Stop wasting your team’s time

15 October, 2018

Leaders frequently waste their employees’ valuable time, through a series of unwitting but costly mistakes

Some years ago, with my previous employer, I was assigned to work on a project in Singapore. During my first week there, on a Friday, I casually remarked to one of the analysts who was working with me that it would be interesting to understand some market analogies for a particular issue that we were trying to assess. When I came in on Monday, I found a 200-page report on my desk. The analyst had worked all weekend on something that wasn’t really that important. I was mortified that I had not been clear that this request wasn’t that urgent.

This is not atypical. Many leaders end up asking for all kinds of information from their team members – sometimes the same information is asked for multiple times, from different team members. Pre-reads for meetings can run into hundreds of pages to cram everything that could be asked – and then bosses complain that the pre-reads are too long and don’t even end up reading them. Many pre-meetings need to happen before the main meeting with the boss; the amount of time that team members spend preparing for a senior management meeting can be mind boggling.

A recent study conducted by Stanford University professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao found that bosses frequently waste their employees’ time through a series of minor but costly mistakes. Ironically enough, instead of increasing productivity, bosses become an obstacle. What’s more, most managers are blissfully unaware that they’re doing anything wrong – which is a pity, because the mistakes are extremely fixable.

So, this week, my message focuses on ways in which you unwittingly waste your team’s time and how you can stop doing so.

In a leadership column for The Wall Street Journal, Sutton gives the example of a CEO who once happened to note that there were no blueberry muffins at a morning meeting. He wasn’t particularly fond of them – it was just a casual observation. However, the staff took it to heart and went out of their way to procure blueberry muffins for all his future meetings. It was years before the CEO realised that the mountains of blueberry muffins that greeted him at every venue were a direct result of his offhand remark!

The key takeaway: random comments made by leaders can easily be mistaken as commands. People spend precious time following “instructions” that the leader never intended to give. As a manager, you may also be giving directives without a clear understanding of how much work they entail.

Another way in which leaders waste valuable time is by refusing to delegate. Sutton describes a CEO who insisted on interviewing every candidate herself. While this made sense when the company had 25 employees, it simply wasn’t feasible when they expanded to over 500. Still, the CEO persisted, oblivious of the significantly extra work she was creating for everyone involved in the scheduling and hiring process. Due to her jam-packed schedule, the backlog kept growing – and several excellent candidates joined other companies instead. Sound familiar?

So, what can you do to stop wasting your team’s time? Here are some suggestions:

1. Separate offhand remarks from mandates

The consequences of miscommunication can be much more serious than an excess of blueberry muffins. In his article, Sutton offers an example:

A co-researcher and I studied a retail chain that spent millions on improving employee courtesy. They used training, incentives and contests to encourage clerks to offer smiles, eye contact, greetings and thanks to customers.

This campaign was launched, in part, because the CEO complained about a rude clerk he encountered. It took a couple of years before he realized his brief rant had triggered a big campaign that he never wanted – and he ordered the company to wind it down.

When leaders talk, people listen – and often hear more than what is being said. So, be vigilant when you’re complaining or tossing around ideas. Make sure your team understands that these are simply random thoughts, not mandates. To eliminate ambiguity, Sutton recommends saying, “Please don’t do anything, I am just thinking out loud.”

2. Assess new initiatives

If you’re rapidly rolling out one new initiative after another, pause. How complex and time-consuming are these initiatives – and are they impinging on people’s main responsibilities? Does each initiative take into account and build on previous projects? Or are team members expected to start from scratch?

Instead of starting an idea as soon as it strikes you, think it through. Have an open discussion on how much work it’ll involve and whether it’s in line with previous learnings. It helps prevent “fad surfing” (when people simply comply with new directives at a superficial level to keep leadership happy).

3. Stop “executive magnification”

One of the underlying reasons for time wastage is what Sutton and Roy call “executive magnification”. This happens when you’re seen as self-centred and pay little attention to people’s opinions. Team members who ask hard questions or offer dissenting views quickly find themselves out of favour. So, people simply tell you what you want to hear. For example, even if your new initiative is terribly time-consuming and will take a toll on productivity, they will still go along with it.

Executive magnification also fosters miscommunication: when people are focused on always keeping the boss happy, they react much more strongly to his/her words – regardless of the original intent.

If you find your team nodding along automatically to everything you say, it’s time for a reality check. Start building a culture where honest feedback is welcomed. And make sure to walk the talk: there’s no point asking for team input if you’re not going to use any of it.

4. Get comfortable with delegating

Get rid of the “I’ll just do it all myself” mindset; you think you’re helping, but you’re actually making people’s jobs harder than they need to be. As leaders, we’re constantly busy – and it’s not fair to make others wait endlessly for us when they’re perfectly capable of accomplishing certain tasks on their own.

5. Clarify, clarify, clarify

In her Harvard Business Review article, Your Team Can’t Read Your Mind, Anna Ranieri explains that when you’ve worked with people for a long time, it’s easy to assume they can read your mind, so you don’t need to spell everything out:

Mind reading is a risky short cut, and is more likely to backfire than not.

At work, mind reading can lead to confusion, such as when a manager assumes that his team members already know what he wants: “You know what kind of effort I need here.” But what if they don’t? Instead of saving time, you’ve wasted it, which could have serious consequences. For example, you may need to re-launch a new product because important team members weren’t fully aware of the requirements (even though you assumed they would be).

Instead of making assumptions, put everything out there. Ranieri recommends starting with the big picture (what and why), then getting into the nitty gritty (who, when, where and how). Conclude by letting people know you’re available for clarifications. Spending an “extra” hour getting everyone on the same page at the start could save you lots of wasted time and money in the long run.

6. Run smarter meetings

Meetings can lead to the most insidious waste of time. As a leader, you’re in a unique position to spearhead a smarter, more efficient way of conducting meetings. For starters, try being more thoughtful about calling for random meetings. If some of this can be closed on a phone call or email, do that instead. During the meeting, don’t take up disproportionate air time; let your team talk. Also, try orienting the discussion around key actions and decisions, to stay focused and not have it drag on.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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