Identifying Priorities

Concerned about someone whose performance is off track? Identifying Priorities, the next SLII® micro skill in our blog series, is a directive leadership behavior that helps learners stay focused on their goals.

If you have someone on your team who doesn’t seem to be performing at the level you expect, it’s possible the cause is not a lack of skill or motivation. Many times the reason people don’t meet performance expectations is because the order in which they prioritize their tasks is much different from the way their manager would have them do it. As a consequence, these individuals often are reprimanded for not doing what they didn’t know they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that happens all too often between people and their leaders.

Areas of Accountability

One of the biggest obstacles to high performance is the problem of unclear organizational expectations and accountability. If you and the person in question haven’t had a recent conversation about identifying and ranking priorities, give this activity a try.

Take a minute to identify and list the top ten priorities, in descending order of importance, that you hold this person accountable for. List the most important priority as #1, the second as #2, etc.

Now ask the person to make a list of the top ten priorities they feel they are held accountable for, also in descending order of importance. Don’t reveal your list until the other person is finished writing.

Now compare the two lists. How much do the lists match in terms of rank and content? If you are like most companies we work with, you’ll find only about 20% alignment between the two lists.

In many instances, managers are surprised to find they are holding someone accountable for results that are completely different from the priorities the person has on their list. Keep in mind that priorities can change rapidly depending on the person’s role and/or the pace of work in your department or organization.

For a more specific example, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Empowerment Takes More than a Minute, a book I coauthored with Alan Randolph and John P. Carlos.

“Have you ever had your employees list ten things they think you hold them accountable for?” asked Janet.

“Why would I do that?” replied Michael. “We tell them what’s expected of them, and they all get annual performance reviews.”

“You may have just diagnosed one of your biggest problems,” said Janet. “Tell me, when people leave their performance review sessions with you, do they feel validated or surprised?”

Michael reflected on the last three reviews he’d completed. “Come to think of it, they act surprised. Two of my last three reviews involved disagreements. The people said they didn’t know they were responsible for certain areas.”

“Since there is often a difference between what people think they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis and what their leader thinks they should be doing, I recommend that each of them make a list and compare the priority of things on the two lists. Let me give you an example of how [it] works.

“A couple who are friends of mine own a convenience store. They were constantly in a quandary as to why things they thought were important weren’t getting done around the store. So they asked their assistant to list the ten things she thought she was accountable for. This is the list the assistant produced.” She handed Michael a slip of paper.

  1. Shrink (inventory loss)
  2. Cash over or short on the register
  3. Stock shelves
  4. Clean rest rooms
  5. Test gas tanks for water
  6. Fresh coffee at all times
  7. Clean parking lot
  8. Organize back room
  9. Rotate stock
  10. Ordering

“My friends, the owners, made a list of the ten things they held the assistant accountable for. It looked like this.” She gave him another slip of paper.

  1. Sales volume
  2. Profit
  3. Customer perception
  4. Quality of service
  5. Cash management
  6. Overall store appearance
  7. Just-in-time inventory
  8. Training employees
  9. Protecting assets (maintenance)
  10. Merchandise display

“When they compared lists, the problem became obvious. And as they told me about it they said, ‘The fault turned out to be ours as leaders. We tell people we’ll hold them accountable for end results such as sales, service, and so on. But the things we talk to them about day in and day out—the things that stick in their minds—are routine tasks.’ They told me they were sending mixed messages. The [prioritizing activity] really helped them to see what they were doing and to appreciate the pain they were causing their assistant as a result.”

The great news is that this exercise can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial conversation where you work together on identifying the person’s priorities in a way that sets them up for success—and confirms to them that you are there to help them achieve their goals.

An aligned purpose and clear expectations are the foundation of an effective work environment. Make sure that people’s priorities are on track and on target. Connect the dots between individual roles and the goals of the organization. When people see that connection, they will put more energy into their work and get more out of it. They will feel the importance, dignity, and meaning in their job. It’s good for them, for you, and for the organization.

Keep watch here for more SLII® micro skills!

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