As a manager, you probably know to give your staff members input on how to prioritize everything that’s on their plate and to check in and see how key projects are coming. But there’s one question that most managers don’t think to ask that can reveal crucial information:
"What things are you not getting done?"
You don't ask this in an accusatory way, and you’re not seeking to penalize people if it turns out there’s a task or project that they haven’t been working on. Rather, you’re genuinely seeking help understanding their workload, how they’re prioritizing, where the bottlenecks might be, and what’s getting put on the back burner.
After all, on a busy team it’s not uncommon for some things – especially smaller items – to get pushed aside in favor of more pressing or higher-priority work. Your team members may have made precisely the right call in doing that – or they might not have. But either way, as their manager, you want to be aware of what items aren’t getting done. Otherwise, you’re likely to be wrongly assuming that various items are moving along smoothly in the background even if they’re not, and that can lead to real problems down the road.
Asking what’s not getting done will give you the chance to say, “Actually, X is really important, so let’s push back Y instead” (or bring in additional help or reassess whether we need to do X at all, or all sorts of other solutions).
Moreover, if you never open this conversation, you might inadvertently be signaling to your team that no matter how high their workload, they’re expected to find a way to get it all done – even if it means working unreasonable hours or cutting corners or burning out.
Of course, in order to get thorough and honest answers to this question, you have to create a working environment where people feel safe telling you the truth. If you shoot the messenger or otherwise penalize people for being honest about problems, you’re likely to get staff who dance around this question and don’t give you the information that would be most helpful.
And one more thing – it’s helpful to be proactive about initiating this conversation with your own manager, as well. A good manager will appreciate the chance to discuss it, for all the reasons above – and you can end up getting hugely helpful input by raising the issue, from “let’s bring in a temp to handle that” “let’s figure out how to reprioritize” to “let’s reconsider if we even need to do that task at all.”