with this. Don’t give up until you know you have done all you can do. Then, tell your boss right away so he can see where you are with it and that you have tried. Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decided. We may be able to use your experiences and good results to help others.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.