Help Your Team (Actually) Work Smarter, Not Harder

It’s not uncommon to spend too much time and effort working on the wrong things. Maybe you’re putting hours into status updates for your manager, who never actually reads them, or prioritizing a presentation’s design over the message you’re trying to relay. Managers can play an important role in helping their teams prioritize the tasks that matter the most. The author presents three ways managers can help their teams work smarter, not just harder. First, help them up front by establishing key milestones and end dates — without crossing the line into micromanaging. Second, remind them that perfect is often the enemy of good. Finally, help them make connections across the organization so they know who can help them when necessary.

My Indian immigrant parents instilled in me an incredible and intense work ethic. I watched them put in long hours, with a relentless commitment to achieving their dreams. My father always said, “Keep your head down, work hard, and work some more, and you will be recognized.”

And yet, his advice to only work hard hasn’t always served me well at work.

Early in my career, I presented my company’s brand forecast at monthly senior leadership meetings. I spent hours and hours preparing and over-preparing, working into the early hours of the morning. The actual presentations were never more than 10 minutes long. On one occasion, overloaded on caffeine and sleep deprived, I asked completely blanked when the vice president me a question, and I stood there frozen in front of the senior leadership team.

I was working hard, but not on the right things. I struggled with being over prepared and striving for perfection. Without much coaching or guidance from my bosses, I wasted hours on details that didn’t matter, on pulling and analyzing the wrong data sets, and on answering the wrong questions.

Some might argue that these are simply mistakes we make in the course of our careers, and mistakes can help us learn and be better leaders. Yet research shows that contrary to what so many of us have been taught, the errors we make need to be close to the right answer in order to be educational. This is what helps us to learn and improve our memory to retain the correct information — and then ultimately do things differently.

But I never course-corrected the way in which I worked because I didn’t see my over-preparing and drive toward perfection as mistakes. And no boss ever coached me on how to work differently. Now as a leader who has helped coach and manage the careers of dozens of individuals, I recognize the important role I can play in preventing my teams from working relentlessly hard. Here’s how leaders can help their teams work smarter, not just harder.

Scope out the work for big initiatives.

“When I am helping a client sell their home, I have a number of individuals I am managing, while at the same time overseeing costs,” Adam Bickoff, broker associate at Compass, told me. “As the leader of the team, I have to scope out the project, assign tight deadlines, and manage not just the output, but focus on how the work is getting done. At the end of the day, my job is to maximize value for my client. I can’t afford to have team members spending hours working hard on the wrong things.”

When Bickoff is scoping out the sale of a home, he starts with setting a timeline with his clients based on the date they want the house on the market. He then clearly outlines for his team all the key milestones they must complete, including housing inspection, repairs, deep cleaning, staging, and hosting open houses and showings. He assigns the approximate hours it will take to complete each milestone. “We are working with a number of clients on buying and selling homes at once, and so every hour counts, not just for us, but also for our clients. We have no choice but to work smart.”

Bickoff’s process for ensuring his team is working smart can be applied to industries outside of real estate. Leaders should help their team members up front by setting clear end dates for large initiatives, assigning approximate hours for key project milestones, and coaching them if they’re spending too much time on a specific task. When any one team member spends hours working on the wrong thing, it can have a ripple effect on the rest of the initiative and impact key deliverables. Finally, leaders must remember that there is a difference between providing helpful guidance and direction and actually doing the work for the team and micromanaging details.

Coach your team to stop chasing perfectionism.

I’ve chased perfection too many times in my career, searching for the perfect image for a presentation and spending hours drafting, revising, and rewriting short email updates to senior management. I would spend hours updating my project list for one-on-one check-ins with my boss, which at the end of the day, he never looked at.

Leaders need to watch out for the chase for perfectionism by their team members. Studies show that striving to be perfect can not only sabotage success at work, but it can ultimately lead to burnout and cause health problems. And burnout continues to be a key driver of why people are saying “I quit” and walking out the door. Coaching team members to stop being perfect is one of the ways we can help retain our talent.

As leaders, let’s be vulnerable about our own journeys when it comes to perfectionism. Let’s share how we prioritize and focus on working smart on the things that matter and making business impact. Encourage team members to set timers for smaller tasks, like crafting emails or searching for images for presentations. Remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes; the typo in the newsletter or the file that wasn’t attached to the email will not make or break their career. Finally, let’s remember that sometimes done is better than perfect.

Help your team connect the dots across the organization.

Throughout my career, I’ve struggled with asking for help. If I was assigned a project by my boss, I thought it was my responsibility to complete it on my own. I recall one weekend when my boss had an urgent request, requiring me to spend hours upon hours pulling data for a particular retailer, only to discover on Monday morning that my colleague who worked in the supply chain department already had the data and would have happily given it to me.

“Our job as leaders is to help connect the dots for our team members across the organization,” Sonali Pai, chief marketing officer of Lisap Milano USA, told me. She added:

As a marketer, I can’t afford to work in a silo. I have to closely cooperate with functions like finance, procurement, and product development. If I am assigning work to my team, it’s my responsibility to connect them with colleagues who might already have some of the answers to the problems we are working on. By making these connections, your team won’t be duplicating work and wasting hours working hard on the wrong things.

As Pai suggests, we must coach our teams to ask for help, and in some cases, ask on their behalf and make introductions across the organization. As leaders, we must be organizationally aware of the work happening in other departments and what overlaps with and can be additive to the initiatives we’re leading. We can then collectively be working on the right things on behalf of the organization.

When our teams are working smarter, and not harder, they will see the impact they’re making on the organization. Ensuring our teams feel that their contributions matter is one of the biggest retention tools we have to continue to develop and retain our talent.

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