The Need for Structure
Not all people, no matter how creative, function well in an environment with minimal structure. Some people don't know how to channel their energy into productive tasks with measurable outcomes. Other people crave — and excel under — close and specific direction. And occasionally you'll encounter a person who must have external structure because without it he or she simply won't do any work at all.
Employees who need a lot of structure need a manager who is willing to be more hands-on. Structured people tend to have the following characteristics:
They are often tidy and organized. Their desks and workspaces are neat and functional. Nearly anyone could step into a structured person's environment and find a file or project.
They arrive and leave on time, and at the same time every day. If they are early, which many tend to be, they are consistently early.
They follow obvious routines. Other employees almost always know where they are and what they are doing, just by knowing what time or day it is.
They know what work is due and where in the process the work is, and they deliver on time unless circumstances beyond their control intervene.
They handle complex projects by breaking them into smaller, logical steps. Structured people often keep status and progress logs of their projects.
They appear disciplined and goal-oriented.
They seldom knowingly break rules, and they might take offense with those who do.
Every company, regardless of its products and services, requires a certain amount of structure. Some functions and departments, such as accounting, are bound to established procedures for conducting their work. People who work in these areas generally (but not always) have work styles and personalities that are compatible with this level of structure. Other functions and departments require structure that supports project timelines and productivity targets. Such structure might require you to precisely establish priorities, goals, and tasks.
The backbone of structure is clear communication. Employees need to know what they are expected to do and by when. What is more important? What is less important? What happens when tasks compete for people, time, and resources? Some people are good at establishing priorities, while others struggle. Sometimes employees have trouble prioritizing because they are unfamiliar with the department, the company, or the industry. They have no context for the work they do, so they don't know what to tackle first.
A key challenge for a manager whose personal work style is structured is letting go to let others find their own way — but let go you must. Employees will rebel if they feel you have a “my way or no way” approach. Rebellion against excessive structure often takes the form of passive-aggressive behavior such as remaining engaged in a task without answering a ringing phone.
As a manager, your role is to help employees who need structure establish priorities and processes to support them. Once the base structure of priorities is in place, most employees can then build additional structure around those priorities. Generally it's most effective to meet with employees one-on-one, so you can gauge just how much structure each employee needs.
Start by laying out specific tasks and the small goals that must be accomplished by the end of the day. Be sure the employee has the necessary tools to complete the tasks and knows how to use them. Next, identify common problems that might arise, and establish a procedure for dealing with them. Some employees find it useful to have a chart or diagram that outlines priorities and procedures, while others might just take notes.
Schedule a follow-up meeting with the employee to discuss how he or she approached the tasks and what actually got finished. Communication about expectations, and what worked and didn't work, is critical here. Establish procedures for identifying and addressing emergencies and unexpected changes in priorities. At first, this might mean having the employee come to you whenever work deviates from the planned schedule. As the employee becomes more skilled in structuring and adjusting priorities, the procedures might shift to general guidelines for when to contact you and when to proceed without assistance.
Be willing to revise and adapt. People grow and needs change, and it's essential to keep up with both. What an employee self-monitors and what you monitor should evolve over time so that you as manager play a less direct role in sculpting the employee's daily activities.
Over time, and as the employee's comfort with the structure progresses, designate daily tasks as part of the employee's routine, with the employee responsible for making them part of the work week with less monitoring from you. Schedule brief but regular meetings or other processes to provide feedback and reinforcement. You might stop by the person's desk every Tuesday at 3 P.M., have employees generate daily or weekly progress reports, or hold staff meetings.
Sometimes an employee's apparent inability to complete job tasks reflects an overwhelming workload rather than a structure problem. In such situations, you might need to reassign job tasks to lighten the load. This could mean realigning work responsibilities among your current employees, hiring temporary employees to help out, or creating new positions to accommodate a growing workload.
Each employee has a slightly different need for structure. It's important for you as the manager to remain in close contact with all employees so you can adjust various elements of structure to support their highest levels of productivity. Asking each employee how he or she feels is the most effective way to structure the workday. By tailoring structure to each of your employees, you help them buy into the process. They feel an investment in it because they helped create it.