Many managers face intractable problems that refuse to budge no matter how hard they push. Naturally, they persist but the issues may get worse the harder they try to solve them. They are spending time, energy and resources to no avail.
Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson are professors – at Ohio State University and Northwestern University, respectively – who share a pet peeve: waste. And so they decided to study this phenomenon of action without traction, when organizations, sometimes in a frenzy, expend considerable effort to get nowhere.
In their book Stop Spending, Start Managing, they identified five systematic patterns of wasteful spending that can trap managers as they deal with organizational issues. Each flows from a strength that at times can turn into a flaw.
The expertise trap
As experts in their domain, managers react automatically to many situations, essentially on autopilot. With their mind turned off, they can lose touch with their inner compass and narrow their thinking. "Because you are so knowledgeable, you fall into predictable patterns and it's difficult to see how to break out of it," Prof. Menon says in an interview.
The solution is to stop trying to solve the problem at hand and back up, looking at what the problem actually is. Problem finding, as they call it, breaks out of the pattern you have fallen into. Ask a new set of questions. Split your team into groups to illustrate different points of views with drawings, models or prototypes. Avoid rapid pattern formation.
The winner's trap
Successful managers tend to be winners and are reluctant to jeopardize their situation by losing. "Sometimes we are so focused on winning, we lose the big picture. We're competing, not co-operating. We forsake our values," Prof. Menon says. The rival in the next office, who might help us, is shut out. We invest resources in projects we sense have failed, reluctant to admit failure.
Competition and co-operation are both crucial in organizational life. You need to recognize this to encourage creativity. Avoid incentives that focus on individuals and might lead them into a me-first attitude. Another helpful skill is to know when to give up – quit, and admit you have not won. Give dead projects a funeral.
The agreement trap
This is the opposite of the winner's trap, emerging when colleagues avoid transmitting negative signals to others so as not to threaten their relationships. Instead of speaking honestly and confronting problems head-on, they cower at the prospect of disagreement. She points to Rhode Island Hospital, which in 2007 performed three surgeries on the wrong spot in the brain. The patients weren't killed or permanently injured but it could have been prevented if people in the operating room who saw things about to go awry spoke up.
To counter this spending trap you need to encourage healthy conversations, viewing them as negotiations and getting beyond nice. Be strategic, not soft, nudging the other party to discuss the interests at stake and how to best achieve them. In providing feedback, explain up front clearly why the employee is receiving the advice, indicating you care about them and want them to succeed.
The communication trap
These days people are spending so much time networking and communicating with others it can be overwhelming. "There is so much information coming at us that we don't know what to do with it. The situation is chaotic," she says. We hear the same information over and over, without new ideas.
Instead of friendships with the same people – what she calls bonding ties – also build some "bridging ties" to new people who can offer a different perspective. This can help you break out of a silo mentality where you and your team become isolated. Also, change your footpath at work – take a different stairway or a different path to the washroom, which will create accidental meetings with individuals that can prove surprisingly effective.
The macromanagement trap
We all know not to micromanage. But that can lead us to pay insufficient attention to details, leaving inadequate structure for people to operate within. Individuals start projects without direction. Conflicts abound but the hands-off leader lets them simmer.
The antidote is to set out ground rules and let people know the expectations you hold for them. When people become stuck, the leader must step in.
Prof. Menon urges you to think of which traps are most prominent in your organization. Then pick one or two areas you can improve on in coming months, limiting the impact of these insidious, wasteful traps.