do you know what your staff isn’t getting done?

As a manager, you probably know to give your staff members input on how to prioritize everything that’s on their plate and to check in and see how key projects are coming. But there’s one question that most managers don’t think to ask that can reveal crucial information:

“What things are you not getting done?”

You don’t ask this in an accusatory way, and you’re not seeking to penalize people if it turns out there’s a task or project that they haven’t been working on. Rather, you’re genuinely seeking help understanding their workload, how they’re prioritizing, where the bottlenecks might be, and what’s getting put on the back burner.

After all on a busy team, it’s not uncommon for some things – especially smaller items – to get pushed aside in favor of more pressing or higher-priority work. Your team members may have made precisely the right call in doing that – or they might not have. But either way, as their manager, you want to be aware of what items aren’t getting done. Otherwise, you’re likely to be wrongly assuming that various items are moving along smoothly in the background even if they’re not, and that can lead to real problems down the road.

Asking what’s not getting done will give you the chance to say, “Actually, X is really important, so let’s push back Y instead” (or bring in additional help or reassess whether we need to do X at all, or all sorts of other solutions).

Moreover, if you never open this conversation, you might inadvertently be signaling to your team that no matter how high their workload, they’re expected to find a way to get it all done – even if it means working unreasonable hours or cutting corners or burning out.

Of course, in order to get thorough and honest answers to this question, you have to create a working environment where people feel safe telling you the truth. If you shoot the messenger or otherwise penalize people for being honest about problems, you’re likely to get staff who dance around this question and don’t give you the information that would be most helpful.

And one more thing – it’s helpful to be proactive about initiating this conversation with your own manager, as well. A good manager will appreciate the chance to discuss it, for all the reasons above – and you can end up getting hugely helpful input by raising the issue, from “let’s bring in a temp to handle that” “let’s figure out how to reprioritize” to “let’s reconsider if we even need to do that task at all.”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Iro

    Interesting!

    I’ve never been asked this, but I always proactively bring it up in 1:1 with phrases like “Y is moving along nicely, but X and Z have stalled. I was thinking I would work on A, and B, and then if I have time move on to Z and then X. Thoughts?”

    Oftentimes I will get a reshuffle and sometimes I will get X taken off my plate.

  2. Preaction

    Project Management tools like Atlassian Jira are great for this, as long as you can get everyone to actively use them to track their progress. I’m a developer, and I can’t get my manager to use the tool the company requires everyone to use to track tasks…

  3. Sharon

    The way I’ve seen this issue (things not getting done) happen is from downsizing where already busy people have to take on additional work from former coworkers. It’s not possible for someone to do two or three or four full time jobs, so a LOT of work the former coworkers used to do just doesn’t any more. For example, IT and network security, disaster recovery plans and data backups. Things that have low visibility when everything is going well, and are (visibly) needed so rarely that management even doubts why they’re needed. It’s like in my first computer programming job in the 90’s: I joined a team of ten people which two years later was down to two people plus me. I went from junior programmer to senior programmer by virtue of attrition. Do you think all that work that 10 people were doing still got done? Nope! It didn’t help our reputation internally, either. “Gee, I can’t figure out why those people are so un-approachable!” That’s a serious management problem that gets masked because nobody asks what isn’t getting done.

  4. EG

    I wish management pay more attention to this. I volunteer this information to my manager when I know that some tasks that aren’t getting done are important yet unattainable by when he expects a response. My daily written task list seems quite manageable but doesn’t account for the number of interruptions by email or employees needing help right now, not later. Explaining why I haven’t started or completed a task is difficult, because while yes it’s a small task, I keep getting interrupted. I can’t close a door or turn off email to work on one task. Wearing too many hats and having too many unofficial bosses to answer to is causing stress and burnout.

