Your Leaders Are Spending Their Time in the Wrong Areas

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Aug 11, 2021

Depending on the study you read, the average leader spends between 20 to 25 hours per week in meetings. And as James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom Of Crowds, notes, that number has doubled since the 1960s. Unfortunately, while meeting time is greatly increased, I think we can all agree that the effectiveness of the average meeting is, at best, questionable.

But perhaps more disturbing than the time leaders spend in meetings is the opportunity cost of that time. In other words, while leaders are spending half their week in meetings, what are they not doing that might be of greater value?

One of the biggest missed opportunities for leaders is spending time one-on-one with their employees. 

According to the Leadership IQ study “Optimal Hours With the Boss,” most people spend only half the time they should be spending with their boss. People who do spend an optimal number of hours interacting with their direct leader (six hours per week) are 29% more inspired, 30% more engaged, 16% more innovative, and 15% more intrinsically motivated than those who spend only one hour per week.

Put simply, when leaders spend one-on-one time with their employees, those individuals feel valued, inspired, innovative, and more. 

And if leaders respond, “I do spend time with my people; it just happens in our meetings,” know that meeting time is not one-on-one time. 

The time spent in meetings is not only interpersonally dispersed; the dynamics in most groups quickly squelches the sharing of individual concerns. For example, when one loudmouth dominates a meeting, your quieter employees are virtually guaranteed to suppress the airing of their specific concerns. That means that leaders have no idea what the majority of their team is actually thinking or feeling.

Most leaders would benefit greatly from eliminating about a third of their meetings and instead holding one-on-one conversations with individual employees. Eliminating a third of meetings is, honestly, a bit of a guesstimate, but if you want to find some group meetings to cut, ask this question at the end of every meeting for the next month: “One a scale from 1 to 7, to what extent was this meeting a good use of your time?”

I can virtually guarantee that at least a third of your meetings, if not more, will fail to average a score of five or more. Those are the immediate candidates for elimination.

Now, what exactly should you discuss with your employees when you have one-on-one conversations? Here’s a suggestion.

In the Leadership IQ study, “The State of Leadership Development,” only 27% of employees say that their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement. By contrast, 27% of employees say their leader never, rarely or occasionally recognizes suggestions for improvement. Even for leaders with a more directive and stern style, this is a problem.

Not only is recognizing new ideas a major driver of innovation, the study discovered that recognizing employee ideas is also a major driver of employee engagement. The more a leader encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement, the more an employee will be inspired to give their best effort at work.

So in leaders’ one-on-one conversations with employees, simply teach your leaders to ask: “What’s one idea you’ve had recently that you think would improve how we work in this department?”

You can ask this question dozens of different ways, but this is a simple way to broach the topic. You want to get leaders comfortable with listening to, and accepting, employees’ ideas. Absorbing a laundry list of ideas may be tough at first, but most leaders can handle one single idea for how the department can improve. If leaders are resistant to even that one idea, then you’ll have identified a leader in need of more coaching and development.

If the projected Great Resignation comes to pass, your ability to retain your best people won’t be contingent on some organization-wide strategy; the retention battle will be won on a department-by-department basis. And rather than having your leaders spend their time in meetings that everyone hates anyway, teach them how to reallocate their time to far more valuable one-on-one conversations.

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