The American View: Impossible Expectations

Want to utterly destroy your workers’ motivation and morale? Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger shows you how to permanently cripple team productivity in one easy step.

How long does it take your subordinates to do their jobs? Do you know? Really know? More importantly, how do you know? When a worker tells you that Process X won’t be finished until late Thursday, how confident are you that his or her estimate is accurate enough to make commitments around? Or to gamble your career on? This is an important issue for everyone in a supervisory role, no matter how high or low in their organisational hierarchy: being in charge often means translating workers’ estimates into plans where money, jobs, and opportunities may be riding on an on-time delivery. You’d think, then, that all supervisors worth their salt would be keenly interested in learning just how accurate and reliable their people’s time-to-complete estimates really are.

You’d think so. In actuality, a lot of supervisors have no idea how long it takes their people to do their jobs. That’s because a surprisingly large percentage of supervisors gain their positions without ever having done the work that their subordinates are paid for. They make assumptions. They rely on other people’s opinions. Worst of all, they flat-out refuse to believe what their workers tell them, on the misguided assumption that anyone below their station must be a dirty, scheming liar.

Case in point: Bob [1] is a night supervisor at a national brand retail store a few towns over from me. I was down at my local this last weekend and struck up a conversation with one of Bob’s people: a frustrated young man named Charlie who was ready to wring his manager’s neck.

Consoling his depressed friend.We’ve all been there, man.

Charlie told me his story over a pint. His team is responsible for re-stocking a Big Box retail store every night. Charlie’s job is to visit each bin and shelf in the store on a fixed schedule to ensure that all the products that customers bought during the previous day get replaced with fresh ones. He’s expected to ensure that all the shelves are full, neat, and organised by the start of business each morning. While Charlie cleans up the public area of the store, another crew unloads the supply trucks that come in each night. A second team then breaks down the crates of new products and delivers the right items to the right holding bins on each aisle. Charlie, then, pulls his replacement stock from those overhead supply bins. Bob’s the manager over the entire re-supply operation.

In theory, theirs is a pretty slick logistics solution: every time a customer buys a product, the computerized till automatically orders a replacement. A logistics centre located somewhere up-state packs up all of the days’ replacement products up, then has delivery trucks drop off resupply packs on a store-by-store basis. A receiving crew then unloads the shipments, sorts everything, and delivers each replacement item to the exact same spot where the original item was purchased. If ten items are on a shelf and one item gets bought, Charlie pulls a replacement that night from a box of 100 there atop the aisle. The freight crew then re-fills the bulk box on a one-for one basis a few nights later when the resupply shipment comes in. This keeps a constant supply level of products ready for purchase right where a customer would look to find them for every SKU sold in the store.

The trouble is, Charlie alone can’t restock all the shelves in the store in a single night. To compensate for that, he’s supposed to get to every shelf in the store at least once each week. Even then, there are over a hundred thousand SKUs being sold in the store, spread over four dozen hundred-metre-long, three-story-tall aisles. The place is enormous, and there’s only one Charlie. There’s not enough Red Bull in the world to make anyone fast enough to cover that much ground.

Making things worse, replacement stock at Charlie’s store doesn’t arrive perfectly on a one-for-one basis each night. Instead, stock arrives in random bursts; sometimes too little, sometimes way too much. The freight crew tends to stuff boxes, bags, barrels, and crates of replacement stock wherever it’ll fit – not necessarily where it goes. Charlie then has to waste time searching all over the store for product to fill shelf space. Then he has to reorganise all of the misplaced stock boxes.

Old archiveAs Charlie told it, finding lost parts in his warehouse is like trying to find a missing post-it note in a records archive. 

Realistically, Charlie can’t do his job to-spec given the time allotted. Even if all of the replacement stock was sorted, distributed, and staged exactly where it needed to be with a 0% error rate, Charlie still couldn’t visit every shelf on every aisle every night. The sheer scale of the store means that it isn’t possible for just one worker (no matter how dedicated) to cover it all. The problem, Charlie said, is that manager Bob insists that it is (somehow) possible. Then Bob gets irate with Charlie every night when he falls short of his staggeringly unrealistic performance goal. Night after night.

