Eyes off the Prize

Monday, April 23, 2012

It can be fun and instructive to contemplate how to really botch something. Over the weekend, I ran into two workplace-related pieces written in such a vein: Jiri Novotney's "How to Murder Your Productivity" and Diego Basch's "How to Be a Horrible Boss".

Novotney's most amusing tip for me -- because I absolutely hate being interrupted when I am trying to concentrate (see my blog's masthead) -- is the following:

Research shows that when you get interrupted at work, you will return to the original task only in just over 40% of the cases, and that it takes 20 minutes on average to resume what you were doing before. This is excellent, because randomly switching tasks is one of the most powerful ways of making sure you won't get anything done.

So, I recommend that you implement an open-door policy, invite others to come to you as often as possible with unimportant request and questions, and when someone sends you an email, then for Christ's sake, JUMP OUT of the chair and run to them! [minor edits]
Seeing this and his other examples together conveys the crucial value of focus for doing productive work, and conversely helps one see other ways to fail at keeping focus one may be less sensitive to (or aware of). Checking email too frequently is a good example. I bet that since most people need email for work, that they aren't truly aware of how often they check it. That was once the case for me, until, a few years ago, I took stock and decided to check mine only a few times a day.

Basch's central lesson, on management, seems to me to be to remember that coordinating the productive efforts of other people works best when remembering that they have minds of their own. Again, I'll give my favorite tip:
Be patronizing. Tell people how to do their jobs, and explain the obvious many times. If you were promoted to manage an awesome team, there surely will be stars that know more about their jobs than you do. The tech industry is not an assembly line with lots of turnover. For example, you may be managing a senior software architect with ten years of experience. If you ramble about how it's important to "remember to design for scalability" or to "always consider security," it will reflect poorly on your ability to trust him. My father-in-law was a successful manager for a pharmaceutical company for most of his career. He puts it this way: people become what you expect of them. If you treat your direct reports like children, that's how they will act.  On the other hand, if you place lots of trust on them from day one, they will be compelled to prove that they deserve the trust.
The implicit message in a patronizing attitude is, "I don't think you are competent." Depending on how experienced or confident an underling is, this can undermine confidence in himself -- or in his boss's ability to appreciate good work. Either effect can trash morale and motivation for different reasons, and either will make a less effective subordinate.

I think that the common thread of the managerial examples is that, in some way, the ineffective boss is taking his workers' minds out of the equation with his poor communication skills, rather than appealing to their minds in an effort to coordinate their thought-guided efforts. By being patronizing, he implies that he doubts or has failed to see the ability of the person in front of him -- which is a problem since the boss's job is to marshal that ability towards a common effort. Not giving reasons for instructions is another very clear example of this. People performing goal-oriented action are not machines: They must understand why they do what they do in order to make appropriate adjustments. As with the example of  how to be unproductive, it can be instructive to see how many ways one can "lose" the minds of one's workers by considering all the examples from the article and thinking about others from one's own work experience.

-- CAV

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