If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably all have something on our to-do list that isn’t getting done.

It’s not because we’re lazy, incompetent, or unproductive—when workloads are high, some things just have to take priority over others.

The reality of this actually hit me hardest when I moved out of a management role and back into what HR calls an “individual contributor” position. All of a sudden, instead of overseeing a team of people who had lists of to-dos, I had my own list of projects that quickly got out of control.

It was then that my boss asked me a valuable question—one that I hadn’t ever thought to ask my direct reports: “What are you not getting done?”

It didn’t come across as accusatory, but rather from a place of genuine concern. So, I told him what I’d bumped to the bottom of my list and why. Then, he was able to help me realign my priorities so that they matched up better with what he considered most important and get the resources I needed to move forward with the tasks that had been stuck.

Now, I’m convinced that it’s one of the most important questions you, as a manager, can ask your employees. Here’s why.

You’ll Be Able to See (and Fix) Bottlenecks

Once you have visibility into what’s not getting done, the natural follow-up question is, “Why?” You’ll immediately be able to understand where the bottlenecks are.

For example, maybe your employee has been waiting on you for input or advice, but hasn’t been able to get ahold of you because of your jam-packed schedule. Or, perhaps he or she needs a resource from another department, but no one will fulfill the request. Whatever the reason, you’ll be able to either provide what’s needed yourself or use your managerial influence to help get the right resources.

You’ll Have the Opportunity to Reconsider Tasks

As a manager, you don’t always know (or at least remember) everything that’s on your employees’ plates. And that’s usually OK—unless your employees have been assigned tasks that should be delegated elsewhere or, well, not done at all.

By checking in on what’s not getting done, you’ll also have the opportunity to reconsider what’s on your employees’ to-do lists. Maybe another department requested a detailed report from one team member, or another manager in your department has someone working on tasks unrelated to your main focus—but you weren’t aware of it.

If it’s causing them to bump other priorities to the “I’ll get to it later” list, you now have the opportunity to delegate it elsewhere or remove it completely from your employee’s to-do list, so he or she can focus on the projects that really matter.

You’ll Be Able to Give “Big Picture” Advice

By finding out what’s not getting done, you can help your employees better understand the big picture goals of the company. Sure, maybe your team has it right and they’re correctly prioritizing the most important projects—but if not, you can take the opportunity to make sure your employees understand what needs their attention and what can wait until later.

This will help them get a better idea of not only what they need to do to succeed as an individual employee, but how their role fits into the big picture of the company and its mission—which is a critical element in boosting employee satisfaction.

Keep in mind: For this question to be successful, you have to approach your employees with genuine concern. It’s not about pulling a power play and catching them with uncompleted assignments—if that’s your angle, you’re likely to get vague answers like, “Oh, I’m making progress on everything, really,” or “Everything’s fine.”

But if your employees truly trust you, know you aren’t just looking to dole out punishments, and realize you want to help them figure out a solution, they’ll likely be honest about what’s fallen to the wayside. And you, as a manager, will be able to have a better grip on your team’s progress, happiness, and productivity.


Photo of to-do list courtesy of Shutterstock.