When Nagging Pays Off for Managing Teams

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 6:35 PM EDT

Is this your boss? She meets with you on a project, then follows up over the next few days with an e-mail, a hallway conversation, a quick phone call and maybe even a text message. Are you being nagged? Micromanaged?

Nope. Your boss is actually engaging in behavior, annoying as it may seem, that will get you working on the project more quickly, according to new research from Harvard Business School's Tsedal B. Neeley and Northwestern University's Paul M. Leonardi and Elizabeth M. Gerber.

The practice works particularly well for time-pressured leaders who have no actual authority over team members, such as when individuals are brought together from across the organization to work on a project. (Managers with authority tend to send, at most, one followup and assume it will get done.)

The researchers studied the communication patterns of 13 project managers in half-a-dozen firms across the computing, telecommunications, and health care industries. The team recorded every activity in the managers' workday, collecting a total of 256 hours' worth of observations.

The key finding: Managers who are deliberately redundant as communicators move their projects forward more quickly and smoothly than those who are not.

A story about the research by Kim Girard can be viewed here. Or read an abstract of the paper, How Managers Use Multiple Media.

Neeley has published other interesting work on the dynamics of teams. Her paper Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work looked at the common practice, especially by multinationals, of adopting a common business language (often English) for all of the firm. This practice can trigger a cycle of negative emotional responses that interfere with collaborative relationships on the teams, according to the research.

(Photo by Flickr user bandita, CC 2.0)

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  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.