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The Time Abusers

Is that ticking you hear a clock or a time-bomb? Employees who abuse time will sap a business's morale and operations. Problem is, these can also be your best employees.

Managers categorize their employees in many ways. Some like to distinguish between extroverts and introverts. Others prefer to look at how willing or unwilling their employees are to take risks. Only rarely do top managers group their people according to their use or abuse of time, which is surprising given the impact it has on an organization's productivity and profitability. Anyone who has ever managed people who abuse time—whether they are chronic procrastinators or individuals who work obsessively to meet deadlines weeks in advance—knows how disruptive time abusers can be to a business's morale and operations.

Time abuse is very different from the common and well-covered problem of time management. While the vast majority of us can benefit from practical insights on how to organize our lives better, lessons in time management will have little impact on time abusers. That's because real time abuse results from psychological conflict that neither a workshop nor a manager's cajoling can easily cure. Indeed, the time abuser's quarrel isn't even with time but rather with a brittle self-esteem and an unconscious fear of being evaluated and found wanting. That's why you should focus your efforts on what makes a time abuser anxious instead of teaching him how to organize his day.

Consider Scott Gartner, a Clio Award-winning creative director for a major apparel manufacturer. (All the names in this article have been changed to protect people's identities.) At the start of his professional career, Scott's perfectionism was tolerable to his team members; though it often made him late, he always handed in superb work. Unfortunately, as he progressed in his career, his perfectionism became self-defeating, like a filibuster that prevented any real work from getting done. Finally, after he received a Clio, his inability to meet deadlines assumed epic proportions.

Scott's excuse was always the same. As a deadline approached, he found himself "forced" to fire a key member of his creative team for submitting substandard work. This "forced" him to work endless nights to generate a creative product. Inevitably, exhaustion "forced" him to miss marketing meetings that could not proceed without him. One year, his perfectionism resulted in advertising cost overruns of nearly 15 percent and the loss of two members of his creative team.

After his boss called me in to work with Scott, I found out that his chronic failure to meet deadlines was deeply rooted in his background. Scott grew up an army brat and was raised by a staff-sergeant father who used to harangue him about fulfilling his potential. The problem was, nothing Scott ever did satisfied his father. For example, if Scott scored well on an exam, his father would bark, "So how did the top student do?" Years of being subjected to such pressure made Scott almost physically afraid of receiving feedback. He resolved the dilemma by learning to manipulate deadlines to increase the likelihood of his getting a positive evaluation or, at the very least, to ensure that he wouldn't get a negative one. For Scott, it was better to be obsessive and late than to fall short of his father's demands. Indeed, he found that if he took the time to deliver the expected goods, he would often be forgiven for any chaos that he had created along the way.

Focus your efforts on what makes a time abuser anxious.

Scott Gartner is not alone in his abuse of time. As a clinical psychologist and executive coach, I have observed hundreds of time abusers like him and have worked one-on-one with more than a dozen in their battle with the clock. Of course, perfectionists like Scott are not the only type of time abusers. Over the years, I've come across three other kinds as well: preemptives, who in an effort to control their lives hand in work far earlier than they need to, making themselves unpopular and unavailable in the process; people pleasers, who commit to far too much work because they find it impossible to say no; and procrastinators, who make constant (and often reasonable sounding) excuses to mask a fear of being found inadequate in their jobs.

Managing these four types of people can be challenging, because time abusers respond differently from most people to criticism and approval. Praising a procrastinator when he is on time, for instance, will only exacerbate his problem, because he will fear that your expectations are even higher than before. I will describe the typical time abusers in the workplace—the "Four Ps," I call them—and will suggest some appropriate interventions for helping them manage their problems.

The Preemptive
Regardless of the different ways they might disrupt colleagues, time abusers are alike in that they are all highly inflexible individuals who believe deeply that they are doing the best job possible. This is most true for preemptives—the rarest of time abusers. Preemptives are the people who compulsively beat the clock. They finish assignments weeks ahead of schedule and always seem to be in control.

