Bad Employee Behavior That Results When Managers Reward Busyness

Every law firm associate knows it’s unacceptable to have free time. If your first-year isn’t stressful, full of all-nighters, and fraught with anxiety over busyness, then you risk not returning the next day.

Especially in the current competitive environment, employees need to look invaluable—an irreplaceable cog that if removed would topple the firm’s steady churning revenue and positive returns for its clients.

But work, realistically, comes in waves. And, like it or not, there is always some idle time. The question is, how do your employees react to these instances?

More often than not, employees understand that firms encourage full-time engagement, late nights, long hours.

Unfortunately, this behavior hurts the efficiency and profits of your firm. When managers encourage busyness—as opposed to high quality work product—your employees will behave in the following unproductive manner:

1. Pretend to be busy (all the time)

If it’s unacceptable to be idle in the office—to spare one single billable hour—then your employees will fill the void. Not with actual work product. No, instead, they’ll pretend to be busy by reading, then rereading filings (for professional development, of course) and learn to familiarize themselves at a snail’s pace with cases.

The reality is, time passes more quickly when a person is busy. As a result, most legal professionals never fear being busy. They welcome it.

What professionals do fear, however, is looking incapable or lazy whenever their manager enters the office with the loaded question, “are you busy?” on the tip of his tongue.

Unfortunately, instead of rewarding high quality and even quantity of work product, managers, these days, seem to be rewarding those associates who have mastered the appearance of busyness the best.

2. Rebudget time to spread out work

Time management skills suffer in offices where busyness is rewarded.

For example, a young lawyer realizes he must linger in the office until 8pm to appear busy. But, high quality work only demands staying until 7pm. The solution? Budget work pace around the time, as opposed to the reverse.

Suddenly, a client emergency arises at 7pm. Now, employees truly are preoccupied, without any free time to contribute to the crisis. Instead of letting the type of work decide the hours, your employees are slowing their hours to the work.

By most definitions, this is poor performance and poor productivity. For clients, it even borders on fraud.

3. Become intimidated at the thought of actual busyness

When you’re accustomed to pretending to be busy, you start to fear the day you’ll actually find yourself so.

Not to mention, as employees start to become conditioned to a drawn-out pace of work—for the sake of appearing busy—they’ll be ill equipped to handle key assignments in a crunch.

4. Stop answering your questions honestly

Knowing that managers reward busyness, associates will always claim that they’re engaged with important projects. This will eventually snowball into a dishonest boss-employee relationship that will ruin professional trust and cooperation.

Employees should feel free to answer your questions honestly. Perhaps they do have the time for extra work—not because they’re lazy and unmotivated, but because they happen to have completed a previous assignment quickly.

Or, perhaps employees don’t have the time. They should feel comfortable saying no to their boss once in awhile. There shouldn’t be negative repercussions to free time; otherwise firms may start billing excessively for pencil sharpening.

5. Question your managerial skills

When teams leave early because their work is done, counter-intuitively, it’s a sign of successful management.

Managers who overvalue busyness start to assign menial and pointless tasks to employees who have (quite efficiency) finished all other work product.

In addition, only the most unproductive of managers will hold meetings during a lull, rather than letting employees ride it out in their own way.

Idle time doesn’t have to be wasted if you encourage employees to fill it creatively. Push them to be proactive about their own careers or cases during these times.

It turns out, busyness is only productive when the work is also meaningful. Take, for example, a 2008 MIT study where researchers asked participants to build a series of Lego models.

“Finished models were either kept, or they were disassembled in front of the participant and handed back for rebuilding. (This was called the “Sisyphus condition”, after the mythical figure condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again). Even though the two conditions involved exactly the same type of work, participants in the ‘meaningful’ condition were willing to produce more models (and built them more efficiently, for a lower median wage) than those who mimicked Sisyphus,” explains Susan David for the HBR Blog in her article, “Is Busyness Bad for Business?”

“Surely Michael, who attends one meeting only to have another scheduled, and completes one spreadsheet only to be presented with new figures, is starting to feel like he’s pushing that boulder.”

Statistically, employees will respond more enthusiastically and productively to work with meaning, as opposed to work that simply replaces potential idle time.

One hour spent with friends and family to improve the work-life balance will have infinite more meaning than waiting longer at the office because it’s unacceptable to leave before a certain time. As a manager, don’t be afraid to send employees home when the work is done.

In the end, free time is an asset to your firm—like a contingency fund. You never know its true worth until it’s gone.


To take control, tackle work flow chaos and overcome productivity challenges, read The Center For Competitive Management’s 73-page guide Effective Time Management, available online here.


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