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By Francis Wade

Sunday, July 11, 2010.

When I joined the corporate world back in 1988, there seemed to be only a few managers that were crazy-making. Nowadays, their numbers seem to have increased, aided with new technology that helps them get their way in the short term, while ruining the  productivity of their companies.

These bad bosses are not necessarily malicious.  In fact, they are quite well-intentioned, but they are unable to see the impact of their actions on a large scale.  Unfortunately for them, technology has served as a tremendous amplifier of unproductive habits, turning bad individual habits into organization-wide headaches.

For example, the boss who got into a letter writing feud with another manager and started off a volley of paper letters in the 1980s created little damage.  Letters, after all, took a long time to write and disseminate, and copies only found their way to their recipients slowly.

With the advent of email, however, a similar feud in the 1990s could easily escalate into a public war of messages involving every single member of staff, who could watch from the ringside as  several messages were sent within the hour, tying up thousands of  dollars of valuable employee time.

It was one of the early examples of a way in which a boss’ bad habits could become everyone’s nightmare, and time-waster.

Fast-forward to 2010, and the games continue, with a twist.

Now, managers give employees the gift of Blackberrys with the full knowledge that they are gaining something powerful — 24/7 access to the employee’s time (or something quite close to it.)

Smartphones give users access to a phone, email, instant messaging and voice mail.  Managers quickly learn that there is a difference between those employees who are equipped, versus those who are not.

More specifically, those with smartphones are far more likely to - respond to urgent 4:00am emails; reply to a text message while driving on the motorway; interrupt their vacation to edit that pesky client document;  join a conference call on Sunday morning; and answer instant messages in the middle of meetings

Any boss, good or bad, would rush to give the gift of a Blackberry or iPhone to most employees, given the obvious benefits listed above.

However, the increasing number of employees who are in the know understand that the above list of “beneficial behaviors” are a  recipe for corporate disaster.

When all managers develop the smartphone-driven practice of interrupting their employees at will, it guarantees that very few will get any work done.  I remember in the early 1990s, when my colleagues and I would stay home, come in early, leave late or visit the office on weekends in order to “get some work done.”

In other words, we did our real work outside work hours, because the work day was so filled with unplanned and unproductive interruptions.

Now, with the advent of smartphones, there is no escape.  None of these strategies work — the only reprieve from the smartphone leash occurs when one is either swimming or bathing… for now.

What are employees to do?

I doubt that much can change by griping — instead, someone must take a stand.  These corporate habits are quite difficult to break because they are unconsciously practiced by those who are the most powerful in the company.  In most companies, there are no policies governing their use, with the recent exception of driving restrictions.

An employee who takes a stand can do so for practical reasons versus moral reasons.  They can look for hard evidence that a company that has its employees chained to email is driving itself into an unproductive state (unless they are some kind of customer care-unit whose job it is to email).

They can start to check email only at certain hours, and let those around them know that they are un-tethering themselves from the 24/7 electronic leash.  At the same time, they must play the tricky game of convincing executives and line managers that the change in tactics will annoy some of them in the short term, but ultimately benefit everyone in the long term.

After all, who wants a company filed with employees who enjoy their chains jerked from one moment to the next, as they get pulled from one crisis to another?  I have seen highly-paid executives who operate like this, and the truth is that they hate it.

Some burn out and leave.  Other knuckle under and become the worst perpetrators, with their own employees becoming the fresh victims.

As I mentioned before, what makes this problem a tough one to solve is the fact that the habits are unconscious, and widespread among those who are the most powerful in most companies.  Turning the ship around is ultimately a group activity, but it must start with at east one person who is willing to convince others that  the change is a necessary one to make.

Whistle-blower laws have worked well to empower employees who are  committed to end criminal wrongdoing.  For many, it’s a matter of professional ethics and standards.

The boss’ bad habits may not be crimes,but they do have a negative effect. It’s the rare employees who are willing to adhere to a  higher personal standard of productivity that companies will come to rely on to lead them out of the “monkey on a leash”  behavior that we are now calling “productivity.”

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System

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