In an ideal world, maybe we would all agree on everything – there would never be a time when your boss really wanted you to do something that you really didn’t want to do. If you do a good job of being a rational, conscientious worker and finding the same kind of people to work with, this may not become an issue even in this non-ideal world. But chances are you will face a dilemma like this sooner or later in your career.

The solution is to always have an “or else,” an action that you are willing to take if the circumstances of your work become intolerable to you. Much of the time this will mean the willingness to leave the position. If this sounds drastic, bear in mind that the alternative, by definition, is to stay in a situation that you have decided is unacceptable to you. (If this isn’t stress I don’t know what is.)

“We don’t like ultimatums!”

Management will frequently adopt a “no ultimatums” policy in an attempt to neutralize or at least reduce the use of this approach by employees. Beyond the obvious irony – what is “No ultimatums!” if not an ultimatum itself? – it is a pretty transparent attempt at maintaining control. After all, if you have a non-negotiable requirement – and the willingness to follow through if necessary – you are able to force an issue: either management meets your requirements or they have to find someone else to do your job.

It is frequently much simpler, from their perspective, to simply tell you “we will look into it and let you know” or something similar, then go on with business as usual.

Questions are weak: “Can I have a raise?” Statements are strong: “I need a 10% increase in my salary effective immediately or I will have to resign.”

The hypocrisy of the “no ultimatums” policy is somewhat galling when you think about it. The underlying premise in most work environments, especially when management issues things like wage freezes is pretty much “our way or the highway.” A more accurate policy would be “no ultimatums for you (or else!)”

It might sound like I’m advocating a contentious relationship with management. In fact it’s the exact opposite. As long as you are realistic about what you are asking for, the confidence that comes from your willingness to follow through with alternatives if necessary will frequently tip the scales in your favor. For an example of how this can work see Treat Me Wrong, Treat Me Right: Who Decides?, especially the second half.