Discovery Surveys, Inc.
Specializing in Employee Opinion and Customer Satisfaction Surveys

By Ethel Cook, Corporate Improvement Group; and
Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.


"My assistant Frank doesn’t take initiative. Everything I need is delivered late or last minute."


"Sandy, you don’t give me any opportunity to take initiative. You give me impossible deadlines and I’m always running to put out fires."


The manager and assistant are engaged in a non-productive game of finger pointing. The work is not getting down properly and both are frustrated. TYPICAL SCENARIO: "Frank, where is the latest sales report? I need the new figures to fax to Sam at Corporate before our videoconference meeting at 3:00. Make ten copies so everyone on the call can have one. Oh, and book my trip to L.A. for Thursday afternoon. I also need to take the 1998 year-end report with me."

Frank proceeds to add more tasks to his long action-item list as he frantically wonders where he last saw that sales report.

Sandy calls from her office, "Where are Don Adamson and I having lunch today?

Frank doesn’t answer because he forgot to make the reservation. He calls the local restaurant and is able to get a table for 1:00 p.m. He rushes the sales report in to Sandy’s office at 2:55 and informs him that the copier broke down and he is currently printing them out on his computer. He’ll bring them into the meeting as soon as they are ready.

Sandy scans the report and realizes that some of the information he needs is not in the report and asks Frank to track it down.

Frank is frustrated and exhausted and feels like all he should be wearing a fire helmet -- all he ever does is put out fires that Sandy creates.


Frank can take an in-depth look at the situation and look for areas of improvement. He can then initiate a meeting with Sandy to discuss how they work better together as a team of two and share his suggestions for improvement. Here are some additional things that Frank can do:

  1. Think long term

    Frank could take a long-range view of his work, rather than focusing on what needs to be done immediately. This will help him anticipate obstacles, be prepared with solutions, and eliminate some of the "fires."

  2. Develop a tracking system

    Frank could develop a system for keeping Sandy updated about his progress on projects and tasks. This could involve a daily review of each other’s action items so that they can understand each other’s work load. This will also bring to light any changing priorities.

  3. Cut to the chase

    Most managers look at the "big picture." Most assistants’ jobs are to deal with the details. Be concise with communications with Sandy and avoid long-winded explanations.

  4. Track time

    Keep a time journal for a few weeks to gather data and then evaluate it, looking for areas where work patterns can be improved.


Sandy and Frank are embroiled in an out-of-control situation not uncommon in the workplace. Indeed, our employee survey research, with over 40 participating organizations, has revealed that 41 percent of employees feel their immediate supervisor does not clearly communicate goals and assignments. Here are some things that Sandy can do:

  1. Move to the tension

    One of the major problems facing managers and assistants is that they don’t discuss their problems. Sandy and Frank need to sit down and engage in a non-evaluative, and non-confrontational discussion about how they can best work together to meet the needs of their internal and external customers.

  2. Develop self-management systems

    Sandy is undoubtedly not doing a good job of managing her own time, planning, or setting priorities. It is not surprising that the chaos she experiences makes it difficult for her to effectively manage Frank. Sandy must recognize that he is part of the problem and take steps to better organize herself. Training and individual counseling might help.

  3. Develop an operations manual

    Sandy has failed to establish clear systems and priorities for Frank. Without such systems, Frank is doomed to fail. He will be forced to merely react to Sandy’s latest instructions. One by one, Sandy needs to establish the best step-by-step method for performing each major activity she wants Frank to perform. She must then write it down in the form of an operations manual and teach Frank exactly how the work should be performed

  4. Develop a management system

    Sandy needs to develop a system for how he organizes the work for Frank and how she communicates assignments to Frank. For example, perhaps, each day they should meet first thing in the morning to set daily goals and establish priorities. They should then meet again mid way through the day to check Frank’s progress and reevaluate priorities.


Managing the chaos of the workplace is a challenging everyday job. The key is to move beyond finger-pointing. Structure is needed. Systems must be continually developed and used to make certain that the work flows smoothly.


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