4 big productivity traps for managers

If you’re a manager, you probably struggle mightily with time management; it’s pretty common for managers to feel like there are more demands on their time than time to meet them. But what if you’re inadvertently making choices that are undoing your best time management efforts?

Some common managerial practices can look like the right choices on the surface, but in actuality will become time sucks without much impact. See if you recognize yourself in any of these four big productivity traps for managers.

1. Using one-on-ones primarily for status updates. If your check-in meetings with staff consist mainly of the person running down a list of projects and their status (which probably often is just “everything’s going well”), it’s time to give these meetings a makeover. You’ll make far better use of this time if you use it to give feedback, debrief recent work, balance priorities, and provide a “one level up” perspective.

2. Sitting in meetings that don’t really need to be in. Ever feel like you spend half your working life sitting in meetings? Lots of people, especially managers, feel this way, but hardly ever do they proactively take steps to excuse themselves. If you find yourself in meetings where your input isn’t often particularly valuable, why not consider whether you need to attend at all? Is there someone else from your team who could go in your place (and who might actually see it as professional growth to get to represent you, their manager, there)? Can you attend less frequently, like every other time or every third time? Can you back out entirely? Ask someone to send you notes afterwards? In many contexts, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m swamped right now and trying to carve out more room in my schedule. Let’s try these without me for a while and see how they go.”

3. Allowing constant interruptions to have their way with your schedule. If your work and focus are regularly thrown off by people dropping by with questions and updates, you probably find that it’s tough to tend to your own priorities. You of course don’t want to become inaccessible to your staff, but that doesn’t mean that you should field any interruption at any time. For your most important work, consider scheduling work blocks where people know not to interrupt you, and don’t be afraid to say, “I’m in a work block right now, so can we talk later?” or  “I’m on a deadline so I’d love to save that for our check-in tomorrow unless it’s urgent.” You also might need to give your team clearer guidance on when to interrupt you, what to save for a regular check-in, and what they’re authorized to handle themselves.

4. Not delegating real ownership. Sometimes managers use their team members as “helpers” who assist them in carrying out tasks, rather than giving them real ownership over big chunks of work. This leaves the manager having to do all the work of deciding what needs to be done, coming up with a plan, assigning the work, fielding unexpected developments and assigning someone to handle those, and generally carrying all the emotional weight of ensuring work is successful. It also tends to leave team members feeling under-utilized and unfulfilled.) But if you instead assign more meaningful roles, ones that are responsible for broad responsibilities and – most importantly – outcomes rather than just activities, you can transfer much of that to your team and stop needing to identify and delegate every piece of work that comes up.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Argh!*

    #4 – not delegating at all! My supervisor defines delegating as “assigning something to your staff that you should be doing yourself.” (exact quote!)

    Needless to say, my supervisor is often unavailable and my reports are often bored because I’m not allowed to delegate.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “assigning something to your staff that you should be doing yourself.”
      Ha! I had a manager like that once. I worked at a bank and was in the Operations area at the time, among others; basically a Jill-of-all-trades. He assigned me a task right before he went on vacation and told me it was a survey and wouldn’t take more than a half hour. Wrong! It was a survey, for sure, but it was used as a means to determine how we deal with minorities. For example, who do we lend to, how much did we lend to certain geographies, business types, and minorities; how many minorities do we employ; what programs do we participate in that are geared towards minorities, small businesses, etc. Most of it dealt with lending, something in which I had zero experience at the time. And the questions were really tough, because we weren’t tracking more than half the information it was asking for; we were a one-branch bank and didn’t have the systems or people to track this stuff. (Plus, it’s not mandatory stuff and the survey wasn’t regulatory-related.) This was not something that could be done in a half hour. By the time I figured that out, he was gone on vacation and I was left to deal with it myself and pretty much just had to figure it out the best I could. By the time I completed it, it had taken me two solid weeks! The following year I was thrilled to not have to deal with it, as we had hired a loan person and it was now their responsibility.

      So, yeah, he either knew what it would take to complete it and didn’t want to be bothered, or he didn’t even read it. I tend to think it was the former.

      1. fposte*

        I read Argh! as saying it the other way–that her manager won’t let her delegate anything, because Argh! is supposed to be doing it all herself.

