Does All That Face Time Make You Wish For "Get Out of My Face" Time? Try This

Last Updated Jan 7, 2011 8:32 AM EST

You can count on them. They can count on you. You're open, inclusive, always there for them. But could you be a little too open?

Case in point: The editor-in-chief of a top women's magazines was a very dedicated and well-organized leader. She took pride in her ability to juggle a high-pressure job and a sane personal life with her husband and two young kids. She tried to be home every night by 6:30 to be with her kids. Her staff considered her a great boss; an excellent listener whose door was always open.

Is it really love?
When this editor found herself make more and more excuses for working late -- 9:30 or 10 p.m. every night -- she told herself it was simply that she loved her job. (Running a glamorous money-making magazine can be a ton of fun!) But as she analyzed the problem, she realized it had nothing to do with her love for her work. Instead, it was her staff that loved her too much -- and depended on her too much.

Dependent relationships can be one of the darker sides of power. Great leaders know how much they rely on the people in their organizations. They don't just count on the power of their positions to get things done; they create the kind of loyalty and respect that inspires people to "take the hill" even when it's most difficult. But dependency But the more the leader is respected and admired, the more her staff may feel the need to gain her approval.

It's never just "a couple minutes"
Staff members often see access as a sign of status. They assume that if the leader chooses to spend her limited time with any one person, that person's ideas and opinions must be the most important. But this can play out as a grab for face time and can lead to a dependency that becomes trouble.

The magazine editor had created an environment where getting face time with her was as easy as going to the ATM. This developed into a never-ending spiral where she could never leave the office. People were always coming by, saying, "I just need a couple of minutes of your time." As we all know, a "couple of minutes" always means more than a couple. She tried to give her staff whatever they needed. It just seemed as if they needed too much.

She finally became frustrated, gathered her staff together, and announced, "From now on, my door is closed at 5:45. After that, no more face time. At 5:45, it's get-out-of-my-face time!"

Not surprisingly, this approach didn't work. She was punishing her staff for a situation she had created, and they felt abandoned. She wanted to empower her staff to take responsibility, yet she still wanted to provide help when needed.

Boundary issues

She came up with a wonderful idea--one that can work for anyone who feels trapped by the needs of staffers. She set up one-on-one meetings with each of her direct reports to discuss responsibilities, hers and theirs.

First she asked each person to look at their own responsibilities. "Are there places where I can let go? Other instances where my help can make a big difference?"

Her staff acknowledged that they didn't really need her input on many decisions. Checking in so frequently had become a habit. Each person was also able to re-focus on areas where the editor's involvement would really pay off.
Do you really want to let go?
Next the editor asked her staff to look at her responsibilities. She asked, "Do you ever see me doing things I don't need to be doing? Are there activities I could delegate?" Every person had at least one good idea of to help her let go, save time, and help staff members develop.

The editor implemented almost all of their suggestions. And she realized that while part of the problem was the staff's dependence, another issue was her own need to feel important.

The pay-off
Follow this course, and face time will have as much value as Confederate paper. Within a year or so, employees will be much stronger -- and ready to talk again about how little face time they need with you, and how much more out-of-my-face time.

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  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.