    1. Sascha

      I know exactly what you mean, especially the part about wearing too many hats and having too many unofficial bosses. I’m doing the work of about 2.5 full time positions and it’s just too much. I’m part of 2 teams – my official team that I was hired for, and my unofficial team that does totally different work (which I’m trying to get officially moved onto). I’ve got team meetings for both. I have projects to get done for both. But I can basically only half-ass my work being split between two teams like that; I hate that my work isn’t as thorough as I’d like it to be, but I simply don’t have the time or the energy. I can tell my coworkers on both teams are annoyed with me because I can’t fully dedicate myself to either team. My director often asks me what I’m not getting done, so I tell him, and he moves that thing up to “top priority.” When I inform him that the other things that were “top priority” are now getting pushed to the back burner, he tells me to make everything top priority. And this is why I’m looking for a new job! :)

      1. NJ Anon

        ” he tells me to make everything top priority. ”
        I once had a boss who said this. I told him, by definition, everything can’t be a top priority. Fortunately, we had a good working relationship so it worked out. But even my current boss does this but she knows she does it and we laugh about it because we all have so much on our plates, none of us can get it all done. We are constantly re-top-prioritizing!

        1. TNTT

          I had a boss who would only designate priorities of “high” “higher” and “HIGHEST” so that he could always tell a client “I’ve noted to the staff that your project is high priority”

    2. Kyrielle

      Oh man yes, the interruptions. Something like 25% of my time goes to interruptions. (Work-related interruptions, not breaks like this one. Heh.)

      I plan for it, and I message deadlines for it, but I have to constantly surface that yes, we can expect 25% of my time (give or take) to go to assisting others on the team.

  5. Nashira

    I’m just a clerk, but my supervisor has actually sat down with everyone in my office and asked us what we don’t or can’t get done. It helped me realize that while one of my tasks really is quite low priority, when I do a daily priority assessment, it always ended up undone. Now I have a specific block of time scheduled for doing it once a week, and it’s gone from a thing I dread to a fifteen minute task.

    It’s also a useful gauge for me with regards to how much I can pitch in to cover for an absent coworker. If I haven’t done this thing in more than a week, I am too busy to help. It’s been great for curtailing the kneejerk volunteerism that I struggle with. Now if only we could solve the problem where my manager is terrible and my supervisor is amazing…

  6. ThursdaysGeek

    Most of my work has specific task numbers, and I send a weekly status report to my boss saying: what I’ve done this week, what I plan on doing next week, and an overview of all of my assigned tasks, including those not started.

  7. Not So NewReader

    I think that some times management does not ask because there is no point. You have a team of five people doing the work of fifteen people. You know you’re sunk and it’s over.

    I have seen good, (really GOOD) bosses just shake their heads and say “Do the best you can. That is all I can ask of you.”

  8. Clever Name

    This is a really important thing to ask. At one point, I was so busy that I literally had to be in two places at once (overlapping fieldwork commitments). I went to the PM and said, “I’m at the point where some things aren’t going to get done, and I need to know what has to get done” so we hired another person. :)

  9. SallyForth

    I have a long term to-do list, mostly of things my manager has asked me to do “some day.” I make a due date and from time to time I move an item into my daily list and complete it. If I have multiple things clashing with overlapping due dates, I give my manager input by letting her see the actual long term list. Often she’ll go through it and decide that some items don’t need doing in light of priorities that have emerged since I added it to the list.

  10. Audiophile

    Sorry, but this immediately reminded me of, ” It’s 10pm. Do you know where your children are?” Carry on.

  11. CL

    I have a boss who is completely 100% uninterested in whether employees are working or not. As a result, some employees ignore some of their tasks and take a long time to get others finished. Those that do work hard feel demoralized and sometimes their work output starts to dwindle since it also doesn’t matter how hard one works at this place either. If I try to point out verbally or in writing what I am working on and accomplishing, my manager isn’t interested.

  12. Lizzie

    I really, really wish managers would ask what it is you’re getting done for your imbecile coworker and maybe even do something about it, like fire the idiot. It is so frustrating being competent. Sometimes I wish I did not care at all.

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