Koan #3: Unreasonable Workload

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 15 Feb 2021 newsletter.


You divide up a project into equally sized tasks and allocate them to members of your team. One of the members of the team immediately replies by email to say that they are unhappy with the task they have been allocated, and they accuse you of not understanding their current pressures. What would you do?

Option A - Ask them when they are free and meet to discuss why they are unhappy with the task. Do not mention the accusation.

Option B - Meet them to discuss the task allocation, explaining why you allocated them that task, including what you think they will learn from it.

Option C - Email them to let them know you are sorry if it came across as if you were not considering their current situation as that was not the intention. Explain to them why you allocated them that task, including what you think they will learn from it, and let them respond in their own time.

Option D - Ask another member(s) of the team if they would be happy to swap their task for this one. Let the person who was unhappy know that you have changed the task, and check that this is a preferable task for them given their current circumstances.


Option D received zero votes with all other options split roughly evenly, showing clearly there was no ‘right’ choice this week. The key with this situation was to find the balance between listening to the team member and making sure the work is done. A subtle detail is the fact that the employee felt comfortable bringing up the fact they are unhappy about their work to you, their manager. This shows that they have psychological safety at work.

One important theme emerged from the free-form answers. A suggestion to empower the team to self-determine the split and allocation of the tasks. We found some further reading material on this topic as well. In summary, empowering leadership can really pull the creativity of the whole team higher, but used indiscriminately can also put undue burden on the team.

Option A, which 32% of us chose, shows the team member that you want to understand why they are unhappy with the allocation of work. So what should you do once you find out their reasoning? Therefore it is worth spending time preparing before the meeting. For example, write down your talking points, but also note what potential problems with your allocation choice the team member might raise and how to address them. Not mentioning the accusation could be a good approach depending on your relationship, and it may make sense to delay asking about this until you meet to give them time to cool off.

With 35%, Option B received slightly more votes. This approach puts more emphasis on the developmental aspect of the task - what they would learn from it. If this is why you allocated them that task, it is important to acknowledge this and be prepared to support them so that they can be successful. People also suggested that they would do this in the free form answers.

Option C, at 30%, involved sending an email explaining the allocation. Whilst this may seem like a combination of Options A and B, it is not an approach that we thought would lead to a positive outcome. Letting them answer in their own time may result in them not replying at all and disengaging, or into a prolonged email discussion thread, neither of which address the issue. Therefore an in person (nowadays - phone or video) conversation is much better.

Finally, Option D received no votes. Asking someone to swap the task does not help find out why the team member is unhappy with their original task. The next time someone is unhappy, people in the team might think that you will just work around them. This could lead to other team members building resentment, or feeling that they too can reject certain tasks.