Busy, but not important work – the consequences

I had just arrived in Antwerp Belgium for a client engagement and decided to go to the Starbucks at the Antwerp Central railway station. Antwerp Central is a busy railway station and so is the Starbucks. The place was packed and the early morning customers were squeezing in the door. A Starbucks barista was taking our order about ten yards ahead of the register to expedite the preparation of our drinks. I had myStarbucks Antwerp Venti Americano with an extra shot in less than seven minutes.

Despite the large number of orders, the Starbucks crew was a well oiled machine behind the counter and there was the constant call of customer names as their drinks were ready.

In an attempt to stay awake as I adjusted for the time difference between Europe and the United States, I returned to the Starbucks in the afternoon to find no line and walked directly to the register. Placed my Americano order and went to the other end of the counter. What I now observed was a lot of complaining from the baristas that were behind the counter. Two baristas were going at it about one of the machines and then the manager stepped in and all three were arguing, arm waving and one was even foot stomping.

Instead of just a coffee, I received coffee and a show. The time to get my drink was much longer than when the place was packed. Slower service, with fewer customers!  This experience illustrates a truth I have observed in large and small companies which is:

As important work decreases, complaining, politicking and bickering increases!

People just seem to get along better when they are performing important work. As soon as the amount of important work decreases then strife shows up.

If there is a lot of complaining and infighting in an organization, the leader needs to examine:

  1. The relative value of the work the organization is producing
  2. The effectiveness of the communication of the relative value of the work

Please note that an organization can be very busy and still have complaining, politicking and bickering, because there is a difference between busy and doing what important work that adds value. Many busy organizations produce very little value relative to organizational goals and/or productive goals. When people know (or do not believe) their work is important, there focus fades and they can become overly concerned with every trivial thing they find irritating about the job/boss/company. Mojo (In Marshall Goldsmith’s book Mojo, it states the average American spends 15 hours a month criticizing or complaining about their boss.)

When some organizations have a lot of infighting and strife leadership often immediately looks at personalities or organizational structure. Personalities and organizational structure may only be a symptom, that simply manifests itself when there is not enough important work to keep those problems dormant.

Although it is a basic premise for leaders to assure an organization’s employees are working on what is important and communicating that importance, sometimes the speed of business, the do more with less mantras and poor decision making combine to throw the basics out the window.

Regardless of your level of leadership, always understand the importance of the work relative to the organizational goals and continually communicate this importance to the team. Importance and purpose can easily be loss in the dynamic work environment where people play multiple roles and deal with constant change on a number of fronts.

Thomas Edison summarized the role of the leader well in this circumstance with this quote “Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”

Posted by Dr. James Brown in Leadership Skills, Project Management, Team Building.


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