I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time this week
with Nance Guilmartin. She is an
Emmy-award winning broadcaster, author, speaker, corporate consultant, and
executive coach. Nance has a way of challenging you to become better even when
you think you are doing well in the area of communications.
I have always believed that when it came to supervision, I do
a pretty good job of making myself clear and listening to my subordinates. I
have always tried to make them feel “safe” enough to tell me anything
and let them know that my door is always open.
However, in a group discussion led by Nance, she pointed out
that no matter how “safe” we attempt to make things, our subordinates
may self-censor themselves for a variety of reasons. It could be cultural,
emotional, environmental, or some other reason, but people often manage to muffle
themselves when it comes to communicating with their managers.
The discussion then turned to workload. We often use the
expression of how much work we have “on our plate,” because it is so easy
to visualize. Nance then introduced us to a concept she called a “plate
A plate check is simply the process of formally reviewing what
is on your employees’ “plates” and deciding if it is full, if there
is room for anything else, or if some things actually need to come off. She
then pointed out that, as a supervisor, it is our responsibility to
periodically conduct a plate check with our employees.
I wondered a moment about this, because as I mentioned above,
I have always believed that I have created a working environment in which a
subordinate had the freedom to let me know when their plate was full. In fact,
as I have moved up the corporate ladder–so to speak–and find that I have less
and less time to be hands-on with my employees, I have found myself telling
them, “It is your responsibility to tell me when your plate is full, and I
will keep piling on until you tell me to stop.”
Believing that I have created a safe enough environment for
them to tell me to stop, I have assumed that they would do so. However, as our
group of senior managers sat around the room, Nance asked us to think about our
own plates. She asked if we all thought our plates were overloaded. There was a
lot of laughing and zealous agreement that indeed our plates were too full. Then
she asked if any of us had gone to our bosses (who happened to be sitting in
the room) and asked to talk about our workload. Silence. Me included. Why? For
many in the room, it probably was because none of us like to admit that we cant do something. My colleagues are a
well-educated, driven bunch of individuals. They got to where they are today by
being the “can-do” type, and they–much like me–are overachievers. So
saying that your plate is full is not something that comes easy–at least not for
me. There may be more individual reasons mixed in as to why we had not gone to
the trouble of saying, “My plate is too full, and I cannot handle another
thing,” but whatever the reasons, we havent done so.
Our bosses believe that they have created the same safe
environment that I have with my employees, so why hadnt I come forward rather
than trying to do it all? This insight obviously made me question my belief
that my own subordinates would tell me when enough is enough.
I will now make it a point to regularly review my employees’
plates and have some thoughtful discussions as to what is on them. (Dont read this as an indication that I am
not keeping track of their tasks–I do. However, if employees are managing
their time–prioritizing and meeting deadlines–and not complaining, I have
been assuming that I could add more.) I am not relieving them of their
responsibility to judge what they have on their plates, nor am I saying that
they will not have a full load at all times. But I am going to be cognizant of
how high things are piled on.
What are the consequences of not doing a plate check? Burnout.
You can take that high achiever (in fact, it is probably your star employee)
and turn them into a crispy critter over time–resulting in them leaving or
becoming less productive.
Lastly, dont confuse this with time management or
prioritization. While it has a component of both in it, its more about
communication than about whether anyone knows how to manage their time or how
to prioritize. Thanks Nance, for once again pointing something out that I was
taking for granted and making me a better supervisor. Hopefully, this blog
might motivate a few others to reexamine their methods who, like me, thought we
had it down pat.