Prevent a BIG Management Mistake

An article in Inc. magazine – Management Mistake Causes Stress – pointed out a costly management mistake occurring more often now that “hybrid” work schedules are so popular. The mistake is that many managers fail to spell out what is expected of employees in every area where those employees have responsibilities. One thing that made me laugh, though, is that this 727-word article used the word “expectations” seven times!

Why I laughed is that reminded me of what my husband (and my co-author of articles and books) would say to his MBA students whenever they complained about their employees “not meeting expectations”. Jeffrey would ask them, “Where do expectations live?” The students – most of whom were practicing managers or supervisors – looked puzzled for a minute. Then one of them would say, “They live in our conversations”, perhaps hoping to get extra points for knowing that Jeffrey was lead author on our  book called “The Four Conversations”.

“No”, he told them. “Expectations live inside people’s heads. Expectations don’t become a conversation unless they are spoken out loud, to create an agreement between manager and employee on (1) the focus of the employee’s job, (2) the results s/he needs to produce, including the timelines to meet, and (3) where, when and how to obtain the resources needed to produce them.” The MBA students often looked amazed by these ideas.

Another word that caught my attention was the use (five times) of the word “role”. A role is a character, an image, portrayal or function. Perhaps it could be understood as an agreement to perform in certain ways, but it doesn’t address results, timelines or resources for that performance. “Role” is too vague an idea to define the accountability an employee needs to produce and perform effectively. Especially in the multi-located workplaces of today, and the often-multiple team leaders that any employee may be working with.

The article had some interesting statistics that I have often observed in my career as a management consultant. First, fully half of employees do not know if they are succeeding or failing. Second only 43% strongly agree that they have a clear job description. Finally, only 41% agree that their job descriptions agree with the work they do. Job descriptions go out of date quickly in this age of technology advancements and hybrid work patterns.

I’ve seen those issues in many workplaces, and this article is accurate in many ways. I thought the best point was that “employees and their managers are being held accountable for work that may or may not correspond with the work they’re being evaluated on”. That is one very costly gap! Not just in terms of worry and stress, but also in reducing innovation and productivity, as well as probably increasing turnover.

My apologies for being picky about vocabulary, but the words “expectations” and “roles” are simply too loosely defined to give any certainty – much less a valid chance of creating accountability – between a manager and employee. If managers actually want employees to “own” their jobs, they will have to have performance conversations, i.e., exchange requests and promises to make agreements regarding goals, results and resources. It is completely insufficient for managers to “expect” employees to fulfill a “role”. Let’s remind them to establish agreements with employees instead.