Having spent many years on the front lines of corporate life, I faced myriad challenges, but never stopped to think about which issue was the most challenging. The polling giants at Gallup have. For five years, they studied over 50,000 managers, asking them over 500 questions about how they experience their workplace and the issues they face within. 

The study just published in July and their conclusion is spot on. So I share their findings in hopes you'll find you're not alone in facing this huge issue, then I'll share advice for tackling it.

So which leadership challenge made it to the top of the heap?

Unclear expectations and competing priorities is the problem of all problems for leaders.

Do I ever know this one.

The study showed that across the globe, only half of all employees strongly agree they know what's expected of them at work. It's even less for managers/leaders of others. In fact, only 41 percent of managers strongly agree that their job description aligns with the work they actually do.

Leaders so often get pulled into tasks that are off mission, subject to the whim of a trigger-happy superior, or that come from a haphazard request to "cover all the bases."  In conducting research for Find the Fire, I discovered that among leaders and employees alike, a shocking 58 percent of work they do has no connection to any company objective/goal.

Adding to and related to the problem are wildly competing priorities. Sure, all leaders have multiple priorities; what I'm talking about here are competing priorities. They don't just compete for the leader's time (which is bad enough), they actually fight each other, i.e. accomplishment of them would be counterproductive.

I've lived through this many times--the Sales chain of command pushing to ship every case we can while the Product Supply chain of command pushes on slowing down to enable a higher percentage of orders being fully/accurately completed. Or dealing with a massive increase in workload to hit a quarterly number, all in the face of a demand to reduce headcount to save labor costs.

It creates an environment where leaders aren't sure what matters most and what's really expected of them, and the problem flows downhill. As the study concludes: "If managers don't know what they're supposed to do, how can they lead teams effectively?"

If you're in this camp, often not knowing what to do, here's what to do.

How to address unclear expectations/competing priorities.

The truth is that leaders often lose sight of what they've asked their people to do. And for those who request more work from you, the kind of work that exacerbates unclear expectations and competing priorities, they often don't realize the impact their request has. They're just "clearing their in-box", passing down a request from their boss, covering their bases, or mindlessly doling out what (unbeknownst to them) amounts to busy work.

These leaders/work requestors don't always have visibility to your workload, how their request might affect it, or how it fits with expectations you believe them to already have of you.

Visualize your workload for them (and the priorities the work serves) by putting it on paper and sharing it. Start first by reviewing your priorities and what's expected of you. Have a conversation about whether or not your work fits with broader objectives you've been given, and discuss whether or not any new work requests compete with what you're already doing. You can show how other work or priorities would suffer, coming from a place of accountability (versus complaining). In this way, you're coming from the high road, showing concern and a sense of responsibility for your current workload.

If the work requestor persists on assigning "off-target" work, at least use what I call the "Bermuda Triangle of Bargaining." Steer conversations around the new work request to focus on three variables: resources, scope, and time. These three things form a triangle into which, if all three are held steady in the face of an unreasonable request, work and productivity vanishes.

So ask for more resources, more time for the work to be done, or for the scope of the ask to be reduced. You get the idea. This will help with your overall workload, which if left unaddressed will bleed over into still more competing priorities.

You've got enough to worry about at work. Worrying about what's expected of you and fighting through requests at odds with one another shouldn't be one of those things.  

Published on: Jul 22, 2019
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