How to Get Employees to Manage Themselves

Managers spend lots of time managing their direct reports, even though they’d prefer it if their employees would manage themselves. But managers themselves are often the root of the problem.

Many managers struggle to clearly and concretely define their expectations for the job or person. Because the manager can’t nail it down, the employee has to guess at what’s expected of them. Inevitably, the employee guesses wrong and disappoints the manager with their efforts. As a result, the manager feels the need to manage the employee more closely.

Is it possible you’re that manager? There are some obvious signs when you don’t feel comfortable that an employee is doing their work. Have you ever:

  • Asked someone if they remembered to do something.
  • Verified an action has been done with a third party.
  • Asked someone if a deadline has been met.
  • Called someone other than the employee on the phone or into your office to get information on the employee.
  • Held meetings with a group of people to get a status update.

You can get people to manage themselves, but you have to spend the energy that it takes first so that they’ll be able to do it.

The number one priority is to get clear on your expectations. And there’s no sugar coating it — that’s really hard. How do you judge if someone’s doing a good job or not? What are you evaluating when your manager asks how that employee’s doing? You’re always making a judgment call, but take what you’re formulating, get it down on paper so it’s specific, and then get your employee to understand it.

Try this five-step process to get clear about your expectations so you can make them clear to your employees.

5-Step Process for Clarifying Expectations

  1. Describe the function: Think in terms of the employee’s link in the organization’s value chain, e.g., customer service, new business sales. This isn’t about titles, but functions — what is their area of responsibility?
  2. List major roles: What, specifically, are their roles in fulfilling the function they are accountable for? These aren’t tasks but groups of related tasks they perform. There should be no more than five. If you have too many, you are in the weeds and the remaining steps will become very burdensome.
  3. Establish expectations for each role: What would make them a perfect employee? For each role, there has to be some set of criteria you use in judging their performance. This is the hardest part. You have to take what might be intuition and make it tangible and specific.
  4. Determine the means of verifying expectations: How will you measure it? It can’t just be based on how you’re feeling that day. What is the process for measuring the criteria you selected based on your expectations?
  5. Have the employee prepare and deliver their own review: Set the expectation that the employee is responsible for coming to you and proving that they’ve done a good job. But don’t interrogate them. They should lead the conversation, eager to show you what a good job they’ve done. This is key. If you and the employee have done the four prior steps well, the employee will see this as a way they can prove their value. If the results are not so good, then you and the employee will have to determine if the expectations are too high and might need to be reduced.

Clarify your expectations, and you will not only get employees to manage themselves, you’ll get better results out of them, experience fewer disagreements about your evaluation of their performance, and have a clear list of items to improve on if their performance is sub-par.