How to Be a Better Boss in 2013

bigstockphoto_the_missing_piece_493271The new year has arrived—and with it, the inevitable wave of self-improvement plans and resolutions. Along with pledging to lose weight or kick a coffee habit, why not resolve to be a better manager in 2013?  From practicing your job to avoiding the ‘reply-all’ button, Journal reporters and management experts offer tips on how to do it thanks to this article from the Wall Street Journal.

Ban ‘Reply to All’

The “reply to all” button is among the most misused—and reviled—pieces of office technology. At best, an accidental click can lead to an inbox-clogging chain of messages. At worst, it can cause a personal embarrassment before the entire company.

[image]David Saracino

“That button is responsible for more pain and suffering, except for the red button that launches the nukes,” says Nathan Zeldes, a founder of the Information Overload Research Group, which studies how companies manage information.

One solution? Save time and trouble this year by disabling the “reply to all” button.

Some companies already do so, such as data firm Nielsen, which has been anti-reply-all for several years. In a 2009 memo, the company’s chief information officer reasoned that doing so will “reduce non-essential messages in mailboxes, freeing up time as well as server space.” The button remains “grayed out” on the screens of the company’s 34,000 employees, although there are workarounds, a company spokeswoman says.

If your company clings to the reply-to-all option, start the trend on your own.

Microsoft Corp. MSFT +1.98% offers a free NoReplyAll add-on to its Outlook email program, which allows users to prevent recipients from replying-all or forwarding the messages. There is also Reply to All Monitor, which for $14.95 will send a message every time a user clicks reply-all, asking whether he or she really want to so do. The program, made by Sperry Software, also removes your name from a message’s recipient list so others can’t reply-all to you, among other features.

—Rachel Emma Silverman

Practice the Hard Stuff

For many, time spent at the office counts as “work.” But not all work is created equal.

There is a difference between doing things you already know how to do and doing things that force you to stretch and improve your skills, according to psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, who specializes in performance psychology, or the study of how people become good at what they do. A person in a new job usually spends some time training to get up to speed, but after that, his or her abilities tend to plateau, says Mr. Ericsson.

There are ways to get beyond this plateau—and win promotions and opportunities. Here are some suggestions:

Set clear goals slightly beyond your current abilities and list specific actions that advance you toward that goal. For example, a venture capitalist might want to increase the rate at which calls to potential investors prompt follow-up conversations. Specific actions he or she could take include making a certain number of these calls each week using their best pitch, regardless of whether he or she feels like it.

Those hoping to move beyond the plateau should also seek feedback. Without frank, even harsh, feedback, progress will likely stall. The venture capitalist making investor calls could keep careful notes on what differentiated the successful and nonsuccessful calls, or he could ask a partner at the firm to listen in and offer thoughts.

Finally, you need to get out of your comfort zone—not always a pleasant feeling. If left unchecked, many workers might reply to emails all day. But they should learn to seek out ways to practice skills they aren’t quite comfortable with, like a bodybuilder seeks muscle burn.

Success requires more than simply showing up early and staying late. True standouts systematically develop rare and valuable skills. That takes practice, which isn’t something people necessarily want to do.

—Cal Newport. Mr. Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You.’

Powers of Persuasion

It’s no secret that a successful manager needs to convince people to do things. But how?

Steve Martin, a behavior expert at consulting firm Influence at Work, has a handful of simple persuasion techniques he says he has used to help large corporations and government agencies in the U.K. influence customers and citizens.

Among the strategies, he says, is to tap into a social norm to create consensus. This can move people to model their behavior on others.

While working with the U.K.’s tax-collecting service, Mr. Martin says he saw an increase in the return rate after enclosing messages such as, “nine out of 10 people in Britain pay their tax on time,” on tax forms. The rate increased more when messages referred to the number of people who filed tax returns on time within their town or postal code, he says.

Mr. Martin adds that managers can use a “test and learn” approach to determine social norms. Start with small groups or locations, test messages and see whether there is a social norm to tap into.

Another strategy: Frame a choice as leading to a potential loss rather than a gain. This can create a sense of stress—and help managers get things done.

Mr. Martin describes a study in which a group of executives were presented a proposal for an IT project. Twice as many in the group approved the proposal if the company was predicted to lose $500,000 if the proposal weren’t accepted, compared with a scenario that predicted that the project would lead to profits of $500,000.

Lastly, Mr. Martin says that favorable outcomes almost double when we identify common ground with the other party in a negotiation. Find similarities between you and your customer—such as the car you drive or the age of your kids—and express them before you start negotiating with them over a contract or a price.

