When I speak to stressed out leaders and team members, I often notice a common theme. Their biggest time management problem is their own manager.
So the provocative question I have for you in this post is:
“Are you a time management problem for your team?”
Instinctively, you might say “No, of course not!”
But before you answer, let’s look at little bit deeper into this topic.
Then we’ll look at some ways to reduce the time management issues that a leader can create for their team.
Why Are Bosses a Big Time Management Problem?
The boss can be a huge time management problem, for a few reasons.
First, let’s clear the air.
Do I think bosses are all bad people, trying to overwork their teams?
No, I don’t.
Do I think they all have malicious intent which is leading to increased stress and burnout?
No, certainly not all of them. I think even well-intentioned thoughtful leaders can be a time management problem for their teams.
5 Factors That Make the Boss a Time Management Problem
Here are a few reasons why I believe a boss can be a big time management problem:
- Power imbalance. A manager is in a position of power. Team members often struggle to push back on people with more authority.
- Expectation. When we give our team members work, there is an in-built expectation that we believe they can complete it. This can be hard for team members to shake, even if the workload is unreasonable.
- People-pleasing. Team members often want to please the boss – after all, it’s no fun having a bad relationship with your manager. So they accept more and more work.
- Commitment. Many team members take pride in their work. So even when they have too much to do, they feel they are letting themselves and the team down if they fail to complete it all.
- Lack of visibility. If you’re in a busy leadership role, it may be difficult to maintain visibility of the workload of your team. And if they aren’t telling you about any issues, you’re flying blind.
None of these factors imply that managers are incompetent or malicious.
However, the nature of the manager’s role can position them as a key time management factor for any team member.
Leaders Can Help Their Team Members Manage Their Time Better
Ultimately, a leader is not responsible for how well a team member manages their time.
However, I believe a leader is responsible for creating an environment that helps their people to be more productive and effective.
Sometimes, a leader also needs to “save team members from themselves” if they are taking on too much work and becoming overwhelmed.
The most diligent team members may have a tendency to overcommit, which in the long run may lead to increased stress, decreased motivation and eventual burnout.
This is not what we want from our high performers!
Blind Spots Can Prevent Leaders From Seeing the Reality
As human beings, we all naturally have blind spots which can prevent us from seeing the reality of our situation.
These may contribute to the time management issues of our team members, even though we aren’t intentionally causing them!
Firstly, leaders may have a tendency to believe that no news is good news.
In other words, if nobody is telling me something is wrong, then everything must be OK. However, this attitude can lead us to be complacent, failing to take corrective action when it’s needed.
Next, leaders may also find themselves wrapped up in short-term thinking.
Focusing on the next deadline, the immediate challenge, rather than looking forward and thinking of the future. When we take a longer-term view, we tend to notice that we need our team to be working sustainably, rather than being on the edge of burnout for a prolonged period.
I find that leaders may also start to feel helpless in their situation.
Leading an under-resourced team with too much work can feel like an unsolvable problem, especially when you have your own boss putting pressure on you to deliver. This helplessness can cause us to maintain pressure on our teams, regardless of whether it feels right.
After all, what else can you do?
How to Help Your Team Manage Their Time (and You) Better
Now, let’s get into the practical side of things. If you want to help your team be more productive and improve the way they manage their time, you need to help them, rather than be a hindrance.
When I run leadership training I often come across leaders who say they are under-resourced, unable to find people with the right skills.
So then I ask them, “Has your workload been reduced, given that you can’t fill the roles in the team?”.
Nobody has ever responded “Yes” to that question.
Let’s help our teams manage their time, and us, better.
Here are some ideas to help you do it.
1. Understand Their Style
I’m a big fan of psychometric testing tools to help people understand themselves and each other a little better.
I don’t really care which tools people use, there are many good ones. The important thing is to take an assessment and then have a conversation about it.
These conversations help people to understand their own tendencies, and how other people like to operate too.
When you discuss the results, try to relate this back to relevant topics in your workplace. Time management would be one of them.
For example, if someone’s assessment tells you that the person is likely to be very supportive, helpful and empathetic, they may fall into the trap of over-helping and taking on too much work that others should be doing.
