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The Trap of Overwhelming Demands

In this excerpt from the new book A Bias for Action, Heike Bruch and the late Sumantra Ghoshal look at a work hazard that managers often confront.

Managers who get caught in the trap of overwhelming demands become prisoners of routines. They do not have time to notice opportunities. Their habituated work prevents them from taking the first necessary step toward harnessing willpower: developing the capacity to dream an idea into existence and transforming it into a concrete intention.

Most cases of overwhelming demands stem not from managers' actual work situations but from how they deal with those situations. How do you know whether there's a problem with the way you approach your job?4 For one, you deem some aspects of your work important, but you can never find time for them. Or you might feel under constant pressure. The most dangerous of all is believing that you are indispensable.

Managers who fall into the trap of overwhelming demands typically do so because they fail to actively influence those demands. These managers take demands for granted and simply respond to them, rarely questioning whether they actually make sense or whether one could reshape them. Feeling always "under the gun," these managers never find time to ask themselves, "Am I busy with the right things?"

The simple fact is that being busy is easier than not. Most managers cannot admit that a fragmented day is actually the laziest day, the day that requires the least mental discipline and the most nervous energy. Responding to each new request, chasing an answer to the latest question, and complaining about overwhelming demands are easier than setting priorities.

Managers who complain about having too little time often thrive on the sense of importance that their busyness generates.

Fortunately, most managers can overcome their habitual fire fighting.5 To do so, however, they must first clear the most difficult hurdle: the belief that they are indispensable. Managers who complain about having too little time often thrive on the sense of importance that their busyness generates. They enjoy being at the center of frantic activity where people continually ask them for help, information, or advice. If they were honest, then they would really not want more time—especially time to reflect!6

Purposeful action-takers deal very differently with demands than their busy colleagues do. Rather than simply responding to any request that gets thrown at them, they manage their demands by

  • developing an explicit personal agenda,
  • practicing slow management,
  • structuring contact time, and
  • shaping demands and managing expectations.
  • Develop an explicit personal agenda
    To minimize the constraint of overwhelming demands, you first must develop a clear personal agenda.7 That means coming up with a precise idea of what you want to achieve in your job. For example, rather than keeping general aims in mind such as "growth" or "good customer service," try crafting a vivid mental representation of your objectives that includes ways to achieve them.8

    Take the case of Lufthansa's Thomas Sattelberger, whose dream was to create the first corporate university in Germany. Although he had multiple demands on his time at Lufthansa, he also had a detailed vision of his goal that enabled him to distinguish important tasks from unimportant busywork. His image? A temple with three pillars—one for each stream of development measures he hoped to build. The roof that bound the pillars together was a robust and visible institution—the Lufthansa School of Business. Supporting the entire temple—the foundation that was needed to build the corporate university—were proper operational HR processes.

    The problem was that, as Sattelberger described it, the demands of his job during his first two years at Lufthansa left him struggling to simply build the foundation. "I thought that I would enter an intact HR department and would have wonderful conditions to start building the pillars of the temple that would become the corporate university," he said. "What I actually found was a complete mess."

    Lufthansa's operational HR processes were in bad shape indeed. Small things, such as typing errors in contracts and a six-month response time to employee queries, took him two years to clean up. But he knew he had to improve the efficiency of HR processes because they composed the foundation of his temple. At the same time, he was developing the concepts and building the networks he would need for future steps in the process.

    "Sometimes I felt guilty when I blocked about half a day every month for work on the corporate university," he recalls. "But I needed the time to make myself believe that my agenda was still valid, and that I was not being drowned in the operational HR work—although it occupied me more than 99 percent of time."

    While reacting to demands can be distracting, the kind of personal agenda that Sattelberger created produces an opposite effect: It allows you to integrate the diverse, loosely related goals for your short- and long-term responsibilities into one broad master plan. You can, therefore, relate immediate and short-term priorities with their long-term purpose—which is ultimately much more inspiring than merely responding to demands.

    Practice slow management: reduce, prioritize, and organize demands
    All managers have to deal with formal procedures and ritualistic requirements to some extent—such as attending specific committee meetings and participating in certain events or functions.9 But many demands that you might accept as given are actually discretionary in nature. You may, therefore, perceive more demands than there are, rather than recognize that some of them are really a choice.

    Another strategy is to present your own goals and ideas before your stakeholders have a chance to present their demands.

    Purposeful management, by contrast, means that you examine what you choose to do or not do. That way, you create space for tasks that are important, instead of doing what you like or find most familiar or easy. You will also not feel as tempted to jump impulsively from one thing to another.10 Set priorities among your tasks, aligning your activities with your agenda. As one manager told us: "To achieve speed in the work that matters, one must practice slow management."

    Referring to the chaotic situation he faced in his first two years at Lufthansa, Sattelberger told us, "Given this flood of activities, it was essential for me to have a clear idea of where I wanted to go. I had to structure my tasks and goals." He decided first to devote a certain amount of time to establishing efficient HR processes—installing a control system that monitored the quality, time, and cost for every important transactional HR process. The result? Clearly defined priorities based on each task's urgency and significance.

    Structure contact time
    Managerial work is primarily interactive and interdependent in nature; rarely do managers work on their own. The problem is that interacting with people is not only time consuming but also exhausting and the main source of the multiple interruptions about which managers often complain.11 A typical trap of nonaction—which leads to feeling as if demands are overwhelming—is getting caught up in intensive interaction with lots of people.

    Most managers spend much more time with their direct reports than is really necessary or even useful. Younger managers, in particular, often want others to consider them a good boss who cares about subordinates by being unrestrictedly available.12 But keeping your door always open prevents you from accomplishing anything worthwhile.

