June 27, 2000 10:11 AM CDT
Work Avoidance Strategies
A manager's guide to the top ten work avoidance strategies
Richard G. Ensman, Jr.
Meet Joe. While he's knowledgeable, always present at work, and seemingly cooperative, he'll do almost anything to avoid tasks he doesn't like. Joe, in fact, has elevated his work avoidance strategies to an art, especially when requests from colleagues come in. Wise supervisors understand work avoidance styles and the strategies they can use to combat them.
Joe is miffed about a request from a colleague. He calls eight or nine people - other colleagues, a vendor or two, and support staff - and suggests that each in turn call a few other people in order to figure out how to best fulfill the colleague's request. Before you know it, Joe's colleague realizes that ten, fifteen or twenty other people are involved in the project and he's being inundated by telephone calls. Joe's rationale: I know how important this project is to my colleague . I was just trying to get some help. Supervisory strategy: Next time a request for help comes in, ask for an implementation plan.
Divide and Conquer
The boss asks Alice to take on an additional responsibility. Alice immediately calls other people she's working with, advising them that the amount of time she can spend on projects important to them is now limited. Concern and anger result. Alice's rationale: I was trying to help these people make some backup plans so their work doesn't suffer. Supervisory strategy: Set priorities with Alice.
Hide and Seek
George is due to handle a presentation at a meeting called by a colleague. George doesn't show up at the start of the meeting, which can't take place without him. Someone has to hunt George down. George's rationale: The boss gave me some other high-priority work to finish. Supervisory strategy: Be explicit about which meetings, appointments and deadlines are not left to George's discretion.
The Information Stratagem
Mary is doing everything possible to avoid completing an important report. Every other day, she's back in the office with some minor question, problem or need for data. Mary's rationale: It's a complex project and I need help. Supervisory strategy: Issue a deadline for questions. Beyond that, expect bottom-line results.
When it comes time for Bill to meet about a new set of tasks or a project, he asks an assistant or colleague to "get the instructions." Bill is not available. Bill's rationale: It's those other important priorities again. I need to spend time on them. Supervisory strategy: Route all requests for Bill's help through supervisory channels.
In a spite of busy work, Helen seems to be doing ten things at once, despite a colleague's insistence that an urgent task needs priority. When confronted about the issue, Helen indicates that the project is "on the list," along with a number of other pressing priorities. Helen's rationale: I know it's important, but Jane and Dick have got me working on some crucial matters. Supervisory strategy: Set priorities.
Phil is asked by a colleague to handle an undesirable task. His response suggests that it's "out of his hands," "not policy," or needs the approval of his boss. Phil even suggests that he'll talk to the boss about it at some point. Phil's rationale: All I'm doing is letting my boss decide where the priorities are that's pretty reasonable, right? Supervisory strategy: Articulate your expectation that Phil will attempt to meet the genuine needs of his peers without resorting to constant supervisory consultation. When consultation is necessary, require Phil to submit recommendations beforehand.
When confronted with a complex (and unpleasant) task, Beth delves into the planning phase with enthusiasm. She generates lists of questions to be answered, lists of tasks that others need to complete, and lists of options and decisions that need to be addressed before work can get under way. Beth's rationale: I'm just trying to plan well. Supervisory strategy: Hold Beth accountable for bottom-line results and a clear deadline for starting and finishing projects.
The Endless Meeting
Someone is angry about Tim's use of one or another of these delaying tactics and confronts him about it. Perhaps a meeting is called. At the meeting, Tim is most cooperative. He may even take charge of the situation by asking pointed, probing questions, making notes, and generating credible options. But a few days after the meeting, much to the consternation of Tim's colleague, Tim wants to schedule still another meeting. Tim's rationale: It's good to get things planned out. Supervisory strategy: Allow only one brief meeting. Beyond that, hold Tim accountable for results.
The Overtime Dilemma
A colleague asks Jane for help. Jane says she'd like to help, but the task would require her to work overtime, something she says she's not permitted to do. The requester, of course, is in a bind, thinking that he might be causing extra expense to accrue as the result of his request. Jane's rationale: Everyone's telling me to keep costs down. I'm just trying to comply. Supervisory strategy: Set priorities. Work avoidance behavior is a challenge in many workplaces, even among otherwise dedicated, well-performing employees. With decisive supervision, however, the opportunity for avoidance tactics can be minimized, and Joe, Alice, George, Mary, and their friends can be prompted to focus their attention where it matters: on the important tasks at hand.
About the Author
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a free-lance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.
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