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This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

One of the biggest challenges a manager will have with many employees is creating an environment that's free from distraction with clearly defined priorities. Managers want to limit interruptions because research shows that when employees are distracted it can take up to 20 minutes for them to refocus and get back to the task at hand.

Managers need to know and communicate clearly their priorities because when they seem to shift constantly, employees get confused and stressed as a result.

The purpose of the micro skill of prioritizing is to increase managers' awareness of the issues they need to consider when managing employees' priorities.

As an example, think about what it takes to stack a pile of wood. This task has a clear start, middle and end, and typically a defined time for how long it should take. Imagine Ted is halfway through this task, is asked to stop, and is given another task that also needs to be done in the same timeframe. Ted now feels stress and pressure to get everything done at the same time, and he's more likely to make a mistake, cut corners to get it done, or in this case, get hurt.

As a manager, it's common for your priorities to be altered by senior management, or customers, or due to technical issues, operational problems, or a time-sensitive opportunity. If not managed correctly, this can create a ripple effect that can have a negative effect on your employees.

When a manager believes there's a need to shift a priority, you need to first pause, consider the timing and impact on your employees, and then consider your best options.

Priority management is how a manager provides guidance to their work force on what needs to be done when.

To help to quickly evaluate your organization's efficiency and how you manage your work force, complete the organizational effectiveness benchmark tool.

The key part for leaders to manage priorities is to pay attention to how your employees are spending their time with respect to core work, project work and ad hoc work. Sometimes, employees are stretched and taken away from core work priorities by less important tasks.

Here are some tips to help you manage your employees' daily priorities.

Set priorities.

Ensure your employees are clear on the top one or two priorities for the day. It's important that they are clear on what defines their success and how their success is measured. By being clear and removing assumptions, a manager can help employees manage their daily workload.

Prepare to shift a priority.

Before changing a priority, it's a best practice to pause and determine when the new assignment needs to be started, when it needs to be completed, and what else gets bumped as a result. As skilled as employees are, they can't do two things at once. Consider the impact of this shift in priority and decide what gets stopped and what gets started, so expectations are clear.

Change a priority carefully.

When changing a priority, ensure employees are clear on the reason why this is happening, the impact to them and your new expectations. There are times when managers ask employees to do the near impossible – pull a rabbit out of a hat and get everything done. Managers can do that occasionally, but need to ensure that's not a regular occurrence. If this becomes the norm and employees' work changes every day – with newly added pressures and priorities – over time your employees will be at increased risk for burnout, it will strain their mental health, and decrease their productivity due to mistakes. And it likely means increasing workplace turnover, too.

Do a daily priority check-in.

Never assume that as a manager you can read the minds of your employees. The best practice is to check in daily with employees on whether they think the way you are managing your team's priorities is reasonable, and whether what's being asked of them is reasonable. The employee-manager relationship is a critical factor for results and productivity. Managers who work effectively to manage priorities to keep workload and demand within reason, and keep lines of communication open, typically get better results from their staff and have happier, healthier, more productive and more engaged employees.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:

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