By Sander A. Flum
Have you noticed the American office is a shrine to interruptions? Each day managers arrive at their desks, focused on their daily and long-term missions. And each day, they must swim against a tide of e-mails, ringing phones, pinging BlackBerries, and an army of subordinates knocking at the door. If it sounds difficult, it is.
No office is immune to the problem, and the majority of employees are affected by it, as either interrupters or the interuptees. The average worker spends roughly 28% of the workday—that's more than two hours a day—dealing with and recovering from interruptions, according to a 2006 study published by the management consultancy Basex.
Which workers must fend off more interruptions than anyone else? Unit heads, because their ears are always in high demand. The challenge for leaders is to filter out extraneous requests and to maintain the primacy of their own essential goals. They must remain so focused that they allow nothing to steer them off course until they are certain their key priorities have been addressed.
Of course, a no-interruption policy is only as good as the leader who institutes it. It’s all well and good to say, “Don’t knock when the door is closed.” But if a direct report knocks and you answer, you aren’t teaching the right lesson. As a general rule, leaders should not honor any interruption, except for a true emergency.
“Management is largely about interruption,” writes Henry Mintzberg, management professor at McGill University, in an article published in August in The Wall Street Journal. “But e-mail—and especially BlackBerries—really makes it much worse...”
Cognitive research conducted over the past 10 years indicates that the time cost of switching between two tasks is magnified when one of the tasks is unfamiliar or more complicated—a common scenario for the executive interruption. So if you’re trying to stay focused in a meeting about how to execute a new project, an interruption can cause greater delay than the amount of time taken to attend to the new task.
The research goes on to say that if a task is actually scheduled with a division or department head, rather than sprung on him or her as an interruption, not surprisingly it will take less time, and in effect, demand fewer resources from management.
In many cases, an interruption does more than set back the meeting schedule. A poorly timed interruption may undermine the perceived seriousness of your intent. Interruptions not only take your eyes off the prize; they send a signal to your collaborators and clients that you may not be all that serious about the prize to begin with.
Another common obstacle to productivity is the preemptive interruption, or the “hard stop.” Too many critical meetings begin with the phrase, “I only have a half hour,” when a half hour just won’t do. If an issue is important, dedicate the time necessary to deal with it effectively. Piecemeal meetings waste time and accomplish little. Focus your time on critical matters and don’t allow a hard stop to hijack your goals.
The consequences of permitting interruptions to control your business can be disastrous. The Basex study reports that workplace interruptions cost the U.S. economy roughly $588 billion a year. Whatever your share of that money is, your firm can’t afford to lose it to managerial mistakes—especially during a downturn.
At Flaum Partners, we’ve developed several strategies to keep interruptions at bay. I ask team members not to take their BlackBerries into our Brainbuster meetings. Their e-mail and missed calls will be waiting for them on the other side, whether they like it or not.
I’ve also learned to ask the same of our clients. I suggest to them that if we’re going create viable solutions to the pressing issues at hand we will need everyone's complete attention. At that point, I recommend that we all shut off our BlackBerries and mobile phones. My request may seem a bit audacious at first, but it conveys to everyone my seriousness about making progress on the project. It’s a sacrifice our clients are more than willing to make.
In the end, great leaders develop their own strategies for shutting out the noise. Formulating that strategy needs to become a priority of its own. Just don’t let anyone—or anything—distract you from it.
About the Author(s)
Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at [email protected]