good management: finding out what’s NOT getting done

Someone told me recently that I was his only manager who ever asked him to specifically report on what he wasn’t getting done. Other managers wanted to know plenty about what was happening — but because they never asked him about what he wasn’t getting to, he assumed he’d just better be getting to all of it.

This works fine if a person’s workload is completely manageable. But when workload is high, it can lead to all kinds of bad things:

* employees who are chronically trying to get an unreasonable amount done, which leads to mistakes and burn-out

* some things necessarily not getting done, and these may be the wrong things

* some things necessarily not getting done, without the manager realizing it and having the opportunity to step in

As a manager, you want your people to proactively tell you about what’s not happening that ideally would be happening. And that’s because you want to be part of choosing what those things will be — not just letting them get selected by default. And you want to have the chance to say, “Actually, X is really important, so let’s push back Y instead / bring in temp help / get Joe’s department to help out with this / use this as the impetus to finally think seriously about adding a new staff position.” Or, if none of that is feasible, you want to at least know.

Alternately, if the problem isn’t the workload but is in fact the employee’s productivity, you want the opportunity to know about that, and to know that these specific things are going undone. You’ll find out eventually, believe me — but if you wait until you find out on your own, the problems may be way worse than if you’d caught them early on.

So you want your employees to proactively talk to you about what things they’re regularly not having time to attend to. And since many (maybe most) people won’t do that on their own, you need to ask them, and you need to make it safe for them to give you an honest answer.

But instead, what I often see are managers who pile on more and more work without asking what’s reasonable, who signal to their staff that they better just find a way to cram it all in, and who are then shocked when they eventually learn that some things aren’t getting done.

This is not to say that you should excuse employees who don’t maintain a high level of productivity; believe me, I have very high expectations when it comes to productivity. Some people who have worked for me would say they’re too high, in fact. (But they’re not.) But it does mean that if you don’t approach issues of workload in a realistic way, with a premium on encouraging people to communicate, you’re basically guaranteeing that some important things won’t get done (or at a minimum won’t get done well) and you won’t even know about it until it’s too late.

So try it. Ask: “What things are you finding that you don’t have time to get to?” And then keep asking periodically. Chances are very high that you’ll learn things you didn’t know.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Samie*

    I love this post. I have to say that as both a former assistant manager and having had a couple bad managers, I think it’s a great idea. Not enough managers do that, and it really would help. I’ve had jobs where I was told I wasn’t doing enough, but not WHAT wasn’t getting done, and it was rather frustrating trying to figure out what needed to be done that I wasn’t doing (when I was doing a lot already).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s partly communications, yes, but I think it’s also a very specific commitment to probe this specific area. I think there are a lot of managers who feel like they have good communication with their staff (and who really might) but who never address this area in particular because they just don’t think about it. And you really have to with most people.

      1. Nate*

        I don’t know why corporations don’t spring for seminars where managers can get a workshop on how to do a 360 degree evaluation of themselves (or perhaps a more generic leadership training seminar).

        As far as personal development is concerned, I feel that this would be quite valuable.

  2. Anonymous*

    I didn’t even know there were managers who did this. I’ve worked for people who just want it all done, and either don’t have a concept of how long each project takes or how much they’re throwing on one person. Or, they just don’t care enough that their employees are overworked, and if the work isn’t done, they don’t ask why, they just yell that it isn’t. It’s nice to know that some managers do.

  3. Joey*

    My advice is slightly different, but with similar results. Too often I’ve found that employees give the highest priority to the most recent assigment. They assume that supervisors are aware of the workload and unless they instruct otherwise further assume that the newest assignment means “drop what you’re doing and get this done.” I ask employees to review with me how assignments should be prioritized based on the bigger picture and I correct as necessary. I do this to for 2 reasons: 1. To encourage decision making and 2. To make sure the instructions I’m giving are being interpreted accurately.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, I totally agree!

      But I still would be asking “what stuff aren’t you getting to?” because sometimes it’s stuff that you wouldn’t even be thinking about (like, say, answering emails from the public — stuff that you assume is happening as a matter of course in the background but which is getting dropped because of other priorities).

    2. Anonymous*

      Or, they’ve asked management what is the biggest priority is, and are told that everything’s a priority. It’s nice to see you teaching your employees how to make those decisions, because not every manager does that.

  4. LW*

    At my company we talk about going ‘up management’ – at the first possible moment that you realise a deadline won’t be met, you discuss it with your manager so that they can either move the deadline, add more resources, or help you prioritise. While this puts the onus on the employee (and is a great question in interviews – I don’t want to hear ‘I just work longer/harder so I don’t miss the deadline’), not all tasks have deadlines so I love this suggestion for the manager to be more proactive in understanding the workload. Thanks!

  5. Dawn*

    I think too many managers just assume that everything is getting done. “Since Jane is such a good employee and knows what she’s doing, she’ll have no problem getting it all done.” Thinking like this causes things to fall through the cracks. In addition, it hurts your reputation as a manager.

    Also, many times employees don’t want to speak up and say that something isn’t getting done for fear they’ll be judged as not being up to the task, will appear lazy or incompetent.

    I am guilty of this myself, both on the employee side and the manager side. I’ve had to learn the hard way to make sure I ask what isn’t getting done, as well as to speak up when I’m overwhelmed. It’s much better to say you’re overwhelmed and get help with prioritization or delegation, than to say nothing and have to say to your manager “no, I didn’t get X, Y, or Z done.”

