A recently overheard leadership story grabbed our attention. It started out as a normal tale of business challenges and “fire drills” taking up everyone’s attention and time. However, as the story kept going, the focus from the leader was to place blame on team members not understanding how to manage their time. In their opinion, the team’s lack of time management skills was keeping them from being successful. In turn, this frustrated the leader because the team wasn’t staying on top of high priority projects. The solution in this leader’s mind was to send everyone to time management skills training.

But what if time management isn’t the only issue? The story not only made us think about the value of time management skills – but also actions a leader can take when their team members are showing signs of drowning in “now” work or too many overlapping projects.

Here are Four things a leader can do to help out their overwhelmed team members (without blaming them in the process):

ONE: Explore the tasks that are bogging down team members — and understand the why.

The reality is that everyone experiences workload surges from time to time. However, sometimes workload surges come from a trend that is outside of the employee’s control. Maybe there is a volume increase of projects for their position. Where are the requests coming from? Perhaps key initiatives have been assigned to them without determining what other tasks should be delayed in the process.

Solution: A strong leader should not only understand the workloads for their employees, but probe for details to learn what tasks are getting in the way or causing disruption. Giving the employees the ability to delay some projects/tasks may be all that is needed. In other cases, shifting a project to another team member, or sharing the work between them could be the solution. Lastly, new resources (such as contractors), software, or processes may need to be utilized to improve the situation.

TWO: Know where to intervene with other entities to deflect/delay non-important work.

Many times, other teams leaders or departments reach out to employees for work to be completed. Managers of those team members are often not even aware of those requests! Other leaders may not understand the time required to complete the request, or the other projects already in queue for that employee. In these cases, it might be more challenging for an employee to say “no” or “later” to such requests.

Solution: A good leader can take the burden away from the employee by saying “no” or “later” to such requests. By escalating that message to other department leaders on behalf of the employee, priorities for what can be accomplished in a reasonable timeframe can be established. Frequent requests from other teams may also highlight other resources that needs to be evaluated to remove work overload from existing team members.

THREE: Demonstrate to your employees how to prioritize.

While time management classes can be effective, a more effective and direct way to address time management with your employees is to talk directly about how you would evaluate tasks and projects.

Solution: Make sure that your team priority projects are reviewed in quick status meetings every week or two. Work collaboratively with your employees to identify priorities, and even re-evaluate deliverables for some projects that can be scaled back or re-envisioned. Re-read our earlier article on Why Speed Wins Out Over Perfection for more insight. As a leader, you can also reinforce the importance of the top priority projects by demonstrating your own strong time management and project management skills – and help lead by example. Share examples with your team so they can apply the same methodology to their own tasks.

FOUR: Take a look in the mirror to see if (gasp) you are part of the problem

This might be the hardest step to take – and admit – but many times we here at CPL see leaders that spend most of their time creating fire drills for their employees. This could be inviting people consistently to same-day urgent meetings, (and asking them to drop other meetings in the process), or asking for quick slide creation, quick email explanations, quick customer escalation responses. You have probably made any one of these requests recently, but do you do it all the time? Understand that your actions and behavior can drive employees to think that your culture is a “yes” culture, and that success is responding quickly to the latest emergency. When this happens, a leader should not be surprised when priority projects move to the backburner.

Solution: If you are brave enough to look in the mirror and see this unfolding, we advise that you pause and look at the 3 steps above as a partial way to change your behavior. Brush up on your own time management skills if needed. Step three will be helpful in many situations. When assigning a “now” request, let your employee(s) know that another project can be delayed, allowing time for the emergency.

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