By Francis Wade
Sunday, July 1, 2012.
In a recent seminar, I heard a familiar story that gets repeated in my
time-management programmes: an executive gets upset when he fails to get an
immediate response to his email.
Little does he know that his
insistence starts a process that turns his employees into morons.
Unfortunately, he often can't
see the negative effect of his actions on employees' productivity, but here are
the two unwanted sequences of events in slow motion.
Step 1: An executive sends an urgent email and
waits for a reply.
Step 2: When his impatience grows beyond its
limits, he makes a call to the recipient, or to the person's boss.
Step 3: In an annoyed and bothered voice, he
asks why the person hasn't responded. It's a rhetorical question, of course, as
he doesn't really want to know. He wants to press home the point that whatever
the recipient was doing was less important. He may even imply that better
time-management skills are needed and explain that this is why company
BlackBerry's are given out.
Step 4: The prior three steps are repeated
several times until the staff gets the picture. They need to check their email
all the time just in case something important from someone higher up in the
organisation has been sent.
Step 5: When everyone 'learns' the lesson, they
quickly become unproductive morons whose main accomplishment each day is to
answer lots of email as quickly as possible, even if they are in meetings,
having a conversation, driving on the highway, or using the toilet. Moronic
behaviour becomes the norm and spreads into weekends, holidays, vacations, and
The second way to turn employees
into morons has to do with office space. It also takes five steps.
Step 1: An executive makes a commitment to cut
overhead costs. The office, they observe, has too many offices with closed
doors that altogether cost too much.
Step 2: He comes to believe that replacing
offices with small cubicles will do the trick, and will give him a chance to
keep an eye on everyone.
Step 3: The cubicles are installed.
Step 4: Employees struggle to remain focused, as
visible, audible, and sensory distractions prevent them from entering the most
highly productive working state - called "Flow" by Mihalyi
Step 5: The best employees leave in frustration,
while those who remain take up the status of full-time morons who must, in
extreme cases, take sick-days to get their best work done.
In each case, the executives
involved are making a sincere attempt to make things better, but end up doing
the very opposite because they don't understand the inner workings of
Their ignorance leads them to
implement solutions that simply don't work, and they are unaware of the latest
research in both these areas that make it abundantly clear that their initial
hypotheses are simply wrong.
Fortunately, the research is
also clear about what needs to happen to help solve both of these problems.
Solution: Ban Urgent Email
Email is an extremely unreliable
medium for handling emergencies or emotionally sensitive matters. Only 79 per
cent of email sent is ever received, according to the latest statistics, due to
network and spam problems.
Furthermore, using email for
urgent communication forces everyone to keep checking, just in case something
important turns up. Less than 1.0 per cent of email is urgent, but the other 99
per cent has to be scanned, just in case. In the worst situations, the entire
company picks up the habit, wasting tremendous amounts of time. The solution is
to put in place a policy to never use email for urgent matters, and instead, to
use a phone call, face-to-face conversation, or, with caution, BlackBerry
There are a number of studies
linking professional productivity with the ability of professionals to find
quiet, undisturbed time. Designing an office with small cubicles and low walls
promotes distractions and flies in the face of this research.
Keeping employees productive in
the Internet age is not as easy as it seems, especially when so many powerful
electronic tools are available. It takes great awareness to avoid the two
problems listed in this article, but developing it can prevent a company from
turning well-meaning colleagues into morons.
Francis Wade is a consultant with Framework Consulting. Send
feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org