Overwhelmed and Understaffed

Dear Management Doctor:

One of the leadership questions I think we all face is, how to motivate our employees in an environment where demands on their time chronically overwhelm the resources we can throw at the problem. My team is feeling overwhelmed by our responsibilities and chronically understaffed. Like most, getting more resources to do the work is not going to happen. We broke even in the last budget, which was a huge achievement given our current fiscal realities. What are some good ways to help maintain morale in this environment?

Here is what I have done so far:

  1. Emphasized that I do not expect that they work more hours uncompensated (they are exempt employees).
  2. Emphasize that I want them to set priorities within their work areas.
Are these responses helpful in your opinion? Anything else I can do?


Chronically Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

I hear this same story from planners throughout the country. Management does have the responsibility to address these issues in an aggressive way.

I generally agree with your two ideas so far. However, setting of priorities for the department must be a joint responsibility of management and the employees. There are a number of other things you should address including:

  1. Any planner worth their salt can dream up more projects than they can ever get funded. As you have recognized, this means setting priorities. But it is not enough to set internal priorities. You should have an annual work program that matches your budget and is approved by the elected officials. Build in some slop in this work program so you can still be responsive to elected official requests throughout the year.
  2. Carefully calculate the amount of staff needed to handle your applications. Use this documentation to convince the policy makers that you need more staff. In order to get more staff, raise your fees. Developers will gladly pay higher fees for good service.
  3. Give staff more control over their work and further empower them. Motivation studies show that this can be the most powerful motivation tool you have.
  4. Re-examine if you are truly producing value for the community. Communities always have money to spend. Services must be set at a cost that the communities feel is of value.
  5. Stop doing something. Many planning initiatives simply do not provide the bang for the buck.

Let me know if these work,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I couldn't agree more with Carol's observations!!

Mike Harper
Washoe, NV

Your suggestions for the overwhelmed staff were helpful and will work, to a point. In my experience, the critical difference between busy and overwhelmed is often a function of the management style of the City Manager.

When I worked as a Planning Director in California, my city manager assigned new projects weekly based on Council requests. The majority of these were given to the Planning Department with very tight deadlines. The manager was aware of the scope of our adopted work program. He just didn't care. His style of working with Council did not allow him to edit or even attempt to manage the flow of the inquiries. And he liked to prove to Council that he could do all of this within the confines of the existing staff resources. I met with him weekly to review our current "hot projects" list and to agree on priorities. He would simply forget those agreements by the next day. The manager worked 70 hours a week, and thought that was reasonable for senior professional staff. When I wasn't in the office first thing on Saturday mornings, he would page me and tell me to get to work. He took pride, he said, in causing stress. And these kinds of research/special projects were not chargeable to developers as fees.

I'm working somewhere else now with a manager who is better able to manage. And my former manager? He had to retire because of heart problems, no doubt exacerbated by all that stress!

I think that Chronically Overwhelmed is discussing a growing phenomenom in local government — representation without taxation — citizen expectations for a very high level of service coupled with an unwillingness to pay for same.

Carol D. Barrett, FAICP
City of San Marcos, TX

Thank you for the excellent timely planning issues and comments. I route them to the rest of the staff in hopes that, someday, it might light a fire. I've encouraged management and staff to attend your excellent management course, but have had no luck so far. Many thanks and keep up the great work.

Parker Plitz

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