The myth of the working manager

How to correctly manage the challenge of being short-staffed

by Ralph Peterson — Originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of ISSA

Let me start by admitting that I have always believed in the myth of the working manager. I’ve always felt that for managers to be effective, they should be working managers. In other words, they should be willing and able to jump into any job routine at any time and pitch in, especially when short-staffed.

I was wrong.

It turns out that jumping into a job routine when a manager is short-staffed is the last thing they should ever do if they want to be an effective manager.

Let me explain.

If I were to ask any manager what they want more than anything when they are short-staffed, the answer would be more staff. At the same time, if I were to ask any of my customers (the residents) what they wish they had when we were short-staffed, they would ask for one more thing: More attention and oversight. Conversely, if I were to ask the staff what they want when they are working short-staffed, the answer would be more support.

Basically, a manager’s job can be broken down into three categories: Staffing, oversight, and support.


Staffing is one of the most critical elements that all managers need. Without staffing—especially over a long period of time—managers, regardless of how fast they are, how many arms they have, or how hardworking they are, simply cannot do everyone’s job themselves.

Therefore, managers should spend time every day, or at least every week, on recruiting, hiring, and training new staff members. This is especially true when they are short-staffed.

“Work those phones,” I tell them. “Call everyone.”


Oversight is one of the most overlooked job duties that managers miss when they are short-staffed. It is nearly impossible to provide oversight to all of the employees under your direction if you are busy working in a job routine.

The worst part, the part that no one sees but everyone should, is that many employees need oversight in order to stay on task and get their jobs done. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need managers. Keep this in mind.

The irony is, the more a manager works in a job routine (especially when they are short-staffed), the less oversight they are able to provide, and as a result, less (not more) gets done.


Most employees want to do a great job. Most of them love what they do, the people they work with, and the people they serve. However, there are a lot of things employees do not have control over, things that may make their jobs difficult and sometimes impossible. This is why they need a manager. They need someone who can help them solve problems and remove unnecessary roadblocks so they can do a good job.

None of this is possible if the manager assumes a full-time job position when they are short-staffed. Please don’t misunderstand. I am all for managers pitching in and helping out. I am all for managers being hands-on. There is a difference, however, between being a hands-on manager and doing everything themselves.

Doing it themselves

There are only two reasons why managers eagerly want to jump into a job routine and “do it themselves,” but only one of them is any good.

First, (the best reason) it is usually out of fear. This is common with new managers who, when faced with having to ask someone to do something extra or something that is not already covered under their current job routine, would rather do it themselves than to risk confrontation.

This is fine in the short term. However, if a manager doesn’t quickly gain the confidence to direct others, they will always struggle to be an effective manager.

The second reason managers are quick to “do it themselves,” and perhaps the worst reason, is because doing the job (i.e. physical labor) is easier than managing. And too many managers, if given the choice, will always choose easy.

As always, I hope I made you think and smile. But most of all, I hope it helps you to continue to be effective managers.

About the Author

Ralph PetersonRalph Peterson is a bestselling author and owner and operator of Ralph Peterson Management Services, a management development company that specializes in helping health care organizations develop the next line of effective managers. He can be reached at

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