Balls in the air

It’s no wonder that so many managers liken their job to that of being a juggler. Competing demands from staff wanting advice and decisions, senior managers requiring statistical performance updates, e-mails shouting for deadlines to be met and meetings to be attended – let alone users and carers wanting to know when their service is going to be delivered – can test the juggling skills of even the most experienced manager.

Yet is juggling a good metaphor for how to manage such conflicting demands? Given three balls, most of us would soon be dropping them all on the floor. The trained jugglers might be recognising a key aspect of their skill; that they are only holding one ball at any one time, the others being left to travel on their own through the air.

We can sneer at football managers when they trot out the old “we’re taking one game at a time” adage, but the truth is that despite trendy concepts such as multi-tasking it is difficult, if not impossible, to concentrate on more than one thing at once.

What might help you in deciding from your lengthy things-to-do list what to do and what not to do? It will help first if you make a list of priorities.

Clearly the urgent or most important tasks need to be made your first priority, and the longer term or less important tasks are the luxury items that you will turn to if you can, and will do them to a “good enough” standard rather than to your best.

The danger is that the less important short-term tasks squeeze out the more important longer-term work. An example of the former may include going to a meeting just because you are expected to be there rather than having a positive contribution to make.

The latter could be analysing the time spent by your staff doing assessments to see if there are examples of best and more efficient practice.

The key to such actions is recognising the real power that you have to decide what you do and what you don’t do. The concept of power frequently has a bad press as encapsulated in the “power corrupts” misquotation of Lord Acton. He actually said “power tends to corrupt” – opening up the possibility that power can be used wisely to empower both yourself and others.

It has been suggested that there are seven power levers that can be used by managers positively or negatively.1

  • l Your most precious resource is your own time. Meetings or supervision sessions starting and finishing late can eat up hours and cause considerable frustration. Do you want to reward people who turn up on time, prepared to get the business completed, by keeping to the agreed schedule or are latecomers greeted with joke and a smile? And do you reward yourself for a hard week’s work by taking home work for the weekend or by recognising that you need and deserve a break and some fun? (Reward power.)
  • l What effect does it have on other staff if you avoid dealing with the person who is not pulling their weight? They may think: “Well, if they can get away with it, why shouldn’t I?” – thus storing up more strife for you in the future. (Coercive power.)
  • l Is operating an open door policy so that staff can come and see you at any time of the day the best way to manage your staff? Inexperienced staff may require advice and guidance to be regularly on tap but for others your constant availability could be giving the message that you do not trust them to make professional decisions without checking with you first. And do you really need to keep your mobile on all the time? (Legitimate power.)
  • l What makes a good leader? Are you born with charisma or can you develop the skills to inspire others? The big picture you want to convey is made up of the detailed brush strokes of your everyday actions. Do you take time to reflect with trusted colleagues whether you are giving consistent or confusing leadership to your staff? (Personal power.)
  • l Exercising power is as much about respecting other people’s expertise and enabling them to get on with their job as doing things yourself. Do you recognise the skill of your administrative staff in managing organisational systems? Or do they have the well-worn notice over their desks “Your lack of planning is not my crisis”? (Expert power.)
  • l E-mails have radically altered managers’ work. But is it the best use of your time to spend over an hour each day dealing with them? A telephone call is usually made to one person – do you need to copy that message to so many other people? What if they all reply? (Information power.)
  • l Is networking just about chats during the breaks at conferences or training sessions? Or can it be a means to share best practice ideas and explore common problems thus limiting our propensity to work in isolation, each reinventing the wheel? (Connection power.)

Finally, no manager is indispensable. If you go off sick, someone else will do your job or at least the most important aspects of it. Managing yourself is about maintaining a sense of proportion. You can make a significant difference to people’s lives but some things are more important than others.

Ultimately, a manager’s effectiveness concerns how they use their power to make choices which benefit users and carers. The test of the importance of any task is to ask, “How is it going to make at least one user’s life better?”

1 A Kakabadse, R Ludlow and S Vinnicombe, Working in Organisations, Penguin Business, 1988

Martin Willis is programme director at the Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham University.

Top tips

  • Like people and money, your time is a resource. Use it effectively.
  • Understand that you can’t do everything yourself – so prioritise, let go and delegate.
  • Think about what messages your decisions and actions give out – intentionally or otherwise.

Rubbish tips

  • If you can’t do everything, they’ll soon find someone else who can.
  • Revel in giving out mixed messages – it keeps your staff on their toes, never knowing what to expect next.
  • Multi-tasking is the cornerstone of success.

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