“You can always find distractions if you go looking for them.”

Most managers clearly understand that distractions get in the way of focussing on what really needs to be done to be successful, yet despite this many will go out of their way to find, and actually welcome, the relief provided by distractions. I find that this is often the case when managers are under significant pressure, whether from their external market or from internal volcanic eruptions, like a mass defection of senior management to a newer and more exciting competitor. I witnessed this situation in one European company where the President of the US operation and his next layer of management all quit on the same day. Rather than face and handle the situation immediately with a real sense of urgency, the global CEO went sailing for 2 weeks to “clear his mind”. By the time he came back he may have actually managed to clear his mind, but he had also managed to clear a large part of the remaining management team in the US in his absence, all as a result of his distraction from the actual issue at hand which needed his total focus and immediate action.

There are times when distractions are needed to release a pressure valve, and I have to confess that I would on occasion sneak off to a movie on a work afternoon, just to get away from the office and the demands of the job, but we need to be able to control distractions in a way that they do not negatively impact our ability to be effective and timely in what we do.

Author: PCL-BO; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: PCL-BO; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the worst distractions are meetings (see “Meetings bloody meetings” posted April 18, 2011) and emails (see “Emails bloody emails” posted April 21, 2011), and many managers use these as excuses to escape an unpleasant task. In my tenure as Global Head of HR at SAP, I once had to sit in on a performance review of a senior executive based on our 4-eyes principle at this level of management. The problem was that as part of this session the executive under review was to be asked to step out of his management role and move back to being an individual contributor, based on his continued inability to effectively run his division. His boss did not like the task at hand, and used every chance that he could to step away from the objective. Every time his PC “pinged” that a message had arrived in his inbox, he used the excuse that he was waiting for some urgent news to break off the review discussion and check his email. This enabled him to come back to us with a “where were we ?” comment and thus re-start the whole process until the next time that his PC pinging gave him an excuse to escape again. This happened so many times that eventually the executive under review turned to me and said “Do they want me to step aside ?”. When I confirmed that this had been the intention from the beginning, it was a moment of visible relief for all of 3 of us.

Author: Юкатан (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Юкатан (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

We all procrastinate at times, and I have come across quite a few people who tell me that they do this based on the fact that they work best under pressure, so will leave everything till the last possible moment, which enables them to continue to believe this self-driven delusion. There are times when some time pressure can provide the added adrenalin to get something done, but to live in a continuous state of procrastination and last minute vigils is not a characteristic of a successful manager. The larger and more complex is the task, the better it is to start to address it as soon as possible, even if this first step is to just break it down into its component parts. This will at least give you an opportunity to decide whether there are others that need to be enlisted to ensure successful completion within the required time available for a quality result. The longer you leave it alone, the more is the likelihood that you will have to address the problem, and its solution, on your own.

The worst example of this procrastination and distraction came very early in my career.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I worked at International Harvester in New Zealand. The company had for decades dominated the truck and farm equipment markets, but was under attack from a horde of new competitors, many from Japan, with highly competitive products and better pricing models. This resulted in a number of important dealerships jumping ship to become distributers for the competition. As I was the IT Manager at that time, I was a member of the management team that was eventually, and probably too late anyway, tasked with developing a strategy to build loyalty in the network of dealers across the country and to protect them from competitive penetration. Despite this being the most serious challenge facing the company at the time, it was impossible to get the CEO to focus on the issue and it took about 3 months longer than it made sense, to get his attention enough to be able to implement a meaningful strategy. By the time we did, IH had managed to lose over 30% of its distributers and was well on the way towards its demise. During this time, the CEO continued to find time to play “business golf” and to spend time every day “managing by walking around”, mainly in the assembly plant, where he could slap a few backs, shake a few hands and tell people what a great job they were doing,. Despite having the time to indulge in these activities, he didn’t seem to be able to find the time to focus on the one significant issue that was threatening his company, and his own future, of dealer retention. It was obvious to many of us that he just couldn’t face the challenge of how to handle tough competition after decades of facing very little, and so welcomed any distraction that would enable him to stave off facing a tough reality.

Author: Zindox (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Zindox (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French philosopher and mathematician rightly said “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”



  1. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman,

    Multitasking is one of the top skills asked for management or administrative positions these days. I personally prefer to multitask at home, cooking, talking on the phone, watching TV but at work I think that prioritizing and doing tasks one at a time gives better and faster results. Of course one can multitask up to a certain level of complexity(different for each job), however eventually the important things need special time and focus to be allocated.

    I also think that it’s easier to multitask than to prioritize and this is why I wonder why do employers make so much fuss about multitasking.

    Would you share your opinion on that? Thank you. Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, I also don’t understand the fuss about multitasking, and in particular the fuss that women make about being better at multitasking than are men.
      Most people today spend their life multitasking … I have once seen someone at a meeting talking on his mobile phone, while doing email during a presentation. He felt it was clever, whereas I felt that it was just rude.
      You are right that focus and prioritising is harder than “dabbling” all over, and in today’s world both are needed … BUT … I believe that focus is needed for important tasks, whereas multitasking tends to cover the urgent ones, like when something has gone wrong. Les

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