I asked Charlie if he’d ever confronted Bob over his unrealistic expectations. Of course he had (he said), as had the three previous workers who’d held Charlie’s position under Bob. All four workers – and a manager from another team – all informed Bob that his expectations were unachievable.

Why did Bob insist that one worker could manage the impossible? Because (Charlie said) Bob claimed to have read it once in an official company manual. When pressed, Bob couldn’t cite the specific passage in the manual because the store doesn’t actually have that manual. Nor had it ever. They couldn’t even get a copy of the darned thing sent down to them from headquarters because it wasn’t available electronically. Bob’s ‘standard’ may as well have been insinuated by astrology.

So, what was Charlie to do? His boss insisted that he meet an impossible performance standard based on an unsubstantiated claim that a theoretical rulebook might have listed for a notional store at some unspecified era in the past. Maybe. Charlie’s own experience (and the testimony of the three guys who used to do his job) clearly proved that the standard was rubbish, but Bob wouldn’t listen.

Exhausted casual man with eyeglasses being sick of working Exhausted casual man with eyeglasses being sick of working 

The best possible option, I said, was that Charlie should challenge his boss to trade jobs with him for a week. Allow Bob to set the standard for all to see. Make it clear that the objective could be met, and then – assuming Bob succeeded – learn from him how to get faster. If (when, really) Bob failed because the task was unrealistic, then the evidence would show that the standard couldn’t be met without making changes to personnel, time, technique, or some other variable. That would let Bob make an informed decision about how and why the store needed to deviate from the ‘official’ standard in order to accommodate local conditions.

If Bob was a decent manager, I said, he’d leap at a chance to encourage and educate his people. Worthy leaders lead by example. Unsurprisingly, Charlie assessed Bob as an arrogant know-it-all and a condescending git. The man wouldn’t ‘lower himself’ to do peon-level labour.

The next best option, I said, was to quit. I advised him that it simply wasn’t worth the effort to find another position inside the company; if his upper management tier allowed a clueless fool like Bob to regularly abuse his workers and did nothing to fix a recurring team performance problem, then his company’s worker protections wouldn’t be any better anywhere else in the same organisation. Bad leadership at the top always translates to bad leadership throughout the entire force. Better to write the place off and start fresh elsewhere. When I left him, Charlie was staring into space, considering his options.

The thing is, Charlie’s grief with his manager is as common problem as they come: the boss wants him to do something that can’t realistically be done given the totality of circumstances. It becomes impossible for the worker(s) to ever meet the unachievable standard. Therefore, the worker is guaranteed to fail no matter how hard he or she works. Being placed in a doomed position like that is absolutely lethal to employee morale and often becomes corrosive to good order and discipline.

Just for fun.When nothing that you do matters anymore, you may as well do whatever amuses you

For an honest fellow like Charlie – who just wants to do good work and go home to his family without any unnecessary drama – Bob’s made his life a slice of purgatory. He’s not being abused per se, so he can’t seek relief from the cops, courts, or corporate headquarters. On the other hand, he perceives his efforts to be completely futile, and his chances of ever moving up to be non-existent. He’s enduring the stupidity and Bob’s tantrums because he doesn’t have any other job prospects. The moment that Charlie gets a better offer, he’s going to quit – guaranteed.

Bob and Charlie’s situation is why every supervisor – from the head janitor to the CEO – needs to invest some time in working their subordinates’ jobs. Make sure that they know how difficult their people’s primary functions are and how it long it takes to do them correctly, by the book. Learn through experience to trust their people’s estimates. When a subordinate struggle to meet their expectations, don’t get pretentions or abusive. Instead, find out why they’re struggling and then clear the obstacles out of their paths. Take their requests for relief and for support seriously. After all, a supervisor without motivated, loyal team isn’t a supervisor; he’s just another value-draining, morale-killing, cancer in the ranks. Which Bob’s senior manager would know if he’d ever done Bob’s job for a week and learned what a useless git Bob is.

[1] Not his real name, as always.


Title Allusion: none this week

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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