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The tendency to be “off-task”

The tendency to be “off-task”

Most of us would find work more pleasant if co-workers would follow through on plans and processes. Unfortunately that happens on good days at work but not all the time. Employees describe groups who struggle, who can’t stay focused, who develop petty rivalries or who can’t get the energy or motivation to continue on the plan. In sheer frustration sometimes, a few people end up doing all the work.

When looking at the nature of systems, the principle of entropy comes to mind. This is the law of thermodynamics that states that if left to their own devices, most things fall “off task.” Without a plan and focused energy, that is the nature of systems. This is why the role of the leader/manager is so important. Jeffrey Fox, in his book How to Become a Great Boss, states that where many managers fail is not in delegating responsibility but in abdicating it.

A simple metaphor illustrates what happens. Think about driving on the interstate. The task is to stay awake and focused, keeping your eye on the traffic and off the distractions around you and paying attention to the white lines that guide you where you want to go. If you get distracted from the white lines, the consequences can range from anxiety-provoking to disastrous. Most of us don’t pay constant attention to the white lines.

Most of us are distracted by our own thoughts, the radio, the traffic, the weather and sometimes the ever-present cell phone. Sometimes there are so many distractions in the car that it is amazing we can pay attention to what is going on outside of it. How many of us have been distracted by children, spilled drinks, commercials or a favorite song and have caught ourselves drifting away from the center of the lane, to be awakened, if we are fortunate, by the rumble strips on the edge of the pavement? If you don’t pay attention to the white lines, you drift away from them. Because we can’t keep our focus continuously on one thing, we are constantly bringing ourselves “back to center,” so to speak.

So it goes at work. If you lose sight of the goal and don’t keep others focused on it, they will drift away. For management, this is especially important. Recognizing that the nature of any system is to tend toward entropy, it is important to remember that a leader’s job is to delegate tasks and to follow up to make sure they are accomplished. Your team will stay on task if you remind them what the task is; someone has to focus on the white lines. If not, your team will find itself too often on the “rumble strips” at work—a bumpy ride for everyone. Good leaders pay attention to the performance of the teams that report to them. They notice when they are “off task” and refocus them toward the goal. v

Pam Franta is the owner of Pamela Franta Consulting. She is a licensed psychologist, specializing in executive coaching/consulting with individuals and groups at work. She can be reached at [email protected]

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