“I don’t have time for you.”
This phrase sends the little hairs on the back of my neck into the scared straight position. It conjures up some rather uncomfortable business situations.
The first time I heard this was when I went to get my boss’ attention about a potential issue arising with one of my internal clients at a major corporation. I don’t remember what the exact issue was, but I do recall that I felt like I needed guidance on how to resolve the problem and that I needed to let my boss know before the sh*t hit the fan.
I walked to her office, knocked on the door and said something like “I need to talk to you.”
I probably should have recognized her “hair on fire” appearance but she was always stressed out (that’s an entirely different post) and often looked like she was a deer in headlights.
She stood up from her seat behind the desk and looked at me. “I do not have time for you. Figure it out yourself,” she said and then she brushed passed me obviously going to put out a fire somewhere else.
I stood there, shell-shocked.
My career was built on me “figuring it out” so that didn’t bother me as much as the first part of that statement. She was the boss, the manager, the senior person to whom I reported. Surely, she was supposed to have time for me, right?
I somehow figured out the solution to my dilemma and went on with my day and career. She never did ask me what the problem was, and she didn’t last long in the role.
I went several years between “I don’t have time for you” situations. The latest was different in both the problem and the way the leader approached me.
The challenge was getting permissions for access to a client’s network (my access was in danger of getting locked as the client extended my contract). I tried all of the sources I could reach to ask about the process and went to the leader asking for his advice.
Again, I probably should have been aware that there was a lot going on for this leader as the team prepped for a big leadership meeting. However, in order for me to help manage the other work so that they could work on the meeting, I needed to have access to the network.
Instead of the “hair on fire” situation, this leader said matter-of-factly: “I simply do not have the time for this right now.”
I braced myself for the “figure it out” statement to follow but it didn’t.
Instead the leader told me to continue working and once the meeting was over he would address the network access internally. No fireworks, no drama. Just leadership.
As leaders of people we’re often challenged by managing our own work, the needs of the level above us, and the people who report to us. It’s important to remember that seemingly simple interactions between leaders and employees can make lasting impressions on those employees.
I rationalized that the first leader was under pressure and I should have known that. The truth is, no one should have to play mind reader. Simple, straight forward communications would have made this situation so much better.
Sometimes we all fall into the trap of thinking that good communication is only the “thing” we produce and distribute to various stakeholder groups. In reality, the success of any team is based on its ability to communicate. For example, the first situation could have been so much different if the leader had stopped and said something like “I can’t talk to you right now. Talk to XX and see if you can come up with a solution. I’ll be back in an hour and we can discuss at that time.” Or even, “I need you to take control of the situation and figure it out while I handle x,y,z.”
Being good communicators – not just in writing but person-to-person – requires time. We need to be ready to dedicate whatever is necessary to doing it right and moving ourselves and our teams forward. I personally am working on banishing the phrase “I don’t have time” from my vocabulary.