Leadership 16: A leader must create a space where team members have the time to accomplish their tasks.

“Bobby, why is there never time to do things right, but there is always time to do things twice?” My Dad.

The goal of the leader must be to provide as many blocks of uninterrupted time as possible.

In a nutshell: A leader must create an environment where team members have the time to accomplish their tasks.  1. The goal must be to give your team uninterrupted blocks of time. Allow team members to work in quiet areas; if you need time to concentrate, schedule question periods at various times during the day; establish the expectation that emails will not be answered immediately.  2. Assign work intelligently. The leader must learn to say ‘no’ to requests for which there are insufficient resources; Avoid dreadlines; Let your team stick with one task.  Allow team members to negotiate how to prioritize work when new projects are assigned; assigning more work does not add hours to the day; know how your team works, how much simmer time is needed if you expect them to be creative. 3. Respect non-work time; being considerate of work hours; protect evenings, weekends and vacations; respect lunch time.

The interruption factory.

If you were trying to finish up the most important project of your life, where would you go to work on it?  Your office?

The modern workplace has become an interruption factory: emails, texts, too many meetings, the boss stops by to take you off one task to put you on an “urgent task” which is obviously not as important as what you were just working on, and demands it be done by COB, Close of Business.  You make the 180 degree turn to address this new task, get the job done, email it to your boss two hours after quitting time, and stagger home totally spent and exhausted by the bosses gift of anxiety.  Then a week later in a staff meeting the boss asks whether you ever started working on that project.

Does any of this sound familiar?

How about Dreadlines: tasks which are assigned with a vague description of the project or its purpose, accompanied by ever-shifting goal posts, generously seasoned with insufficient staff and resources, and the cherry on top is a clearly-impossible-to-meet deadline. When you ask for clarification you are met with, “You went to college, right?  You figure it out.”   

Or, the boss gives you 3 hours’ worth of work with an hour left in the work day and demands it be done and delivered directly to them before you leave.  You stay two hours late and the janitor tells you the boss left at 5:00.  Or your boss agrees with their boss to complete a project for which your team does not have time or resources and then expects you to bend time and space to get it done.

You get calls or emails at night, on the weekend, or the real kick in the shin, while you are on vacation.

All of these are signs of a bad boss disrespecting the team members’ time, which creates an environment which is not calm, where people do not feel safe or respected.  Work which is assigned with insufficient time to perform it well it creates stress, low morale and low productivity, and results in mistakes being made, and a final product with little creativity.

Offices generally have set working hours, 9 to 5, 8 to 4:30, etc. which means that there is the same number of minutes to work every week, and work should be assigned in a manner which ensures that a single day’s work can be performed during normal work hours.  So why is it that you don’t have time to do the quality work you can be proud of?

1. Give your team uninterrupted blocks of time by minimizing interruptions.

The most valuable commodity a leader has is their team members’ time and attention.  Therefore, your goal is to allow your team members to own the vast majority of their time by minimizing interruptions.

How often do you get to work several hours straight without interruptions? Opportunities for concentrated work,  hour-after-hour without interruption, no emails, telephone calls, meetings, or invaders at the gates announcing one fake emergency after another, these blocks of time have become a rare and endangered species.   In my job supervising interns such blocks of time were called Saturday and Sunday, but that was because the way my job was designed, my main responsibility was answering their questions.  When an intern arrived at my door, they were not an interruption, they were my job.  When I wanted to write new materials, I often had to come into an empty office hours before work started or on the weekend.  Remember that old rule: leadership requires sacrifices?

Allow team members to work in quiet areas.

