Managing Knowledge Workers

Many managers struggle to articulate expectations and feedback for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are responsible for creating or designing things, navigating complex relationships with customers and other departments, handling difficult projects, leading others, making critical decisions with limited information, or working independently. This varied and sometimes inconsistent bundle of responsibilities can make it challenging for their managers to clearly define expectations, accurately evaluate performance, or provide meaningful feedback.

Amid the competing priorities of leading teams, handling projects, driving outcomes and so on, very few managers truly feel prepared for dealing with the challenges particular to leading knowledge workers. The language and scenarios we are given in many foundational leadership training sessions generally address simple performance problems:

  • Karen is only reviewing twenty cases per day in the system, when she should be finishing thirty-five.
  • Chad started arriving fifteen minutes late most days and has called out right before his Saturday shift the last two weeks in a row.
  • Travis works faster than anyone else on the line, but he frequently misses details and some days more than a third of the orders he fills comes back with customer problems or complaints.

These performance issues are all tangible and easily quantifiable. There are clear behavioral patterns that are easy to measure and simple to use as the basis of an effective performance discussion:

  • “Karen, my expectation is that you finish reviewing thirty-five cases per day in the system. Last week, you averaged only twenty cases a day.  What’s going on?”
  • “Chad, I’m concerned about the pattern of tardiness and no-notice call-outs I’m seeing. Our attendance policy has clear guidelines on this. Next time you’re late or call out right before a shift, our conversation will include a written warning per the policy. Is there something going on I should know about now?”
  • “Travis, attention to detail is a big part of your job. Even though you work very quickly, the number of your orders coming back with complaints is unacceptable. Tell me a little more about your work process.”

When job duties are defined in concrete terms and problems are clear departures from set standards, the supervisor’s job is straightforward. She must address the issue with direct communication, reinforcing and clarifying the expectations, and carrying a dialogue that sets the employee up for success and accountability in future.

Expectations for knowledge workers are often less clear cut. These workers are doing less measurable and more creative work. They don’t usually punch a clock, and some of them don’t produce tangible products at all. They’re navigating complex situations with many variables. Their work is so varied that established metrics like sales numbers, cases managed, or projects completed don’t always capture the full substance of what you expect. Such metrics may provide the foundation for the management process⁠—expectations, evaluation, feedback, and recognition⁠—though they don’t always provide a meaningful context for coaching, performance improvement, ongoing capacity development, or rewards.

The language for expectations, performance evaluation, feedback, and recognition with knowledge workers is what sets their parameters, boundaries, and direction. A knowledge worker’s manager has to provide a set of guidelines that, when considered all together, explain what is acceptable and what isn’t. They also highlight what excellence looks like. Though the nature of an employee’s job may make it inappropriate for you to specify granular standards, your performance language should always articulate the substance of the contribution and impact you expect in each area of their responsibilities.

Forming your performance language for managing knowledge workers starts with critical questions in several areas as they apply to each employee’s work: quality, quantity, timeliness, relationships, maintenance, and sustainability.

Quality: Excellence in Knowledge Work

Think about the level of accuracy, thoroughness, and completeness you want in this employee’s work product. In this area, try to define the level of polish and precision that should set the bar for the bare minimum, for average work, or for excellence.

  • What should productive output look like? What are your expectations for quality in the final product, whether it’s a report, a video, a web page, an article, a process, customer satisfaction, or the like?
  • Is there an error rate or number of “loose ends” in the employee’s work you’re comfortable with?
  • Should the work the employee says is “done” be 100% client-ready, or are they only responsible for concepts and initial drafts to be improved in collaboration with you or others?
  • What is your tolerance for re-work? How many times are you willing to review something and give it back with feedback for improvement before something is done?
  • Do you need to review their work before it’s passed along, or is the employee expected to do high-quality, customer-facing work independently?
  • What does work that should be rewarded look like? How does excellence take shape in this job?

Quantity: Defining Impact and Contribution

Depending on the job, the quantity of knowledge work can be difficult to measure and convey, particularly if the employee is involved in a variety of projects at multiple levels of complexity. It helps to think of the work in terms of impact and contribution, particularly if the answer to questions like how many and how often is, “It depends.”

  • What is the volume of work you expect from this employee on routine projects or assignments?
  • What sort of organizational impact you expect from their work? How assertively should they be moving things forward?
  • How crucial are the things this employee delivers to the bottom line? How crucial are they to the long-term strategy? From that perspective, how much are they supposed to get done in a given time period?
  • What contribution to the overall operation do you expect from this employee? What targets or milestones need to be hit (even setting quality aside as a separate consideration)?
  • What does stellar delivery look like? What volume of work makes you consider someone a superstar employee?

Timeliness: Pacing Knowledge Work for Success

Articulating your expectations for timeliness in a knowledge worker’s delivery is a slight variation on your expectations for quality and quantity. While quality and quantity address the thoroughness, accuracy, volume, and impact of the employee’s work, timeliness addresses how the work should be organized and paced within the context of the organization’s operation.

