what to do when work you’ve assigned turns out half-baked

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably known the frustrating feeling of assigning work, feeling confident that your employee understood the assignment and was equipped to do it, and then seeing the completed work and realizing that it doesn’t meet your expectations at all.

Often when this happens, it’s because of failures in two possible places: the original expectation-setting when you first delegated the project and/or the role you played (or didn’t play) as the work progressed. If you want to ensure that you and your team are aligned about what you’re looking for from their work, and ensure you don’t get unpleasant surprises once work is completed, these steps can make that happen.

  • Be more explicit about expectations at the very start. Have a detailed conversation with the staff member about what a successful outcome would look like, as well as any important details the person should know (such as prioritization, constraints they need to account for, available resources, examples similar to what you’re looking for, etc.).
  • If you’re not sure precisely what a successful outcome would look like, be transparent about that with your staff member that and brainstorm together. Or ask her to go away and think on it and come back to you with a proposal.
  • Before ending a discussion about an assignment, check to make sure you’re both on the same page by asking your staff member to summarize her understanding of the assignment, expected outcomes, and next steps. For complicated projects, you might also for a written plan to ensure that you’re both on the same page about how she will be moving forward.
  • Once the work is underway, be sure check in periodically. If you wait until the work is completed, you’ll lose the opportunity to give input or course-correct before it’s too late. Instead, touch base periodically as the work progresses, probe into the areas that you think are most likely to cause concern, and generally ensure that you have a solid feel for how the work is coming along.
  • When a project is large enough, ask to review a piece of work before the whole project is completed. For instance, you might ask to see a short segment of a document while it’s still in progress or a page from a new website design before the whole site is created.

Using the tactics above will ensure that you and your staff member are in agreement about what success will look like, and you’ll have a chance to catch any problems early on.

If you’re doing all this and the work still isn’t what you’re looking for, the issue might instead be one of performance and you might need to address it from that angle. But even then, doing the steps above will help you conclude that with more confidence, since you’ll know that you actively set the person up for success.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. Alistair*

    Managers, have the door and mind open for questions. These days, I know my projects well enough that I can ask for specs right at the start, and get a job done well. But I know that if I DO have questions later on, I can ask my boss and get a good answer to keep on working.

    This works best too, if you have tried other solutions, and are aware of your boss and what they’re up to. I make sure that my questions are either truly stumpers, or data I don’t have to complete my project – I try to solve little problems myself. And I never just barge in with questions, I make sure my boss isn’t on the phone, on deadline, etc. before I ask anything.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      “I make sure that my questions are either truly stumpers, or data I don’t have to complete my project – I try to solve little problems myself.”

      Bless. One of my biggest pet peeves as a manager is when people bring me problems that could have been solved with a Google search or other obvious source. I’m happy to help my direct reports work through a genuinely non-obvious problem (or even to give an answer that’s obvious to me, but that I know they would have had to spend time looking for). I’m not happy to have my own work interrupted by an employee who couldn’t be arsed to do a very simple check first.

      1. Nethwen*

        I understand what you’re saying, but wanted to note that if employees haven’t been with you for a while, this could be hangover from a bad boss. I once had a boss who encouraged people to come interrupt him, even when he was talking to someone else, so that he could come do simple things like look in the phone book to get a phone number that the employee was trying to find. If it was me, I would have asked, “Did you look in the phone book? What else have you tried?” But he encouraged his involvement in minor problems like this and got upset if people didn’t ask him, so that’s how people learned to behave. He and I had quite a few (figurative) head-butts my first year when I kept trying to do things for myself.

      2. GOG11*

        I’ve started asking myself if there’s anywhere else I could find X information (other than my manager) before asking my manager. Sometimes it takes ~15 minutes of digging on the company intranet for that third paragraph on page 56 of Obscure Policy, but it saves me from getting an obviously hurried and/or annoyed response from my boss.