    How can you deal with this trap? Try structuring your contact time. For example, Sattelberger set the following policy: His door would be open at certain times, when anyone in the department could bring him problems that required immediate attention. That policy led not only to larger chunks of uninterrupted time but also to a higher quality of interaction with his people.

    Shape demands; manage expectations
    Some managers constantly worry whether they are meeting others' expectations. Trying to please everybody, these managers tend to get absorbed in speculations about what others expect, about the best strategy to meet those expectations, and the consequences of not meeting them. Ultimately, the managers fail, not only because they find no time to pursue their own agenda, but also because in trying to please everyone, they typically end up pleasing no one.

    Managing with purpose means realizing that you cannot meet everyone's expectations. Rather, you must concentrate on your key stakeholders. That means learning that saying a real yes and committing to something inevitably implies saying no to other things. It also means becoming aware of how much influence various stakeholders have on your ability to achieve your goals—and tailoring your responses to those individuals accordingly.

    Purposeful managers differ from those who try to please everyone by not simply reacting to expectations, but by actively shaping them. Rather than merely meeting the expectations of your key stakeholders, then, you must do everything possible to exceed them. As one manager at Conoco told us: "Meeting expectations, accomplishing demands would mean absolute mediocrity for me. I must do better than what they expect. I cannot be creative if I only concentrate on doing what I have to do."

    You may perceive more demands than there are, rather than recognize that some of them are really a choice.

    Another strategy is to present your own goals and ideas before your stakeholders have a chance to present their demands. But do so in a way that anticipates others' expectations—as well as provides a means to your own goals. That is just what Sattelberger did when it came to the demands of Lufthansa's management. He knew that, by exceeding his job requirements, he could move on to the next step of achieving his real dream. "I cleaned the pigpen," he recalls. "Nobody anticipated that I would cope with these draining issues. They were obviously surprised, and that was the moment for me to suggest new standards and new ideas. I wanted to transform the HR role and transfer it to a level that was higher than what they had ever imagined. It was a true innovation because no other company in Germany had such comprehensive business-driven HR processes." Had he instead tried to present his ideas before doing the dirty work—and gaining management's appreciation—no one would have accepted his ideas. As it was, Sattelberger's bosses began to see and treat him as the expert and believed in his commitment to create something really special. "I demonstrated to them that I would develop a means to support their business strategy, developing corporate entrepreneurship in a former state-owned company and maintaining change momentum after the crisis had eased off," Sattelberger said. "I addressed their concerns and showed them how we could jointly create new ways of solving their problems."

    Shaping others' expectations is a long-term strategy that relies on developing sustainable relationships. While most managers do not consciously build and influence relationships, purposeful managers spend a lot of time developing their personal networks.

    Rather than arbitrarily forming relationships with many people, then, try deliberately focusing your time and energy on developing strong and close ties with people who can influence the achievement of your goal.13 While such an approach to building relationships might seem calculating, it never works without a component of genuine warmth, respect, and friendship. As a purposeful manager, use your social skills to weave your stakeholders into your agenda—and in the process jointly create new opportunities for purposeful action.

    Excerpted with the permission of Harvard Business School Press from A Bias for Action: How Effective Managers Harness Their Willpower, Achieve Results, and Stop Wasting Time, by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal. Copyright 2004, Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal. All rights reserved.

    [ Buy this book ]

    Heike Bruch is a Professor of Leadership at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

    Sumantra Ghoshal, who died in March, was a Professor of Strategic and International Management at London Business School and co-author with HBS professor Christopher A. Bartlett of Managing Across Borders.


    4. Stewart, Choices for the Manager.

    5. See Colin P. Hales, "What Do Managers Do? A Critical Review of the Evidence," Journal of Management Studies 23 (1986): 88-115; Lance B. Kurke and Howard E. Aldrich, "Mintzberg Was Right! A Replication and Extension of the `Nature of Managerial Work,' " Management Science 29 (1983): 975-984.

    6. See Stewart, Choices for the Manager.

    7. See Kotter, The General Managers. The importance of continuously clarifying and deepening one's personal agenda has also been highlighted by Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

    8. The effects of concrete mental pictures of one's aims and the ways to achieve them have been described by Albert Bandura, "Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory," American Psychologist 9 (1989): 1175-1184. He speaks of foresight that he considers a self-regulatory strategy that includes anticipating probable consequences of prospective actions as well as planning courses of action likely to produce desired outcomes. "Being converted into representations cognitively in the present, conceived future events are converted into motivators and regulators of behavior" (1179).

    9. See Stewart, Managers and Their Jobs.

    10. Typical managerial problems in goal pursuit are getting started, being too easily distracted, giving up in the face of obstacles when increased effort and persistence are needed, or resuming action after disruptions. See Peter M. Gollwitzer, "The Volitional Benefits of Planning," in The Psychology of Action, eds. P. M. Gollwitzer and J. A. Bargh (New York: The Guilford Press, 1996), 287-312. Getting started with or resuming an interrupted goal pursuit is rather simple when the necessary actions are well practiced or routine. See J. A. Oullette and W. Wood, "Habit and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior," Psychological Bulletin 124 (1998): 54-74. Often, however, managerial behaviors are not routine. Consequently, persistence, discipline, and overcoming a disinclination to exhibit a certain behavior become critical to managerial action. See Veronika Brandstatter, Angelika Lengfelder, and Peter M. Gollwitzer, "Implementation Intentions and Efficient Action Initiation," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81 (2001): 946-960.

    11. See F. Luthans and J. K. Larsen, "How Managers Really Communicate," Human Relations 39 (1986): 161-178; and R. Whitley, "On the Nature of Managerial Tasks and Skills: Their Distinguishing Characteristics and Organization," Journal of Management Studies 26 (1989): 209-224.

    12. See Stewart, Choices for the Manager.

    13. See Kotter, The General Managers.