As a manager you likely supervise others and report to a boss. It sometimes feels like you are sandwiched between the two when expectations differ. Your role as a manger is to lead your staff in the implementation of your organization’s objectives. To do so, it is important to understand your boss and represent them through the authority they have delegated to you. It is also important to represent your staff’s perspective and feedback from their experience in their interaction with clients. This is fairly clear in normal day-to-day operations. However, it can get tricky when significant change in direction is required, and problems can result.

We use a case study approach to help train managers to meet the expectations of both staff and the boss: the organization is required to ‘Increase the number of clients by 50% within the year to meet funder targets’. In response to this issue, Managers then rate various actions to take that involve levels of critical thinking, communication to staff, and managing their own state.

If managers gets flustered at the prospect of likely staff resistance, and tells them to do this because it is ‘what the boss says to do’, they fall way short of expectation of the manager’s role. Similarly, panicking and telling the boss that 6 months is not enough time but you can do it in 12, may not only be doubtful, it does not meet the boss’s need to be accountable to the funder.

There are 4 steps to take to handle the issue in a way that builds trust in you by your staff and by your boss:

Step 1: Assess the request across the 3 key accountabilities you have as a manager for achieving results:

Can the requested output, be achieved within cost, at a determined level of quality? Since these accountabilities are interdependent, it is important to consider how changing one factor to increase output with the same number of resources, might lower quality. This is likely what you will hear from staff. In fact, the mantra, ‘do more with less’ leaves quality out of the equation.

Step 2: Do your research about where this target has been achieved in a similar organization, if it has.

Consider the learnings that can be applied to your organization.

Step 3: Engage your staff in helping to solve the problem

Tell them the rationale for the change, the solutions being tried by other organizations, and the indicators of success that are important to your clients, to the funder, and to staff. They are more likely to participate in and accept the solution if they know measures of quality are included in the solution.

Step 4: Report back to your boss

Prepare a briefing note that states the issue you are addressing, outlines your research, presents the options for response with pros and cons regarding consequences for output, cost and quality, and make a recommendation. You may also request further direction if appropriate.

Make it easy for your boss to look at your report and give direction. Be succinct. You can say in a cover note, ‘please reply to this e-mail to let me know it is ok to proceed, or if anything needs to be clarified’. If your boss has an administrative assistant it would be a good idea to let him or her know the importance of the e-mail you have sent and that your action awaits a reply; for example, ‘this is an issue concerning the funder, your boss is expecting your report, and a deadline has been set’.

Here are some dos and don’ts that clarify reasonable expectations of each other:

When you are the boss:

  • Provide clear direction
  • Say when significant change is needed and why
  • Provide adequate resources to do the job requested
  • Give feedback to evaluate whether performance meets or exceeds expectations, and coach when the employee falters
  • Respect personal dignity of all regardless of status in the hierarchy

When you are the subordinate:

  • Perform to achieve your assigned work
  • Inform your boss about risks or opportunities you anticipate in doing your work
  • Be patient in consideration of your boss’s time demands and constraints

Don’t expect either:

  • To read the other’s mind
  • To like the other, or offer affection
  • To have allegiance to the same personal values (e.g., religion or politics)
  • To offer or deliver self-sacrifice for the other’s good
  • To be perfect

Using the 4 Step approach to respond to issues, with a realistic set of expectations, can release the pressure as you engage boss and staff alike to build common understanding and strategy in your organization.

Have you discovered other ways to manage boss and staff expectations? Please share your ideas in the comment section.