  2. Claire*

    Maybe next time, help guide the employees more? Yes, it is their job to do the work to the best of their ability and not give you a half baked finished project. However, it is YOUR job as a manager to clearly go over what is expected and what your expectations are. Maybe you’re the problem…

  3. azvlr*

    I’m this employee right now. I am getting rather vague assignments from my manager. My performance review (and subsequent conversations) made me realize she is disappointed with my contribution so far. I have tried to pin her down, but keep getting very broad statements of what is expected. Meeting these very broad expectations requires me to go far out on a limb. I’m normally ok with taking this type of risk, but it hasn’t generally been received well among my teammates thus far. I’m basically proposing ideas that are either shot down or I’m told, “Yeah, we’ve already considered that.”
    I don’t have anything tangible and measurable that I’m expected to produce at the moment other than to share ideas with the group. I’ve expressed that I’m very uncomfortable with this. I’m a pretty self-directed and motivated person, so I’m not expecting hand-holding. But free-falling like this makes me very nervous. Please don’t manage like this. (P.S. My manager is great at lots of other things.)

    1. Janet*

      I feel your pain. I had a manager who did that and ended up leaving the company, in part because of this issue. In that manager’s case, she had > 40 direct reports, worked > 60 hours per week, and had no time to have these kinds of conversations with employees. We were given vague instructions, left to fend for ourselves, and slammed if we didn’t produce what she wanted. I’ve learned to look at how many direct reports my manager will have when considering whether to take a position so I can try to avoid repeating this scenario. Thankfully my current boss balances being clear and helpful with giving me the freedom to figure things out.

      1. HR Manager*

        Over 40 direct reports is insane. I’ve seen some managers who manage 15 or so, and I already think that’s insane (usually the same role, i.e., manager of a call center and has 10-15 phone reps). But especially if the 40 includes varying roles and levels, that’s a whacked out manager:employee ratio.

        1. Janet*

          Yep, it included varying roles and levels, and yep, it was insane. But then I once met a nurse manager at an academic health sciences center who had > 100 direct reports on all three shifts. She worked 12-hour days so she could interact with everyone, every day. Completely insane.

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        Good god. That means if you spend just one hour a week with each employee, you’ve already used up a normal workweek and have to spend extra time if you want, god forbid, to get your OWN work done. Who thought this was a good idea?

        1. Student*

          I can’t remember the last job I had where the manager spent at least 1 hour a week with me. Do people really do that?

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      I was that employee at one time, too. But I’d have detailed conversations with my manager, where we would write out exactly what I needed to do. I’d take notes, and then go work on it. I’d bring it back to show him where I was, and he’d say “no, that’s not what I want at all!” So, we’d discuss what he really wanted, I’d take notes and ask questions, and go do the wrong thing again.

      That was a job where having things written from him might have helped (although I think I would summarize what I was doing and email him, to no avail), but better would have been knowing more where we were going before he had me work on it. I think. Or maybe I was the problem, and I just wasn’t understanding.

      1. azvlr*

        I feel like that is what’s going on here as well. Currently, I frequently get a rather Socratic line of questioning in response to my questions. It’s caused me to ask fewer questions, and wonder if folks don’t know or if I’m just being test. Instead of speaking authoritatively like I know I can, I am becoming nervous and unsure.
        Three jobs ago, our boss frequently told his staff, “I want you all to implement yet another new project.” He would spell out the parameters explicitly. Inwardly I would quake with terror that I couldn’t possible achieve his vision. Months later when the goal was met, I’d look back and say, “I actually did it.” He was a hard driver, but you always knew where you stood and knew when you had succeeded.

        I wish I could say that my manager has a lot of direct reports, but there are only a handful of us.

        1. azvlr*

          In chatting about this with others, I was told “So, plot your own course.” I have decided the best course of action is to state my understanding of my manager’s expectations in an email so I have documentation, and state it in an observable and measurable way. Then use this as my development plan going forward.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            That will work until she changes her mind. If she’s just vague, then that and frequent updates of your progress should keep her informed and keep you both going the same direction. If she changes her mind, you have to be ready to quickly change direction too.

    3. Suzanne*

      I had a manager like this several years ago. When I went to him about some of the issues I was having with not really understanding what the expectations were in the position & with the supervisory duties I had been assigned, his response was “What do you expect me to do about it?”
      So, please, managers, don’t be that guy.

  4. esra*

    feeling confident that your employer understood the assignment and was equipped to do it

    Should this be employee, not employer? (On the Intuit blog as well).

