Management Challenge #13: When the Employee You Are Managing Knows More About the Work Than You Do

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” (Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco, September 2014).

Managers ask me, “How can I set expectations for, much less evaluate, the performance of an employee who knows much more about the work than I do?”

Sometimes the employees you are supposed to be managing find this situation maddening, of course: “How can you be in charge of me when you don’t have the knowledge, experience, understanding, or skill necessary to do my job?” That doesn’t make your job any easier.

How does this happen? Four ways:

1. The most common scenario is simply the case of the manager who delegates to an employee an area of responsibility—such as a customer account, an internal process, or resource—and over time the employee becomes the in-house expert when it comes to that responsibility.

2. Many organizations have separate management and technical career tracks. Those on the management track get further and further away from their technical background, ironically getting more responsibility and decision-making authority as they become more rusty on technical matters.

3. The manager might be responsible for a cross-functional team in which each employee has a different area of expertise: for example, a software person, a hardware person, an engineer, a finance person, and a marketing person. How can one manager have expertise in all of those areas?

4. The manager may have one or more team members who play particular roles that are tangential to the rest of the team, such as the “computer guy” or the bookkeeper.

You have an “expertise gap.” The challenge is establishing yourself as a credible performance coach to an expert when you are not yourself an expert. How do you develop meaningful performance metrics and put yourself in a position to provide regular course-correcting feedback?

Step 1, start learning. You don’t have to become an expert on the work that person is doing. But you do have to learn enough to manage that person. How do you learn? First and foremost, you will learn by managing that person closely over time. Sometimes you have to shadow the expert for a while. Watch him work. See what he actually does and how. Get curious. Read. Watch video. Ask a lot of questions. You don’t have to become a doctor to learn a whole lot about a particular medical condition, what to expect, what the best treatments are, what the best self-care protocol is, and how and when you will know if the treatment is working as expected. When it comes to managing your expert employees, learn like you care.

Step 2, every step of the way, think of yourself as a shrewd client and the employee as a professional you’ve hired. If you are managing a “professional,” then you need to know what the professional/industry standards are for performance: What are the professional standards and the established best practices? What data is available on the individual’s performance? Is data captured on an ongoing basis? Are there self-monitoring tools the “expert” uses to track her own performance? Is there a peer review process to which your “expert” is subject? If not, how can you begin to monitor and measure and document the expert’s actual performance against those professional standards and best practices?

Step 3, if you are going to have “experts” working for you, then you need to make sure they are high performers, or at least aspiring to be so. You can’t have low performers on your team whose work you don’t really understand. You want them working systematically and consistently on trying to get better. The challenge is to be their coach when you are not expert in their field.

In your regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue with your “expert” employees:

  • It’s OK that you don’t know or understand everything the person is doing. But it’s not OK to remain in the dark and trust. Keep doing your own research and self-education. And make it clear to your expert that you are on a learning path.
  • Focus on desired outcomes. Be a smart, assertive, careful patient/client. Ask good probing questions every step of the way. If you don’t understand the answers, say so. Ask more questions. Don’t allow yourself to be brushed off. Get a second opinion—and a third.
  • Engage the expert and make him complicit in spelling out expectations. Ask for details: “Exactly what are you going to do? Why? How are you going to do that? Why? What are the steps? What is involved in each step? How long will each step take? Why? What are the guidelines and specifications?” If the answers are vague, press for more details. If the answers are complex, ask for explanations a layperson can understand.
  • Every step of the way, make reference to professional standards and established best practices and ask how the expectations being spelled out and the actual performance being measured align.
  • As you monitor and measure performance, stay focused on the desired outcomes, the expectations the expert has helped spell out, and the standards and best practices. Use any and all data that is automatically captured about the expert’s performance and ask the expert to help you understand the data. Engage the expert in using self-monitoring tools. Look at the work product and keep asking questions: “Did you do what you said you were going to do? Why or why not? How did you do it? How long did each step take? Why?”
  • Make a point of comparing “experts” doing similar work to find patterns of similar practice and deviations. Talking to multiple experts doing similar work is also a good reality check, so one expert can’t as easily pull the wool over your eyes.
  • Don’t forget to ask around for additional soft data. Ask customers, clients, vendors, coworkers, and other managers. Get those second and third opinions whenever you can.
  • Every step of the way, document the fundamentals of your conversations. What expectations were established? How did the performance line up with the expectations? As you are documenting performance, ask the expert employee to tell you what he thinks you should document and why.

Over time, you may never become an expert, but you will learn enough to hold that person accountable to clear metrics and provide regular ongoing course-correcting feedback, keeping that person on a track of continuous improvement toward elite performance.

Excerpt from “The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-Step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Problems” released by Jossey-Bass, the Wiley imprint in San Francisco (September 2014; $23.95). For more information, visit http://rainmakerthinking.com/books-videos/27-challenges-mangers-face-step-step-solutions-nearly-management-problems/

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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