It is not easy being a leader today. Most organizations have eliminated layers of management and the average span of control for managers has increased significantly. There is more to do with fewer resources. It is easy for managers at all levels to feel overwhelmed and overloaded with all of the responsibilities that they have.

I think one of biggest opportunities to improve productivity and to reduce management overload is to eliminate two people trying to do the same job. Any time a manager has to follow up to make sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing, this is redundancy of effort. Think about the ideal world where all you had to do was tell people what needed to be done and by when—then you went away and it got done without any further involvement from you. What would you day look like then?

To reach this ideal state, there are five things that managers need to do. The first thing is setting clearly understood expectations. Too many times, we give our people unclear or fuzzy instructions or have not made our expectations clear. If you develop the attitude that any time someone doesn’t do what you expected, that the problem is you and not them, it will change your outlook and approach dramatically. In the programs that I do, there is always work to be done between sessions. When first started facilitating these programs, I would become frustrated when someone didn’t do the work. I made the erroneous assumption that the participants were the problem, not me. Over the years I have learned most of the possible reasons that people don’t do the work, and I address these specifically when I make assignments. It takes a little more time up front to ensure that everyone knows exactly what they have to do and are committed to doing it, but the incidences of people not doing the work are much lower now. So every time that someone fails to do an assignment as you wanted them to do it, ask yourself what you could have done to make it clearer.

The second thing is to never give an assignment without an expectation that it be done. There should always be an expectation that if you ask someone to do something, that they actually do it. You need to have a system that follows up on any assignment or request that you have made. Think about the confusion that could be created if a manager routinely gives assignments, but never follows up. Subordinates then become conditioned to not do assignments or to wait for a second request before they do anything. Develop the reputation as a manager who never forgets anything and hold your subordinates accountable. You’ll spend a lot less time chasing things down at the last minute.

Never give an assignment without a clearly defined completion date. Open ended requests leave too much to chance. It might be tempting to tell someone “do this when you can get to it”, but that’s the same as saying “wait until I ask you again before you do anything”. Along with this, make sure that people know the time to negotiate the completion date is when the assignment is given, not when they figure out that they won’t be able to do it on time.  When you give an assignment with a specific completion date, always ask something like, “What would keep you from completing this task as we agreed?”. Deal with the potential problems up front rather than later as they come up. This is a much more effective use of the manager’s time.

Create the clear expectation that it is the subordinate’s job to keep you informed of progress and any potential obstacles. If a task is on track and being done as expected, why should a manager waste his or her time, and the subordinate’s time with unproductive reviews. This is often where employees will get frustrated and accuse their boss of micromanagement. The employee knows clearly what has to be done, is committed to getting it done, and yet is constantly harassed by a worried manager. Nothing breaks down commitment and accountability like this. And managers today have too much to do be spending their time doing the work of their people.

Ultimately it comes down to developing trustworthy people by showing trust in them. One of my favorite quotes comes from The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard and Bill Oncken.  They say “practice hands on management only as much as necessary and hands off management as much as possible.” People learn responsibility and accountability by being held responsible and accountable. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard managers complain about employees not taking responsibility, and yet their management style was highly directive and controlling.

I had a person in a program make a very astute observation about the role that modern technology has played in robbing people of initiative and responsibility. Prior to the days of cell phones and the ability to communicate to anyone, any place almost instantaneously, people couldn’t always consult their boss before making a decision. The technology has made it easy for people to avoid responsibility because they can defer to a higher level and the higher levels actually enjoy it because they can be in control of everything.

An interesting exercise for managers to do is to keep track of how much time they spend making sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. This can be a real eye opener to the potential for gains in manager productivity.