  5. KHB*

    I’m this manager right now, but I don’t think the problem is with my expectations or lack of handholding. I have a colleague on my team whose job it is to make teapots to a high standard and with minimal oversight. He’s made dozens of them very successfully in the past, but the last couple he’s made have come in with the handle and the spout in the wrong places, or not there at all. It’s worked out all right in the end, because we have time for feedback built into the process, and when I say “The spout’s in the wrong place – go back and fix it,” he always does. But at the same time, it seems like he should know better by now than to make these kinds of mistakes in the first place, and the feedback process is really meant for perfecting the details of the polish, not fixing basic structural problems.

    1. Helka*

      I feel like that’s the point when you sit down with him and say something like “Hey, you’re usually turning out excellent work, but the last couple teapots you’ve turned in haven’t been so good. I know you’re a high performer, is there something going on that I can help you with?”

      1. fposte*

        I agree. I think you can also say “Do you have a suggestion for a process that might prevent this in future?”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It sounds like something has him rattled.

      Are his materials/information of the same quality they have always been? Is it possible that he is not getting the quality he needs and he is putting so much energy into compensating for poor quality that his own work is suffering?

      How long ago was he building teapots? Has he done different work in between? If a person does not do a certain thing for a while, they can lose their knack for it. But this sounds more like something is distracting him.

    3. LQ*

      Might he be bored? I know when I’m bored and asked to do the same excruciatingly dull thing over and over my quality suffers. I do ok if I know there’s an end. But it stinks when I feel like I’m stuck. Because why bother. Now if I know there is an interesting new task on the horizon I do great because I can get everything done and out of the way and ready to focus on shiny new thing.

  6. Ezri*

    I’m not a manager, but as an employee I like what my group does with projects. There are too many of us working for my manager to keep tabs on all of us, but each project group has a ‘lead’ developer. We check with the lead daily on our work if we have concerns, and the lead checks in with the manager at least once a week. We also work in agile, so the stakeholders also get a demo every sprint. The meetings can add up, but I never feel like I’m surprising anyone with the finished product.

    1. Iro*

      Yes. Your much better off instead asking these questions and making these suggestions when the discussion occurs.

      Example: “Since this design idea is in the conceptual changes right now, I’d like to come back to you in a week with a few mock-ups of what the final product might look like”

      “I feel like I have a strong grasp on the ask here but could we schedule a few check ups at X and Y dates to insure I’m on track? I want to make sure this report is exactly what you need”

      “I’ve had to do a few re-writes of this report already and want to make sure that I really hit the nail on the hammer this time. I’m going to bring you a few mock-ups on Y date so I can be sure and start on the right path. [And then later when the boss accepts a mock-up]
      “Great! I’ll get started right away. I’ll come back to you at “Y” stage for a quick review and to insure I’m on track.
      [Then continue to have these reviews at stages that make sense to you until the report is complete.]

        1. Iro*

          LOL Thanks Hanukkah Balls.

          I learned this the hard way when I continually got handed very vague reporting requests that I took to mean “I don’t care about format/layout just get me data!” Boy was I wrong!

          After a couple of re-writes I pulled out example #3 and things finally went smooth. I actually ended up getting promoted four months later. : )

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        It would be nice if Alison did an article of how to manage your manager when your manager won’t manage. But there are too many iterations. To misquote Tolstoy: “All good managers are alike; each bad manager is bad in her own way”

    2. bad at online naming*

      If you don’t already have this sort of conversation going on, probably. My manager and I actually discuss management techniques and goods/bads a lot, and I’ve sent them Alison articles before – never because of their performance, and always couched in “This isn’t meant to be a hint or anything – I thought this was interesting and had good points, especially since our team has faced issues like this before. I’m trying to keep it in mind when [communicating with the chocolate suppliers].”

  7. Aardvark*

    I really appreciated this article, even though I’m not a manager! I’m in the process of delegating some of the tasks I routinely do to someone else on my team, and I’ve had to learn a lot of this the hard way.

    I do wonder if I have too high a standard for the final product. I’m highly detail-oriented (to put it politely), and the other person is not. Any advice on stepping back and recognizing when an assignment is better than good, it’s good enough and when it is not?

