Harvard Business School Publishing © 2002
Beware the Busy Manager
HEIKE BRUCH AND SUMANTRA GHOSHAL
Executive Summary 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—an astonishing amount of fast-moving activity that allows almost no time for reflection. Managers think they are attending to important matters, but they’re really just spinning their wheels. For the past ten years, the authors have studied the behavior of busy managers, and their findings should frighten you: Fully 90% of managers squander their time inall sorts of ineffective activities. A mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner. Effective action relies on a combination of two traits: focus—the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion—and energy—the vigor that comes from intense personal commitment. Focus without energy devolves into listless execution or leads toburnout. Energy without focus dissipates into aimless busyness or wasteful failures. Plotting these two traits into a matrix provides a useful framework for understanding productivity levels of different managers. Managers who suffer from low levels of both energy and focus are the procrastinators: they dutifully perform routine tasks but fail to take initiative. Disengaged managers have high focus butlow energy: They have reservations about the jobs they are asked to do, so they approach them halfheartedly. Distracted managers have high energy but low focus: they confuse frenetic activity with constructive action. Purposeful managers are both highly energetic and highly focused: These are the managers who accomplish the most. This article will help you identify which managers in yourorganization are making a real difference-and which just look busy.
If you listen to executives, they’ll tell you that the resource they lack most is time. Every minute is spent grappling with strategic issues, focusing on cost reduction, devising creative approaches to new markets, beating new competitors. But if you watch them, here’s what you’ll see: They rush from meeting to meeting, check theire-mail constantly, extinguish fire after fire, and make countless phone calls. In short, you’ll see an astonishing amount of fastmoving activity that allows almost no time for reflection. No doubt, executives are under incredible pressure to perform, and they have far too much to do, even when they work 12-hour days. But the fact is, very few managers use their time
as effectively as they could.They think they’re attending to pressing matters, but they’re really just spinning their wheels. The awareness that unproductive busyness—what we call “active non-action”—is a hazard for managers is not new. Managers themselves bemoan the problem, and researchers such as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have examined it (see “The Smart-Talk Trap,” HBR May-June 1999). But the underlying dynamicsof the behavior are less well understood. For the past ten years, we have studied the behavior of busy managers in nearly a dozen large companies, including Sony, LG Electronics, and Lufthansa. The managers at Lufthansa were especially interesting to us because in the last decade, the company underwent a complete transformation—from teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1990s to earninga record profit of DM 2.5 billion in 2000, thanks in part to the leadership of its managers. We interviewed and observed some 200 managers at Lufthansa, each of whom was involved in at least one of the 130 projects launched to restore the company’s exalted status as one of Europe’s business icons. Our findings on managerial behavior should frighten you: Fully 90% of managers squander their time...