The Under-Management Epidemic

Reclaim your primary role as manager by using the five basics of management.

By Bruce Tulgan Oct 1, 2004

HR Magazine, October 2004

​An under-management epidemic is currently afflicting the workplace. The vast majority of those in leadership and supervisory positions are failing to provide their direct reports with the most basic elements of supervision, according to research by RainmakerThinking Inc.

In an effort to be hands off and not become a much-maligned “micro-manager,” supervisors have gone to the opposite extreme and completely abdicated their primary role as manager.

Only one out of 100 managers provides every direct report with these five basics every day:

  • Performance requirements and standard operating procedures related to tasks and responsibilities.
  • Defined parameters, measurable goals and concrete deadlines for all work assignments for which the direct report will be held accountable.
  • Accurate monitoring, evaluation and documentation of work performance.
  • Specific feedback on work performance with guidance for improvement.
  • Fairly distributed rewards and detriments. RainmakerThinking’s research, based on a sample of more than 500 managers, as well as ongoing surveys and interviews since 1993, also indicates that managers fail to provide the basics of supervision to every direct report over the following durations:
  • 90 percent fail every week.
  • 75 percent fail every month.
  • 35 percent fail at least once a year.

Under-management is the overwhelming common denominator in most cases of suboptimal workplace performance at all levels. The under-managed worker struggles because his supervisor is not sufficiently engaged to provide the direction and support he needs. His manager is not informed about his worker’s needs and, therefore, is unable to help with resources and problem-solving. This manager cannot judge what expectations are reasonable, and he cannot set goals and deadlines that are ambitious but still meaningful.

Meanwhile, the under-manager gets caught in a vicious downward spiral managing problems after the fact, putting out fires that never should have gotten started in the first place, salvaging wasted resources and turning around employees who have been going in the wrong direction, unnoticed, for days, weeks or months.

The irony is that these under-managers often think they are being “good guys” by soft-pedaling their authority, but their failure to provide leadership causes so many problems that they are not being good guys at all. If you want to be a real good-guy manager, accept responsibility for your authority, take charge, coach every person to success every day at work and help every person get the rewards she deserves in exchange for that success.

HOT Management

Hands-on transactional (HOT) management describes the style and techniques of the rare but incredibly successful managers who are highly engaged in the day-to-day leadership and supervision of their direct reports. What does that look like?

HOT managers are highly knowledgeable about the work of their direct reports. As a manager, you should be up-to-speed on the key details of your direct reports’ tasks and responsibilities. Stay in the loop so that you can be clear and thoughtful. Also, you should monitor changes in each direct report’s workload, pace, challenges and corresponding needs. You should know when to step up the pressure and when to take off the pressure, when to increase your guidance and when to back off. You should know enough about your employee and his work to set ambitious goals and deadlines, troubleshoot, bring in additional resources or change direction when necessary.

HOT managers schedule and carry out regular meetings with every direct report. In an ideal world, you should have a brief session with every direct report every day. At the least, you should meet with each person once a week. What should you talk about during those regular meetings? Every conversation will be different. Use this outline as a guide:

  • Review progress from the last meeting.
  • Ask for updates and a report on the employee’s progress on each item.
  • Give feedback on his progress.
  • Give guidance, such as goals, deadlines and parameters.
  • If needed, remind the employee about standard operating procedures and/or performance requirements.
  • If merited, give special rewards.
  • Ask for questions or clarifications.
  • Ask if he understands.

HOT managers keep everything in writing. Keep a manager’s notebook—a running log of your meetings with every direct report. Organize the notebook as a tracking system, both chronologically and by person. You can use whatever medium you choose (computer or paper), but remember that the idea is to create an approach that works easily for you so you can turn it into a habit. The key is to be disciplined about keeping detailed contemporaneous records of your daily coaching sessions. Written notes will help you keep track of all the details. They will also help you clarify expectations and create an added source of accountability.

Written notes also serve as documentation in the case of any disputes, and so that you can champion and reward success or deal with failure. So what do you need to write down? You don’t have to write a book. Just keep track of the essential details. Focus on performance only; never write down personal observations.

HOT managers do more for their people but require more from them in return. As a manager, remember to use discretionary resources at your disposal. Gain control of “bargaining chips” and use them to negotiate for increased performance. For example, use your power over resources and work conditions, such as the assignment of tasks, training opportunities, scheduling, recognition, exposure to decision-makers, work location, work partners and so on.

Of course, you cannot do everything for everybody. But you can almost always do more for most people. You must have the discipline and guts to only do more for people when they do more for you. If you have a candy jar on your desk and a direct report goes reaching for a piece of chocolate, you should stop that person and say, “So you want a piece of chocolate? Here’s what I need from you, by this deadline, and here are the guidelines. Do you understand?”

HOT managers tie every reward to measurable instances of performance. Don’t be afraid to reward some employees more than others. That’s not unfair. Quite the opposite, it is the only fair way to do business. Give every person the chance to succeed, to meet the basic expectations, and to go above and beyond. And give each employee the chance to be rewarded in direct proportion to his performance.

Keep no secrets. Every person should know exactly what you expect every step of the way and exactly what he has to do to earn rewards—no matter how great or small those rewards might be. And tell everyone in the department what an employee did to receive a reward so that they too can reach for the same rewards.

But remember: If you are going to enforce those deals, you must be hands on. You must keep close track, monitor and measure every person’s performance, and document it every step of the way. And then don’t flinch when it comes time to provide the promised rewards that people earn through their choices and behavior.

HOT managers make high performance the only option. What do you do when, despite your regular coaching, a direct report fails to meet your regularly stated performance standards and the daily goals and deadlines that you agreed on together? Letting people off the hook for performance problems diminishes your credibility and undermines the team. If you don’t deal with performance problems immediately and aggressively, then you are doing a disservice to yourself, your team and every person on the team. The person you are letting down the most, of course, is the individual whose performance is failing.

As soon as a person’s performance starts to slip, you need to take the following chronological steps:

  • Try managing the person much more closely. Meet every day. Focus on smaller goals and shorter deadlines. Spell out concrete actions, and write down more details. ›
  • Figure out the source of the problem. Is it a problem of ability? That would require a change in the person’s tasks. Is it a problem of skill? That would require additional training. Is it a problem of will? That means you have to find a way to motivate this person.
  • Engage the direct report in a no-nonsense conversation. Create a script, rehearse it and carry out the conversation. Start with this: “There is a problem we need to discuss. The problem is ‘x.’ Here are specific examples. This problem must be solved.”
  • Come up with a plan. Work together to find a solution and develop a plan. Manage and follow up on it aggressively.
  • If the problem persists, terminate the person. Don’t hide behind the excuses of “red tape” and “fear of litigation.” If there is red tape, simply figure out what the rules are and follow them. With regard to litigation, just make sure to know what you cannot do, what you can do and what you need to do properly.

Get HOT

Have some guts and take responsibility for being a better manager. Spend more time with every person you manage by having clear, focused conversations every day about performance requirements, standard operating procedures, concrete goals, deadlines and guidelines. Keep everything in writing, and hold every person accountable—especially yourself.

If you practice the techniques of HOT management, they will become skills. If you practice consistently, they will become habits. You will face lots of obstacles in terms of time constraints and acceptance from your team members, especially if you have been a hands-off manager for some time. Stick with it, and you will see dramatic improvements in productivity, quality, morale and retention of high performers.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a workplace research and consulting firm based in New Haven, Conn. He is the author of several books, including HOT Management (HRD Press, 2004) as well as Managing Generation X (WW Norton, 2000) and Winning the Talent Wars (WW Norton, 2001). Tulgan can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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