Thursday, May 19, 2011

Great Expectations

A few years ago I was invited to a presentation by my boss on managing by expectation. The presentation was well done but didn’t have much impact on me. I was already a believer.

The theory goes that we can guide an employee to better behavior by “expecting” more from him. The converse holds as well. We can guide an employee into mediocrity by “expecting” too little. Having high hopes for an employee can help them while expecting them to barely work will result in them barely working. Using expectations fall into line with common theories on team-building and generating an appropriate esprit de corps.

Unfortunately, in my time I have seen the negative effects of this theory more often than the positive.

A few years ago, my workplace converted all of our cabling documentation to a new format. I was in charge of overseeing the transition and training the staff to use the new system. We migrated the data with more ease than we expected. I set up a few training classes to introduce staff to the concepts. We prepared to move forward.

Just prior to implementation, my supervisor came to me to ask what else we could do to help people interact with the new system. Management held concerns that staff would have too much difficulty interfacing with the new system.

In response, a staff member of mine created a line by line procedure with screen shots to guide staff in how to execute one task in the system. Our management was giddy. I followed up by crafting ten more documents that explained line by line how to insert documentation into the system. We had dummy-proofed our system.

Years later, staff still use those documents. It doesn’t make me proud. Years later, we have staff that have interacted with this system on a daily basis for years that still cannot carry out routine tasks without referencing the procedural docs. We had told our staff it was okay to be dummies.

Procedural documents have an important place in training staff but this kind of documentation carries an implication of ineptitude that I find insulting. Documents written at this level communicate that the staff cannot be trusted to know when to press the [enter] key.

On some levels, people even discuss this openly. We are currently in the process of implanting a new software package that will radically change how we process work orders, change requests, and service requests. The package is not easy to understand but those difficulties could consume a number of blog posts on their own. I’m more worried about a repeatedly voiced concern that we need to keep things simple for the front line service desk. We need to keep things simple since they are not full-time employees. Truly, what can we expect from them? Full-time staff could produce better results. We need to make things simple for them.

I think that in management there’s an appeal to writing procedural documents for every task. There is an appeal to treating your employees as buffoons and not expecting too much from them. Procedural documents shield a company from liability and produce the illusion of consistent results. By making sure we cater to the least common denominator we ensure that we have fewer problems with HR. No one wants to have a meeting with HR, a union rep, or lawyer and try to explain that you are not effectively training your staff.

But, in doing so, we stifle the productivity and creativity of our staff. I have watched it happen. I’m sorry to say, that in my time I have helped it happen.

More and more, I’ve tried to lay out my expectations for a project, provide procedural documentation, and then encouraged staff to lay them aside when they think they have found a better way. I judge them based on results.

It’s a difficult balancing act. Sometimes I micro-manage and sometimes I give a bit too much freedom. I tend to see-saw a bit more than I should.

But, I’m still much better off than if I had directly addressed every aspect of every task they need to complete. I do not need a buffoon working for me. Even more, I never want to take part in turning any of the creative people that come to work for me into one.


  1. Clear documentation is also a hedge bet against staff turnover. But digging deeper, I think the adherence to existing documentation is a symptom more than cause. These manuals are not very different in concept and level of detail than the owner's manual in our cars or the multi-lingual tomes that accompany everything from grills to coffee makers. There mere existence doesn't cause me to adhere to their guidance. I think the determining factor is the severity of consequences for deviations. In order to encourage creativity we must allow for errors. If, however, I believe that I will be fired if I don't follow the manual then I'm going to crack open the manual every time. In managing expectations we should be mindful of how we tolerate mistakes and be able to communicate that.

  2. I am totally for good procedural docs for the reasons you express above. They are a great training tool and reference for beginners.

    Management has to set the expectations. My own belief is that if we want employees to act as professionals we have to treat them that way. We are in the middle of a new software rollout and I can't count the number of times I've been told what our employees are incapable of doing. We discuss the rollout in terms of what they cannot do instead of what we can acccomplish.

    I'm not an optimist by nature but the pessimism kills me.