Asking Too Much (or the Wrong Things) of Employees

"The Office's" Michael Scott was a talented sales person but a comically awful manager, to his employee's eternal dismay. Are similar mis-matches of skills and responsibilities causing tension and frustration in your organization?

In the age of the Great Recession, it is common for managers and employees to be asked to “do more with less.”  When this is pushed to the extreme – i.e., employees  forced to run beyond capacity for too long with insufficient relief —  it is easy to predict the results: burned out managers, demoralized employees, declining product quality, disenchanted customers, and vanishing profits.

Situations like the above are fairly easy to discern, if difficult to correct. What about a related circumstance, though – where employees aren’t asked to do too many things, but the wrong things?  I encountered such a situation this past week.

The Discouraged Sales Manager

A good friend is a sales manager with responsibility for a team of field sales representatives.  Over the past yearhe has become increasingly frustrated with his team —  not due to poor sales results (they’re holding their own, despite a tough sales climate), but rather, due to the team’s failure to think “strategically.”  Example: When he asked them to plan next quarter’s sales meeting, they set about doing so quite efficiently – but without ever contemplating the goal or broader purpose of the meeting – resulting in considerable re-work being needed by the manager.

A Question of Skills, Strengths, and Attributes

As he related this story, I reflected on similar frustrations he has expressed in the past.  It struck me that the stories all had a common theme – that is, he was looking for “strategy” (“what do we need to accomplish in the meeting”)  from them, but he was consistently getting “tactics” (“Step 1 – book the hotel. Check. Step 2 – identify a guest speaker. Check.”).  Nothing that was done was incorrect or inappropriate – it just wasn’t what he was really looking for.

While this problem could be ascribed to poor communication, the core issue felt more elemental.  It seemed to me to be a mis-alignment of skills and expectations.  To generalize:

  • Field sales reps are skilled in executing plans and using tactics (i.e., making cold calls to prospects, checking on customers, etc.) created by others  – that’s how they were “wired” and that’s what they are very good at.
  • The sales manager was asking them to step back and think strategically about why they were approaching the clients they were approaching, and whether other potential markets might be fertile ground for them – but that wasn’t what they were trained for, it wasn’t how they were wired to think, and it wasn’t what they were good at.  It was, in fact, a different job than the one they were hired for.

Why the Disconnect?

In reality, my friend is actually the leader of the entire division – serving as de facto “sales manager” in addition to his many other responsibilities due to budget limitations.  Because he was spread too thin, he was trying to help the sales reps to serve as their own sales managers, in essence – so that he would be freed up to spend more time with his other areas of responsibility.  But, it wasn’t working – so he was discouraged, and the sales reps were confused.

I suggested to him that the core problem might be he was asking them to serve in a role that didn’t play to their natural strengths, abilities or inclinations. No rep was under-performing in their actual job – just in the job he wished they might do.  He agreed.  I can’t tell you that this made him feel any less discouraged – but at least he felt he understood the situation better and could adjust his expectations accordingly.

Question to Consider

If your managers are disappointed in an individual or team’s performance, it might be worth examining whether what they’re being asked to do aligns with their skills, abilities, and inclinations.  If the answer is “no,”  any number of solutions may be possible.  By defining the problem, though, you’re likely more than half way to solving it.

Good luck – and keep heart!

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