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Manager Overload: a case study.

by Jennifer McCoy

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

"We’ve got an open-plan office and I can’t get anything much done at work, with interruptions all around me. So I have to work at weekends to get things done. I’m thinking I should try to work from home a day a week, but I don’t think my boss will agree."

The speaker was a middle-level manager, trying to understand why he was finding it so difficult to be effective, and why his job then encroached so much into his family life.

This problem is often raised; the causes usually far more complex than the physical layout of the office. And there are many different solutions, although dividing up the office into work pods with walls and doors is not necessarily one of them.

In this case the starting point was to help this manager clarify exactly what he could get done at work and what was the nature of the work when he was home. The conversation went something like this.

Coach:"What sort of things would you like to have time for at work that you feel you can’t get done?"

Manager:"I never seem to have time to think. It’s always full on, with people wanting to ask questions, with projects to see to and decisions to be made."

C: "So, what do you mean by having time to think?"

M: "I need quietness for some reflection and planning time, but that never happens at work."

C: "What is important about reflection and planning time for you?"

M: "I need to be able to see where we’re going and where we’re at now. I’d like to be able to look at issues clearly to get the right perspective, instead of just reacting to things."

There were at least two issues surfacing here: his need for thinking and planning time as well as something about this manager’s apparent need to be involved in everything – so that people kept asking questions and he felt he needed to make decisions so often. 

C:"So, how does work at home at the weekends help you manage at work?"

M: "Well I can catch up on things. Look, if I don’t work at the weekend I get to work on Monday and there are so many things piled up that I hardly know where to start."

C: "What sort of things do you work on at home? Do you spend the time on reflection?"

M: (He paused) "I do some of that. But I mostly catch up on things and I do some planning for the next week."

C: "So, at home you have that quietness that could be used for reflection, but you are also doing routine work tasks."

We were starting to see a distinction between two broad areas of this manager’s work – the routine tasks he felt compelled to address as well as the reflection that he seemed desperately to want - and clearly needed. There was also a third distinction, one between reflection time and planning tasks, which may overlap but need to be more clearly defined. That would come later. For now, he needed to separate the first two areas of his work.

Now that the situation was becoming clear, we were able to discuss firstly different ways of finding time and a quiet space for reflecting. Next we could move on to talk about how he might reduce the number of tasks that he seemed to be doing: how he might delegate tasks or stop himself from assuming responsibility for so many things; how he might change the way he currently operates.

This is a very common situation: most managers find themselves overwhelmed by the multiple tasks that are part of their responsibility. This manager did though recognise his need for reflection time, although he was still seeing it really as planning time when he sat and worked out what he had to do for the week ahead.

It seems so obvious when the conversation is set out like this, but we are all guilty of confusing the wood with the trees when we are under pressure. The next step? He had to assess exactly what he is doing, for how long, and who else could be doing it. A simple time management log which could be used to make some informed decisions for the future; to give him time and space for reflection – and so allow him to become a leader.

Have you ever stopped to reflect on when you are being a manager and when you are being a leader; or on when you’re simply wasting your valuable time?


Try this tool for assessing your priorities; discover where you too can make time for reflection.

Download the Leadership-Management Self-Assessment tool here.