If you were to interview most managers privately (as I do all the time in my research), asking them how they had managed a project-gone-wrong, they would probably say something like this:
Listen, I already spend tons of time communicating with my direct reports, not to mention my various bosses and counterparts in other workgroups and other departments. Look at Project Q. I was holding regular team meetings. On top of the multitude of other meetings I must attend on and off all day long, every day. I touch base with everybody every day. I have an open-door policy. If anything comes up, we let each other know as needed. Plus, we talk and email each other all day long. Until everything fell apart, everything was going just fine.
Indeed, this is what managers tell us in our interviews and seminars, with striking consistency. Most managers spend the vast majority of their management time on four pernicious time drains:
1. Attending Too Many Mediocre Group Meetings
Group meetings, team meetings, cross-functional teams, special projects, committees. Meetings are the #1 time-suck for managers. Ask any manager.
Most of us work in highly interdependent workplaces where we must rely on each other on complex projects with lots of moving pieces. With more and more people working interdependently, there are more and more meetings.
At its best, a meeting is great for:
- Communicating in-person information that everybody needs to know
- When multiple people need to discuss and solve a problem together
- Shared experience to build cohesion, commitment, and motivation
But so many meetings are not very good at all. Too many people attend meetings where they neither add value nor take anything valuable away—five people in a room for an hour—five hours of productive capacity in that room. You better make those meetings good.
Meetings are also not very good for creating proper accountability. It’s too easy to hide in a team meeting. It’s even easier to point fingers and divert attention.
2. Wading Through a Never-Ending Tidal Wave of Email
Electronic communication is at everybody’s fingertips all the time. Your inbox pulls you in and demands your reply. It’s so hard to resist.
At its best, email is great for:
- Communicating remotely information that everybody needs to know
- Documenting verbal communication
- Maintaining asynchronous conversations in between scheduled conversations
But so much email is unnecessary, duplicative, and sloppy. The most pernicious thing about all that email is that mixed in with all the wrong email is essential information, and we want to assume that, because we sent it, the recipient has read and understood it. Even worse than a message never sent is a message sent but never received.
3. Touching Base, Checking In, and Shooting the Breeze
“How are you?” “How’s everything going?” “Is everything on track?” “Are there any problems I should know about?”
These are the questions managers most commonly ask their direct reports, yet they tell you so little about what’s going on. They are gestures, mostly. You might as well say, “Tell me you are fine.” “Tell me everything is going fine.” “Tell me everything is on track.” “Tell me there are no problems I should know about.”
The worst thing about management by “touching base” is that it makes you feel like you are staying on top of things, but it takes a lot more than rhetorical questions to keep on top.
The right questions are: “What did you do? How did you do it? What steps did you take? What step are you on right now? Let me see what you’ve got so far. What are you going to do next? How are you going to do it? What steps are you going to follow? How long will each step take?”
Questions like that can’t be asked and answered in a meaningful way if the conversation happens just in passing.
4. Interrupting and Being Interrupted
Something pops into your head; you interrupt them. Something pops into their head; they interrupt you. “Do you have a minute?”
When you are interrupted, you are not at your best. Most likely, you were in the middle of something. You have to break your attention. Pull yourself out of whatever it is you are doing. Try to focus. But you are not prepared. And what you want is to get back to whatever you were doing before you were interrupted. Your responses to your direct reports (and anyone else) when you are interrupted will never be as thorough and accurate as they would be if you had time to prepare.
The same is true for your direct reports and other colleagues when you interrupt them.
So, what’s a manager to do? What do the very best managers do?
For many years, in the research we conducted before, during, and after our management seminars, we have studied what the very best managers do that is different from the others. I’m talking about the very best managers: managers whose employees consistently deliver the highest productivity and quality, with high retention of high performers and high turnover among low performers, with the best business outcomes and high morale and team spirit, whose direct reports are most likely to describe the manager as “one of the best managers I’ve ever had.” What is the common denominator among those managers? An abiding commitment to the fundamentals—relentless high-quality communication.
Consistently engaging every direct report in an ongoing, highly structured, content-rich one-on-one dialogue about the work is needed by that person. Things go much better when managers always make expectations clear and provide candid feedback for every individual every step of the way. Use team meetings only for what team meetings are good for—and make the most of them.