  • How should the work of this employee be organized? Are there hard deadlines or interim milestones that must be considered in any project?
  • What sort of turnaround time do you expect for routine assignments or projects? On more complex or special projects?
  • Should they be pacing the work casually for great quality in an open-ended area of responsibility? Conversely, is it perhaps more important that they work as a driver to consistently stay ahead of schedule, preventing last-minute problems before an event or hard deadline?
  • How dependent or independent should this employee be on other coworkers, clients/customers, or vendors to get things done? Do they need to pace their work in recognition of others’ timelines? Should they stay prepared and flexible for managing around unpredictability?
  • Should you incentivize early completions or quick turnarounds? How quickly should excellent work be accomplished?

Relationships: Navigating Stakeholder Expectations

Most knowledge workers operate within a network of relationships. Their rapport and effectiveness in dealing with coworkers, customers or clients, other leaders, vendors, or the public is a significant element of their performance. Articulating how you expect an employee to navigate relationships with stakeholders is absolutely essential to effective leadership conversations throughout the accountability loop.

  • Is the success of others tied to this employee’s productivity or input? How do you expect them to enable others’ success?
  • Where do you expect the employee to say “no”? How should they communicate boundaries on what they can and cannot deliver?
  • Should their work be oriented toward driving results by pushing vendors or internal stakeholders to get things done, or do you expect them to protect stakeholder satisfaction at every encounter?
  • How attentive should the employee be toward workplace etiquette and climate? Are they responsible for leading and guiding others? For being a contributing team member? How much priority do you expect the employee to place here?
  • What are your limits for turbulence? Are you, as the manager, willing to deal with some degree of emotional fallout surrounding a high-impact contribution. If so, what are the boundaries?
  • How do you expect the employee to deal with an impossible client or customer? When should conflicts be dealt with, and when should they be elevated to you?
  • When do you reward above-and-beyond service? What does amazing teamwork look like?

Maintenance: Administration, Tasks, and Tools

Maintenance work refers to all of the administrative items, support tasks, and resource upkeep that go alongside the productive output of knowledge work. These are the organizational things that most managers hope their employees handle without assistance or reminders: timekeeping and time off coordination, travel vouchers or expense reports, mandatory training completions, care for their assigned equipment, and so on. Still, it is worthwhile to define what you expect for an employee’s performance here, and what you will tolerate in terms of maintenance as the manager.

  • What routine administrative tasks should the employee care for without reminders? How often are you comfortable needing to remind an employee to take care of a mandatory organizational task such as annual safety training?
  • What tolerance do you have for mistakes and re-submissions? You might be just fine with sending the occasional expense report back for a quick amendment, but start hesitating to send an employee to conferences when every time they travel involves a ridiculous hassle from authorization through expense voucher.
  • When should an employee take care of their own equipment problems, and when should they bring them to you or a coworker for an assist? How do you want them to navigate the organizational processes for equipment maintenance?
  • How often are you willing to step in and handle maintenance tasks or support things for the employee to keep them productive? Are there times when you’ll shoulder more of that workload to assure the worker can stay focused on the job?
  • How will you recognize when an employee is simply taking care of these maintenance things because they don’t often rise to your level?

Sustainability: Performance Capacity in the Long Term

In addition how the workload and key relationships are handled, sustainability is often a critical element of a knowledge worker’s performance. While there are always crunch times or busy seasons that keep everyone busy for a short while, managers have to look across the long term to protect against burnout, and to assure that skills are staying sharp to maintain productivity in a continuously changing future. Though sustainability might not be the sort of thing you consider routinely, it is something you should define your expectations on and discuss at least occasionally.

  • Is the work and pace sustainable over the long term? Is your superstar contributor likely to burn out? On the opposite, is the barely-performing worker going to lose clients by dragging projects out over time? Worse, where could a slow drag eventually poison the work climate in your department, pushing high performing employees to leave?
  • How is the work across your department balanced? Do you have one or two workers sitting as the go-to specialists? If so, do you have some expectation they train and mentor others for the “won-the-lottery” scenario when they ultimately move on?
  • How should the employee go about calibrating her work and communication to be sure she isn’t making promises and setting customer expectations at a level that can’t possibly be maintained?
  • What do you expect an employee to do to keep his skills sharp over time? How should they be participating in their own development for the future?

Linking it All Together

The answers to these sorts of questions in the areas most relevant to a knowledge worker’s job give you the language you need as a manager to effectively communicate your expectations. They also give you the baseline for routinely evaluating work and processes, and the perspectives you need for delivering strong feedback and giving recognition where it is due.

Consider framing your knowledge workers’ processes, engagements, and projects in the terms of your answers to these and other reflective questions. Even when there aren’t always specific and concrete terms for managing the complexities of knowledge work, taking the time to articulate your expectations and feedback more thoroughly is certainly well worth the effort.


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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