Posted On: Thursday, 17 December 2009 by Rajiv Popat

After a gnawing reluctance deep down inside; I decide to approach Fred; my manager in my early days at Multiplitaxion Inc. The purpose of my visit to his office is to discuss possible problems our current development approach might have in the days to come.

For no particular reason; I am not very comfortable as I walk down the corridor towards Fred's office.

Something tells me deep down inside that sitting right across the table I am not going to see a manager with empathy - but an hourglass - constantly reminding me; through his body language; that the 30 minutes I have scheduled with him for this discussion are running out.

Fred; dear reader; like most traditional managers; is not really a busy man.

He is just playing busy.

Even as a young and budding engineer; I can sense it. Loud and clear.

Fred is popular in Multiplitaxion Inc for doing what this Harvard Business paper describes rather well:

Managers will tell you that the resource they lack most is time. If you watch them, you'll see them rushing from meeting to meeting, checking their e-mail constantly, fighting fires.

Managers think they are attending to important matters, but they're really just spinning their wheels.

For the past 10 years, the authors have studied the behavior of busy managers, and their findings should frighten you: Fully 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. A mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.

If you asked for 30 minutes of Fred's time; chances are that before giving you that time he would give you at-least one or two gentle reminders about how busy he is going to be with client meetings; meetings with the vice president or some other meeting you do not know anything about; when in reality every single one of us had serious questions on what it was that Fred really did or added to the organization or the team.

Where Fred and countless managers like him; who are busy trying to play busy; often go wrong is in getting their priorities right. Michael Lopp in his book Managing Humans describes this mistake rather articulately:

My first piece of advice to all new managers is "Schedule one-on-ones, keep them on the same day and time, and never cancel them."

With this mind, some of the trickiest transitions for me during the day are when these one-one show up. I'm deep in some problem, writing a specification, answering a critical email, and this person walks in my office and they want to talk about I don’t know what... I’m working in the zone here, people.

In the brief second  I try to figure out some way to reschedule this meeting, I remind myself of a simple rule, "You will always learn something in your one-on-one."

When is your manager giving you a chance to tell him what's in your brain? I'm worried if your answer isn't "at a one-on-one" but I'm not panicking, yet. Maybe your manager is one of these organic types who likes to jump you in the hallway and gather relevant bits. Terrific.

Does he do it consistently or when he needs something? The former is great; the latter is a problem waiting to happen.

A few years and a few promotions later; Fred is gone out of my life. Things at Multiplitaxion Inc change for good. I find myself working with a couple of managers who are genuinely fun to work with. The hesitation that I once felt while walking into Fred's cubical is gone.

Suddenly I find myself starting phone calls to my managers with - "Good time?" or "Can we talk?" - and getting responses on the lines of - "sure" or "yeah" unlike the standard canned - 'I'm a little busy now' or 'I need to take a client call' - response.

If they are busy; they make it a point to callback and start a discussion around the topic I wanted to talk about.

As you grow in your professional life; every once in a while you come across a few small things that have a big impact on your work environment and how you feel about your job. Your manager not being busy playing the role of the busiest man on planet earth; is definitely one of those things that can be a major deciding factor on how you feel about your work environment or how valued you feel at your workplace.

Years later; today; when I see a young and budding engineer walk up to my desk; and ask me if I am busy - my standard response is a big fat "no" or "no; of course I am not busy". 

Let us be totally honest here; on a typical workday; I probably spend a good twenty percent of my work day not doing any real work and so do you. We are not busy. We just like to pretend we are.

If you work happen to be in the same office as me and want to a quick chat on programming; life or any problem where I might be able to help; just walk in and start talking --- I'm free.

Are you; my dear young and budding manager?

If you want to work with a team one of the first things you need to learn is how to be free when someone walks up to you seeking help.

Pretending to be busy all the time and placing yourself in unapproachable ivory towers of 'upper management' is not genuine leadership; plus it will not take you anywhere.


Now go try not sounding busy for a change; even if you really are extremely busy.

I wish you good luck.

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