Simon Terry

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The Continuous Partial Attention of Management

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The story is too common in the modern organisation: a team has a member who is not contributing but they go on being a part of the team for months or even years. Waste, frustration and disengagement mount in the team. Despite the negative impacts and length of time the manager responsible does nothing to rectify the underperformance.

We have more performance data than ever. We have more sources of information than ever. We interact in more ways than ever. We live in an age of increased performance transparency.

How Can Sustained Underperformance Be Common?

All that data, information, interaction and transparency brings more for managers to do. Complexity is the fundamental challenge of the modern manager and without careful husbanding of their attention the time of the manager can be subsumed into busy work.

Continuous partial attention has crept into management practice. Challenged to keep up managers are constantly skimming across the top of the work. Interactions with employees are staccato bursts. Busy managers spend less time understanding what is actually going on. Flitting in and out of observation of their employees, managers can be lulled into a false sense of confidence if the numbers look good. 

For an under-performing employee that means the ability to escape action continues as long as the deadline has not yet arrived, the numbers look acceptable and underperfomer has an answer for the first quick query from a manager. The commonest trick is for the under performing employee to send their busy manager an email asking for a complex decision. Likely overlooked or deferred, it becomes an instant performance excuse. Instead of asking for help the employee uses the pressures on their manager as a chance to hide their performance issues. Time, pressure and waste mount up.

In rare cases, managers may see the problem situation but the pressure of other demands means that they do not prioritise action. They trust in the systems, the employee’s peers or the reporting to correct the underperformance or hope that the employee’s lack of action is temporary. These managers prioritise the work and the system over their people to the detriment of everyone.

Refocus the Attention of Management on the Process of Work

Psychological studies show that multitasking & continuous partial attention don’t work. People who practice these approaches feel that they are more effective but aren’t. We need managers to get off the treadmill and reconsider their approaches to performance:

  • Shared Purpose & Goals: In many of these situations the underperformance is simply because the busy manager has not set, clear goals for the employee and the employee has no rationale for their work. Engage employees upfront on the purpose and goals of their work.
  • Enable and Empower: If managers don’t have the bandwidth to guide and manage, organisations must ensure that employees have the ability to manage themselves and their work. That takes an investment in skills and the freedom to make decisions without waiting for a busy manager to respond.
  • Targeted Fast Agile Delivery: Ask an employee to work on a lots of  things for months and they will be as bamboozled by the status & priorities of the project as their manager. Instead ask an employee to deliver a few focused things in a short cycle of delivery. The need for reporting, status updates & chatter goes down as observable delivery increases.
  • Real conversations: Any genuine one-on-one conversations with an employee & their peers of more than 10 minutes will begin to surface the real issues in a team. Asking good questions and listening to hear between the lines of the answers is critical in management. Managers must prioritise this to enable their teams to succeed.
  • Act now: The busy nature of work is not an excuse to defer needed actions or to defer complex decisions. If something triggers a suspicion, then dive in.

Great managers shape the process and performance of the team. Great managers enable every member of their team to realise their potential and contribute to creating a more responsive organisation. They are not slaves to the reporting, information and decisions that flow through them. Managers must step out of continuous partial attention to the ongoing work process and get involved in the design of the work.

The work of leadership is to realise the potential of people. Leaving someone stuck in a rut of continued underperformance is failing that individual’s potential.


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