A reader writes:
When you are managing others, how do you know when you are expecting too much or setting expectations too high?
I “inherited” a department of people who I don’t feel were adequately managed for several years. Basically, as long as they showed up and were physically present, then nothing more was expected of them. The more I try to push to get higher quality work from them, the more I get disappointed in the results. I do feel bad in one respect because I don’t think they were ever adequately coached to understand that the bare minimum was not enough. So as I’m constantly being disappointed in results, how do I determine if the current people are not up to my expectations versus making sure that my expectations are not too high for the people in the department? I’ve worked on trying to teach and show what I’m looking for, but in most cases the results are still not there. Mind you, the results I’m looking for are basic things like proofreading documents, spell checking, writing clearer documents and following up with customers to make sure their issues were resolved.
In addition, how do you justify asking for /expecting better results from your people when you know that ownership will not reward better results with increased compensation? Even before the economic downturn, the company I worked for was difficult to get pay increases from. It would routinely be 18-24 months between basic increases (2-4%). For the last couple of years, there haven’t been any pay increases. It’s hard for me to push people who 1) never had expectations/results explained or enforced and 2) know that the company is difficult to get increased compensation from so they aren’t motivated to try harder due to that fact.
First of all, this is the wrong question to ask:
How do I determine if the current people are not up to my expectations versus making sure that my expectations are not too high for the people in the department?
Your expectations need to be rooted in what’s reasonable for a good performer (or better yet, a great performer, but we’ll take this interim step first), not what’s reasonable for a specific person or people. If you have a mediocre team, asking what’s reasonable for them will just get you mediocre results. Instead, ask what’s reasonable for you to accomplish with a good, or great, team. Then make that bar explicitly clear, help people see what steps they need to take to meet it, and explain the consequences of not meeting it. Give them some help — and a bit of time — to reach it, but if they don’t, you need to bring in people who will.
As for how you can ask for better performance when you know the company won’t give substantial raises, you can ask for it because getting a raise isn’t the only thing that justifies meeting a minimum performance standard. Having continued employment is what should motivate meeting a minimum performance standard. And I can assure you that if your current staff doesn’t want to do basics like spellchecking or following up with customers, there are an awful lot of unemployed people who would be glad to have the chance.
(Of course, it’s possible that your staff’s workload is so crushingly high that they truly don’t have the time to do these basics. But I don’t get the sense from your letter that that’s at all the case, so I’m assuming for the sake of this answer that it’s not.)
I suggest that you sit down with your staff and talk to them straightforwardly. Tell them that you understand that expectations and standards have been different in the past, but that the department is currently falling short in some major ways — mistake-ridden documents and correspondence, poor customer relations, and so forth. Explain that things are going to be changing, and you hope they’ll be a part of that change. Paint a picture of the type of department that you want to have a few months from now. Talk about the things that will need to be done differently so that that can happen. Ask people what kind of help they need to get there, and offer help where it’s reasonable, but hold the bar high.
Then, start managing them to that higher bar: Check in often, review samples of their work, give feedback regularly, and point out when and where the bar isn’t being met. If you’re not seeing significant improvement within a few weeks, you need to start setting and enforcing consequences, which in this case will mean warning people (individually, not as a group) that they risk termination if you don’t see fairly quick changes. (And “fairly quick” means weeks, not months.)
Now, you may get push-back from staffers used to the old way of doing things, telling you that your expectations are unreasonable — that there’s no time to follow up with customers, proofread documents, etc. But barring a crushing workload that would lend credence to that argument, you need to hold firm. Say things like, “I hear you that it’s a higher bar, but it’s one I’m committed to seeing us meet.”
In other words, give them the chance to improve and be clear about what that looks like, and offer help and support where you can, but be ready to replace them if they still aren’t delivering what you need. Believe me, you will be able to find people who will be glad to meet your very reasonable expectations.
One last thing: Make sure to keep your boss in the loop about all this. You’re likely to have some turnover in the coming months, and you and your boss should be aligned behind the scenes about what’s going on and why. Good luck!
You can read an update to this post here.