  2. Nethwen*

    I see the last point as being particularly important. I’ve had managers that declared staff were professionals who could make decisions, but used them as helpers, insisting they do nothing without prior approval (not even track down a phone number). It made me want to leave those jobs as soon as I started. My feelings were, ” If you want someone to come ask you every little question, then don’t hire people with training and experience. It’s insulting and boring.”

    1. anon for this*

      I’ve experienced this (or something similar) a few times with my current boss. I think they do it from a well-intentioned place of just wanting to be involved in the things we do that they’re passionate about (now that they’re managing a multi-faceted team rather than in the thick of it as an individual contributor), but it’s incredibly frustrating to be told I’m their vanilla teapots expert so they totally have faith in me and need me to take ownership of the vanilla teapots initiative, then to later have everything I do/did questioned because they would have done it differently. It ends up with me having to run everything past the boss before moving forward, which is often difficult to do because they’re also guilty of #2 (too many meetings).

    2. Regina 2*

      This is such a struggle for me. No one can make any decision without several layers of the org weighing in and approving. Every place I’ve worked at has had this to some degree.

      I am really worried that I’m approaching my mid-30s, and still can’t make a decision on my own. People have said I have the judgment for it, but I’ve never been tested, and now I’m utterly paralyzed.

      The thing that’s been hard for me is — it’s never clear to me what the higher ups want, so I can’t even mimic my decision-making in their shoes. They change their minds all the time, so it’s rarely consistent. If manager were better about articulating what they’re looking for, it makes their staff more comfortable making decisions on their own. To date, I have yet to have a manager who has done that for me. With each passing year, I’m losing hope.

      1. Jean*

        Hang in there and don’t lose hope. I’ve got a couple of decades on you and am only now learning to trust my (usually commended & appreciated) judgment. Frequently remind yourself “it’s easier to apologize than to obtain permission.” I think this was first said by Adm. Grace Hopper.

        Making decisions–like any other life skill–does get easier with practice. Stay strong. Believe in yourself. (Okay, enough cliches from me!)

  3. JS*

    #4 is a huge one for my manager right now. I think he has a big problem giving up ownership of things (I have the same problem!) but the result is that he is overwhelmed with tasks while we are sometimes bored.

  4. INFJ*

    Good tips. I especially like the one about the manager sending someone to a meeting on his or her behalf, if possible. My manager has a ridiculous amount of meetings every week AND she’s always looking for ways to connect us with other departments, so that would kill 2 birds with 1 stone.

    1. Pipette*

      Yep, it’s awesome when you can do that. It’s a great way to let the representative see how the department fits into the company as a whole, and it also sort of forces the representative to take a deeper look at what their department mates are doing, in order to represent them well at the meeting.

      Plus, if the representative hasn’t been to many meetings they may believe they are more glamorous and exciting than they are. There are people who are jealous of people going to meetings all the time, but that tends to stop once they start going to meetings themselves and the novelty wears off. It’s kind of like business trips. If you haven’t been on any, you often think they are way more fun and colourful than the bleak reality of beige hotels in sad business parks.

      1. Jean*

        >”the bleak reality of beige hotels”
        Pipette, this is beautiful!

        I’m a poet mostly unpublished, by choice and default). As per the unstated AAM expectation that we live up to our best expectations of ourselves I’m channeling my small portion of professional envy into admiration and happiness for you.

        If I were writing it, I’d adjust slightly to read:

        the bleak reality of beige hotels
        in lonely business parks

        in lonely quiet business parks
        in always quiet business parks

        okay–gotta go to work & drive my child to a friend’s house.
        Alison, congratulations on creating a blog community so warm that it iencourages visitors to write drafts of poetry in the comments.

  5. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    Thanks, Alison. I read the link on making weekly check-ins more useful and discovered that I was doing part of this, yet was guilty of the half-delegation trap – which sometimes leads me to be on meetings I don’t really need to join.

    I’ve been sketching out my development goals for year and you’ve provided some good, concrete actions I can take toward rounding out my skills.

  6. Liza*

    Thanks for this, Alison! Delegating outcomes rather than activities is something it would be useful for me to work on.

  7. AdminSue*

    Not attending meetings has been a lifesaver for my boss! I set the agenda for each meeting, and give it to him in advance to add/remove/change anything he wants. I will then chair the meeting. After the meeting I will let him know anything that he needs to be aware of. AND, the meetings are much faster without him present! :-D

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