OMG how come you don't complete tasks in exactly the same manner I would?
October 19, 2012 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I am an inexperienced manager with one experienced employee and one inexperienced employee working under me. We are in a technical field; I do some of the technical work, but it is very time-consuming, so they are meant to be extra 'hands' and free me to do planning and analysis of the team's work. What are reasonable expectations to have of them and how can I ensure they meet these reasonable expectations?

I have always had an assistant or two to help me, but this is the first job where I have multiple FTEs and a huge project that requires multiple FTEs instead of my doing most of the work, and the assistant filling in gaps parttime. I didn't expect the dynamic of the two of them working together (in my absence) to affect things so much, but I think part of this difficulty is their own individual snowflakiness (see below).

One of my teammembers actually has more hands-on experience in the technical skills we are doing than I do, but somehow she is slower than me at getting these tasks done and gets disorganized sometimes. I try to communicate that this is not ok, but I either feel like I am wounding her (because she gets very flustered) or I feel like she doesn't know how to avoid the disorganzation (because she doesn't improve). She generally finishes things well, but often much slower than I would have expected. Also, she has trouble incorporating the computer into her work, and it has to happen.

The other teammember is a temp and is much younger and less experienced than both of us, but is a quick learner. Her lack of experience means that she doesn't always understand the bigger picture, and that would be fine because I am happy to guide her every task. However, her 'quickness' means that she sometimes skips ahead/alters how things are done and/or demands explanations, when what I really want is just that my directions be followed. I don't have kids but her tone with me in demanding explanations reminds me greatly of my nieces and nephews arguing with their parents...saying reasonable things but being defiant.

I do spend a lot of time explaining things to these guys; I find our project really interesting and it would be great if my team could contribute more to the bigger picture. Sometimes, they do actually have good ideas. However, we are getting so stuck on day-to-day tasks that I regret talking about anything else, because it seems to distract and confuse my more experienced employee and it seems to falsely empower the less experienced one. Then, sometimes, it seems like they talk about things amongst themselves and cause this effect to an even greater degree.

They both seem like very nice people and I enjoy their company otherwise, but I am basically climbing the walls waiting for the slow one to finish whatever and pulling my hair out when I find things done not-quite-right by the other (yes, these small details do actually matter). With many tasks, we have gotten to a place where we're getting things done effectively, but most of these successes have been long and cost me a lot of frustration. And even where things are going ok, they're going slower than if I were to do the tasks that they do. Everytime we need to do something new, I am more and more tempted to just do it myself, but I should be working on my own planning and analytical work. I also find myself comparing them to their peers on other teams and thinking how much better the project would be going if only I had a better team (I had no part in picking my team, btw, and only limited abilities to change it). I suspect some of my angst must be irrational and caused my relentless ambition and satisfaction in meeting goals. I recognize that giving me the team that I have is my company's responsibility and so maybe, results will not be what they could have been, but they are what they are. FWIW, my higherups have expressed nothing but satisfaction wtih our progress; I am a basket case though. How do I make sure that it's not me being a bad instructor/manager that's holding my team back? How do I know when they're not doing well enough versus when I'm expecting too much?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do they know the bigger picture? It sounds like you need to hold a meeting where you show the roadmap of the project/projects you're working on, break it into tasks, assign the tasks, and keep the people who report to you on-track.

Hand-holding and "guiding every task" are not the job of a manager. The manager needs to see the "50-foot perspective" of everyone, making sure they reach goals in a timely manner. If your experienced employee is good-but-slow, you have to decide if you can accommodate that with changed timelines or more resources. If your inexperienced employee needs more active direction, then it's time to schedule regular check-in meetings where you discuss the work she's done, what's expected next, what the "definition of done" is, and how to get there by the standards/rules you've set.

Not to worry too much, though. This is the kind of thing every new manager (and every manager who has a new team) has to navigate. The fact that you're asking these questions at all means you're probably on the right track.
posted by xingcat at 7:46 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you switch more to establishing goals and outcomes, rather than handholding each task?

In other words, can you set up timelines and deliverables, rather than worrying about task process? So your employee needs to give you product X, done to an established quality level, on date Y, and how they get there is their business, not yours. And if they give you bad product or miss a deadline, you deal with that failed outcome as a learning opportunity.

It means more time now with flowcharts and gant charts and spreadsheets, with less time handholding and micromanaging, so in some ways it's trading one frustration for another, but with the benefit of much greater efficiencies over time.
posted by Forktine at 7:53 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The biggest challenge I've seen in technical people who become managers is they still take on too much of the busy-work themselves... put yourself in the mindset that you're leaving the job, and training 2 people to take over for you. Maybe if your more experienced guy was the "lead" and passed some of the weight onto the less experienced until he catches up. But like you said, you have a new responsibility, you gotta trust your guys to take on your previous responsibilities. If the 2 of them can handle everything that you did alone, that'll free up ALL of your time for management responsibilities / your new role's responsibilities.
posted by el_yucateco at 7:57 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you talk to some other managers in your company about what their expectations of their team are and how they communicate them (without telling the other managers anything about your team or your stress and dissatisfaction)? You should also sit down and think what those two should produce/what their results would be, optimally, and how to get there. Your expectations should be clear, and you should communicate them firmly and pleasantly while focusing on the positive.

You've got team members with some enthusiasm and some experience, and they care enough to come up with ideas and talk amongst themselves about how to make the work better. That is good.

Do they have to do these tasks exactly the way you would do them? If so, then when that doesn't happen, sit down with them and say hey, thanks for the work on xyz, let me show you some things - thing x is a little off and I need it to be the way I showed you, because... When they do it right, or faster, or incorporate the computer, positive reinforce the shit out of that. And be open to their feedback - maybe they have a good idea or better way to do something, you don't know unless you're open to it. Yeah, maybe you don't have to listen and they should just do it the way you tell them, but until you get a robot team you've got snowflakey humans and a big part of managing is dealing with that on some level.

If they keep making mistakes, or if their output isn't the right quality level, there should be consequences that were explained when you communicated expectations.

Part of being a manager is dealing with some bullshit from both ends, and watching your people do things and just wanting to shout omg I could do that ten times better, and faster, wtf is wrong with you!!!! The better you can guide them to doing it faster and better, and get them to buy in to your concept of the why and how, the better off you're going to be. The reward is that eventually they will be up to speed and you'll have ridiculous extra time to either fill up with more work or browse the internets.
posted by mrs. taters at 8:14 AM on October 19, 2012

Shifting responsibility and goal setting (widgets/hour that are needed to get the job done) are your two keys. Set yourself goals to do these two things.
posted by notned at 9:44 AM on October 19, 2012

FWIW, two quotes from Lee Iacocca:

"Motivation is everything. You can do the work of two people, but you can't be two people. Instead, you have to inspire the next guy down the line and get him to inspire his people."

"I have found that being honest is the best technique I can use. Right up front, tell people what you're trying to accomplish and what you're willing to sacrifice to accomplish it."

In my opinion, the trick is to apply that wisdom with employees who differ in background, temperament and strengths. Teamwork is essential so that each person can contribute to or draw support from the team. Also, encouragement and cautions from the manager when and as appropriate.

My two cents.
posted by forthright at 5:27 AM on October 20, 2012

Less micromanaging (focus on outcomes/deliverables and leave it to the underlings to do it their way) and more big picture pushing is definitely the way to go.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 1:21 PM on October 20, 2012

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