How to Set Expectations as a Generalist when 'Yes, and...' is Your Superpower

Being a generalist, much like being an improv actor, is all about the “Yes, and…”

     “I know you don’t have much social media experience, but can you create a TikTok account and videos for us?” 

     “Yes, and…I’ll figure out best TikTok practices like ideal hashtags and posting times!”

     “I know you don’t have direct sales experience, but can you reach out to our sales leads?”

     “Yes, and…I’ll research how to write the most eye-catching email subject lines!

     “I know you don’t have direct partnerships experience, but can you kick off our partnerships list and strategy for initiating launches next month?”

     “Yes, and…I’ll crowdsource best practices from research and some key contacts in our space!”

If you’re working at a startup, odds are that you’re not only wearing many different hats, you’re prepared to wear even more. If you’re a generalist working at a startup, you probably thrill at the idea of learning new job functions, dreading the day that you may have to focus on only one thing.

For a generalist, this “Yes, and…” is your superpower. Every time someone on your team asks you to do anything new, you’re prepared to jump into the nearest phone booth and change into your cape. You’re on it!

While the “Yes, and…” attitude allows generalists to expand their areas of expertise and grants them the variety they enjoy, it also comes with a cost. If you’re always saying “Yes, and…,” you’re creating certain workplace expectations.

Generalists crave variety, but trying to satiate that need could mean that you end up taking on too much. If you are always taking on new challenges, people will begin relying on your “Yes, and…,” so when you finally say “No,” you’re met with confusion, and maybe even resentment.

Why is that and how do you avoid it? Let’s dive in!

Setting expectations the right way

Let’s say you’re on a team of 10 people. One person works late every single day while everyone else leaves right at 6pm every evening. One day, the person who always works late chooses to leave at 6pm with everyone else.

But wait? Why aren’t they still at their desk plugging away? This change in their patterns might confuse or even alarm their coworkers. Is someone in their family ill? Were they taken by aliens and replaced with someone else wearing their skin?

This worker has set an expectation that they work late every day. It becomes assumed after a few weeks or months of work that they’ll just be at their desk until 10pm. Need something done after hours? They’ll take care of it.

The same type of expectations are set when you take the “Yes, and…” approach. After saying “yes” to new tasks and jobs so frequently, your manager will be dumbfounded should they ever hear you say “no.” They might feel as though your “no” is defiance.

As a generalist, this confrontation can often be avoided with an upfront conversation about what you can realistically handle. Being open and honest about expectations could help you to avoid workplace animosity that might arise from this type of situation.

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review published an article on the importance of setting workplace boundaries early on, ideally when you begin a new job. Setting those expectations early on can help your manager understand how much you can handle and not insist on giving you more than that. Once you begin at a new company, understand exactly what they do and what is expected of you in the day-to-day as well as how the founding team functions, you can appropriately gauge what expectations you should set. While doing this at the beginning is crucial, every time job responsibilities shift, there should be a new expectations conversation.

For a generalist, this means not only setting expectations at the beginning of your tenure, but every time a new task is added to your plate. If a founder or team lead approaches you with something new, be prepared to explain exactly how much time and energy you can devote to the new task, and at what point it would become unmanageable. Ask about the founder’s priorities and explain to them how long each project you have will take. If there is a shift in the amount of work you’re doing or the responsibilities you have, communicate openly and honestly about what this means for you and your bandwidth, if you’ll be able to take any more, or if you need help with what’s on your plate now.

In this way, the “Yes, and…” almost becomes “Yes, but…” While you may want to take on every task that needs to be done, there is only so much time in the day. Ultimately, you can still say “Yes, and I’d be excited to move forward with this new initiative. How does it get us closer to our goals compared to our other initiatives?”  or – “Yes, and I’ll have the hands to do that if I can put down or push X project that isn’t producing results.” Own your superpower “Yes, and” by adding in language that shows the tradeoffs, time, and strategic understanding required to do your job well. 

Be prepared to be flexible with your boundaries without completely disregarding them. If you do find that you're continually being asked to go beyond your set expectations and boundaries, it may be time to have another conversation with your team lead.

Design how you operate to intentionally reduce burnout

You may be reading this post and think, “So what? I’ve been handling everything for as long as I can remember and keeping all of my plates spinning in the air successfully, thank you very much!”

Maybe you have handled everything perfectly well. The problem is that burnout is a sneaky condition that also compounds.

If you’re a generalist balancing several precariously spinning plates, adding even one more plate (or even the smallest hors d'oeuvres to one of the plates already in the air), could mean that one plate comes crashing to the ground.

Sure, one plate might seem like nothing, but odds are that your confidence will be shaken and second-guess the other plates. You’ll think twice before taking that same type of plate again. If you take your eye off your others for a second to look at the shattered plate, there’s a chance the rest will topple as well. All of a sudden, you’re wondering if you’re any good at spinning plates at all. Not to mention that trying to actually repair the shattered plates could be impossible. 

Similarly, the longer that you exist in a space of burnout, the harder it is to come back from. While in a state of burnout, it can be challenging to get even the bare minimum done, forget doing any of your tasks to the best of your ability. Then, if you stay burnt out long enough, you can begin to develop a stress response to your work, making you even less productive.

In our world that glorifies working until you’re burnt out, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle culture and take on too much. Check in with yourself and your to-do list regularly to make sure that you’re not on your way to being burnt out, or worse, already there. If you maintain active self-awareness and check in with your mental state and the amount of work that you have to do regularly, you can avoid the burnout that could be lurking around the corner.

It’s important to remember that startup founders are generalists, too. One of the keys to being a good founder is to determine which ideas will lead to a successful startup and which will lead to a deadend. The best founders realize that there’s always the chance that they or their employees will suffer from burnout and that they need to avoid overworking themselves and their employees to keep everyone in the company from crumbling under the burnout weight. After all, abuse trickles down, and burnout begets burnout!

Putting it all into practice

The antidote to overcommitting is setting realistic expectations.

The antidote to burnout is checking in with yourself.

Don’t just write tasks on your to-do list and check them off mindlessly. Here are some questions to ask yourself every time you write something new down:

“Can I get this done in a reasonable timeframe?”

“Do I need to outsource?”

“Do I need to reprioritize?”

“Do I need to talk to my manager about my workload?”

There is no such thing as “over communicating.” Go out of your way to set yourself up for success by understanding exactly what you need and communicating that. Any effective leader will be grateful that you made your needs clear and thrilled to be able to help their employee (thereby helping their company) succeed.

If you’re finding that it’s challenging to set these boundaries, don’t be discouraged. Boundary-setting can be hard at first, but it’s like a muscle; you need to practice and stretch it until you can do it more easily. Even if you’re met with resistance when you first try to assert your boundaries,learning how to do so will make you a better professional and even stronger as a person.

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