Grunt Work: How Do You Push People without Killing Morale?

My usual posture when I'm working through the weekend

My usual posture when I'm working through the weekend

When you become a manager, how you provide feedback to your direct reports will be scrutinized. We all learn to worship at the altar of Feedback. And as important as giving feedback is, there’s another, subtler skill that may have even more impact on whether people are happy and productive working for you. To sum it up one question:

How good are you at getting people to do the things they’d rather not do when you need them to?

Every manager occasionally has to do this, because not all tasks are fun and some are downright unpleasant. Whether it’s working all weekend to hit a deadline or crunching through mind-numbing tasks (or both if you worked at Target Canada), let’s face it: every job has its share of shit assignments. New managers are often uncomfortable doling out shit to their direct reports (which itself isn’t fun). And it doesn’t get any easier when the team pushes back and complains to the manager. How can you make this part of the job go more smoothly?

Six Rules for Assigning Un-fun Tasks

I learned my lessons on this topic mostly the hard way. I’ve benefitted from a lot of great mentorship in my career, but I can’t recall ever having a conversation about how to do this part right. And I could have used it, because I botched it a few times and created totally avoidable conflicts with colleagues. Some interpersonal conflict is inevitable in your managerial growth, but much can be avoided with good communication.

There’s no such thing as a business without dirty work that needs doing, but following these rules when you’re assigning painful tasks will make it easier for all involved.

Rule #1: Make sure the ask is worth it. If you take away one thing, let it be this. Will people work all weekend to hit a major milestone on time? Usually the answer is, “Yes,” and if it’s really important they probably won’t even need to be told. But will they work all weekend just because you don’t want to wait until Tuesday for something? Not happily.

Think of the energy and enthusiasm of your team as a bank with high interest rates. When you borrow from the energy bank, it takes time to pay off that loan. You have to let reserves build back up. Borrow too much or for dumb reasons, and the bank will cut you off.

Rule #2: It’s not a negotiation. Giving assignments isn’t an occasion for people to negotiate with you. You don’t have to be a hard-ass about it, but shouldn’t create the impression that there’s wiggle room if there isn’t. If you can afford to de-prioritize something else to let the person focus, then you should do that – that’s just being a good manager. But now is not the time to start discussing raises, bonuses or other perks. It sets a bad precedent.

Rule #3: If you’re forcing people, you’re doing it wrong. Coercion is the enemy. The goal is to make the person understand the need so that they take ownership of the assignment and get it done. If you have to force someone, that means they’ve refused to take ownership and you’ve got a potentially toxic situation on your hands. Not explaining the context and just pulling rank might be the easiest option (not to mention the jerkiest), but it’s always be the method of last resort.

Rule #4: Give people ownership of the results. Make your team feel like partners, not peons. Let them present the work to the end recipient if that’s not you. Make them feel connected to the business outcome if they aren’t already. Find a way to let people take pride in what their work accomplished and get some of the glory. At minimum, give credit where credit is due so that you’re not giving the “big salad” under false pretenses.

Rule #5: Thank, but don’t over-thank. Thanking people sincerely is a must; working for people who don’t say thank-you is incredibly dispiriting. However, you don’t want to over-thank people. Remember, occasional intense sprints are part of the job. When you thank people too profusely, you create the impression that it’s not and that they did something they should never have been asked to do.

Rule #6: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Presenting a vision for how whatever you’re asking your team to do won’t be the new normal is a good thing to do. People can tolerate surprisingly tough circumstances if they know there’s an end date. That said, making promises you can’t keep will doom your credibility. “I’ll never ask you to do this again,” is the worst thing to say to someone if it’s not true.


The Golden Rule of Boosting Morale  

If I could convey just one more piece of advice when it comes to maintaining morale for a team, it would be this:

The time to boost a team’s morale isn’t when you’re making them unhappy – it’s when they’re already happy.

If the only time you ever did something nice for your spouse or significant other was when you’d made them unhappy, whatever gestures you’d make would seem self-serving and shallow, wouldn’t they? Managing a team’s morale isn’t so different. By all means, take your team out for drinks or some other activity to celebrate the end of a tough stretch. Just make sure that’s not the only time you’ll do it. (Besides, sometimes the last thing people want after a crazy stretch is a “mandatory fun” event.) Make those investments in the good times when you don’t feel like you need to. You’ll have more fun, and you’ll build up reserves for the next time you need a loan from the energy bank.