So what's the problem? Often, there is none. In fact, preemptives can thrive for long periods in organizations without ever drawing negative attention to themselves precisely because managers delight in having what appear to be low-maintenance workers. Over time, however, preemptives can cause morale problems because they ignore how their behavior affects others. Indeed, preemptives are seldom team players. While their work is often first-rate, they are typically asocial individuals who, while not actively hostile, fail to take their group's needs into account. […]

The People Pleaser
Another type of time-challenged employee who can appear at first glance to be a dream come true is the people pleaser. While the vast majority of us want to be helpful—and let's face it, anyone who constantly says no will quickly be shown the door—this doesn't alter the fact that saying yes all the time is highly dysfunctional. When a person chronically takes on more and more responsibilities out of a fear of confronting authority, he will inevitably commit too much of his time to unproductive projects—for instance, he will sit on a project that he should have passed on to someone else much earlier.

In the workplace, the people pleaser often resorts to time abuse to vent her anger. For example, she agrees to take on a task she doesn't want and then devotes obsessive attention to its minutest details. Although this form of overcompliance can win approval from others, unchecked it can lead to conflicts with the very authority figures she is endeavoring to please. […]

The Perfectionist
Like people pleasers, perfectionists are time abusers who can hold people hostage for indefinite periods of time. But perfectionists do it out of anguish rather than rage. They take more time than allotted to satisfy extremely unrealistic but deeply internalized standards of excellence. And they get away with it because they do first-rate work.

For a perfectionist, performance is all or nothing; good enough will never suffice. To achieve such high ideals, the perfectionist posts psychological Do Not Disturb signs all around him as he works. Emotionally isolated in this way, he frequently appears arrogant and dismissive. Whether that is true or not, the fact is, the perfectionist does require absolute control over the quality of the product he produces.

Perfectionists don't let rules get in the way: In their pursuit of excellence, they ignore all the regulations, often to the dismay of colleagues who seldom, if ever, see value added from the perfectionist's determination to turn in a flawless product. […]

The Procrastinator
Procrastinators are the Michelangelos of time abusers. They are the kids back in school who used to complain that the dog ate their homework. The most common type of time abuser, procrastinators leave assignments until the 11th hour and then throw themselves (and others) into a panic, working round-the-clock in a vain attempt to meet a deadline. If asked by his boss, "Where is that work you promised?" the procrastinator sincerely responds, "I'll show you as soon as I get this monkey off my back." The problem is, the monkey never goes away.

Procrastinators resemble perfectionists in that they both run shamelessly late. But while a perfectionist is sweating to achieve an A+ because that's the only grade that's acceptable to him, a procrastinator postpones doing any work because he secretly fears that he cannot produce an A. […]

Of course, the procrastinator doesn't simply refuse to work—he gets interrupted by other assignments or is sidetracked by unexpected crises: illness, family problems, or just plain old car trouble.

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Time abuse is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. It is therefore impossible to cure a person of time abuse by actually managing his time. Instead, you must understand your time abuser's need for control and fear of evaluations. Of necessity, helping the time abuser change his ways will be a slow process—the motivations for such abuse are unconscious, and many time abusers will be in a state of deep denial that only long-term therapy will ever completely cure. Yet the rewards of that kind of investment in your people can be great, indeed. The motivations that cause the time abuse are often the same ones that drive people to perform well, so it is very likely that your company's worst time abusers will also be its top performers.

Excerpted with permission from "Chronic Time Abuse," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No. 6, June 2004.

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Steven Berglas (DrB@Berglas.com) is a clinical psychologist, executive coach, and research associate at the Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UCLA's Anderson School. He is also the author of Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout (Random House, 2001).

Tips for Managing Time Abusers

Managing your time abusers is not about managing their time; it's about helping them confront their inner demons. While you are limited in what you can and cannot do in this respect—some time abusers really need professional treatment—the following advice may be helpful:

Make preemptives feel in control by putting them in charge of other people. This will enforce socialization, which should make them more comfortable with uncertainty.

Praise and protect.
Keep a close eye on the workloads of your people pleasers to make sure their time isn't consumed by others' requests. Also, praise your people pleasers for their regular work so they don't take on others' work to get that praise.

Expose perfectionists to frequent low doses of evaluation—progress reports, updates, and so forth. This lowers their fear of final approval. (Often, however, they won't get relief from their symptoms without therapy.)

Attack the fear of failure.
Force procrastinators to confront their fears, and help them dissociate their specific output from overall performance evaluation. They'll be less likely to sabotage themselves.

Excerpted with permission from "Chronic Time Abuse," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No. 6, June 2004.