Are Managers Too Busy to Work Effectively?

These days it seems most people at the office are busier, jumping from project to project in an attempt to make up for colleagues lost after multiple rounds of layoffs.

But according to a new study, as companies try to keep their businesses on track with fewer employees, they run into a formidable roadblock: unproductive managers.

A mere 10 percent of executives spend their time in a committed, purposeful and reflective manner. That means the remaining 90 percent waste their time on a whole range of ineffective activities or do little at all, concludes the study, published in the February issue of Harvard Business Review.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Experts, and even managers themselves, have long been aware of the downfalls of unproductive busywork or lack of focus, but many do not realize how costly it can be.

"It's a huge problem if the majority of managers don't know how to use their time wisely," says London Business School professor Sumantra Ghoshal, who co-wrote the study after dedicating 10 years to study management structures at nearly a dozen companies, including Sony, LG Electronics and Lufthansa.

Self Management Is Critical

The key to productive management is the right combination of focus and energy, argues Ghoshal.

Purposeful managers set their own agendas — and then work hard to manage their external environment in a way that helps them achieve those goals, he writes.

Their unproductive counterparts often find themselves in reactive mode — immediately addressing every issue that arises, going to endless meetings, obsessively answering e-mails and voice mails. In the end, their wheel-spinning tends to leave them over-committed and unable to deliver real results.

Other managers fail because while they're able to set goals, they either put them off and don't feel enough of a connection to their jobs to work hard and achieve them.

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"Good managers aren't always busy, they don't have to work 70 hours a week, and they always have time to listen to their employees," says Dane Madsen, CEO of Henderson, Nev.-based online business directory firm

Who’s at Fault?

What causes an individual to fail as a manager? Sometimes insufficient training and experience can leave a manager unable to zero in on the most important — and valuable — tasks, says Gail McMeekin, a Newton, Mass.-based career coach and author of The Power of Positive Choices.

"Some people are intuitively good managers and will be good in almost any situation," she says. "Then there are those who didn't have management training and tend to fall back on a model of a former manager — even if that person was bad at it — because they don't know anything else."

A lack of motivation, accountability or creativity are also among the limits to efficiency, says Fred Reichheld, director emeritus of Boston management consulting firm Bain & Co.

Tom McLane, vice chairman of The Directorship Search Group in Greenwich, Conn, argues that managers' insecurities can reduce productivity. For example, ineffective executives fail to hire people who are smarter than they are for fear of being outshone.

But, he says, effective managers will know to embrace knowledgeable workers because they make them look good and, in turn, make the company look good.

The Corporate Culture Obstacle

Sometimes the real cause of the problem is deeper than the individual. One of the largest stumbling blocks for managers is a complex management reporting structure, say experts.

Ghoshal says the American concept of management by intricate, and often overbearing, reporting labyrinths was designed as a way to control costs, but actually zaps most managers' energies instead of invigorating them.

"Endemic in U.S. businesses are the month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter requirements," adds Madsen. "We manage from a cost perspective, not from a value perspective, and it is the demand for daily results that really force us to keep a nearsighted view of the business world."

Says McMeekin: "The problem right now is that companies are not setting boundaries so managers get distracted and end up spinning their wheels while constantly fighting fires."

Leaders Equal Loyalty, Profitability

Yet if good management is the life-blood of the business, bad management can be its death knell, notes Madsen. If not caught soon enough, it can destroy a company both from the inside out.

"Good leaders inspire loyalty and commitment. Weak leaders destroy the basis for team success," says Reichheld, author of Loyalty Rules!

Loyalty has a trickle-down effect: If employees are loyal to their managers and companies, customers are also loyal to those companies and will boost profit growth, he explains.

An increase of as little as 5 percent in customer retention will translate into as much as 25-95 percent profit gain in almost any industry, Reichheld argues, citing a 1996 Bain study.

Yet, of 2,000 employees Bain interviewed in 2001, less than half of all frontline workers believe their company deserves their loyalty — which undermines customer, and employee, retention.

The bottom line, says Madsen, "is that people don't want to be managed, they want to be led, and you don't find great leadership skills everywhere you go."