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Nov 25, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The holiday season is a time for togetherness and peace, but in the 9-to-5 workplace it is also crunch time, when businesses close out for the year and try to finish the fourth quarter with a bang.

It’s a very different kind of togetherness that isn’t always peaceful.

It is also a time when expectations of employees can run high. We’ve all had the last-minute assignment or project that simply has to be done before we close out the year. Sometimes in the fervor of the crunch season these assignments can get quite draconian, or require a Herculean effort to finish in time.

In a worst-case scenario, the employee is tasked with doing something completely outside of his or her expertise. These are the assignments that rub you the wrong way instantly, and can bring serious tension into the workplace.

Holiday jeers

But the end of the year work isn’t going to do itself, and many of us find our backs to the wall as we make the final push toward the finish line. While defying market expectations is generally seen as positive behavior for companies, defying employee expectations is anathema to engagement.

“But wait,” you say. “When we talk about employee engagement, aren’t we talking about increasing the amount of discretionary effort? Don’t we want employees to go above and beyond?”

I humbly submit that there is a world of difference between employees showing discretionary effort on their own as opposed to being forced or roped into it. Additionally, discretionary effort is meaningless if the employee is asked to do something outside of their skill set in the first place.

Put it this way: You could have a model employee who is fully engaged with your company and ready to do great work, but all it takes is one Grinchy experience during the holidays to undo all of that commitment.

We have to always take into account the employee’s entire experience at work, and it can seem callous to put the pedal to the medal during a time when things are supposedly winding down. Unrealistic expectations can quietly kill your previous year’s engagement efforts if left unchecked.

A timing problem

Here’s the good news – all it takes to avoid being a Grinch is being a bit savvier about how expectations are interpreted during the silly season. Here are some pointers:

  • Predict questions and have the answers ready – You know what questions generally accompany a request for a wild goose chase, so stay ahead of your employees’ own expectations by thoroughly examining assignments and getting more information before you assign them. Employees won’t feel as adrift if they have the confidence of knowing you’re on the case with them.
  • Explain ridiculous tasks – It’s easy to say “This is what is needed” or something similarly obtuse when assigning ridiculous tasks. If the work is asking for something outside an employee’s normal job duties, be sure to have a conversation that recognizes that fact, and offer assistance: “I know this is asking a lot, and you are completely the wrong person to bring this to, and I’m sorry about that. But I’m here to help, so let me know if you need anything from me.”
  • Recognize, recognize, recognize – When your employees do come through in the pinch, let them know how much it means not just to the company, but to you personally as well. Keep your eyes peeled for recognition opportunities every day until the year closes out, and make sure the rewards match the effort.

Respect vs. Fear

What it comes down to is making sure your employees are undertaking difficult or high-pressure work out of respect as opposed to doing it out of fear – ruling with an iron fist sends completely the wrong message, and during the holiday season, its effect on morale can be catastrophic.

However, there is always a very fine line between fear and respect. Forbes recently published a quick litmus test, 3 Signs Your Leadership Style Is Too Tough, that is very helpful for gauging which side your leadership style falls on.

It’s a good read for those expecting a sharp work increase this December.

Happy Holidays

We know that most managers aren’t Grinches. Most of the time these crunch assignments come so fast that there’s little time for deliberation, and the employees get squeezed into quick turnarounds, so it’s really just unfortunate timing that the season of goodwill occurs at a time when companies most need an increase in discretionary effort.

It’s a timing problem; not a personnel one. As the work ramps up this holiday season, don’t forget to ramp up your engagement efforts as well, so nobody gets the wrong idea.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.