Don’t sweat the small stuff

I may be old school, but as a manager I think I should be a leader. As a leader I think I should lead. As a senior/middle manager most of the “leading” I can do is not hands on. I am supposed to set the direction for my teams and provide constant guidance to make sure we are always heading in the right direction. Part of that guidance is setting priorities. I am forever reading articles, testimonials, or just listening to the griping of my peers about the poor time management of their teams. I admit that time management is a skill and most of us could use some improvement. However, if you want employees to manage their time effectively, they should know what their priorities are.

This is where I struggle with micro-managers. Micro-managers have a tendency to do two things to demoralize their employees. One, they routinely demonstrate a lack of trust that the employee will complete their assign tasks without constant supervision. Two, what makes someone a micro-manager is that they involve themselves with the everyday details of their employees’ jobs. I have enough details to worry about without trying to fuss over the individual assignments of over a dozen team members! When you focus on the small stuff, you make it a priority. I’m supposed to be the big picture thinker, the one who decides how our team fits into the strategic direction of our company. How can I be doing that if I am forever fussing over timesheets, approvals, expenses, and a number of other myriad details?

Now, don’t get me wrong. All of these things are important in their own way. For example, I read every expense report line-by-line and I’m one of the few who insist that every line be coded correctly. At the same time I don’t worry about an employee taking a direct flight if there was no substantial savings taking connecting flights. Why waste their time and lose productivity forcing them to take connecting flights when a direct flight could be less than 2 hours? I don’t worry about timesheets for salaried employees. Make sure projects are coded correctly but I’ll let the project manager worry about the actual hours worked. Otherwise make sure you report at least 40 hours a week. I know when people are absent and managers know when their people are absent. No one is abusing the system, we’re good, no worries.

So on and so forth. If you have a problem employee, maybe it is worth checking all of their time, expenses, support response times, bug reports, etc. Otherwise, why turn a good employee into a bad one?

Worse, by focusing on the small stuff, you send the message that your employees should as well. I’ve watched more than a few teams self-sabotage because they get distracted by minor requests to make sure their numbers look good, people who spend hours on time sheets to make sure they are just right, expense reports submitted late because of a fear of actually submitting, so on and so forth. I see projects fall behind because individual team members are so distracted by administrative tasks and bureaucracy that they are no longer focused on the tasks that will make or save money for the company. Do these employees see value in those administrative tasks? No, not really, but they have a manager or senior manager who has come down on them for it so that is where they end up spending their time.

I’ll close with an example. Our timesheet system for salaried employees is very ineffective. It has a poor user interface that leads to a regular list of problems. One week when doing approvals I missed an employee. The next day I get an email from my boss saying that I had missed it and they approved it on my behalf. My boss is an executive in the company! Yet they are spending their time looking at individual employee timesheets for salaried employees. My old boss did not do this. They would have let that gone through and then I would have landed on a report (I know this because I had hourly employees who were supposed to be in a different system that were not recording their time). That report would go to my boss, which would come to me, which would then get passed to the manager who should have been checking. No one wants to be on that report. When I landed on that report I made sure to fix the error even though it was not mine. User interface issues or no, let the report come out and let me be on it! However, this is a minor issue that would not hurt my new boss at all, but they were so worried about it that they got in the middle of a minor issue.

As a one time deal, that could be seen as being somewhat overly helpful. This goes on all the time! Here’s the other problem with that. From a strategic and team leadership perspective, everyone agrees I am performing above expectations. Worrying about small details makes it look like my leadership has nothing better to do with their time. That’s if I give them the benefit of the doubt, which in this case I will. Do you really want your employees to think you are petty and bored? Especially if you are supposed to be the strategic decision maker? You undercut yourself as a leader while providing poor direction to your team by worrying over the little things.

I won’t leave it at that though, because I know some of the examples I gave can lead to big problems down the road if not taken care of. Look for patterns of behavior and fix them if it is a problem. Allow employees to make the occassional small mistake. The person who doesn’t make mistakes is the person not doing any work. Don’t penalize them over the small things so that they do not become needlessly risk averse.

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Posted in Advice, Managing Employees
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