Management Skills: Transform Procrastinators into Top Performers
By: Neil Fiore, PhD, adapted from The Now Habit at Work (Wiley, 2010)
If you’ve ever tried to herd cats, get teenagers to clean their room, or get a timely response from a procrastinator, you know that your usual management instincts are useless when you want to motivate employees. And yet, we all must work with individuals whose procrastination problems cause us delays, frustration, missed deadlines and angry customers. Here are my management tips for dealing with sometimes difficult employees.
What doesn’t work:
Putting pressure on procrastinators. This only backfires. Nagging will only cause resistance and contribute to the procrastination patterns. You need a more strategic approach than more of the same.
Commanding, “You have to finish this project.” While this statement seems to make sense, it shows a lack of understanding of the procrastinator’s problems with realistic time limits, perfectionism, setting priorities, and feeling overwhelmed. It adds to the threat of “You have to” (or else) a focus on finishing in the imaginary future without indicating when to start or when to deliver periodic drafts and progress reports.
Understand How Procrastinators Think
Employers, managers, and parents will be more effective in managing procrastinators when they understand how procrastinators think and talk to themselves:
1. They pressure themselves with “You have to” statements and then resent and resist the authoritarian voices in their heads in their office.
2. They tell themselves “I have to finish all this work, do it perfectly and miss out on all the fun and socializing in the coffee room.” This form of ineffective self-management makes them more likely to avoid work and give in the multiple distractions of email, Internet searches, Blackberry apps, and Smartphone.
3. They frighten themselves and cause stress and anxiety worrying about being judged and possibly fired.
4. They are self-critical and seldom acknowledge when they’re doing something right.
Effective managers resist the temptation to contribute to this form of counterproductive dialogue and behavior. Here are four examples:
1. Choice replaces compliance
“You should” and “You have to” messages almost always evoke resistance, resentment, and rebellion that are expressed through procrastination, noncompliance, coming in late, and, sometimes, even sabotage. To drastically reduce procrastination, offer options to employees that stimulate creative problem solving, cooperation, and motivation.
When they are given clear options, rather than demands and threats, employees have been known to willingly contribute cost-saving suggestions and hard work.
2. Focus on starting replaces worry about finishing
Peak Performance in sports and on the job requires that your mind be in the present not on the end of the game. Worrying about finishing overwhelms the mind with the impossible task of jumping into the imaginary future.
This causes anxiety as your body tries to get into an imaginary time where all the steps of the project are done. Your energy is stuck -- which you experience as anxiety -- because it can’t be used now.
Ask the employee, “When will you start?” Effective managers understand the importance of communicating to their employees -- and themselves -- the specific action steps required to begin the task. They understand that overcoming start-up inertia is half the battle.
To work optimally, a clear picture is needed of the time, the place, the task, and the freedom to “choose to start.” That is, you can turn a procrastinator into a producer by teaching him to focus on, “When can I start?” rather than, “I have to finish.”
3. Self-acceptance replaces perfectionism
Criticizing employees will lead some to try to be perfect in a futile attempt to avoid mistakes. Being perfect is, of course, impossible, and the attempt is a terrible waste of time and causes delays in the timely completion of projects.
To ensure that an employee doesn’t waste time trying to be perfect, say, “Get back to me in three hours with a rough draft so I can give you feedback on what to do next.”
This method of frequent employee feedback sessions will also help you clarify your own thoughts about the direction of the project and give you a more accurate estimate of how much time it will take the employee to complete a good-enough draft.
Receiving frequent feedback has been found to help employees monitor their behavior (as with performance reviews) and ensure that they are aligned with your goals and deadlines.
4. Use a Task-Focus to replace fear of criticism
To maximum long-term employee efficiency, catch them doing something right, to paraphrase Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager. Employees who must worry, “Is the boss going to be angry at me again?” cannot do their best work.
Although an employee’s personal insecurity is not the manager's problem, she can create a safe environment in which it’s possible to focus on the task of improving the product or service rather than worrying about being shamed or demeaned for mistakes.
As you begin to communicate to employees that you respect their worth and dignity as a person, they will eliminate much of the fearful thinking and avoidant behaviors that are the chief causes of procrastination. They will learn to focus more quickly on optimal job performance rather than the need to be perfect in an attempt to avoid anticipated criticism.
Neil Fiore, PhD is author of The Now Habit at Work (Wiley, 2010) and is a renowned psychologist, lecturer, trainer and best-selling author. Dr. Fiore has built a reputation as a leading peak performance and productivity expert and has worked with AT&T, Bechtel Corporation, Levi Strauss & Co., among others.