    1. Iro*

      Ask yoursel some critical questions about the final product such as:
      1) If this detail is not included how will it impact the customer (note this can be an internal customer).
      2) How is this product integrated with other products and what factors must be consistent for this to successfully occur?
      3) What is the value add if I spend X hours polishing Y detail as opposed to another task ?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Great answer, this is a tough question.

        Usually, there is a baseline of tolerance. Certain aspects must be done a certain way. Make sure you coworker understands what the standards are and that nothing can go below it. This is a good starting point, because a person has to have a foundation to even begin to think about any new process.

        Sometimes you can pull in a coworker by explaining briefly what can go wrong if she misses a given point. Tell a story. “Yeah, the first time I filled out form A, I skipped lines 17-20 and boy, did I ever hear about it. Here’s why _______.”

        Another thing you can do is make sure she knows you are available for questions. If you can give her a sample of something you did in the past, that would probably help.

        I like to try to watch how people prefer to learn. Some would like an explanation and then they want me to GO AWAY. They want to think it through quietly without my constant chatter. Some people want me to get it started in some small way. Other people want to check in half way through.

        I am a big fan of having built in check-in points. It does a lot of things. It tells me how good or how bad I have done in explaining the task. And it also sends a message of seriousness- “yes, this is important enough for me to want to check how you are doing with it”.

        If you have been doing the job for X time, it’s going to be almost as long before the person gets to where you are at. You can try comparing the person’s work to your earlier work. If your earlier work was acceptable, and hers looks like yours did, then she is probably off to a good start.

        I use memory triggers and organize things a certain way to help with my accuracy and my speed. I tell a person that I am doing that and I suggest they borrow my system until they get a feel for the task and they can build their own system. I don’t insist on using my system long term, but if they miss something I will go back to “I have my system because of this problem. You can build something to help yourself so you do not miss on this point.”

        A lot of what I do/say is tailored to the person I am talking with and takes the task into consideration also. You can also say things like “the boss wants you to be up and running on this by next week”, if this is true. It gives your coworker the heads up that there is a time frame involved here- where she will be doing this on her own shortly. This may help to get her to focus on the details of the task.

        1. GOG11*

          “I use memory triggers and organize things a certain way to help with my accuracy and my speed.”

          Would you be willing to speak a little bit more about this? I’m super intrigued.

        2. Aardvark*

          Thanks! Iro, I really like those questions, especially #3. I need to think more about the amount of time spent fixing X up front will save on fixing Y later.

          Not So NewReader, “You can try comparing the person’s work to your earlier work. If your earlier work was acceptable, and hers looks like yours did, then she is probably off to a good start” is really helpful. Thank you for the sanity check!

      2. Brian_A*

        I struggle with the standard issue, as well, and these are great answers. The other one that helps me step back is “Is it wrong (or bad), or just not how I would have done it?”

  8. Lisa*

    My manager wanted me to produce half-baked docs. I left, I couldn’t force myself to give less that what I thought were well-thought out docs. She just wanted quantity, and she is driving away people on her team 1 by 1.

    1. CorporateCat*

      I am dealing with this situation right now (manager wants half-baked documents). I try to push back, explaining why her turnaround times are not feasible in some cases, but to no avail. I get especially concerned over the fact that this information will be shared with company executives so of course, I prefer for things to be as buttoned up as possible. However, she is new to the team so I know that its about quantity at the moment (the whole “hey – look at how I’m adding value” mentality).

  9. Amber Rose*

    I just had a talk about this with my boss this morning. It wasn’t until she pointed it out and offered me a lesser position (the one I thought I’d been hired for two years ago) that I realized how bad things have become.

    Lesson learned: don’t take on high level positions when they’re dropped in your untrained lap. It’s a recipe for failure.

    Though in my defense, if the previous owner hadn’t randomly got himself killed (now there’s a gong show of a story), I’d probably have been all right. He was the smartest guy I ever met, and a patient teacher. I loathe the current owner.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Now I want to hear the story! Or have an open thread question: have you had a job where a manager/owner was killed, and how did it affect your job?

