Do you ever feel like people at the office are bothering you, and you just want to shut the door to work? Do you ever feel relieved when you are the only one left in the office at night or the only one first thing in the morning, because no one will distract you?

It’s an oft-heard complaint that there’s not enough time to accomplish work tasks. One executive recently reported spending evening time on his computer after putting the kids to bed, because there was no time at the office.

If this is a situation you find yourself in, read on. There are many reasons time seems to run away from us during normal working hours. One culprit is meetings that are unexpected, poorly planned or “death by updates,” but a second is interruptions of direct reports.

What if you could reduce those interruptions and turn them into teaching moments to develop your team members and reduce the number of interruptions? If you assume the people interrupting you have good intent and are trying to do their best, every question should be a teaching moment. Effective leaders do not fall into the trap of helping out by giving an answer. Effective leaders use every interruption as a teaching moment.

There are three components of a teaching moment that require intent and can save time and result in better decisions in the long run. The three components are clarifying criteria, seeking alternatives and gaining commitment. Let’s examine each in turn.

1. Clarifying Criteria

Criteria are the rules we have created from experience about what makes for a good decision. Think of them as an invisible checklist in your head. Imagine a team member approaches you and says, “I have an idea for how we could do this process better.” Intuitively, you consult the checklist in your head to see if, based on your experience, it’s a good idea. Meanwhile, your team member has developed their idea to meet the checklist in their head.

The first step in this approach to effective leadership is to seek understanding of what the team member’s checklist (criteria) contains. It is as simple as saying something like, “Interesting idea. I’m curious to know what considerations you had that lead you to propose this solution.” From their answer, you learn a lot about how they view the situation and the business.

You also have an opportunity to share your experience and ask, “Do you think we should also consider…” when you feel there are additional criteria you and the team member should take into account. It is important to approach this conversation from a place of curiosity, without judgment.

2. Seeking Alternatives

After agreeing on common criteria, check in with the team member on how well their proposed solution meets your common criteria and what alternatives could also meet them. This discussion provides them with the opportunity to think of other solutions based on their new insights. As their leader, you are inviting them to think differently and more broadly.

Note that this approach is the opposite of the leaders who blurt out a solution because they think their experience and knowledge are superior. If the team member comes up with a solution that you think would damage the organization or be counter to its values, ask, “Are there any unintended consequences of this alternative?” If your team member can’t come up with the consequences that you are concerned about, ask another question: “How do you think this fits with our values?”

3. Gaining Commitment

After agreeing on common criteria and seeking alternatives, effective leaders ask what solution is the best fit given the organizations goals, metrics and resources. The next step is to gain commitment to the solution by checking in on evidence, timing, dependencies and required resources. Let’s consider each element.

The evidence for a solution addresses the question, “What would we see or how would we know this solution has been implemented?” It could be improved customer satisfaction scores, reduced costs or lower employee turnover; whatever it is, it should be a measure that can a third party could objectively observe.

Timing is a commitment to when the evidence will be observable. If the project requires months to achieve, break down that timing into steps or elements that you can accomplish in one or two weeks. This strategy allows the people doing the work to have a sense of accomplishment and ensures that no one waits until the last minute and then realizes that they can’t do it all in the time they have left.

Clarifying dependencies is an important step that indicates which other departments or events are required in order for you to accomplish the idea. For example, it could be that your team is dependent on finance department to generate a pricing analysis before introducing a new training platform. In this case, it’s important that your action plan include gaining commitment from that department so that it can meet the expected timeline. If not, the overall timing of the evidence needs adjustment. Too often, a person in one department will send an email or instant message requesting an analysis without gaining a timeline commitment from the person doing the work.

Resources are another important consideration. They include tools, software, people, consultants, research or anything else that you may require that is not available in the organization today. Sometimes, this “resources test” of a solution makes it infeasible. The time it takes to obtain the resources is an important consideration when setting expectations on when the “evidence” will be observed and the project completed.

Effective leaders recognize that every interruption is an opportunity to understand the beliefs and capabilities of the person asking the question and to teach them. They follow the three-step process of:

  1. Asking about criteria for what makes a great decision, offering additional criteria and reaching agreement on a list of common criteria.
  2. Testing the proposed solution against those common criteria and exploring alternatives that meet them.
  3. Asking the team member to select the best solution and commit to a time frame, evidence, resources and dependencies.

You will find that the frequency of interruptions will decrease as you adopt this model and change the way you view your interrupters. Decision-making will improve, and the self-esteem of your team members will increase. It’s a win-win.

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