My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well.

Over the past few years I’ve been thinking about how I can be a better manager of people. That is to say, how I can be better for them. Sure, I’m concerned about the needs of the organization and institution. But the organization won’t really run very well if the employees who work there don’t feel valued and aren’t positioned to contribute their best.

I’m talking about a situation where I believe my staff will likely seek a certain measure of “self-actualization” at work. I realize not everyone seeks self-actualization through their employment; and it is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle to meet life’s basic life needs. Nor is self-actualization a prerequisite for doing one’s job well. But in my experience, the staff I work with typically desire some level of self-actualization (e.g., self-esteem, problem solving, creativity) from their work. I believe it is my job to facilitate and foster this level of engagement when I can.

Thus, I think one of the most important jobs of a manager is to create the professional atmosphere, the time, and the mental and administrative space for my staff to do their best work. This can include: encouraging a sense of accomplishment by making sure they understand their priorities and have enough but not too much work to do; letting them have the authority as well as the responsibility for getting their work done; encouraging them to contribute their ideas for what we should accomplish and how; and providing them appropriate professional development opportunities to the extent that I and the organization can. Simply put, my job as a manager is to make it easy for them to do their jobs well.

I meet regularly with my staff and always make sure to ask them these questions:

  1. What successes have you had since we last met?
  2. Are their any roadblocks preventing you from doing your work?
  3. What is your work balance like: too much/too little?
  4. Do we need to prioritize your work?
  5. What can I do to make your work more effective?

This last question is, from my perspective, the most important one. Not only so I can remove any organizational roadblocks to their work, but also to give my staff permission to tell me how I can do my job better. (From time to time I also ask my staff about their career goals and how I can help them achieve them. I typically ask “What does your next job look like and how can I help you get there?”)

A few years ago a number of us at NYU Libraries and ITS read the book Now Discover Your Strengths, which presents a test for learning about your personal strengths and a method for deploying them in the workplace. While amusing in a kind of Myers-Briggsy way, the part that interested me most was a brief section on how each manager can contribute to creating what they call a “productive culture” by evaluating the effectiveness of a manager’s relationships with their staff. The twelve questions that the authors suggest asking of employees seem like good bookends to the questions I regularly ask staff in our check-in meetings. Here they are:

The following twelve questions define the outcomes of a productive culture. We recommend asking each manager’s employees these twelve questions, using a 5-point scale (5 for “strongly agree,” 1 for “strongly disagree”).
  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work properly?
  3. At work do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  5. Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission of my company make me feel like my work is important?
  9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months have I talked with someone about my progress?
  12. This last year have I had opportunities to learn and grow?

[…] Asked twice a year, [these questions] provide the most robust and the most relevant measure of a manager’s impact on his employees.1

Leaving aside the masculine pronoun in that last sentence, and the question about a “best friend” (which is a phrase I despise for reasons I won’t get into here), I do think this is a good list of questions to gauge the quality of my professional relationship with my staff, as well as their integration within the organization. I can’t control everything about the organizational culture in which I work, but I can and should be responsible for the work culture of the departments that I run, and how my staff and I manage our relationships with those around us. I want to know if my staff are frustrated or feeling hampered by something I can fix. I want to know if I’m doing enough to help them be productive and keep them learning. I want them to feel like their work and their ideas are valued. And I want to know how I can do all of this better.

  1. Buckingham, Marcus, and Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press, 2001. pp 232-233. []