“Influence isn’t an art,” says Mr. Martin, “there’s over 60 years of research and evidence that shows how we can effectively move people. My advice would be to learn the science.”

—Parminder Bahra

Learn to Be Annoying

About every third visitor to Kayak.com’s “contact us” page encounters a phone number. Calling it sets off a big red phone in the travel company’s software engineering office, where it is answered by a developer who likely would rather be doing almost anything else.

The travel website’s managers say the calls keep developers in touch with the site and help resolve bugs quickly. The exercise also shows the value of annoyance as a management tool.

Employees often wish managers were a little more understanding, but people tend to associate the idea of “understanding” with “nice.” A little well-directed pain can be a good thing in getting workers to focus on the tasks they might otherwise choose to forget, and to increase overall productivity.

Given that developers often prefer programs to people, Kayak founder Paul English says, making them deal directly with customers’ questions drove them nuts. Once they heard the same complaint two or three times, the engineers tended to stop and fix the code. As an added bonus, after taking his turn on customer-service duty, an engineer can pass the phone—along with its grating ring—down the line for someone else to deal with.

Other companies have found novel ways to annoy workers into better performance. For instance, some cafes, including the chain Au Bon Pain, promise customers a free meal if the cashier fails to provide a receipt. It’s a way of making customers ensure the cashier records the transaction rather than pocketing the cash.

In many cases, the cashier pays for the free meal, not the company—an annoying, but effective, reason to self-monitor.

You might think that paying workers for better performance would accomplish more than red phones or lunch bills. If Kayak had paid developers to find bugs, they likely would have found them, but maybe not in the way managers want.

The grandfather of a friend likes to give the (likely apocryphal) example of a general in the czarist Russian Army who tried to fight the flea problem among his troops by offering a per-flea finder’s fee. He anticipated the men would hunt down the parasites one by one until they were vanquished. But he got even bigger infestation, as the hairiest soldiers cultivated scores of fleas to sell to comrades, allowing everyone to profit from the bounty.

In the same way, if you pay software programmers to find bugs in their programs, you may end up with a similar bug infestation. Everyone likes a bonus.

The important piece is having some empathy, or a window into what motivates others. Sometimes, a bonus may work best. But other times, it could be a big red phone.

—Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. Mr. Fisman is the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise and co-director of the Social Enterprise Program at the Columbia Business School. Mr. Sullivan is the editorial director of Harvard Business Review Press. Their book, ‘The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office,’ publishes on Jan. 8.

Redo Your To-Do List

You probably use some version of a to-do list to keep track of everything you need to do. Such lists seem like a good idea, but they merely catalog tasks—and don’t help you accomplish them.

If all you do is make lists of the projects you need to finish, odds are good that they will remain unfinished far longer than you’d like. Decades of research on goal pursuit shows that when it comes to execution, there are two major pitfalls that keep us from doing the things we intend to do.

First, we aren’t specific enough about what exactly needs to happen—the actions we must take to reach our goals. If your goal is to make a good impression on your boss, you must break that down into component actions, such as arranging a weekly meeting or turning in reports on time. To-do lists may be helpful on this end, so long as they contain specific actions rather than vague goals.

But the second problem—which lists don’t solve—is finding opportunities to take action. Did you really have no time to work on that assignment today? No chance at any point to return that phone call? You likely had time, but were probably preoccupied with something else, or simply forgot until it was too late. Achieving any goal means grabbing hold of these opportunities before they slip through your fingers. One solution: If-then planning.

Not only decide what you need to do, but also decide when and where you will do it, in advance. The general format of an if-then plan looks like this: If — occurs, then I will —.

For example: When it’s 3 p.m. today, then I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that project; If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I’ll go to the gym before work; If it’s Tuesday morning, then I’ll check in with all my direct reports.

This kind of planning trains your brain to be ready for a certain action at a certain time, studies show. On an unconscious level, you are actively scanning your environment, waiting for the situation (e.g., 3 p.m.) to occur. So you are much more likely to notice 3 p.m. when it happens, and seize the opportunity to take the action you included in your plan.

With each action on your to-do list, add a when and where. You can transfer your to-do list to your calendar if you prefer—just make sure that you pair what you need to do with details about when and where you’ll do it.

—Heidi Grant Halvorson. Ms. Grant Halvorson is Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School. She is the author of ‘Succeed’ and ‘Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.’

A version of this article appeared Jan. 2, 2013, on page B1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: How to Be a Better Boss in 2013.

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