Heike Bruch
is Professor of Leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Sumantra Ghoshal is Professor of Strategic Leadership at the London Business School and the founding dean of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

This piece has been adapted from the article “Beware the Busy Manager,” published in the Harvard Business Review in February, 2002.

Most managers are extremely busy. They rush from meeting to meeting, check their e-mails constantly, make countless phone calls and are generally engulfed in a constant stream of activities. Yet, they often achieve very little. The problem is that they confuse being active with purposeful action-taking. Their capacities get fully absorbed in daily routines with no time or energy left for dealing with problems that require reflection, systematic planning or creative thinking, and for which there is no external pressure for immediate action. This is the syndrome we call “active non-action” which, we believe, is a central behavioural problem in many companies.

Situational factors are rarely the reason for this lack of purposive action. In fact, (most) managers are in a position to act. As a rule, their jobs provide sufficient scope and freedom, yet relatively few managers make deliberate use of their action-taking opportunities. Most spend their time letting the inevitable happen instead of doing what managers are paid to do—to make happen what otherwise won’t.

Energy and Focus
What distinguishes the relatively few managers who do take purposive action from the vast majority who just spin their wheels? Two things: energy and focus.

Action demands energy. Some managers fail to take purposive action simply because they lack energy. Some are exhausted or burnt out from stress and do not have the inner resources to re-energize themselves. For others, the lack of energy may be relevant to a particular project which is not meaningful to them. Regardless, without energy, they are unable to “go the extra mile” that is often necessary to accomplish non-routine tasks.

Focus, on the other hand, represents the capacity for concentrated attention. It is the ability to concentrate on a goal and see it successfully through to completion. Focused managers are not in reactive mode. They choose not to respond immediately to every issue that comes their way or get sidetracked from their goals by distractions.

While both focus and energy are positive traits, neither is in itself sufficient to produce the kind of purposeful action companies need most in their managers. Focus without energy devolves into either empty execution or burnout. Energy without focus dissipates into purposeless busyness or, in its most destructive form, wasteful failures.

Combining both these dimensions into a matrix (see figure) leads to a useful framework for diagnosing the causes of non-action as well as the basis for purposive action-taking. Such a matrix identifies four types of managerial behaviours: procrastination, disengagement, distraction and purposefulness.

Over the past three years, action-taking in a group of over 120 managers at a very large global company was intensely studied. What follows is a breakdown of the findings as seen through the “Action-taking Matrix.”

The Procrastinators: Low Energy, Low Focus
Over 30% of the managers studied were procrastinators; they suffered from low levels of both energy and focus. Although they dutifully performed their routine tasks—attending meetings, writing memos, making phone calls and so on—they failed to take initiative, to raise the level of performance or drive change.

Some procrastinators hesitate, Hamlet-like, until the window of opportunity has closed. One of those managers said, “I could have done it, but I could not get started.” The nearer the deadline for the project loomed, the more he busied himself with other activities, rationalizing that he could not turn to the project until he completed all his other small jobs.

Managers procrastinate when they feel insecure or fear failure. Some get into the passive state that psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” After experiencing a few times that despite making an effort, they could not make a difference, they have drawn the conclusion that taking action is not worth the effort. They believe that they have no power or control over events, so they do nothing.

The Disengaged Managers: High Focus, Low Energy
Roughly 20% of managers studied fell into the disengaged category: they exhibit high focus but have low levels of energy. This lack of energy manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Some of them practice a form of denial that can be described as “defensive avoidance.” Rather than acknowledging a problem and taking steps to correct it, they try to convince themselves that the problem does not exist. Other practice “distance behaviour.” While acknowledging the need for change, they distance themselves from the problem. In all cases, disengagement stems from the lack of identification—typically because the task lacks any subjective meaning for them.

Paradoxically, disengagement can be more exhausting than energetic behaviour. Disengaged managers are often plagued by feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, anger, frustration and alienation. They deal with those emotions by withdrawing or doing the bare minimum, which makes the situation worse. Despite their low levels of energy, these managers suffer from burnout more frequently than their colleagues do. And they are easily overwhelmed by unexpected events.

The Distracted Manager: High Energy, Low Focus
By far the largest group of managers we studied—about 40%—fell into the distracted quadrant; those well-intentioned, highly energetic but unfocused people who confuse whirlwind frenzy for constructive action. They always feel a desperate need to do something —anything—and that makes them as dangerous as the proverbial bull in a china shop.

Because they do not stop being active, distracted managers tend to have trouble developing strategies and adjusting their behaviour to new requirements. They don’t take time and energy to reflect. Under pressure and confronting the need for change, they precipitate into intensified activities. They do the same as always, only with even more intensity. They become victims of their established “behavioural templates.” Faced with extreme difficulties, these managers resort to panic behaviours—running away, irrational displacement activities or extensive and uncontrolled trial and error.

Moreover, because distracted managers tend to be short-sighted, they often find themselves overcommitted. They get involved in multiple projects with the best of intentions, but eventually their interest pales and they wind up either constantly fighting fires or abandoning projects altogether. In the space of two months one HR manager was observed taking on three big projects—redefining the role of the HR department, renewing the 360-feedback system, and creating a new leadership development programme— over and above his everyday job requirement. In the end, he abandoned one project, passed on responsibility for another, and did a poor job on the third.

The Purposeful Manager: High Focus, High Energy
The smallest proportion of managers studied—only about 10%—were both highly energetic and highly focused. Not only do such purposeful managers put more effort into their work than their counterparts, they also achieve critical, long-term goals more often. These managers tend to be more self-aware than others. Their clarity about their intentions, in combination with their strong will power, helps them take sound decisions about how they spend their time. They pick their goals —and their battles—with far more care than managers in the other three categories.

A key distinguishing feature of purposeful managers is their sense of personal responsibility for the challenges they have chosen to respond to. They feel accountable for making a meaningful contribution. “When nobody is responsible, I am responsible,” one manager told us. “I own an issue and do what I think is necessary—unless and until the CEO pulls me back.”

Purposeful managers husband their energy. Aware of the value of time, they manage it carefully and consciously. Some refuse to respond to e-mails, phone calls or visitors outside certain periods of the day. Others build “think time” into their schedules. As one of these managers said, “In the busiest times, I slow down and take time off to reflect on what I actually want to achieve and sort out what’s important from irrelevant noise. Then I focus on doing what is important.”

But the greatest difference between purposeful managers and others lies in the way they approach work. Other managers feel constrained by outside forces: their bosses, their peers, their salary schemes, their job descriptions. Those external factors determine for them what they can or cannot do. In other words, they work outside-in. Purposeful managers do the opposite. They decide first what they must achieve, and then they work to manage the external environment so that, in the end, they can achieve their goals. They work inside-out. This distinction between outside-in and inside-out behaviours—between motivation and volition—will be the topic of the next article in the series.

Short cut
  • Most Managers confuse being active with purposeful action- taking. This ist the syndrome we call “active non-active” which, we believe, is a central behavioural problem in many companies.
  • Action demands energy. Focus, on the other hand, represents the capacity for concentrated attention.
  • Over the past threee years, action-taking in a group of over 120 managers at a very large global company was intensely studied. What follwos:
  • 30% of the managers studied were procrastinators.
  • Roughly 20% of the managers studied fell into the disengaged category.
  • By far the largest group of managers we studied—about 40%— fell into the distracted category.
  • The smallest proprotion of managers studied—only about 10% —were both highly energetic and highly focused.