One organizational area that tends to tie a company in knots is the way leaders give assignments. Most managers struggle to find the right balance between being too tough or too easy — and when they overcompensate either way it can cause unintentional complexity.
A number of years ago my colleague Robert Schaffer identified the “seven deadly sins” of giving assignments, all motivated by the desire to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. As you read the descriptions, ask yourself if you recognise any of them in your own dealings with subordinates or interactions with your boss:
- Backing away from tough expectations: The goal becomes a hard-to-reach wish that people can choose to ignore.
- Engaging in charades: The goal is just an exercise. Setting an objective conveys the appearance of progress, but there’s no hope of achieving it.
- Accepting seesaw trades: When your people take on one goal, they are relieved of another one.
- Setting vague or distant goals: The time frame is not explicitly defined or set too far into the future.
- Not establishing consequences: This way, it’s impossible to differentiate between those who successfully achieve goals and those who do not.
- Setting too many goals: An overabundance of objectives allows subordinates to pick and choose the goals that they either want to do or find easiest to do — but not necessarily the ones that are most important.
- Allowing deflection to preparations, studies, and research: Too much planning delays the moment of commitment to a real goal.
All of us fall into these traps. Here’s a quick illustration: Say Yes to Education is a non-profit organisation that promises a college education to economically-disadvantaged kids if they can successfully make it through high school. To help kids realise this promise, Say Yes assigns a three-person team (a learning specialist, a social worker, and a program manager) to each targeted group of students with the expectation that they will create a holistic plan for improved achievement.
This method may sound executable on paper, but making it happen was another story. Although the individual Say Yes team members in Harlem were working incredibly hard, somehow their efforts were not adding up to adequate results in the classroom. When the president and EVP of Say Yes tried to push the teams to do more, they heard many “deadly sin” responses. One team employed the seesaw-trade excuse: “Sure we can spend more time on the after-school program, but we’ll have to work a lot less with parents.” And another team pushed back with a vague timetable, arguing that the depth of the problems at the school meant much more time was needed before they could see results.
As company leadership heard more of these responses, they began to realise that the teams were spinning their wheels without a clear, compelling goal — and it was their responsibility to make sure that each team had such a goal.
With that insight, Say Yes leadership asked each Harlem-based team to formulate one clear, result-oriented goal that could be achieved in 100 days. And unlike past “requests” it was made clear that coming up with this goal — and executing it — was non-negotiable.
Once the gauntlet was laid down, the teams not only responded positively but actually raised their games in creative ways. For example, one team helped a fourth grade class to raise reading scores by one grade level in the next 100 days. Another team improved the English-language skills of a group of parents, which was key for their children’s academic performance. And another improved the public presentation skills of a middle-school class so that they could better apply to specialised high schools.
The Say Yes staff reported skill-set improvements as well. As one team member said, “Focusing on one goal and doing it well as opposed to having several goals with minimal outcomes has been a significant lesson learned for us.”
For the leadership at Say Yes, the lesson was clear and simple: Demanding better results in a clear and compelling way — and insisting that people work together to achieve them — brings out the best in people.
Are you putting the right kinds of demands on your people, or are you committing some deadly sins?