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The incompetence of not returning phone calls

Published:Sunday | June 22, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

In the workplace, we don't like to call people incompetent: it appears to be a rude, obnoxious label to give someone, so instead we hold our tongues.

When the incompetence relates to a colleague's inability to respond to phone calls and emails in a timely manner - or at all - we are likely to excuse them completely. After all, we are in the same boat: buried by how much work we have to do, struggling to keep up.

Perhaps you can relate. At the launch meeting for a project, team members show up late, apparently harried and stressed by all they have to do. They haven't read their email, and spend the entire meeting texting. Afterwards, they fail to complete their first deliverable on time.

What many of us do is resign ourselves to becoming their personal reminder system. We 'confirm' everything with them before it's due, to ensure they stay on track. In other words, their inefficiency becomes our problem, so we end up working overtime because we can't afford to let them endanger the project.

This reluctance to call a spade a spade leaves us all stuck at low levels of productivity in which poor performance becomes accepted, everyday practice. We eventually can't recognise that when someone fails to respond to our communication, it's not because there's too much work, or too few hours: it's a sign of incompetence.

Time management

Before we are able to deal with the issue directly with them, however, we need to be clear about what we're seeing. Those early signals are telling us they can't manage all their 'time demands': a 'time demand' is an individual commitment to complete an action in the future.

Here are 11 typical symptoms of weak 'time demand' management:

we can't remember to do all the things we want to do;

● we keep wishing we had more time;

● we find ourselves multitasking while driving;

● to save time, we regularly use the phone on the toilet;

● our email inbox has hundreds of read or unread items which are waiting to be processed;

● information overload is causing us time-stress;

● in the middle of the night we wake up, suddenly remembering something we should have done;

● we struggle to find the right information we need;

● people need to call us to 'confirm' that we'll be at meetings;

● we have prepared apologies for running late - sometimes designed to show others how important we are; and

● we have commitments that fall through the cracks.

Unlike other well-understood skills like foreign-language fluency, we generally don't understand the skills related to time-based productivity.

We end up stuck in a zone of incompetence in which we experience many of the symptoms I just shared, but have no real solutions. Working longer hours is not a solution.

Our capacity has not kept up with the modern expectation: you must be competent at managing lots of time demands buried in a mountain of data using the latest always-on technology.

The best place to start is by owning your lack of competence, and taking the following steps:

Step 1 - Realise you can't go backward

If you were highly productive in the past, it's just not relevant - you can't return to the way things used to be. Working life has changed irrevocably and the temporary situation you find yourself in is, in fact, the new permanent. Your challenge is to adjust now, not wait for a return of the good old days.

Step 2 - Look for new standards

If you haven't started, you need to launch a relentless search for new practices that can propel you to a new standard. There's a lot that can be found via the Internet and you need to keep abreast of the latest thinking and newest tools just in order to keep improving fast enough to stay slightly ahead. It's what normal has become - not being set in one position, but continually moving so that you never become stuck. It's the only way to alleviate the symptoms, many of which didn't exist only a decade ago.

Step 3 - Be courageous

In many Jamaican workplaces, a hard work ethic is unnecessary, unwanted and discouraged by others who are mediocre. New college graduates in our companies may tell you the truth: they are working nowhere as hard as they did at school. It takes courage to stand out, and strive to be the best.

Companies typically don't do a good job of creating high-performance environments; instead, they coddle incompetence, believing that it's better to be nice than frank. This might be a way to relate to friends, but the workplace - like the athletic track - is a place where friendship is not required and only a commitment to high performance produces results.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a document with a summary of links to past columns, or give feedback, email: