A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 27, 2018

Workers Are Reporting To Too Many Bosses - And It's Hurting Performance: Research

In an age where many enterprises want guarantees of success before committing - and in which concern over cost has led lean organizations to become bulimic - an overabundance of caution has led ostensibly 'flat' organizations to manage risk by demanding multiple approvals.

Research suggests the result is not good for either the managing or the managed. JL 

Lauren Weber and Lynn Cook report in the Wall Street Journal:

More than two-thirds of employees around the world say they have to consult with more than one boss to get their jobs done. Bosses now manage, on average, nine direct reports, up from five in 2008, which can spread leaders so thin that they don’t have a close grasp of what their employees are doing. Only 35% of employees surveyed last year say their manager understands their day-to-day work.
Who’s the boss? Many workers say they have more than one, and that’s causing frustration and confusion in the office.
More than two-thirds of employees around the world say they have to consult with more than one boss to get their jobs done, according to a Gartner Inc. IT 0.08% survey, and nearly as many waste significant amounts of time waiting for guidance from senior leaders. The lack of clear goals has caused some employees to try to manage their managers.
A few years ago at a prior job, Girish Rishi had a boss who got distracted by every minor crisis or triumph, leading to “whiplash” for his subordinates, says Mr. Rishi, now chief executive of JDA Software, of Scottsdale, Ariz.
“If there was news about a competitor, it would take up half your day,” he says. “If there was a customer win, the celebration would go on too long. Focusing on structure and priorities was missing.”Mr. Rishi says he tried his best to insulate his team from the chaos. He also developed his own management system based around efficiency. At JDA, a maker of supply-chain software, he requires meetings to be intensely focused and only eight or 30 minutes long, and he asks participants to submit materials 48 hours in advance.
While that isn’t always possible, Mr. Rishi says, he finds that for roughly 70% of all meetings, “people come prepared, they’ve summarized their thoughts and they’ve given us adequate information.”
Bosses now manage, on average, nine direct reports, up from five in 2008, according to Gartner, which can spread leaders so thin that they don’t have a close grasp of what their employees are doing. Only about 35% of employees surveyed in the Gartner poll last year say their manager understands their day-to-day work.
“Managers are less likely to provide good feedback and coaching when they don’t understand what that employee’s workflow is,” says Brian Kropp, human-resources-practice leader at Gartner.
Some managers say they are trying to be better bosses. Meghan Knoll, a general manager at Bark, which operates a subscription service of monthly dog treats and dog toys, participates in a regular management-coaching group with some of her peers. Recently, Ms. Knoll brought in a long list of difficult topics she wanted to discuss with a direct report and asked for guidance.
As the group asked her pointed questions about the feedback she planned to give her report, she began crossing items off the list. Some, for example, were just style differences between her and the employee.
“There was really only one thing I needed to talk to the person about,” Ms. Knoll says. “Coming in with a big list would have ultimately been a distraction.”
Roxanne Allen, a former director of communications with American Express who runs her own strategy business in Minneapolis, said in today’s “do more” office environment, managers’ priorities are ever changing and their employees are expected to remain open to fast-changing roles and business needs. “To be perceived as anything else is a career killer,” she said.
That’s the root of a lot of frustration. “Managers should set clear goals, learn to clearly communicate their priorities, and know the work their employees are performing so that mindless ’never minds’ are unnecessary and overloading never happens,” Ms. Allen says. “Alignment starts at the top.”
As greater workplace collaboration has swept across offices, many people report they feel burdened by all the shared projects—and the myriad meetings, conference calls and emails they require.

Four Things Bad Bosses Do Wrong

Robert Cross, a professor of leadership at Babson College who has been conducting workplace research for 20 years, says there is a right way and a wrong way to manage people. Here are four things that he says bad bosses get wrong.
  • Expecting people to know all the answers in the moment. Good managers should hire people who can find the right answer quickly, not browbeat them into over-prepping for meetings by trying to anticipate every question they could ever be asked.
    “When that attitude cascades down, it creates huge amounts of churn internally as people try to be ready, with everything at their fingertips, instead of creating a measured, sustainable pace.”
  • Not being OK with some ambiguity. Good managers are willing to move ahead without having everything planned out in advance.
    “The more people can focus on how-do-we-move-ahead-and-respond-rapidly versus developing a perfected plan up front, the better.”
  • Mistakenly believing that everybody has to be in every meeting. Good managers recognize that overcollaboration is real and they do not seek excessive consensus.
    “Leaders can get overwhelmed with collaboration and then they’re not sufficiently accessible to others. People who report to an overloaded boss are as much as 200% more likely to leave.”
  • Creating a context of fear. Good managers recognize that intimidated employees don’t share emerging—often imperfect—ideas that could turn out to be really great ones.
    “People who create a context of fear consume enormous amounts of time because their people feel like they have to bulletproof. They don’t speak up” and they burn out on the command that they be perfect all the time.
People with deeply rooted identities as high-performing workers are especially susceptible to collaborative overload, says Rob Cross, a professor of leadership at Babson College. But he sees glimmers of hope in the cubiclescape.
In 160 interviews with men and women across 20 organizations—including software firms, manufacturers and government contractors—many workers told him that they had successfully said “enough,” putting up boundaries to reclaim control of their days.
“They did so with great trepidation, only to discover that the negative backlash they’d feared was nowhere to be found,” he says.
One man told Babson researchers that when he started saying “no” more, the reaction shocked him. “People adapted around me immediately. To be honest, it made me wonder why I didn’t do this a year ago,” he said. “It has made a big impact on my happiness.”
Can you really set boundaries with your boss? Dr. Cross says yes, but it can’t be done in the heat of the moment. “You have to do it proactively,” he says, adding that people who build a diverse network of colleagues across an organization tend to possess the confidence to draw the line, while siloed workers frequently feel helpless to stand up for themselves.
“When a person’s whole identification gets built around one area, you get people who are less likely to believe that they can say no,” he says.


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