CXO

The dangers of asking too much of staff

Pushing managers and staff hard to meet user and client demand is a dangerous path to travel but an easy one to take when CIOs are increasingly pressured to meet project deadlines. Find out why this approach can lead to more than just staff burnout.


It happens more often than most CIOs will admit, but consciously or unconsciously, tech leaders push top managers and employees beyond their limit. The reasons are always the same: to comply with a CEO’s demanding requests; pressure to complete projects at or preferably under budget; and to keep up with an increased production schedule to meet customer demands.

There has never been more pressure on CIOs to get work done quickly, says Lawrence Alter, president of The Arthur Group, a career management company in Minneapolis.

“Because virtually every part of the company demands so much of IT, tremendous pressure is exerted on CIOs to perform. Perfection is expected from the CEO down,” Alter explained.

“Inevitably, CIOs transfer that sense of pressure down the ladder, and often the delegation is not handled diplomatically. Adding to the problem is slimmed-down IT departments operating with skeleton staffs.”

Pushing doesn’t get anyone anywhere
No one typically balks when asked the first or second time to do more than is usually expected. Two or three more hours of additional work a few times a week can be tolerated. Even an occasional Saturday is bearable if it gets an obnoxious but big-pocketed customer off of IT’s back.

But everyone has a limit. What was considered dedication inevitably turns into a burden, and in the blink of an eye, a proactive, hardworking staff member is now disgusted, annoyed, and feeling very underappreciated. Staff may begin showing symptoms of burnout—a sharp drop in productivity, increasing apathy, and even depression.

Paulo Matos, COO of Silverlink Communications, said that he’s seen “the negative impact of CIOs relying too much on key contributors to the detriment of their entire technical staffs.” Silverlink is a voice-applications company for the healthcare industry in Arlington, MA.

Yet, it’s not a simple issue, Matos stresses, as there are two sides to consider.

“On the one hand, CIOs often single out only key contributors to push to the limit of endurance and stress. All major problems become their problems, and all key deadlines become their deadlines,” he explained. “On the other hand, low-level contributors don’t have the opportunity to become major players, since they were denied the unique learning opportunities afforded by handling tough technical problems.” In this scenario, CIOs spend a lot of time keeping key managers and high performers from "melting down," and at the same time, deal with employees who feel underappreciated and demoralized. “So, it’s not just overworked managers and employees who are feeling the effect of burdensome workloads,” he pointed out.

Alter says there are seven dangers that CIOs must be aware of when overworking their managers:
  1. Loss of focus and failure to hold their staffs accountable for their actions or projects.
  2. Failure to manage others because of the demands placed on them.
  3. Mounting stress, which results in the inability to prioritize projects or project issues.
  4. Fear of saying "no," because managers are afraid to look bad and feel they have no choice, which heightens their burdens.
  5. Pushing staff beyond their limits. When overwhelmed with work, managers act more like drill sergeants than role models.
  6. Projects are completed late and are often of poor quality.
  7. Friction within the ranks. Managers spend a disproportionate amount of their time putting out fires, and they often resort to harassing or bullying their staffs.

Avoiding the urge to push
So, how do CIOs avoid overburdening managers and staff to keep harmony, and productivity, strong? Matos offers the following suggestions:

Understand situations and prioritize work accordingly
Many crisis situations are not real crises, but the result of poor planning. A weekly or even a brief daily staff meeting could give managers the information necessary to properly prioritize the work.

Keep track of crisis events so patterns can be identified
Design a process that addresses the root cause of problems. If a lot of time is spent troubleshooting cabling problems in a data center, for example, the problem may be a lack of a good cable-management process, documentation, and training.

Make sure you are delegating the right job to the right managers
Reinforce good work through recognition (both public and private). Let the employee/manager know that he or she is doing a great job and that those efforts are appreciated.

Concentrate on managers’ strengths when giving assignments
Ask for help from others if you feel over-stretched and frustrated. Insist that your managers keep you aware of their frustrations, and conduct weekly meetings with your staff to air problems and discuss potential solutions.

Staying productive
By following Matos’ suggestions, tech leaders, from the top down, can reverse the current management-burnout trend in today’s enterprises and improve not only overall staff productivity, but also their own management stature within the organization.

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