If someone’s assessment tells you that the person is very goal-oriented and task-focused, we need to watch that they don’t go into overdrive, trying to hit the target at the expense of their own wellbeing.
If someone’s assessment tells you that they value attention to detail, then we need to be aware that they may go into perfection mode, when “good enough” would be just fine.
This sort of information is helpful for the team member, because they can be on the lookout for their own potential pitfalls. But it also helps you as the leader, because you can keep watch too.
And these assessments don’t always need to cost money. The free 16 Personalities assessment is one that many people find useful.
2. Observe and Be a Detective to Spot a Time Management Problem
Being observant is an underrated leadership skill. An observant leader can spot when things are going wrong, and also when things are going right.
Being observant all starts with having the intention of observing. Just noticing things, rather than ignoring or overlooking them.
You might start to notice aspects like body language, tone of voice and interactions with other team members and with yourself.
Be sure also to pay attention to work routines. Do they start or finish early? Work late? Do they take breaks, or just keep going?
Are they irritable around certain people? Do they avoid making eye contact or look uncomfortable when talking about certain topics?
None of these signs will tell you anything on their own. But put them together and over time, you might notice a pattern or trend which can help you to better understand workplace stressors or dynamics.
If you have a concern, sometimes a little detective work can help too.
You might ask trusted colleagues to provide you with feedback about someone you are concerned about. Or, you might even check in the system when that important deliverable was last edited. Was your team member up until 3am working on it?
Of course, too much detective work can feel like micromanagement, so be careful with how you use the information. But these additional aspects can help you determine whether someone might be working too hard, but not telling you about it.
Learn More: 4 Subtle Signs That Your Team is Overworked.
3. Help Your People Prioritise Their Work
Nir Eyal, author of habit-forming and distraction-reducing books, recommends that team members should take the time to speak to their manager about their priorities and workload for the week.
To do this, team members need to have visibility of their workload, which might come from a system or to-do list. Then, they can agree priorities for the various tasks before the work commences.
This can be a big time-saver, because it starts to show the manager how much work there is, and forces them to make trade-off choices when it comes to priorities.
The only issue with this approach is that sometimes, team members won’t feel comfortable having this conversation.
If this is the case, consider initiating the conversation yourself and stepping through the work of your team member with them. This can help you to set clear expectations, and to clarify any priorities up-front, before work is done.
Just keep in mind that autonomy is an important motivational factor too. That is, people find it motivating to have some control over their workloads and how they get it done.
So approach these conversations with curiosity – ask your team member what they think are the top priorities. As long as you come to a shared understanding, you’re all good.
4. Understand Where Work Comes From
For many teams, work doesn’t simply come from the manager. It comes from colleagues, customers, other teams and executives across the organisation.
If you’re not aware of where the work comes from, you might find that your team have more on their plate than just what you asked them to do.
This is the hidden work that can trip us up. We believe we know what our people are working on, until we accidentally find out that another project was dumped on them from somewhere else.
You might say that your people should just push back on this additional work, but that can be hard to do.
So find out all of the work pathways for your team, so you can build a comprehensive picture of the demand on your people.
Then you can be the one who helps to push back, rather than leaving it up to your team members to have the hard conversation without the authority to do so.
Learn More: Why Leaders Must Push Back and Say “No”.
5. Be Prepared Not to Do Stuff
This might seem obvious, but it needs to be said.
Prioritisation is pointless if you aren’t prepared to stop doing things.
You need to be prepared to make a hard call, and focus on just the important few things, rather than the many.
Here’s the thing.
If your team has too much work to do, you won’t get it all done.
Then there’s a big nasty surprise where people get upset.
At least if you make the call early, people know what to expect. Then all of a sudden you look like a smart leader who knows the limits, rather than one who tried to take on too much.
Help Your Team to Help You
Your team exists to help you, and you need them to get the work done.
You might be the boss, but you’re actually working in partnership.
So help your team to manage their time and effort more effectively and you become part of the solution, instead of a big time management problem.
What do you do to help your team manage their time effectively? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!