      1. Amber Rose*

        There are some details I’m hesitant to mention, but the gist of it is:

        Dec. XX, 2013 (friday) was the day of a concert of a certain extremely well known celebrity who happened to be close friends with my boss. My boss loved to fly more than anything and in fact owned 3 planes, and had a standing agreement to fly famous friend to his concerts. I don’t know the details, but on his way back my boss’s plane went down and immediately burst into flames. No chance of survival.

        I learned about it the Monday after, on the radio while driving to work. I thought I misheard. When I actually got to the office with all the miserable crying people, it sunk in as real.

        His daughter took over the company. But where he had 40+ years experience, she was only certified a couple months earlier. We also lost our 2 senior employees at that time. I took over the daughter’s old job as she tried to keep up with a volume of work we no longer had the staff or knowledge to complete.

        Nobody has smiled since then. :(

        1. Amber Rose*

          I meant to add: the hardest part initially were the phone calls. Business owners and professionals in their field would call to ask about the funeral and break down in tears on the line because that guy, the old owner, could call just about everyone in his field a close friend. This was… not great for my morale and a pretty crappy start to the new year and my new position. There was no training for me either as the daughter absented herself for several months, corresponding with us only through email.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            Oh. :( When our CEO was killed in a car accident it turned a wonderful job into a place I escaped from. But we were still able to smile in those months, because it was no-where near that bad. I’m sorry! Old owner sounds like he was well loved as well as desperately missed.

            1. Amber Rose*

              Yeah. :(

              Sometimes we tell Bill Stories, where we remember some of his crazier antics, and we laugh, but it’s sad laughter. None of us think the company will survive through this year. His daughter wasn’t ready.

  10. James M.*

    Bullet point #6: Understand that your employees are not mind-readers. Understand that when your expectations change, those changes do not magically cross time and space to express themselves in the original assignment. If work that doesn’t meet your expectations still meets what you actually asked for and agreed upon with an employee, it is not the employee’s fault.

    You might think it goes without saying… but I’m saying it; so it goes.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Am chuckling. I learned first hand people will give you want you ask for not what you want. Make sure what you ask for and what you want actually match up. (I never realized words can be interpreted in so many ways.) I owned it- I apologized and helped with the fix where ever I could.

      If you are dealing with a tired crew- visuals help a LOT. Well, visuals just plain help, period. But be aware if your crew has been pushing and/or working long hours it is much easier to mess things up from misunderstanding. The more critical the work the more important it is to drag out visuals, reminder notes, samples, whatever you can pull together.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        The more critical the work, the more important it is to make sure your crew gets adequate rest away from the job, so they can do high quality work.

      2. fposte*

        “I learned first hand people will give you what you ask for not what you want.” [hope the ed.’s okay, NSNR}

        This is yet another reason why it’s usually an advantage to include people in the bigger picture, and why I like to hire people who are interested in that bigger picture and how their work fits into it. That way they likely come with some idea of what I actually want and can ask if that’s what I meant to ask for when I mess up on that part.

    2. Clever Name*

      This is a real struggle for me. I have a PM who is very big picture. I’m good with details. Even better when I know the big picture. I’ll get a task and given instructions, but the instructions are no where specific enough. He’ll say, the template is in the file, and when I look at the file I think he’s talking about, I can’t find it. When I ask which file its in, he’ll say, “well are you looking in this other file?” Clearly I wasn’t. And I was looking in the wrong file because we were working on the next task order. That I didn’t know existed. Extremely frustrating.

  11. Amy*

    This should be titled “What to do next time if….” because it doesn’t really address the situation of finding out that the work was done poorly. You’re approaching the deadline, your report hands in a poor product… now what? Fix it up for him? Have him do it himself? Do you let him know at that time that you’re not pleased or after it’s been fixed? And what if he “fixes” it but it’s still not acceptable?

  12. GOG11*

    Whenever I’ve read comments from Alison (or other readers) about the disparity between an employee’s assessment of his/her workload and that of his/her manager, I was very skeptical, but now it makes a lot more sense. If my manager did all of this stuff, I’d get SO much more done!

  13. Sabrina*

    I’d also add, don’t assume that your employees have been properly trained if you didn’t do the training. My company has a culture of people becoming important and then hoarding information and procedures.

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