Empower your employees to question your expectations

By Cameron Kober | May 23, 2019

When I was in college, I worked for a national fast-food chain restaurant making sandwiches. To decrease the time customers had to wait, the corporate office mandated that all food be made in less than three minutes.

A corporate representative visited our restaurant and installed a machine that logged each customer’s wait time. Once a sandwich was made, we would hit a button that stopped the timer and notified the customer his or her food was ready.

If our average monthly wait time exceeded three minutes, the staff was reprimanded.

Employees soon found a workaround. By hitting the button before the food was ready, they could minimize the “official” wait time. But as a result, customers were annoyed that they still had to wait after being told their food was ready.

The corporate policy led to low employee morale and angry customers.

I was reflecting on this the other day when I visited that chain restaurant and was told to wait after being notified that my food was ready. (Apparently, all these years later the policy hasn’t changed.) I began to think about whether the expectations I set for my team might be leading to similar unintended consequences.

I started checking in with employees about their specific responsibilities. I was humbled to find out that because I wasn’t asking the right questions, employees were devoting time to unnecessary and burdensome tasks.

For example, I manage several virtual training offerings that have hundreds of participants each year. Because the programs do not take place in person, our participants frequently ask lots of questions through email. I established the expectation that our associates respond to these inquiries within 24 hours. While this is a worthy goal, there are times when it can be challenging for the staff to achieve.

To solve this problem, our team held a meeting recently in which every employee was encouraged to question all the processes we have put in place. I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to solve problems rather than work around ones I created.  

To fix our issues with email communications, we identified quick wins such as requiring participants to copy me, so I can respond if junior staff members need extra support. Additionally, we talked about the need to be clearer on some details of the program so participants have fewer questions.

Clearly, we still have work to do, but I am certain I would not have understood the depth of the problem if I had not taken the time to ask employees what was going on and empowered them to question my expectations.

The fact is, if leaders don’t ask for feedback, they probably will not get it. Leaders should not expect direct reports to speak up whenever they see a broken process unless they are facilitating conversations that help them feel comfortable doing so.

Conversely, if leaders just expect employees to churn out sandwiches every three minutes, they are never going to have the time to identify these issues. As a result, they will be disengaged, and the customers will suffer.

If the American public is to receive essential services, our government needs an engaged and well-functioning federal workforce. The more government leaders inspire their employees to find solutions to key challenges, the more effective their agencies will be at supporting the public’s needs.

For more details on the link between engagement and customer service, see our recent research report created with BCG,A Prescription for Better Performance: Engaging Employees at VA Medical Centers.”

Cameron Kober is a manager with the Partnership for Public Service, where he designs and delivers trainings that help agencies improve employee satisfaction.

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Cameron Kober