Management series: how to manage an employee that needs to get organized

Bruce Tulgan

When managers ask me about dealing with employees who are “disorganized” at work, usually what they mean is that this employee loses track of information. It might be information that is called upon for regular use, will be called upon in the future, or must be passed on to somebody else.

My first question is always this: “What system should this person be using?”

I’d say about half the time there is a perfectly good system in place, whether it be high or low tech. The problem is simply that the individual in question is not using the system.

Start here and you will solve half such problems right off the bat: insist that this person get retrained on the system, follow-up in one-on-ones to make sure he is practicing after the retraining, and then investing the time in making the transition to using the new system. He may complain along the way, but once on the other side of adopting the system, he will reap great benefits from the increased organization. So will you and everybody else who works with him.

A slightly more complicated challenge is when employees are struggling with an information management system that is in place but is really horrible. What do you do? You join the chorus calling for a new system. But you should also ask yourself: Why are some employees much better than others at using the horrible system? The reason is that, no matter how bad the system might be, those individuals have mastered it as best as one can, so they get better results from it. Make sure those best practices are documented by the best practice leaders so they can be taught to others. The good news is that even the worst system is better than no system at all.

Managing information is all about storing it for later use. In essence, that simply means keeping track of:

  • information you will need to return to regularly (resources)
  • information you need to pass on to someone else
  • information you need to return to at a specific point in the future.


When employees are in the habit of taking notes in an organized manner, they get better at knowing what information to capture and how: Before, during, and after one-on-ones and group meetings. Over time, good note-taking becomes seamlessly intertwined with plans and schedules, to-do lists, and performance tracking. Note-taking becomes part of revising and adjusting work-plans and check-lists.

One of the beauties of working with employees who take notes and use checklists is that you can use those notes and checklists as a tool in your regular one-on-one dialogue with that person. When you get direct-reports engaged in this process, you are, in effect, getting them to participate in documenting their own performance by using self-monitoring tools. During your one-on-ones, look very carefully at these notes and checklists and use what you learn every step of the way to fine-tune your performance coaching.

Credit to: Bruce Tulgan, Founder and Chairman of RainmakerThinking, Inc.Follow: @BruceTulganFollow: @DrakeIntl 


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