Every workplace is different, but as leader you are responsible for trying to try to design an environment where the team members can concentrate.  In my last job at the ABA, the main responsibility of my interns was to answer telephone calls from immigration detainees, determine what information they needed, put the information in a packet and mail it off.  But as their internship progressed we also allowed them to work on side projects they wished to pursue, such as writing up a informational packet on a new law or court decision.  In observing my team when an intern was trying to focus on research and writing it became obvious that being surrounded by ringing phones was not conducive to quiet, contemplative, creative writing.  They were distracted by other interns talking to detainees.  Or when all the other interns were on the phone and one additional call came in, the intern who was supposed to be working on a separate project would see that light blinking, pleading, and they knew a detainee was praying for someone to answer, to be able to talk to someone, and no one was going to answer.  The urge for our writer to turn away from the project and pick up that phone was nearly irresistible.  So, I gave them permission to work somewhere away from the phones, in a meeting room or empty office, or they could take half a day off and work outside the office.

Karen and Nicole, who were my co-coaches for the interns, answered as many questions as I did, so  when they would have a large task which required their concentration, they would put up a “Do not disturb” sign which was visible as interns and other staff members approached their cubicle and you would see people making U turns and heading for my office.

Karen and Nicole

If you need time to concentrate, schedule question periods at various times during the day.

With my ABA interns my ONLY job was answering questions, but in most leadership positions questions don’t play that prominent a role.  And let’s be honest, most questions that find their way to your door aren’t that pressing or time sensitive.  And if you are unavailable to answer a question immediately the truth seeker will either wait or find someone else to answer it.  In all my other jobs I believed in scheduling question periods just as university professors schedule office hours.

When I was in Texas in 1989 launching the ProBAR project with volunteer lawyers doing political asylum cases, there were several months when I was also the acting Executive Director of a sister organization, Proyecto Libertad.  Our offices shared the same floor in a building which made me a sitting duck for interrupting questioners. I not only had to mentor my volunteer lawyers and interns at ProBAR, but also answer questions for a dozen lawyers and paralegals at Proyecto.  This led to not a stream of questions, but a deluge.  Eventually I had to set a time schedule for taking questions from each group, which I posted on my door.  (A volunteer lawyer once entered my office calling out, “O Captain, my Captain” hence the nickname.)

When I would open my door at the beginning of each question period, I would always find a long line of people with questions which, while important, had not required an immediate answer from me.  Without the schedule they would have just broken my concentration when it was convenient for them and an interruption to me.  And I wish I had had time for a three hour nap, but that was my built in, uninterrupted block of time to work.

Eventually Frank Sherry came down to the Rio Grande Valley to help with the restructuring of Proyecto and took that off my plate.

Oni, Nilda and Frank, Proyecto Libertad, Harlingen, Texas 1990

Establish the expectation that emails will not be answered immediately.

Credit: New York Times San Luis Obispo

For those of you are too young to remember this movie or the days when email was a new invention, every time you received an AOL email you heard this announcement and rushed back with great excitement to the computer to see who was writing!

(I still use an AOL email account.  I may be a late adopted, but by God once I start using something I hold on for dear life!)

“Your email will be answered in due course.”

A policy for the leader to consider implementing is that people should not expect an immediate response to every email.  I liked to work with the ‘You’ve got mail!” notification turned off because it broke my concentration every time it dinged and a little tab showed up.  But often I would be interrupted with someone at my door asking me why I had not responded to the email they had sent two minutes earlier.  As we saw in our discussion of false urgencies, very rarely are things so urgent they require such an instantaneous response.  Allowing people more time to respond also means they can come up with a more considered and helpful answer.

Assign work intelligently

The leader must learn to say ‘no’ to requests for which there are insufficient resources. Here are 40 ways to say now, I would love to see some leader use all of them at one time in response to a frivolous request.

How To Say “NO!” in 40 Different Languages!

See original video here: https://youtu.be/Bf9GshreUAs

A leader has the duty to decline to take on new projects when it is obvious the team does not have the time or resources to complete it well.  I have had leaders who have high self-esteem and self-confidence and who simply, and stubbornly, refused to accept projects beyond our team’s capacity. And you can be sure the team recognized and appreciated that brave act. And I seen bad bosses so eager to please they never turned down anything suggested to them, resulting in chronic overload for the team, poor performance, followed by degrading attacks by the boss regarding our incompetence.

