Faithful readers of this column will remember that I’ve used a quote from Karl Von Clauswitz to illustrate the dilemma facing IT managers: “In war, everything is very simple, but even simple things are very difficult.” What the general was saying is that an army’s goals are easy to define (capture the enemy’s army or capital) but in practice are difficult to accomplish. As a columnist, this means that you sometimes have to talk about things that seem obvious but that people still screw up.

In this column, I’m going to talk about a management practice that I think everyone would agree is stupid and counterproductive. However, it’s also one that almost every technical manager is guilty of from time to time. I call it “treating your employees’ time with contempt.” After explaining what I mean, I’ll give you some questions to answer to see if you’re guilty of the same offense.

The gulf between what we say and what we do
As a technical manager, you know that there is just never enough—never enough money, technology, people, or time. If you look at your own job, what is the single most precious resource, the one thing you wish had more of? For most of us, the answer is time. Time to plan, time to execute, time to think—imagine how much simpler your job would be if you could carve out just one hour a day to do these things.

Now consider all the time-wasters you confront in your own job: the pointless meetings, arbitrary schedule changes, endless CYA e-mail threads, or 50-slide PowerPoint presentations. Haven’t you sat in yet another useless meeting, jotting down some points in a notebook for an unrelated project that is already overdue, your blood boiling in frustration at the waste of your time, and the realization that you’ll be working late again tonight because the person running the meeting doesn’t know what he or she is doing?

Or is that just me? I don’t think so.

That being the case, why are so many of us guilty of precisely the same thing when it comes to our people? Do we really think that we value our time more highly than they value theirs? Don’t they have things to do, the same as you or I?

More importantly, what kind of message do we think such behavior sends to the people who work for us? I once worked with a guy who was chronically late for meetings, even meetings he organized. Granted, he always apologized for being late, but he never changed his behavior.

I called him on this one day after he kept a roomful of people waiting for 15 minutes. After the meeting was over, I asked, “What do you think people take away from your being constantly late to your meetings, without even bothering to let them know you’re running late?”

He replied, “I guess they understand that I’m really busy. They must know I don’t do it on purpose.”

I answered, “They understand you’re busy. But they also think you care so little about their time that you can’t be bothered to get to your own meeting on time. You think what you’re doing is so important that it justifies keeping a roomful of your own people cooling their heels for 15 minutes without even taking the time to warn them that the meeting would be starting late?”

Time-wasters: The Dirty Dozen
That’s a tough message to deliver and a tough one to hear. Do yourself a favor and don’t make someone have to say that to you. Take some time and ask yourself how good a job you’re doing valuing your subordinates’ time. Here is a list of questions that might help:

  • Are you on time for meetings and other events?
  • If you’re running a meeting, do you start it on time?
  • If you’re running a meeting, do you have a written or announced agenda?
  • Do you limit meetings to the smallest possible numbers of participants?
  • Do you schedule meetings for the shortest possible amount of time?
  • Do you keep meetings on track and keep participants focused?
  • Do you limit your PowerPoint presentations to the smallest possible number of slides?
  • Do you resist the temptation to Cc everyone in your group on e-mails that are tangential to their jobs?
  • When assigning a task, do you give enough direction so that your subordinate won’t waste time on dead-ends trying to figure out what you really want?
  • When assigning a task, do you wait until you really know what you want so that you don’t change your mind midway through the project?
  • If circumstances change on a project, do you let your people know as quickly as possible?
  • If a subordinate is going down the wrong path, do you let him or her know as quickly as possible to keep from wasting more time?

This isn’t a definitive list, by any means. I’m sure you can come up with additional or better questions. The important thing is that you look at how you operate with your staff and make sure you’re not wasting their time.

Join the discussion and win a TechRepublic coffee mug

Do you agree with Bob’s take on the value of your employees’ time? Join the discussion by posting your comments below. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.