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Stanford Management Science Professor Bob Sutton says sometimes the best management is no management at all. His comment could have been worse for managers proud of their work. After all, he limited it to sometimes.

Henry Mintzberg, an equally crusty management professor from McGill University, goes further, arguing there is nothing more dangerous than a manager with nothing to do. “Managers are energetic people – that’s one reason they got to be managers. Put one into an unnatural position and he or she will find something to do,” he wrote on his blog.

With time on their hands, managers meddle. They micro-manage. Except since they know meddling and micro-managing is bad, they consider it as having a look around or helping out.

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Admit it. If you’re a manager, you have had moments of boredom that led you to wander the office, ostensibly seeking something to entertain yourself but not putting it in those crass terms. You meddled, rather than leaving people to continue working productively. And you found ways to justify it – something you improved, perhaps truthfully or perhaps not. It might have been better to have spent the time on Facebook.

But it’s not just moments on a Thursday afternoon when you feel bored. It’s longer periods that lack stimulation and encourage ennui. Mike Figliuolo, once a U.S. army platoon leader and now a management consultant, argues it’s easier to lead in a crisis situation than during periods of calm. In military terms, easier to lead in the field than in the garrison. “The day-to-day stuff is an easy place to get lazy and not do it well. Everybody is going to lead well in a crisis because we respond in those exciting moments. The adrenaline kicks in. We see the stakes are high, we get focused, and we understand the importance of leading well in those situations,” he writes on his blog.

For one of my bosses, the boredom seemed to come on long weekends. He would come in on Tuesday morning with an arsenal of dramatic changes. After an initial bout of irritation, I would inevitably come to agreement. But we were fooling ourselves. It rarely amounted to much more than change to appease our own dissatisfaction. We were managers – and doing something!

So what should you do when there isn’t a crisis – when things are chugging along, and you are feeling bored, whether 3:30 p.m. on a lazy afternoon, a broader period of placidity when there are no huge changes afoot or on a long weekend?

You might use the time you have on your hands more profitably by trying to prevent the next crisis: holding one-on-ones with your staff. Not to interfere or meddle; but to encourage, learn and improve alignment with corporate goals. There may be things you can do externally to help your company, by meeting with top customers, investors or government officials.

You might use the time to think. Ole Ingstrup, former federal commissioner of corrections, told me when I was helping him with his book The Three Pillars of Public Management that the best position for a deputy minister – his post was at that level – is with his boots on his desk. Yes, this will feed some stereotypes of lazy government bureaucrats but it was from a very smart, passionate, activist government executive who tried to carve out some productive time away from the action. He also aimed to spend every Friday out of his office, reading and thinking. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is famed for his think weeks, where he heads to his cottage with an enormous amount of reading material and orange pop to prepare for the future. Take time when bored to regenerate, rest and be creative. But then be tough on yourself: Check that your conclusions truly are worthwhile. Allow your subordinates to veto them.

I am not saying that everything managers do is crazy – every change initiative or employee transfer wrong-headed. I believe in managers. But I am suggesting that Mr. Sutton and Mr. Mintzberg offer advice we should keep in mind when we’re feeling inactive. A manager with nothing to do can be dangerous. Sometimes the best management is no management at all.

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Cannonballs

  • A recent study of Harvard Business Review – a seminal management magazine – found the word “customer” was only used sporadically until the 1990s, when it exploded into our consciousness. With the customer focus came customer surveys, which the internet allows you to send over and over and over again, as if you have learned nothing about a customer’s right to be treated well. Once is enough, folks.
  • Treat your job candidates the way you treat your hiring managers, HR consultant Tim Sackett says. (Unless you treat your managers like crap, he adds, in which case do better with the candidates.)
  • Get rid of your sales contests. They just pit employee against employee, running against teamwork, consultant Joseph Lalonde says.

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