can I flat-out refuse to do a project?

A reader writes:

I’ve been away from office life for a while, so I’m not sure if this is a problem of me not understanding the hierarchy or what. Here’s the issue:

I work in a field that is heavily deadline-based — think government contracting and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Once in a blue moon, a contract comes across our desk that has no deadline.

At my new office, we’ve had one of these pending since… before I started. Every few months, my boss hauls it out, demands impossible amounts of work in lightning turnaround times, and changes their mind constantly about what they want. Then, right when we’re about to execute it, they drop the whole thing entirely and refuse to move forward on it.

Now we’re downsizing, and my team is about to be very small. I finally told my supervisor that I can’t work on this project again, period. My supervisor told me that I will, period. I said that I didn’t have time and that our boss would have to do it, which my supervisor said they’d bring up, but I don’t have confidence anything will change.

How do I get out of this Groundhog Day? I’m great at my work and have excellent numbers, so I’m frustrated that the rolling deadline is always an excuse to drop work on me with no warning, but never a reason to listen to me about department planning. Can I just look my boss in the eye and say, “No, I’m not doing that project anymore”?

Some people can. Most people can’t.

If you’re very senior and/or highly valued, and you have a ton of internal political capital that you’re willing to spend, you might be able to refuse. It will use up a lot of capital, though, so you’d want to be confident you won’t want that capital for other things in the next year-ish.

Plus, if you can do this at all, you can only do it once — so you’d want to be confident that this is the hill you want to die on, and not a different conflict that might come up in the future.

And even if you are in a position to refuse, you wouldn’t do it with a flat “No, I won’t.” You’d need to have a conversation where you explain your concerns and why you feel strongly. Otherwise you’ll look like you have some significant misunderstandings about how employment works.

But if you have any doubt about whether “highly valued and a ton of internal capital to spend” applies to you, err on the side of assuming it doesn’t — because you can get fired if you’re wrong. (That’s especially true when your team appears to be having layoffs!)

You have other options here, though:

* You can decline to keep working awful hours each time your boss remembers this project. When it’s asked of you, you can say, “I’m able to do X and Y in that amount of time but not Z” and all the other strategies for unreasonable workloads here.

* You can talk to your boss about the fact that this keeps happening and the impact it’s having on you and your work, and ask to figure out ways to prevent it from continually unfolding in the same way.

* You can emotionally disengage. Yes, it’s frustrating that your boss keeps going through the same cycle with this project and won’t listen to you about planning better, but what if you decided that’s not your problem? Obviously it impacts you if you’re suddenly expected to work long hours unnecessarily, but if you push back on that per the first suggestion above, then what if after that you decided that you’re paid your salary either way and if they want to pay you to waste time on this exercise over and over (without lengthening your work hours), then so be it? There’s a point where having to do a lot of that sort of mental positioning can impact your overall fulfillment in your job, and if that happens then you’d need to decide whether you care to stay, knowing these are the terms — but a lot of people find that by emotionally disengaging, that point gets a lot further off.

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