Information is no longer about facts and figures, it has become noise. Leaders are bombarded with so much data that they’re on information overload; their abilities to process information have passed limits and are now interfering with their ability to learn and grow themselves and their employees.
According to results from the LexisNexis 2010 “International Workplace Productivity Survey,” which surveyed 1,700 white collar workers in five countries — the U.S., China, South Africa, the U.K. and Australia — and asked them about their experience of, and attitudes toward, information in the workplace, information overload is a widespread and growing problem among professionals around the world.
A majority of workers in every market — 62 percent on average — admitted that the quality of their work suffers at times because they’re unable to sort through the information they need fast enough. Further, 52 percent of professionals surveyed reported feeling demoralized when unable to manage all the information that comes their way at work.
“Leaders need to reduce their information exposure and, at the same time, help their organizations create an information strategy that will anticipate the increased amount of information that is to come, manage it and actually reduce the amount of information overload each worker in the organization is exposed to,” said Jonathan Spira, author of Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization.
The vast amount of information available to leaders has dramatically impacted the need to delegate more efficiently. Employees who work in an environment where management addresses the problem of information overload and its impact will have greater chances to learn and develop.
“Learning effectively necessitates focused, thoughtful discussion and reading, which is impossible in a distracted environment,” Spira said. “Interruptions and multitasking are two afflictions that are taking a tremendous toll on employees’ ability to focus, complete tasks, be productive and develop.”
According to Spira, the recovery time — the time it takes an individual to return to a task after being interrupted — can be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption. A 30-second interruption can result in an average of five minutes of recovery time. Without delegation from learning leaders, this lost time can have a severe impact on the company’s bottom line.
Delegating doesn’t mean hand-holding. According to Cy Wakeman, author of Reality-Based Leadership, learning leaders should have a development plan in place for each of their direct reports and should then delegate with an eye toward each person’s growth potential to allow the employee to foster new skill sets and confidence. They should hold employees accountable for their own development rather than trying to create instances that stimulate work and then spoon feeding their people information. Further, they should bulletproof employees so they can succeed in any circumstances rather than attempting to ensure circumstances are perfect.
“Reality-based leaders spend their precious time and energy teaching their employees how to succeed in spite of their circumstances,” Wakeman said. “They work to bullet-proof their people instead of attempting to make their world a cozier place. By focusing on making their people resilient, learning agile and personally accountable, talent becomes immune to the random shocks that come their way. Their engagement actually increases with this approach as they gain the confidence that they can succeed in spite of the facts, not from leaders softening their world.”
In order for leaders to have the credibility to delegate, they must have a clear vision of the business and constantly develop themselves.
“Reality based leaders know that development doesn’t just happen in training or in safe environments engineered to be easy and user friendly,” Wakeman said. “Development happens in real time with leaders [who are] mentally present and are challenged, held accountable, receive just-in-time feedback and have opportunity for self-reflection.”
According to Paul Leinwand, a partner at Booz & Company and coauthor of The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy, when leaders take the opportunity to define what the company will be and what it will be great at doing, that perspective can then define where growth will be most successful, how the portfolio should be managed and how to manage the influx of information in constant flow for employees.
“The priorities of the company become clear, and this is hugely empowering for employees, who then understand how their role fits with the value the company creates in the market,” Leinwand said. “There is no question that with a coherent strategy in place, a major priority will be the development of talent and capabilities, and learning and development’s priorities can be based on the most important capabilities.”