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Using clarity to combat understaffing

All sorts of industries are forced to go understaffed. Here are some ways to deal with that.

6 min read



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When I began in July 2010 as head of school at a 360-student, independent K-8, my administrative team and I simply did not have the manpower or the competitive advantage that so many other schools in our community enjoyed.

Staffing shortages were everywhere. We had no admissions director or marketing professional. There was no resource room, let alone anyone to staff it. Computers were formally taught only to our youngest grades, and by the librarian. Our athletics coaches were all volunteers. They even drove our kids to the games since we had no budget for bussing.

And then there was our administration. The three of us shouldered a myriad of responsibilities that extended well beyond conventional school leadership. Compounding the problem were the expectations from our board, who expected me to significantly raise the school’s academic standard after years of perceived complacency. Stress levels were high as we all tried to do more with less.

I remember clearly how one day, one of my administrators walked into my office. Her expression told me that she was upset, and tired.

“What is it?” I asked. “No one is going to say anything to you,” she began, “but you’re pushing them too hard.” By “them”, she was referring to office staffers who I had tasked to update our systems and modernize communication.

They were working hard — as I was — to move the school forward, and it was taking its toll. But I needed to scale back and find a different way to get the job done or I would be faced with mutiny.

Understaffing is a real and growing problem, one that affects leaders and employees in every professional industry. These include:

Education, law enforcement, air traffic control, and government are but a few more industries that report gross staffing deficits.

Being understaffed is not simply an undesirable condition. It has been directly linked to many serious problems for leaders and their teams. When prevalent for extended periods, understaffing can result in reduced product and service quality, lost business, increased stress and turnover, and even physical safety.

Quality. Product and service quality both suffer when fewer employees are available to serve customers and run production lines. Overstretched workers are also prone to make more errors. Poor quality over time diminishes a company’s reputation and drives away customers (see below).

Business. An understaffed business misses growth opportunities because it lacks the capacity to meet customer needs. If a business takes on new clients or products and can’t deliver the goods or services in a timely fashion, it can lose the business and damage its reputation in the industry. It’s also really hard to prospect and expand your client base when you can barely keep up with current demands.

Stress. Increased workloads add stress to complete work and meet performance expectations. Heightened stress lowers morale and employee job satisfaction and takes a toll on employees’ and leaders’ wellbeing.

Safety. Not only are overworked employees at risk for stress and its harmful side-effects, but in certain industries, such as nursing and prison security, being short-staffed can also mean an inability to care for the sick (36% of hospital nurses said their patient workload caused them to miss vital changes in a patient’s condition) or properly protect against dangerous inmates, respectively.

Leaders, for their part, feel mounting pressure to get more done despite an ever-shrinking budget. And since there simply isn’t enough manpower on hand, they ask current staff to achieve the work of many more. The results are predictable. Stress levels increase. Morale plummets. Workers start calling in sick. Some quit or threaten to do so. Leaders burn out if they aren’t phased out. And the downward cycle continues, resulting in organization-wide despondency.

So, what can understaffed leaders do to not only survive but thrive and over-deliver?

One strategy is to get super clear on tasks and responsibilities. These are formalized employee performance objectives that are clear, measurable, and mutually understood.

Effective teams need to know what’s being asked of them and how to prioritize their efforts. Leaders need to get them focused on what really matters most and will have the greatest positive impact on the company, such as actions that are most aligned with strategic objectives and most satisfy stakeholders.

Of course, it is difficult to build mutually clear expectations with others if you don’t know exactly what they are yourself. If goals aren’t clear and well-defined in your own mind, how can employees hope to achieve them, and managers hope to reach them? They can’t, and you can’t.

To achieve optimum performance and robust working relationships, the following questions must all be clearly answered and mutually agreed to:

  • What are we trying to achieve, in terms of output, customer engagement, or other metrics?
  • To achieve these goals, what work is required and at what level of quality?
  • What defines successful completion of work?
  • What are and aren’t the roles of the job?
  • What day-to-day expectations are reasonable and appropriate relating to employee behavior, collaboration and culture (the ways in which team members should interact with another)?

When people have guidelines within which to operate, they are more empowered to act, take initiative, and innovate.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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