January 04, 2011
Are Managers Sabotaging Employees’ Work By Not Setting Clear Expectations?

Managers tend to interact with their direct reports only on “special occasions” such as when something goes wrong or when they want a direct report to tackle a new project, says Bruce Tulgan, author and consultant. As a result, many managers do not set clear expectations for employees, which can lead to a variety of performance problems.

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One-on-One Dialogs
“If you’re not setting them up for success, then you’re setting them up for failure—or just rolling the dice,” he says. For example, if managers are not clearly outlining expectations and not monitoring employees’ progress in a meaningful way, then small problems turn into big problems, resources get used inefficiently, employees waste time doing a task the wrong way, they are less productive and produce lower quality work, and they become frustrated. A lack of clear expectations also “deprives employees of opportunities to learn from their managers. It deprives them of the opportunity to improve and fine-tune their work.”

Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc.® and author of It’s OK to Manage Your Boss, says managers need to engage in regular, one-on-one dialogs with their direct reports to make sure employees understand what they are supposed to do and are progressing toward established goals. While some employees might need direction from their manager once or twice a day, others might need it once or twice a week, he says. “If you don’t have meaningful conversations, there’s no way you’re spelling out expectations clearly.”

Good Questions to Ask
Tulgan says managers tend to ask their direct reports broad questions, such as “How’s everything going?” or “Is everything on track?” or “Are there any problems I should know about?” However, he suggests in his book that managers ask more specific questions:

  • Can you complete this assignment? What do you need from me in order to complete this assignment?
  • What is your plan for achieving this assignment? Have you set a schedule for meeting deadlines along the way? What date and time is the first reporting milestone? What initial steps will you follow? What will be the benchmarks for success at that milestone?
  • Have you created a to-do list or checklist for each step of the project? How long will step one take? What guidelines are you following for step one? What about steps two, three, four, and so on?

What to Do
Tulgan emphasizes the importance of communicating clear, specific performance expectations. For recurring tasks, that can be accomplished through ongoing dialogs with employees and standard operating procedures providing step-by-step instructions.

To ensure that expectations are clear for special or one-time projects, he suggests managers work with employees to create a project plan that identifies initial, intermediate, and final goals; the project’s specifications and requirements; steps that will be taken to accomplish established goals; and a timeline for each step.

Since “most managers don’t get enough training in the basics of supervision,” such as setting clear expectations, Tulgan recommends that HR professionals make training for leaders “much more practical, much more concrete, and much more focused on the basics.”

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