What is the Choices Conversation?

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By Greg Henson, CEO of Henson Group
When your boss is giving you too many things to do, and it’s an unrealistic workload, how do you address that? You need to have the choices conversation with your boss, and trust me; your boss will love it. Simply say, “I really want to get all of this done, and it’s important to me that we look good. I’m having a hard time prioritizing all the work on my plate. I’ve made a list of what I think are the most important things and the items that would need to drop off if we run out of time. Can you double-check this list for me and make sure I’ve got this right?”
In their classic “The One Minute Manager,” Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson advise managers to show their employees what good performance looks like, pat them on the back, and send them off to go get it done. Today, the pat on the back might be questionable, but clearly establishing what level of performance will satisfy them is something every manager owes every employee. The employee, on the other hand, owes it to themselves and their employer to make absolutely sure they understand the priorities correctly. Why?
It’s never a safe bet to assume that anyone assigning tasks to you is fully aware of what’s already on your plate. Even if you receive all your instructions from just one source, your manager, there’s no good reason to assume they are cognizant of what they’ve already assigned to you when they make new assignments. Some managers are fantastic at recognizing the workloads they’re assigning, and others use terrific automation tools to help them track every assignment to every employee. All too often, however, that’s just not the case.
This leaves the employee to determine which of the assigned tasks to do first, second, and so on. And if there are simply too many tasks, the employee must delay those they deem less important.
The very worst possible way to deem which tasks are less important to the employer who assigned them in the first place is to guess. It’s just all too easy to guess wrong. After all, you lack context. You’re not fully informed on what went into each assignment or where it stands in comparison to everything else your manager is dealing with.
One of the things I appreciate most from the members of my team is when they ask me to clarify and confirm my priorities with them. At any given time, they know they are always welcome to approach me with their list of assignments, sharing what they believe to be most important and indicating which items may have to wait or be reassigned if they run out of time. The best thing about this is that it completely eliminates surprises! Few things are more unsettling than expecting something to get done only to find out it didn’t.
I’m always ready to invest the time to review their current assignments with them to determine which need to be addressed first, next, and last. Sometimes I’ll ask them to move certain items up higher on their list, and sometimes tasks they thought were very important to me really aren’t. Sometimes I’ll even recognize that I’ve assigned way too much to a given person and inadvertently set them up to fail. That’s the very last thing I ever want to do. So, I reassign some things to others.
It’s easy to look at the process of managing as a one-way thing. The manager issues instructions, and the employee complies. The reality is that nothing is that simple. Great, effective management starts with selecting and recruiting the best people, but the real magic only begins when the conversation between those people and their manager becomes truly robust. A real give-and-take, an active exchange of ideas. Simply put, great managers don’t tell their people what to do. They are responsible for helping their people consistently achieve meaningful success.
That only happens when those people feel free to discuss priorities openly and achieve agreement on what the priorities are. Only then can they feel certain that they are not only doing things right, but they are also focused on doing the right things.