“The only way to get more done is to have less to do. Saying no is the only way to claw back time.   Don’t shuffle 12 things so that you can do them in a different order, don’t set timers to move on from this or that.  Eliminate 7 of the 12 things, and you’ll have time left for the 5.  It’s not time management, its obligation elimination.  Everything else is snake oil.” Crazy at Work by Basecamp

Credit: Reddit

Avoid dreadlines – You can’t pile on more work without giving more time.  This idea comes from Jason Fried who wrote It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work and I believe I gleaned the following thoughts from that book, but I love to read books about leadership so I may be mistaken as to the source of some of these ideas.  I am also summarizing and extrapolating from the book, but it is short and a good read so you may want to pick it up if you want to lead better.

“Dreadlines” are tasks which are assigned with a vague description of the project or its purpose, accompanied by ever-shifting goal posts, generously seasoned with insufficient staff and resources, and the cherry on top is a clearly impossible to meet deadline.

You can’t give someone a deadline, then add new projects with their own deadlines between now and then and expect them to meet the first deadline – something has got to give. Without a fixed, attainable and believable deadline, you can’t work calmly and confidently.

The three components of setting deadlines: how much time to give, the amount of work to be done, and the quality of that work you want. 

When setting a deadline there are always three considerations: how much time to give, the amount of work to be done, and the quality of that work you want.  Whichever one is considered most important will reduce the other two.  If time is most important and you need it right away, less work will be done and it will be of lesser quality.

If quality is your most important consideration, it is going to take much more time and a great deal of work will go into it.

“If the boss is constantly pulling people off one project to chase another, nobody’s going to get anything done and the team members will be riding off in all directions.”

Credit: adapted from SkyDanceMountain.com

There are three questions you need to ask to determine if a deadline being imposed is unreasonable:

If the deadline you are proposing fails under any of these three tests, you need to reconsider.  And remember the magic words:

“This will just have to wait.”

1. Is the amount of time you are given sufficient to accomplish the amount of work required?

Assigning more work does not add hours to the day.

Before a leader assigns a new task, they must inquire what else is being worked on and then decide which task is more important so that the limited time available in a work day can accommodate the demands being made.

A good leader does impose time management on their own expectation of what they expect from the team, they control what is a reasonable amount of work they expect the team to do in any given amount of time.

2. Is it possible to achieve the quality of work requested given the resources and time allowed?

You must know how your team works, how much simmer time is needed if you want creative results.

You may remember my example of Last-Minute-Bob from my Legal Services days who I eventually had to fire because he was burning out my support staff by doing everything at the last possible moment, (Bob: “You can’t fire me, I’m a better lawyer than you are!” Me: “Everybody is a better lawyer than me, what kind of a leader would I be if I only hired lawyers who are worse than me?”) Well, if the boss of Last-Minute-Bob dropped a task on his desk that was due by close of business, he would relish the challenge.  I don’t work that way, if I am going to write something worth reading, I need time for my ideas to simmer.  A good boss knows how individual team member works best and assigns work accordingly, giving various amounts of lead team to different workers.

3. When you are assigning this new task, how should other deadlines be changed? 

Allow team members to negotiate how to prioritize work when new projects are assigned.

Build an environment that encourages constructive dissent. Give your team the authority to slow you down.  One of the most stressful actions of a new boss is to assign a new project to a worker who is making good progress on bringing another project in on time, and insisting that both projects be finished without changing the deadlines.  Insufficient time and resources to meet a deadline increases stresses, reduces quality and creativity, and encourages mistakes.  If the leader has established trust with the team, they should feel comfortable pointing out the conflicting demands on their time and asking the leader to choose which project to focus on, and which will be delayed.

Being respectful of team members’ time puts your team members physical and mental health first.

“A leader builds respect by taking the people more seriously than any particular project.”

