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MANAGING STAFF

How to delegate better

Boost staff performance by communicating more clearly

Not pleased with what staff are doing? It may not be their fault. Look at the directions they are getting—from the manager.

Whenever a staffer who is capable of doing a job doesn’t get that job right, chances are it’s because the manager didn’t explain what needed to be done.

A manager should assign projects via a written form that describes it all:

  • the date of the assignment and the deadline,
  • a description of what needs to be done and the quality expected,
  • the names of everybody involved in the project, and
  • interim steps and their deadlines.

With the directions both complete and in writing, a staffer can never say “I forgot that part” or “I didn’t know it had to be done by then.” Neither is there any doubt that the manager has explained the project adequately.

When: no such thing as ASAP

The key to success is to be specific at every turn. Start with the deadline. Make it a date.

“I need this ASAP” won’t work, because ASAP sets no definite time and too often gets translated to “as soon as you get a chance.”

Be precise: “I need you to get this finished by 3:00 p.m. Tuesday.” Then go a step further and make it clear why that deadline has to be met: “I have to send it out Tuesday afternoon. If you’re late, I’m late.”

Staff have to appreciate that what the manager says is what the manager means. Lay it out: “If you have a problem with the deadline, you need to let me know long beforehand—not the day this is due.”

What: the devil is in the detail

Next comes the description of the job followed by the quality the manager expects to see. What’s necessary there is to give the staffer as much detail as possible. For example, you might say, “I need a report by 3:00 p.m. Tuesday on the best available vendors for copy machines.” That’s not enough. The manager needs to explain the quality of the job, or what the finished product needs to look like: “It needs to be no longer than one page, it has to be typed, and it has to have the vendor information in this order.” If there needs to be a graph as well, say so. Otherwise, how can the staffer possibly know? If there’s another report that’s an example of what the manager is looking for, show it to the staffer.

Who: the people in the loop

The staffer also needs to know if there are other people involved in the project. If there are, give the staffer a loop list. This is the names of the people who are participating in the job or who need to be kept up to date on how the work is progressing. If the job is to select a copy machine, for example, the list might include the person in charge of purchasing. If certain aspects of the copier selection will need approval from several supervisors or the partners, put their names on the list. Or if a management committee has to approve the selection, list that.

How: interim steps for longer jobs

If the assignment is complex, outline the steps it will entail and give the staffer a list of those steps along with the time when each should be completed. With the copy machine vendor list, the first step might be to create a list of vendors, the second to contact each one, the third to make a chart of the prices and options, and so on. Set mini-deadlines for each of those steps and plan for the staffer to report at those intervals.

State it as “I want you to draw up a list of the vendors you will contact and then come back to me first before you start calling them.” Meet with the staffer at each point to make sure the work is progressing as it should.

That doesn’t mean hovering or checking up before the deadlines, however. That’s micromanagement and a sign the manager has no faith in the staffer’s ability to do the job. But checking in at specific intervals keeps the work going at a steady pace. It also keeps the staffer from jumping off the deep end and going in the wrong direction.

Did you get all that?

Now the instructions are given and the form filled out. Don’t stop there.

Ask if the staffer understands the assignment. But don’t phrase it as “do you understand the assignment?” Any employee will answer that with “yes, I understand it” if only to avoid the embarrassment. Say instead “now tell me your understanding of this assignment.” Asking for an explanation is a non-demeaning way to get people to think about and verbalize what their understanding is.

Many times the employee’s understanding is far different from what the manager has in mind. But that doesn’t mean the staffer is stupid or didn’t pay attention. It means the manager didn’t get the message across. Don’t get angry and don’t make the staffer feel bad for not understanding. Take responsibility for the communication failure. Respond with “let me explain it better” or “let me explain it a different way” or “I must not have explained it clearly. Let me try again.”

The worst thing a manager can do in this case is make a staffer feel inferior. Don’t be sarcastic or make demeaning comments such as “that’s a ridiculous question” or “I thought we just covered that” or “you’re really not understanding this, are you?” Don’t fall into negative body language such as rolling the eyes in frustration. Don’t take phone calls or allow interruptions when the staffer is trying to ask questions about an assignment. That only says the staffer’s concerns aren’t important. Also don’t threaten the employee with “listen, you need to get this right or your job is on the line.” That may work in the short term, but long term it builds anger, and the outcome can be that staff turn the tables and try to bring the manager down by undermining assignments.


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