New Harvard Study’s Lesson to Women: Ask for Deadline Extensions More (Men Certainly Do)

You have a deadline quickly approaching, and with all the other tasks on your board, there’s clearly no way you can complete them without superhuman effort. What are you doing?

A- Wipe down your calendar, brew another pot of coffee, and take advantage of those miraculous hours to get it done, or

b. Request an extension of the deadline

The answer to this question depends on the situation and your own personality, but according to new research from Harvard University, it is also influenced by your gender. It turns out that women are more likely to answer “a” than men.

Ladies, stop killing yourselves to meet arbitrary deadlines.

As Harvard’s Ashley Williams points out at HBR, a recent series of studies she and colleagues have shown that all overly anxious workers will be judged negatively for asking for more time (even if they are explicitly told that the quality of output matters more than hitting a cap). But the researchers found that women are more concerned about how they will be seen if they ask for an extension of the deadline.

“Women are less likely than men to negotiate longer time on adjustable deadlines at work. Regardless of job status or years of experience, women report feeling less comfortable asking for such extensions than men,” she writes with co-author Grant Donnelly in The Wall Street Journal An article specifically focusing on the gender aspects of research.

Why are women more concerned about asking for more time on projects? They wrote, “We found that women are more concerned than men about appearing incompetent and burdening others with their demands. These fears have increased guilt and undermined women’s desire to ask for more time to complete projects and tasks,” I’m sure. Absolutely no surprises no woman reading this.

The result of this guilt and fear is that women choose Option A more than men in the real-world equivalent of what is assumed above, canceling personal activities, staying in for crazy hours, engaging in stuttering multitasking, and generally making themselves much more susceptible to burnout.

Fixing the problem is not difficult.

The solution for women is simple. Ladies, order more extensions. Not every project can be pushed, but many are more flexible than you think. Looking supernatural isn’t worth your brains or your productivity in the long run.

But Williams and her colleagues stress that this is also a problem for managers, especially given the ongoing “Great Resignation” and corporate struggles to retain talent. If your best female employees are killing themselves to meet arbitrary deadlines, that’s bad management. Managers can take simple steps to let all employees (especially women) know that it’s OK to ask for more time when they need it.

First, decide which deadlines should be consistent and which have some leeway. If the schedule can be modified at little or no cost to the end product, let your employees know from the start, Williams and Donnelly suggest.

Second, tell your team directly that you won’t judge them if they ask for more time. After all, the quality of that note generally matters a lot more than whether you get it on a Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday at lunchtime. Many of your female employees will likely offer less than their best to set deadlines if you don’t discourage this behavior.

Even these simple changes to workplace policy can be formalized with deadlines. Williams and Donnelly report: “In our research, formal policies explaining employees to request extensions without penalty can eliminate gender differences in extension requests, and appear to improve women’s performance.”

If you want the women on your team to give you the best job and also to keep you working for a while, the solution is simple. Let them know that asking for an extension of the deadline is a good thing. Not only will you maintain their sanity, but you will likely also save yourself from losing good employees to unnecessary fatigue.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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