By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Its Okay to Manage Your Boss
Your boss Chris just gave you what seems to be a great new assignment. Chris has heard good things about you and your work and that’s why he picked you for the project. This new, juicy project might even lead to new ongoing responsibilities with potentially significant rewards for you… if you dazzle Chris with your work. You’ve never done anything quite like this, but are eager and ready to learn. Chris gives you a large stack of documents and asks you, “to read through it to get a feel for the material” and admits: “I’m not entirely sure what the final result should look like. What do you think it should look like?”
While you have a good discussion with Chris, in the end, Chris doesn’t spell out what concrete deliverables you are expected to turn in or any deadlines you are supposed to hit. Instead, Chris suggests that you talk with your colleague Pat who completed a similar project recently. You and Chris agreed that you will “figure it out” as you go along. After maybe a half hour discussing the few vague details of the assignment, Chris wraps up with one unmistakable point: “This project is a big priority.” As you walked away with an armload of documents, Chris asks you to touch base in a few days to make sure things are going forward smoothly.
If you are on the receiving end of this assignment, then you have just been set up to fail on a very big opportunity. At the very least, you have been set up to accomplish a lot less than you are capable of. If you are very good and really lucky, you might pull off a success on this project. Even if you get it right, however, you will feel as if you are in a sink-or-swim situation until you get the priorities of the project in order; a work-plan in place to guide you; a schedule of concrete deliverables; deadlines for each task; and checklists to ensure the quality and completeness of your work.
By the time you’ve figured out the true parameters of the project, you might not be in a position to adequately finish it in time. There probably is a more concrete deadline than “this project is a big priority” and important specifications that you never even knew about – although you’ll likely learn about them late into the project. You’ll probably have to change course or make major changes to your work late in the game—and in a tremendous hurry. Chris will be thinking, “Why didn’t you figure all this out earlier on in the project?” And you will certainly be thinking, “Gee Chris, why didn’t you tell me the real deadline and the important specifications for this project in the first place?”
How could you possibly have handled this situation better to ensure the project’s success, your success, and that of your boss? The answer is by performing the first step in boss management: getting your boss to clarify expectations, including spelling out any specifications and deadlines that needed to be met in order to secure the success of the project, task, or responsibility.
The Three Key Elements You Need to Get from Your Boss
Real power in the workplace rarely comes in the form of being left alone to do whatever you think should be done however you think it should be done. Rather, power comes from having the responsibility to accomplish specific tasks and projects in certain ways at certain times delegated to you.
Most managers who adopt a “facilitative” approach to managing (helping you “figure things out on your own”), rather than an explicitly “directive” approach (delegating tasks by giving clear directions and spelling out expectations), do so because it’s much easier to sidestep the uncomfortable tension that comes from telling other people exactly what to do.
But you need clear marching orders. The real trick to gaining power through effective delegation is helping your bosses figure out the goals, guidelines, and timelines that are appropriate for each assignment. To do so, you need to maintain an ongoing dialogue with them about every assignment in your to-do list. This is the only way to ensure you are getting the three key elements essential to understanding what is expected of you for every project, task, or responsibility assigned to you:
- Clear goals: Establish what the end product should look like. What deliverables are you responsible for completing?
- Detailed parameters: Learn the specifications and requirements for each individual project, task, or responsibility assigned to you. How do you need to do this task?
- Accurate deadlines: Determine when you are expected to complete the project. What is the schedule of deliverables for all the steps necessary to meet this goal?
Whenever you are expected to do a project or task, then you must engage your boss in order to provide you these three key elements.
What to Do If Your Boss Doesn’t Provide Clear Expectations
If you are working with a boss who has a hard time spelling out expectations in clear, specific detail, then you might need to help him or her out. As mentioned earlier, many bosses follow a “facilitative approach”; that is, they have been taught that it is better to ask employees questions to lead them to the right answers rather than being directive. Unfortunately, the three most common questions managers ask their employees are exactly the wrong questions:
- “How is everything going?”
- “Is everything on track?”
- “Are there any problems I should know about?”
These questions take you nowhere, because they are not specific enough. Indeed, the conversations between bosses and employees should be interactive dialogues. But they should never turn into guessing games. If your boss is going to try to manage you by asking questions, then help that boss ask really good questions.
The questions your manager should be asking and the questions you need to be answering in dialogue with your boss are:
- “Can you complete this assignment? What do you need from me in order to complete this assignment? What additional information, training, tools, materials, space, money or people might I need? If I’ll be lacking in any necessary resources, what workarounds might I consider? How much discretion do I have to try workarounds as I go?”
- “What is your plan for achieving this assignment? Have you set a schedule for meeting deadlines along the way? What date and time is the first reporting milestone? What initial steps will you follow? What will be the benchmarks for success at that milestone?”
- “Have you created a to-do list or checklist for each step of the project? How long will step one take? What guidelines are you following for step one? What about step two, three, four, and so on?”
When you are able to answer these questions about an assignment, then you know you have clear expectations about the work that needs to be done.
Managing Expectations in the Midst of Constant Change
Maybe once in a while (or often depending on your job or the industry in which you work), your boss says to you, “Yesterday I said the most important things were A, B, and C. Well, from now on they don’t matter. Sorry about all that work we started doing on them. Now the most important things are X, Y, and Z . . .” Is that somehow evidence your boss didn’t really know what the heck was going on yesterday? Maybe so. But probably not. The reality of today’s workplace is constant change. When priorities change, expectations change. That why it’s even more critical for you to be engaging in an ongoing management conversation with your boss. Every time there is a shift or change that requires a significant adjustment or course-correction in priorities and expectations, you need to make sure you ask your boss the following questions:
- What has shifted and changed and what adjustments and course-corrections do I need to make?
- How do I need to change or adjust my resource-plan?
- How do I need to reprioritize my to-do list of concrete actions?
- Has the checklist to ensure quality-control for every concrete action change as a result of this shift in priorities?
- What priorities should I be focused on as of right now?
About the Author
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.