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The School of Rock: How Vague Supervisory Expectations Don’t Work

This blog post was originally published on GovSupervisor.com.

Author: Mark Leheney

In the business of supervisory development, we have a favorite old story that makes a powerful point. Here it is:

A supervisor says to an employee, “Bring me a rock.”

So the employee responds, proudly delivering a rock to the supervisor’s desk.

“I didn’t mean one this big!” the supervisor says.

So the employee brings back a smaller rock.

“I didn’t mean tiny!” the supervisor says. “What’s with the extremism?”

So the employee brings a mid-sized rock. But it’s not the right color. Too grey.

So the next rock is brown. But it has sharp edges, and the supervisor wanted rounded edges, like one from a riverbed.

Finally, a rock that meets standards gets handed over.

At this point, many people say “Phew!” and life goes on. But not in this blog. There are several important things that happened – or didn’t – that bear analysis.

  1. If you think this is a silly story, recall a time when you wrote a document, it wasn’t “right,” and you kept rewriting until finally you had the rock – excuse me, document – that was up to the mystery standard.
  2. If you can remember such a time (and if you didn’t you’re lucky), you can also probably remember the frustration and stress you felt. This can’t be good for anyone.
  3. It’s just possible that your boss wondered about your motivation, intelligence, work ethic or ability to focus. Just saying.
  4. Finally, we are talking about a really expensive rock. If you calc your salary and the time it took to keep getting rocks, it’s a big number.

What’s the takeaway for supervisors?

If people keep bringing you work products you don’t want, you might consider – before getting too judgmental – if you have been clear about your expectations.

The old saying about SMART goals can help here. You’re probably familiar with it. It stands for

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

It may sound corny, but if your goals meet this test, there’s a lot better chance employees won’t bring you results that don’t help.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

How specific can you be before you take away creative freedom or relate to direct reports like automatons?

I am not meaning to sound pejorative when I state that question so starkly…I think that’s the line that all managers walk – they want to allow their team members to “own it” but also want to give them enough direction so that they don’t spin their wheels and become frustrated.

It’s not easy!

Another way to present a project that seems to work (variation on SMART):

– Why are you asking them to do the project (context)?

– What do you want them to accomplish (task)?

– When do you need it (target date)?

It still allows them to be creative in the “How” and “Where” they accomplish it…

Peter Sperry

This also presents an opportunity for the employee to “manage up” by asking questions. Andrew has listed some good ones. My boss expects me to help him refine his thinking by probing for details when assignments are given and letting him know if anything is unclear. He also expects me to suggests alternatives (If you’re looking for a decrotive paper weight; how about a nice piece of wood rather than a rounded rock?) Good supervisors appreciate emplyee input if it comes at the start of a project as constructive suggestions rather than at the end of a project as excuses for substandard performance.

Scott Kearby

Here’s how they do it in the military … for every plan, the Commander (the guy in charge & responsible for the overall result) writes some guidance that is described as the Commander’s intent. It is the big picture, a publicly stated description of the end-state as it relates to forces (entities, people) and terrain, the purpose of the operation, and key tasks to accomplish. In effect, it describes where the organization is going, but not how to get there turn-by-turn. Subordinates have the latitude to vary the details, the methods, the route to get their piece of the organization to where the entire organization is headed. It provides some alignment when there are lots of moving parts. For success you must clearly describe where you want to go (the specific rock you want) but not where to find it, how to pick it up, how to load it, how to transport it, etc.