'It's OK To Be Late' And 3 Other Signals You Might Accidentally Be Sending

"Why would they think that?" he asked incredulously.

Here we were, having another conversation with a senior executive about the interpretations his team was making based on the managerial behaviors that they observed.

If you always respond to emails within five minutes and in as few words as possible, you are setting two implicit expectations:

1. I expect you to always be monitoring email whether you’re in a meeting or not, and

2. Form doesn’t matter. Just get me an answer as quickly as you can

“But that’s not what I want them to do at all,” he replies. And thus the challenge – just like in parenting, leader behavior matters. Whether you like it or not, members of your team are looking to you to set the standard for how work gets done, and they will replicate your dominant behaviors – be they productive or not.

Sadly, how to work efficiently and effectively in a complex organizational environment is not yet part of the standard college curriculum. Instead, most employees have to figure it out on their own. They do so by looking to the behavior of their managers and then deriving “rules” from it. Here are four of the most common interpretations that we see:

It’s OK To Multitask In Meetings, Even If It Means Disengaging

When you multitask, employees interpret this as meaning that it’s not only ok, it’s what you should do to signal both your importance and your busyness. Multitasking is one of the most contagious behaviors we see in organizations. It’s also one of the most detrimental because it guarantees that meeting participants are only catching portions of the discussion leading to what we call “swiss cheese memory.” Some of what the participants remember from the discussion is the same, but mostly there are a lot of holes.

Rather than checking out if a meeting is low value or going off topic, managers should lean in and help their employees be successful. By asking a good question or integrating multiple threads of the conversation, good leaders can rescue the meeting and rescue themselves from boredom.

It's OK To Perpetually Be Late To Meetings

Because managers are in high demand, their calendars are often packed with a series of back-to-back meetings. As a consequence, it’s easy to fall behind and find yourself consistently five to ten minutes late for every meeting. The challenge, of course, is that this quickly starts to set an expectation across the team that any meeting with you is going to start late. This launches a vicious cycle where others also begin arriving late such that even if you were on time, no one else would be there.

To get ahead of this dynamic, it’s critical that you manage your calendar to prevent afternoon pile-ups. Ask your administrator to default to 45 minute meetings and then to create a 15 minute “buffer” appointment between any 2 meetings. This will allow you to shift locations, grab a cup of coffee, and/or take a quick stretch and still arrive on time at your next meeting. On those rare occasions when you still find yourself running behind, instruct meeting leaders not to start over for you out of respect for everyone else’s time.

It's OK To Interrupt Other People’s Working Time

When managers want to signal to their team that they care and are available, they sometimes do it by dropping by – either in person for co-located teams or over IM for distributed groups. While this does signal interest, it may also be a distraction to the employee’s thinking time which can easily be interpreted as a rule that says, “It’s not ok to protect your own working time.”

Uninterrupted thinking time is the holy grail of working life. Any employee charged with solving problems or doing what Professor Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” needs to regularly shut out distraction in order to focus. Many employees, however, struggle to shut the literal and figurative door on their colleagues. Rather than contribute disruption, managers need to signal their support. We encourage leaders to visibly block working time on their own calendars and to encourage their teams to do the same. Rather than dropping by unexpectedly, managers can schedule regular “office hours” where the members of their team can come to them rather than the other way around.

I’m Expected To Be On Email, Day Or Night

Many of us use nights and weekends to play catch up on email. While this may suit our own personal preferences, it can have an unintended consequence on our teams. When employees wake up to find a batch of messages from their manager waiting in their inbox, it can cause a lot of anxiety and a sense of being behind. Likewise, dozens of incoming messages on Sunday can signal an expectation for weekend responses even if that’s not the case.

A better management strategy is to store emails in your Draft folder and then send them after normal working hours start on Monday. That way, your valuable employees can use the weekend to rest and recharge and come to work on Monday morning ready to go. In the event that there is work to be done over the weekend, we recommend explicitly contracting about that so that you’re not creating an ongoing expectation that employees are available 24/7.

The bottom line is that manager behavior matters. Make sure that the signals you send are setting the expectations you want.

  • Stop Meeting Like This

    47% of meeting time is seen as unproductive

  • Driven to Distraction

    Office workers check their inbox 30 times per hour

  • There, but not really‚Ķ

    Worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work