Chief Counsel: Set Deadline Expectations Early and Stick to Them

Posted June 24, 2009 at 3:24pm

Q: Many of our staffers do not meet deadlines or ignore them entirely. Is this a generational thing? How can my staff think this is OK? What can I do about it?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: The jury is still out on the differences between boomers, Xers and Yers (also known as millennials). Articles on the millennial generation point to the coddled and protected nature of their upbringing as the reason for their need for constant positive reinforcement and self-fulfillment. The concepts of being grateful for just having a job and needing to “serve your time— may not resonate with this generation. In fact, the idea of tenure and loyalty are foreign to millennials, who want to live very differently from their boomer parents. Whether these attitudes can be explained by generational differences or something else, there is a lot that you can do to increase the likelihood of your junior staffers meeting deadlines and engaging in their work.

Confront the Issue Head-On

Because this challenge is justifiably baffling to many chiefs of staff, you may be tempted to avoid the necessary conversation. It is important that every time they miss deadlines to confront staff to try to uncover the cause. Was the deadline unclear? Did she not understand the assignment? Is he having difficulty prioritizing assignments, missing some deadlines while focusing on other projects? How many people are assigning work and how is the staffer prioritizing the competing priorities? By discussing these issues directly, you may uncover problems that are easy to fix and enable your staff to make different decisions going forward.

At the same time, I hear from chiefs who are baffled by the lack of responsiveness when they do confront staff. One chief told me that staff members simply shrug their shoulders or say they forgot, leaving her dumbfounded. In these cases, it is worth considering your hiring methods to better identify those high achievers who take projects to completion and to analyze the overall culture and norms of your office.

Evaluate Your Office Culture

This issue of meeting deadlines may be more broadly approached as accountability. How much emphasis does your office culture put on accountability? Do staff and the Member follow through on commitments you make to one another? Does your office use nebulous language like “I’ll try— or “I’ll see— that circumvents accountability, as opposed to affirmative language like “I will—? You and the Member should be role models for the behavior you want to see and think about how your own responsiveness to staff might influence office culture. Remember, no one’s behavior in the office is scrutinized more than your own. Take a hard look at the indirect messages you are sending to staff by not overcommitting and following through on their expectations.

Clearly Communicate Expectations

I probably sound like a broken record, but clearly communicating your expectations of staff will influence many behaviors. Research shows that over 60 percent of employees do not know what is expected at work, so obviously this point has not achieved broad adoption. Not only must you look at how clearly you are communicating deadlines, but also your expectation for meeting them. Staff members need to understand what the deadlines are and the consequences for missing them. And when a deadline is overlooked, are you following through with the consequences? Are you promoting and rewarding staff members who meet deadlines and dismissing people who do not? Again, how are you reinforcing this culture of accountability?

Get Buy-In

A deadline should be an agreement, not an imposition. In other words, when you are assigning deadlines to a staffer, view it as a joint decision.

An imposed deadline might go this way:

Chief of staff: We need to eliminate our mail backlog during August recess.
Legislative director: OK.

What’s wrong here? Was an agreement really made? Should the chief of staff expect the backlog to be cleared out in August? Indeed, no definitive expectation or course of action was agreed to and both parties would likely walk away with different expectations. Instead let’s consider the following conversation:

Chief of staff: We need to eliminate our mail backlog during August recess.
Legislative director: OK.
Chief of staff: How much backlog currently exists?
Legislative director: 3,000 pieces.
Chief of staff: Do you think we can respond to all 3,000 during August?
Legislative director: We can try. (red flag)
Chief of staff: Well, what can you commit to? What can I reasonably expect you and the leg team to complete by the end of the month?
Legislative director: We can answer the 2,500 pieces that have already approved texts. The remaining 500 will require custom responses.
Chief of staff: OK, so you will send out the 2,500. How many of the 500 can you commit to?
Legislative director: I think (red flag) we can get to half of them.
Chief of staff: Can you commit to 40 percent of them and, then if you get to 50 percent, that will be gravy?
Legislative director: Yes.
Chief of staff: OK, please communicate this agreement to the rest of your team, and I will share it with the boss. If for any reason you do not think you will make the deadline, please let me know well before the end of the month. Finally, is there anything you need from me to help you meet these deadlines?
Legislative director: Actually, we have this pile of letters that need final sign-off. Can you do that?
Chief of staff: Yes, I will have these back to you by the end of the week. Thanks.

Notice the definitiveness of the language used in this dialog in response to the red flag, imprecise language that would most likely have led to disappointment. Instead, each party made clear commitments to each other. Furthermore, they had the opportunity to propose alternatives and share concerns. The language used by the chief of staff ensured that the legislative director knew exactly what was agreed to. Additionally, the chief of staff showed her support by committing to a specific time frame for reviewing the letters. This may seem tedious or obvious to many people. Nevertheless, it’s surprising how many times staff take away a very different expectation than what a chief might think. This problem is further exacerbated when the Member is involved, and your intervention may be necessary to ensure that both parties understood the agreement in the same way.

As a follow-up, the chief of staff should check in with the LD during August to assess progress and see whether there are any potential obstacles to meeting the deadlines. Again, show your investment in the outcome and your availability to help solve problems.

While all generations in the work force benefit from positive reinforcement, some will argue that millennials are addicted to it. As a result, you should recognize good behavior or work to maximize their performance and engagement in your office. While you may not opt for distributing trophies to staff for simply showing up to work (the stereotype of the millennial upbringing), try increasing your positive feedback twofold and measure the results; then do it again and again. You may not only win the hearts of your millennial staffers, but you might also find they start meeting deadlines and improving their work quality as well.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.