The Five Rights of a Manager

In my 20-plus years in coaching managers on working with employees, the most frequent questions that I get begin with: “Can I say…” or “Do I have the right to ask….” Companies, and particularly their HR departments, often spend considerable time spelling out employee rights, yet they spend little time defining the “rights” of managers.

Experienced and rookie managers alike tend to err on the side of caution, to avoid offending an employee or getting into legal trouble. Years of training on how to avoid claims of harassment have led to managerial paralysis. Here are five “rights” that will help managers get the best from their staff:

The Right to Set Clear Expectations

Spell out exactly what you want from your employees — in clear, concise language!

Think of how many times you’ve wondered what your own boss wants from you, other than profits. Clarity is especially important in our diverse and increasingly global world. We’re not a homogeneous society. We can’t afford to make assumptions that everyone knows what to do and how to do it.

Here is an exercise to help define what you are looking for from your employees. Describe to yourself what top performance would look like. What would people be thinking, saying, doing, feeling if they were achieving top performance? What would the results be?

When you’re finished, write down in clear, concise language what specific behaviors and actions you expect. You don’t need many—five “non-negotiables” will go a long way. Then meet with each of your employees to set out the expectations, as well as a development plan to meet them.

The Right to Expect Top Performance

Let your employees know that you expect their best work, day in and day out.

Don’t all managers expect top performance? Well, sort of. Many are reluctant to articulate what top performance looks like and how to achieve it. Managers will accept inefficiencies rather than confront an employee’s performance issues.

A case in point: the director of a sales division was lamenting the mediocre results of a regional office. Not wanting to be seen as “inhumane,” he let the poor performance of the regional sales manager go unaddressed (in part because the latter had been with the company for 15 years). The director’s solution, or workaround, had been to make up the overall numbers in the larger sales offices. He had given up the right to expect top performance.

The Right to Effect Change

Invest time in developing the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses of your employees.

Like the director mentioned above, too many managers give up trying to change their employees’ behaviors to achieve success. While you may not be able to change a person’s basic nature, you can examine what’s happening—or not happening—in terms of their performance. Some common weaknesses that can be coached toward strength are: organization, knowledge/skills/ability, stress, and clarity regarding goals and direction.

To encourage top performance:

  • Outline specific behavioral expectations
  • Provide the employee with all the resources they need
  • Conduct regular performance conversations with the employee
  • Match the employee’s skills to best jobs and tasks for them

The bottom line for managers trying to make positive changes is this: be the architect of your part of the organization.

The Right to Fire Employees

If the employee is not right for the job, and can’t be utilized effectively in another position, then discontinue their employment.

If there’s a lack of necessary skills, or a mismatch with the business culture, the time has come to say “no” to continuing employment.

Before doing so, make sure you’ve taken the appropriate steps to minimize the risk of a lawsuit. If your company has a discipline policy, follow it. If not, give a verbal warning about poor performance, followed by a written warning if there’s no improvement. Next, put the person on probation for a set time-period, outlining the specific outcomes he must produce in order to keep his job. Make the probation memo lists specific outcomes the person must produce to keep her job. If the probation conditions aren’t met, terminate the employee with respect and dignity.

The Right to Make Mistakes (and Fix Them)

As a manager, you have the right to make mistakes, admit them and fix them.

No one knows every correct action for every situation. It’s okay to make mistakes. When you do make one, you’ll earn your employees respect and trust if you admit it first, then fix it.

These are your five top rights as a manager. All of them take an investment of time and energy. Yet like any good investment, the returns–a better workplace, a more productive workforce, a more relaxed and effective manager—are worth it.

To recap: If you’ve never set clear expectations, put fingers to keyboard and write. Talk them over with your colleagues, your HR contact, your Vistage group, your Vistage Chair, even with your staff. You can always edit. If you’ve never had ongoing conversations with your staff, conduct a few each week, informally. Conduct formal reviews periodically. You’ll soon get the feel for what your employees need.

Barbara Kurka is a Vistage member based in New York City. With more than twenty-years in the HR field, Barbara has experience with the full range of HR issues, from talent management to compensation to recruitment and employee relations.

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