Managers are struggling to find the time to have needed conversations with colleagues and direct reports. Ann Phillips, a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, knows this firsthand. When training Blanchard’s Situational Leadership® II leadership development program, Phillips often asks participants what gets in the way of implementing good management practices. The overwhelming response? The time it takes to do it.
"I always ask leaders ‘How many of you have enough of your own work to do each day?‘ The leaders in class typically tell me that every day they have 8 to 12 hours of their own work that doesn’t include addressing the needs of their direct reports. Lack of time kills many good intentions."
People want to be better leaders, says Phillips, but they don’t have the open space in their schedules.
"Once managers realize they’re supposed to maintain their own workload, coaching and support quickly gives way to ‘Here’s the assignment. Do your best. You’ll be fine. I figured it out when I was in your position – I’m sure you will, too.’
"When managers don’t take time to connect with direct reports other than issuing orders, the result is work that proceeds slowly and often needs to be redone. ‘I just didn’t have time,’ managers will say. But as my mother used to tell me about cleaning the house: ‘There’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but always enough time to do it again.’ So what these managers end up having to do is stop, back up, and have those conversations anyway.
"But by the time it gets to that point, the conversation is not so nice, because the manager is annoyed at the lack of progress. The individual contributor asks, ‘Why you didn’t you tell me this in the first place?’ And the manager reacts defensively, saying, ‘I thought you knew.’
"It can even get to the point where the manager blurts out something along the lines of ‘I hired you to do this job. You didn’t tell me you had the ability to learn how to do it-you told me you could do it.’ So you can see how it can get challenging quickly."
Phillips’s advice is to not let the situation get to that point. Spend a little time up front discussing the direct report’s skills and their development level on the task you’re asking them to do.
"If they are a beginner, prepare to provide a lot of direction. If they are more experienced, it can be a combination of direction and support. And if they are very well versed in the task, a delegating style is completely appropriate."
Phillips also recommends that managers take a holistic approach to leadership by focusing on both results and feelings.
"I don’t think we give enough regard to how personal feelings factor into the equation. If you can understand how people feel about the task or goal at hand, the rest of it becomes a whole lot easier. People will work harder for you if they believe you have their best interests at heart and that you are setting them up to win. While we tend to talk strategically about developing people and goal setting, it’s important to realize that we are also looking to create a relationship where people want to work hard for you."
For time-starved managers looking to focus on both people and results, Phillips recommends short, regular meetings that are well organized and focused.
"Always start your conversations within the context of what the goals are. Are they clear? What are the shared expectations around those goals? Next, identify the direct report’s capability and commitment to the task. Identify where the person is in terms of development level. What is their ability to do the task? Have they ever done the task before? What is your confidence level with them succeeding at the task? This where you begin to surface their feelings around confidence and competence.
"Leaders can build on that when they discuss what they need to provide to make sure the direct report has the direction and resources to move forward."
One caveat to leaders – be on guard. Phillips says individual contributors tend to overcommit or overestimate their ability to get things done.
"People want to project that they are confident and competent and can get things done. They sometimes don’t think things through in a logical way, which can lead them to agree to do something when, in fact, they have no experience."
As Phillips explains, "People want to be perceived as talented and highly skilled. It’s rare that someone will say, ‘I don’t know how to do that," or ‘I’m going to need extra time to learn how to do that.’ As leaders, we need to make it safe for people to tell us when they don’t know how to do something.
Phillips reminds us that surfacing concerns and skill levels ahead of time can save a lot of trouble and heartache down the road. "If you don’t take the time now, you’ll be taking the time later, and under more difficult emotional circumstances."
Make the best use of that time. It’s going to take some effort, but in the long run time saved is something we could all use.