When you add something to an employee’s plate, you need to remove something from the plate

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A common practice for a manager is to ask their employee to do something for them.  We’ve seen this a lot.  One example:  The VP asks for some sort of recommendation, analysis, or revision on a strategy document that wasn’t expected before.  Now your team has to do this new thing.   It’s going to take time, effort, money.  Perhaps also teamwork, new processes, sourcing new information.  Lots of stuff.  This is one example, and I’m sure you can think of other times where your manager has said, “I need something from you. . .”

As the manager put in this situation, you agree to your VP to get this done and you decide to put your top performer Jackie on this.  Jackie is great at doing all sorts of things, and fulfilling this important request is something she can do.

So you go to Jackie and you say, “Jackie, I need to get a revised strategy document ready for the Vice President’s briefing next week. I know that you can do this.”

Jackie replies: “OK, I can do that.  I appreciate being trusted to do this.  However, I have the following things that I’m working on:

–I’m interviewing six candidates over the next three days

–I have meetings with our vendor to resolve issues with our contracts

–I need to present updates to our stakeholders on our top six projects in the next two days

–I have a deadline on creating a project plan for the project you assigned last week

–I’m filling in for Alex who is out of the office this week and next week

–I’m in the process of resolve a few issues that came in this morning from our operations team

–And I fly out early next week to meet with a potential new partner


Clearly Jackie is a busy woman!  However, the manager replies, “I need you to get this done for our VP.”

Jackie replies, “OK, so what should I drop?”

Your answer: “You need to get it all done.”

Wrong answer.

This shifts the both the actual work and the residual fallout of the other work being interrupted to the person to whom you’re assigning the work.   That’s really bad.

Too often managers add something to the plate of their employees without making any effort to remove something from the employee’s plate. Often this is the top performer who can get things done.  But if it’s a top performer, the plate is likely full.  If the plate is full, managers will simply add more items to the plate, piling on so higher and higher.

So the rule should be: If the manager adds something to the plate of someone with a full plate, the manager must proactively de-prioritize something on that plate or remove it from that person’s plate.

This means that the manager must make some tough decisions, actively approach the stakeholders who are affected, reassign the tasks, or *gasp* have a contingency plan for these kinds of last-minute requests.  You also need to lower the expectations for team and individual quality due to the shuffle and communications challenges the extra work creates.

This reduction in quality and timeliness is the natural consequence for being in a reactive situation, so drop the fantasy that it can all get done with quality if your organization is operating this way!

Sure it’s easy “to put someone on it”, but this isn’t the end of the manager’s job.  It’s the manager’s job to anticipate what is likely to happen when you put someone on it, and take steps to mitigate, address and resolve the blow-back, fall-out and residual issues that assigning last-minute work to your employees.  This is hard, but necessary work.

If the manager at least makes an effort to do these things, then the manager’s conversation requesting the person or team to do the extra work has some hope for the work getting done.

And to that VP (or whoever) who asked for this extra work – this goes for you, too! When you decided to ask for this extra work, you need to identify what in your project portfolio needs to be de-prioritized.  And you need to communicate this to your team and re-set expectations for performance.  You’re not off the hook, VP!  The rule applies double for you, since you have the ability to re-set expectations, re-focus team priorities, and allow the team to actually focus on what you apparently really need now.

If you want it done right, you have to take the other burdens off as well.

And for you management designers out there, what have you done to assure that managers have the tools and expectations to manage last-minute requests for more work without simply dumping it on the staff.  What is done to identify who does this the most, and what steps in your management design do you take to keep the piling on to a minimum?

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The Cost of Low Quality Management

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If you’re the manager, it’s your job not to act surprised

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .

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