With my analogy of good leader as organic gardener I believe that my first priority is to take care of my team members, tend to their mental and physical health, inspire them by showing how their work was affecting the lives of others, and celebrating how good they were at what they did.  If I am successful at that they will give their all to fulfill the mission.

Being considerate of work hours

I was once accused of leaving work on time.  I want you to repeat that so you see it is not a typo.  I was once accused of leaving work on time. That was from a disorganized, unprioritized boss that found little satisfaction in their work and constantly claimed that they were the only one who cared about the mission and they wore as a badge of pride the fact they had to work extended hours, fumbling around in the office until late at night and on the weekends.  A good leader respects their team member’s time by making sure they are never overburdened with tasks, and that they have sufficient time away from the office to relieve the stress of their work, to reenergize their enthusiasm for the task at hand, and to reactivate their creative juices.

Caring for my team begins with being considerate of work hours.  If I am doing my job well, my team should be able to complete their work during five days and 40 hours.  If they have to work on the weekend, or stay late, I need to reassess because either I am giving them too much room, or they may need some coaching on how to complete the task more rapidly.

This is not to say I was always successful in shooing my interns home on time.  Many days they stayed late because they enjoyed the company of their teammates, they enjoyed the challenge of doing research to document persecution in other countries, and they wanted to get materials to detainees as quickly as possible.

I received this response from my intern Janeth late one evening in response to my check-in text because we had discussed something that was stressful during the day and I wanted to make sure she was feeling better about it.

It turned out Janeth and Kristine had gone out to dinner, then returned to the office to finish up some packets. 

Going back to my analogy of good leader as organic gardener, I believe that my first priority is to nurture the wellbeing of my team members, tend to their mental and physical health. I inspire them by reminding them that their efforts are having a positive impact on the lives of others, and celebrating how skillful they were as team members.  When you make someone feel seen, valued, and appreciated, they will go above and beyond the call of duty to fulfill the mission.

Bad bosses often assign work to establish their dominance.

Bad bosses think nothing of dropping a three-hour assignment on someone’s desk at 3:30 and telling them it needs to finished before the person leaves the office.  This demonstrates the power of the boss, the subservience of the worker, but it results in sloppy work and terrible morale. 

Protect evenings, weekends and vacations,

Credit: unaconstelacionmental

When the workday ends, there will be no phone calls or emails from me unless it is something fun.  Whatever work demands there are, they wait. The weekends should also be a no-contact zone because everyone needs to relax and recharge their batteries to prepare for next week when we will be working hard again.

Vacations can also be an invaluable tool, both for recharging our spent batteries, but also for reviving creativity in how we address problems by giving our subconscious some time to work out a solution.  In addition, vacations are supposed to be fun, and make people happy, and reinforce relationships within their families.

Many people have vacations spoiled by a bad boss.  Such bosses try and limit how long your vacation is, “I know you have 30 days of vacation owed to you, but do you really need two whole weeks in Italy?  Could you make it 10 days?”  Other times they will have the audacity to send you an email in the midst of your vacation,  I have received these poison darts more than once, the topic is neither important or pressing, and it is never mentioned once I return to the office,  it was just the boss’s way of reminding me who is in charge.

Respect lunch time

At the ABA my co-coaches Karen and Nicole were required to take lunch breaks and they often liked to sit in their cubicle and browse their phones as they dined.  But people tended to not respect that hour and would interrupt with questions and new assignments because they were “just eating lunch.”  Karen came up with the idea of a sign.  “STOP! I am on my lunch break and cannot speak to you now.  Come back after _______.” She would provide a time with a yellow sticker.  Absolutely brilliant.

Remember the rule: create a space where your team members have the time to accomplish their tasks. Your goal must be to provide as many blocks of uninterrupted time as possible.  If you succeed at that, you will be leading a happy, super productive team.

Coming Attractions: Leadership 17: How a leader should listen in a group. The leader must practice the difficult task of listening first, and speaking last.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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