managers: you should ask your staff what’s not getting done

This was originally published on March 28, 2011

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 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?” You might learn useful things that you didn’t know.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. ArtsNerd*

    YES! My company has a pervasive culture of lying about timelines and burying overload, since workloads are totally unrealistic and pushing back on projects and deadlines isn’t taken seriously or respected.

    I’m guilty of doing it myself sometimes, and it makes it incredibly hard to get status updates from my staff/coworkers, because everyone’s trying to cover up how behind they are.

    “No, ACTUALLY realistically – when do you think you might get this done? Don’t say ‘before I leave.'”
    “By the end of this week!”

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      OMG, my industry is rife with this. And then when you try to underpromise and overdeliver, you get looked at like you have three heads, whereas the person who says “I can do that!” and blows every deadline gets ignored.

      1. wendy*

        Scotty: “Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.”
        Geordi: “Yeah, well, I told the captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.”
        Scotty: “How long will it really take?”
        Geordi: “An hour.”

        Scotty: “You didn’t tell him now long it would really take, did you?”
        Geordi: “Of course I did.”
        Scotty: “Laddie, you got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker!”

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    This is fantastic. I like to think that I’m more thoughtful than most about assigning my staff work such that nobody is overloaded — but this question would help me be more sure of that.

  3. First post*

    How do you deal with the employees that feel strongly that your workload expectations are too high?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You have to have a way to know if that’s likely. If you’ve seen other people handle the same workload well in that role, that’s pretty conclusive. If you’ve done the work yourself and have a good sense of what can be achieved in what amount of time, that’s useful too. Sometimes you don’t have either of those, but you have enough other data to form an impression. Sometimes you need to dig into how long each thing is taking someone and why. And you should hear them out with an open mind.

      But it’s important to be aware that a workload might be unrealistic for that particular person because they’re not able to work at the level you need in the role, and sometimes you need to say, “I hear you that our expectations are high, but it’s a bar we’re committed to meeting” and then look for someone who can meet it.

      1. GoldenApple*

        In a good economy, this is probably viable. In the current economy, not so much. Before you look at another employee’s ability, be sure you are comparing similar skill sets.

        Prior to 2011, our company filled all the programmer positions with new college graduates. In 2012, we filled the positions with 1 new college grad, 2 people with 5-7 years experience and 1 person with 20+ years of experience. It is very hard for the new/recent graduates to measure up because they are being compared to their more seasoned peers. They are performing well for their experience. Our manager can’t see this at all.

        Conversely, our data analysis has been done by a woman with a PhD in Statisical Analysis. The job requires a bachelor’s degree in math or economics. There is no comparison between the work she delivers and that of her peers. Her manager understands this and is working on a new position for her while using her considerable skills to improve the quality of the department.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But you really want to judge based on what you need in the role, not on the best that one particular person could do. If the needs of the role have shifted and new grads can no longer meet those needs, they need to recognize that and stop hiring them … but you don’t want your bar to be “what’s the best this particular person can do” because that could be all over the map.

      2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        And then there are your super producers. There are people, not a lot of them, who can consistently produce 30-40% more than the person next to them, for no earthly reason I’ve ever been able to suss. Across jobs and across disciplines, the super producer appears.

        I factor super producers out when forming expectations for what other people should produce.

        I fired a super producer about 6 months ago. Killed me because, hello, super producer, but she’d become cancerous (super productive in venom and backbiting also) and best I tried I couldn’t manage it out of her.

        Anyway! I was fully aware that the guy I tagged to fill her job could not be expected to achieve her level of production. I pretty much reformed the whole thing and made the emphasis on him learning everything the first year and producing some. I sacrificed some thing she did entirely and peeled off a few more items for other people to do.

  4. Jake*

    While I agree with the premise, I think for it to work, you already need to be a great manager. If my first manager asked me this, I’d have been 100% honest. In fact, I usually approached him proactively about this kind of stuff. However, he was an unusually awesome manager.

    My current manager is good, but if I were asked this question, the honest answer would be that 75% of what isn’t getting done is due to lack of critical input from him (which he would not appreciate), and 20% would be because I’m chipping in on critical items outside of my scope, so I had to let some non-critical items slip, and 5% would be that I just dropped the ball.

    However, if I gave that answer, my manager would not accept it. Nothing positive (for me) would come from that interaction. As such, I would just speak around the subject in general terms until he moved on to the next subject.

    It isn’t right, but it is accurate.

    1. OhNo*

      This is very true. If the employees you manage don’t trust you or you don’t have a good relationship with them, then even if you do try to have this conversation with them they won’t tell you the truth.

      I feel like this is one of those pieces of advice that will turn you from a good manager to a great one, but not from a mediocre or subpar manager to a decent one.

  5. Anon55*

    I had a boss who would feign wanting to know why things weren’t done, but it was done as a power play to imply the boss is checking on an employee who was a slacker as opposed to really wanting to know what the status was. But even if the reason was something that was 100% out of the employee’s control (machine is broken, can’t get a new one until next week, no repair person available until next month) the boss would act as if the employee was failing by not taking night classes on welding so they could fix this machine themselves.

    However the best is always when he would ask why something wasn’t done and the employee’s response was that it was done last month, the report had been sent out and everyone is waiting on the boss’s input. Along with times and dates of when this employee had emailed or verbally asked the boss about reviewing the report. This boss had very convenient amnesia. We even caught his once asking about the status of a report despite him being in a meeting the week prior that discussed this very report!

