How high are your employees' plates piled?

I told myself I had created a safe environment and that it's employees' duty to tell me when their plates are too full. Then I looked in the mirror.

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 check."

A plate check is simply the process of formally reviewing what is on your employees' plates - and then 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 supervisors, 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 and had 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? It probably was because none of us like to admit that we can’t do something. My colleagues are a well-educated, driven bunch of individuals. They got to where they are today by being "can-do" types, and they--much like me--are overachievers. So saying that your plate is full is not something that comes easily--at least not for me. There may be more individual reasons mixed in, but whatever the reasons, we haven’t done so.

Our bosses believe that they have created the same safe environment that I have with my employees, so why hadn’t 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. (Don’t 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, don’t confuse this with time management or prioritization. While plate checks include components of both, it’s 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.