Most of your co-workers can't identify their job priorities. So, um … now what?

There’s some new research from MIT’s Sloan School of Management about senior managers within organizations and their understanding of priorities, and it’s not exactly pretty. (Here’s a summary of some of the work from Fast Company.) The participants included 11,000 senior managers at 400+ companies, and there were two major tiers of results:

  • Senior managers trust their own teams, but distrust other senior managers
  • Only about 33 percent of senior managers can correctly identify corporate (CEO-spoken) priorities

None of this is that surprising, but let’s dive a little deeper. 

Senior managers and team trust vs. trust of other managers

This is pretty basic, I’d argue. Most of life is about ‘in-group’ vs. ‘out-group.’ I’ve met managers in my life who have terrible teams — I mean teams that never hit targets, and no one is clear what they do — and they will tell anyone within earshot that they have ‘a dream team,’ and then go to a happy hour and claim some silo over there (another team) is bringing everyone down. Meanwhile, you go to a different happy hour with that other silo? They’re all like ‘Dream Team Manager and her squad is totally bringing everyone down…’

Also, the way we set up work makes it very hard to feel purposeful if you’re near the bottom or middle of a chain. As a result, to feel wanted and purposeful at work, people tend to resort to these strategies:

The first bullet is Temple of Busy. That’s essentially unavoidable. The second bullet is “Marketing drives this company!” or “Operations drives this company!” or “Pfft, without Finance, we’d all be drowning!” Like I said above, in-group and out-group. Since your brain is evolutionary designed to predict threats from others, it makes sense that we organize thoughts this way.

So most senior managers are naturally going to prioritize and talk up the work their people do, and disparage/talk down the work others do. This helps with a need for relevance and purpose that middle managers and rank-and-files mostly cannot get in organic ways.

Senior managers and priorities

This is an unreal quote (and by that I mean, it’s 100 percent believable):

When asked, only a third of senior managers could correctly identify what the CEO had identified as the firm’s top three priorities. “When you drop one or two levels below the CEO, your ability to form a holistic picture is simply lost,” she says. In this vacuum, “you’re leaving managers across the organization to prioritize by themselves.”

Pause for a second and take a deep breath.

Now consider this bouncing ball:

  • Most people at a job ultimately want to get promoted or have a way to make more money
  • To do that, you often need to get close to the power vortex of an organization
  • In order to get close, you typically need to go through middle or high-middle managers who serve as gatekeepers
  • As it turns out, only 1 in every 3 of these people really understands what the priorities of the org are
  • The other 2 are essentially creating their own

This has happened at literally every place I have ever worked, and I can also explain to you why:

  • The way you effectively move messaging down a chain is communication
  • Problem: there’s no balance sheet tie to communication; it has no “sales cycle;” people don’t understand its ROI or KPIs
  • Remember: what’s measured is what matters
  • As a result, we de-prioritize effective communication as a business tool, viewing it instead as a ‘soft skill’
  • And now, the CEO can come up with an idea and tell 2 lieutenants instead of all 10
  • The other 8 lieutenants are now in the dark
  • What happens to the lieutenants of those lieutenants?
  • They’re even more in the dark.

Lack of senior management priorities and business issues

Many successful models of business leadership incorporate the very idea of understanding priorities, such as PWR, or ‘Power.’ That stands for:

  • Priorities
  • Who?
  • Relationships

Essentially, it operates from a place that managers need to understand their own priorities as well as the organization’s, and realizes that it comes from a sense of clarity about what matters most.

Do you know what happens when that clarity is removed?

It’s middle manager feasting season, because without clarity on priorities, suddenly everything is a priority.

When everything is a priority, here’s what happens:

That’s not a good scene, honestly. You might be making money (yay!), but it’s probably somewhat by accident. Remember: successful financial metrics don’t always mean an organization is healthy.

Can we make priorities clearer for senior managers?

Sure, although it does begin with a focus on clear, clarity-driven communication between the highest levels and the middle levels. Beyond that, I’d argue these elements are key:

  • Monthly resets about what the organization is trying to achieve and where it stands on each topic
  • Monthly managerial trainings on how to communicate goals and objectives down the chain
  • Managerial trainings focused on organic communication (walking around and talking to people) as opposed to hiding behind once-a-year reviews
  • Embracing transparency as an element of your culture
  • List the mission statement and this year’s 3-5 major goals on multiple posters in the office
  • Modeling of goals and behaviors by the people with the most authority
  • Legitimate punishment — loss of money? —  for middle managers who invent priorities instead of following the organizational ones

Work is a flawed place: we want it to be logical — so we load it to the hilt with process — but it’s not a logical place, it’s an emotional one. That confuses many things.

It shouldn’t confuse priorities, though. If you’re spending so much of your time in meetings or answering e-mails, well, I hate to break it to you…

… but if those things aren’t rooted in the actual priorities of the organization, they’re just busy work tasks. They’re not actually “work.”

So we do need clarity, somewhat, in this space.

Any additional ideas on how to achieve it?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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