  6. ThomasT*

    Maybe I’m alone in this, but I suspect not – in my first office job, I assumed that this great employer with the 35-hour work week and generous leave policy would only create such policies if they were only going to assign me as much work as could reasonably get done. So that my inability to get everything done was because I was not a diligent enough worker – I played along and worked my butt off, staying late all the time, etc. Ultimately, things did not end well. If my manager had asked me this question, and made it clear that in some cases, workload would be beyond capacity, that would have made such a huge difference.

  7. Anonymous*

    I have a hard time with this as an employee, because I feel that often everything is a priority and I don’t believe that my manager really cares that maybe I have too much work to do.

    I’m also not sure how you know, as a manager, when your production expectations are too high and when they aren’t. As an employee, I tend to think managers don’t really know everything that goes on that an employee must deal with, such as answering phones/responding to email in addition to the assigned work.

    1. Talyssa*

      The ability to take calls and answer email throughout your day in addition to completing your other tasks is usually considered part of your job. I mean in most positions.

      I mean unless the volume of calls/emails is way out of the ordinary — in which case you NEED to tell your manager that because there’s obviously a misalignment in their understanding of how much communication you get.

      Trust me, your managers get email and phone calls too. They understand that a small percentage of your day gets used by them (theoretically ….) but if you spend 3 hours a day doing communication and they think you spend 1, then something is wrong.

        1. Talyssa*

          Not necessarily but probably. There are certainly positions where 3 hours could be normal – customer relationship managers, product managers, upper management positions or management positions where you supervise a lot of people. The problem would be if you were a CRM who thought 3 hours of email and phone calls a day was normal and your boss thought 1 hour was normal and was assigning you 7 hours worth of other tasks..

  8. anonymous*

    As a manager shouldn’t you preface this with something like “I’m not asking you this to discipline you, but…”. Aren’t you really asking “tell me what I’m paying you to do that you’re not doing?” Wouldn’t employees feel like this question is a trick that can get them in trouble?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s a good question. I actually think it’s way more about the general signals a manager gives off all the time — because even if the manager prefaces the question with a promise of no ill consequences, most people aren’t going to believe her if she hasn’t operated in a generally reasonable and trustworthy way previously.

      1. fposte*

        I’ve been very lucky, because my employees have taken the initiative in telling me when some things will need to be deprioritized. I really like the idea of checking in to see if that’s needed even if they *haven’t* brought it up.

    2. Jamie*

      This is an interesting point. I’ve never taken offense to it, because my boss approaches it from the stand-point of asking what I need and what can he do to help.

      But when I’ve followed up with others (not as their manager but as project lead) I mean it exactly as it’s intended – a status update and offer to help or re-prioritize…but it’s often met with defensiveness and long excuses. I don’t think it’s my approach – I’m uncomfortable with following up on co-workers so if anything I’m too deferential about it. I would love to learn how to elicit the information without putting anyone on the defensive.

  9. SME*

    This is the BEST thing about my current manager. She regularly checks in about this and reorganizes my priorities, and lets me know what not to stress about if I can’t get to it. I’ve never before had a manager who did that, which meant I was always terrified that the secret of my not-yet-finished work would get out. Really an excellent post, this is an invaluable trait in a manager and elicits improved performance from employees!

    1. Jamie*

      I have a manager like this, too. Every so often I get all stressed about the length of my to-do list and he will tell remind me that I can outsource stuff when needed – and more importantly will back me up when the people whose requests have been back-burnered for the time being get out of sorts.

      My expectations for myself are often unrealistic and even though it shouldn’t be necessary it’s nice when the boss says that enough is enough and people can wait.

      I think this approach only works on people who are internally driven and have good time management, though. This same manager reacts differently to employees who spend most of their time slacking off and still miss deadlines.

  10. Jordan*

    Most (not all, but most) managers forget when they were Staff and Seniors, and are truly delusional regarding their expectations from you. Everything is your fault, YOU should have anticipated everything, DON’T eat hours, but don’t you dare blow the ridiculously underfunded assigned hours budget! They won’t protect their staff and seniors, they don’t want to hear it if you have suggestions or complaints, and want you to just fall in line with the other drones.

    And shockingly they wonder why they get no respect.

  11. Anonymous*

    I know I’ll get bashed for this probably but shockingly sometimes the employees complain they can’t get to everything due to poor time management on their part. I’m completely open to someone coming to me if my expectations exceed the physical ability to complete all the work but at least be honest. We have all worked next to “that person” who spends all day surfing the internet, making personal phone calls, etc. I can guarantee you when their manager asks them what is not getting done they will have a million legitimate sounding reasons why the expectations are too great. A good manager should ask this question but a great manager should already have a pretty good read on the employee and know when the inability to complete their work is legitimate or fabrication.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Absolutely a good manager will have a strong read on whether the problem is workload or the employee themselves. The problem comes when a manager lumps everyone into one category or another without any critical thinking about it!

      1. Jamie*

        Exactly. And a good manager knows that the bogus complaints about being overburdened from those with poor time management cause real problems of unrealistic work loads for those picking up the slack.

  12. Rugman*

    It’s one of the questions I ask my staff every time we meet. I Could not do my job without it.

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