Managing the Work of Others

By By Michael Morrison, CMA, published in CPABC in Focus
Published: September/October 2013

Effective managers know what needs to get done, how much time and effort it will take, and how their team’s work will contribute to corporate goals.  Sometimes, however, effective managers don’t notice when a team member stops focusing on assigned work, and focuses instead on the aspects of their job they enjoy most. This can be a real problem, and it happens more than you might think.

Fact is: People often try to find ways to make their job fit them better so they can feel gratified. But if an individual continues to produce stellar work, is this shifting of priorities really a problem?

Let’s use the example of a gardener. A company is hired to do the landscaping outside an office building. To start, the man the company pays to cut the lawn (we’ll call him “Joe”) comes by and cuts the lawn. While there, he also tidies up the garden a bit, raking some dead leaves and pruning some stray branches. When his supervisor comes by, she notices what a good job he has done and compliments him on the garden. He feels gratified.

The next time he comes by to cut the lawn, Joe spends a little more time on the garden. In fact, he decides the garden isn’t looking very good, and since he likes gardening anyway, he tidies it up a bit more. Wow! What a difference it makes.

Every week, Joe does a bit more work in the garden—fertilizing, trimming, raking, pruning... After a year, a lot of people begin to compliment him for the work he has done. Joe is happy, and when word gets back to his supervisor, she’s happy too. Where’s the harm?

There’s just one thing. When winter turns to spring, Joe sees the damage the cold weather has done to the gardens and realizes it will take a lot of work to get the garden looking beautiful again. His supervisor comes to check in with him, and agrees that it sounds like a lot of work. She asks if there’s anything she can do to help. Joe tells her he really could use an assistant—someone to mow the lawn.

This is an example of a worker who made small, gradual adjustments to his work so he could focus more on the parts of his job he liked to do. Sometimes, as in this case, managers don’t even notice when an individual makes little changes such as these, because the work they are doing also adds value.

Nevertheless, it is a manager’s responsibility to manage both the people and the work—and to make sure assigned work is getting done first. If other work is more important, the manager can change the assignment of work.

The key point to remember is that it is the manager who assigns the work, and not the employee who gets to choose what they work on. The most successful managers I know make sure their people know what the priorities are, and then give them freedom to work as long as these priorities are met. They manage this process with ongoing performance conversations.

The next time you’re managing someone, make a short list of the work you have assigned, both implicitly and explicitly. Then compare this list to the work being done. After consideration, either update the assigned work to better match the skills of the worker, or refocus the worker on assigned work. As long as you make a decision, you’re performing the role you should as a manager.

Michael Morrison is the chief of staff at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. He is a CMA and has an MBA with a specialization in leadership.