    1. Christine*

      Thank you, the description of asking for status as a power play as opposed to it being a genuine question is something about my current manager’s style that was bugging me that I couldn’t quite put words to!

  6. louise*

    This is really timely! I’m going to proactively bring this up with my boss in next week’s one-on-one. I’m a week out from hitting my first 30 days and I have an entire agenda from the first day of work outlining the priorities for the first 30 days. I’ve gotten to a number of items, but a number have not been touched, because 1) new priorities not on the list have popped up, 2) some priorities were larger time sucks than expected, and 3) a handful of items were dependent upon the boss and each time I brought them up, he didn’t want to give me the one thing I needed to do them–his credit card!

    So, I’m going to frame my status report as not just all the things I accomplished (my original plan) but also as a look at what slipped through the cracks and ask for assistance re-prioritizing.

  7. D-orx Nami*

    I would agree in principle, as a manager is not omnipresent or omniscient. But then a good manager encourages opinions, comments and suggestions and has to enable a suitable environment for this…

    S/he also has to train staff to be free and confident to raise issues when needs be.

  8. Sharon*

    This is a great one, and is so rarely done! I think it’s the root of the long laundry list job ads commonly seen in the IT industry where they ask for expertise in network management, programming, project management, database administration, business analysis, computer security, and a 25-item list of specific software tools. Based on the first 15 years of my career, I think it went like this:

    IT department started out with 10 people. One by one people are fired or (more likely) quit and not replaced. So someone else has to take the tasks of that missing person on top of his own work. After 10 years, the 10 person department I worked for was down to three. I saw this happen at various companies, too. Do you really think that the computer programmer is doing ALL of the necessary network management tasks on top of his 40-hour/week programming job? Maybe. Maybe not. Do you think he’s really doing all of the necessary database administration/maintenance tasks on top of the networking tasks and his programming job? Not likely. Some things must go by the wayside. Do you think he’s doing backups and the necessary computer security tasks on top of all the others? At that point he’s probably doing a small token of each of those jobs, just enough to keep his nose above water.

    And by never asking what’s not being done, management has no clue that their computers are at risk on the internet or that their backups aren’t being done, or that their database is bloated and the indexes are a pile of spaghetti. Ignorance is bliss, but only to a point.

    And when that last guy finally keels over, they make a list of all the things they THINK he was doing, and try to hire for that. It’s hysterically funny!

    1. James M*

      The technical term is a “purple squirrel”. The desired candidate has a skill set so varied that the only person who qualifies is the one who just left.

      Databases seem to harbor an unusually high percentage of WTF.

  9. GrumpyBoss*

    I like this suggestion. I tend to give my employees a lot (too much?) autonomy, so I don’t focus on what isn’t getting done. Will have to give this a shot.

  10. ser4ph1m*

    But what should an employee do when a manager/owner doesn’t have a realistic understanding of what’s a reasonable workload (and also will take *any* feedback as criticism)? This guy is the most requested & highly reviewed tech on their team and works his tail off, but they consistently overschedule him and don’t want to pay any overtime. Their customers are constantly getting rescheduled and it’s going to effect the reputation of the company soon.

  11. TAD*

    This is a great question to ask. It also gives you a chance to think about whether things that aren’t getting done are really things that need to be done at all. Every once in a while we’ll come up with an idea that sounds good at the moment, but the task gets pushed aside by something that’s higher priority. By the time we get back to that idea we’ll either have figured out a different way to do it or that it really wasn’t an idea worth pursuing.

    1. Chris*

      Yes! This is what I really like about posing this question. Often we hang on to old processes and tasks that are no longer useful just because they’ve been done for a while. Sometimes employees don’t feel empowered to speak up when they know an activity is no longer helpful.

      My best manager ever had a serious of questions she would ask me fairly regularly. Maybe not every 1:1, but maybe once every couple of months:
      What are you not getting done?
      Is that something that really needs to be prioritized?
      What are the barriers preventing you from getting to this project/task?
      How can I support you in getting it done? (help reprioritize, bring in other team members to help, rethink the project, etc.)

      That approach really worked well for me.

  12. Windchime*

    I know this is a flashback, but your posting of it is so timely. One of my teammates submitted his resignation last week. Our boss ( who is supportive, knowledgable, and good with people) was interviewing the departing coworker to find out the status of his projects. As it turns out…..there were huge gaps in his work. Apparently each time Boss had asked CoWorker how his projects were going, CoWorker was being untruthful so Boss had the mistaken impression that CoWorker was making progress on these items.

    Now we find out that CoWorker is leaving and nothing has been done. For months, apparently. Many of us on the team were questioning it amongst ourselves, but Boss was trusting and believed that CoWorker was doing things that he wasn’t.

    Perhaps if he had specifically asked “What is not getting done?”, CoWorker might have come clean? I don’t know. All we know is that we have a ton of work to do and users who are disappointed because they were told it was almost done by a dishonest CoWorker.

  13. Christine*

    This is really important to ask when priorities and workloads are changing. “Hey, I asked you to make that project for the ACME account your top priority this week, how is that going, and has that made it difficult for you to cover anything else?”

  14. Anonymous*

    Our team has been struggling with excessive workloads, and I started including a breakdown of what I’m NOT getting to in addition to what I have gotten to, as I felt it was important for my boss to recognize that some major tasks were getting delayed or pushed back bc we didn’t have enough time to focus on them. After I provided the documentation to my boss, she was able to get approval for additional support for our team. It was definitely a win for me!

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