How to profit from strategic nagging

To ensure your project receives staff’s urgent attention, use ‘redundant communication’ early, often.

Parents of young children are well aware that nagging can get results. Adults, however, are inclined to take offence at being repeatedly told to do something. Now it turns out that nagging has a place in the office—though the correct term in the business world is “redundant communication.”

A recent study found that managerial nagging is a necessary technique to ensure projects are completed swiftly and with few headaches. A team of researchers from the Harvard Business School and Northwestern University tracked a group of project managers in six different companies across three industries. They shadowed the managers at meetings, followed them around the office as they dropped in on subordinates, and sat for hours at their desks looking over their shoulders, recording their phone calls and e-mails. They ultimately collected 256 hours’ worth of observations.

Their findings, published recently in the journal Organization Science, show that in a typical 4½-hour stretch, 14% of all communication was redundant. In other words, managers spent a fair chunk of time following up with employees to reiterate information they had already explained.

At one level, the results suggest gross inefficiency. Managers already spend most of their work days delegating and providing instructions. And, according to one study published in the journal Information Society, the more means of communication managers use, the more overwhelmed and fatigued do they—and their employees—become. So the effect seems counterproductive: by e-mailing and calling more frequently, managers appear to increase everyone’s stress level.

But the Harvard study found that redundant communication is an effective persuasion tactic. When something threatened to derail a project, such as the departure of a team member, and managers had to convince employees to complete a new task or do something differently as a result, they turned to nagging. There were two distinct approaches, however. Managers who had no direct power over employees (meaning they could not set salaries or promotions) anticipated that they’d have to convince employees of the urgency of the matter. So they typically started with a phone call or a face-to-face chat, then followed up quickly with an e-mail to restate what they had already said. One or two reminders was sufficient.

Managers with authority, however, relied on an e-mail at the outset and assumed employees would grasp the issue’s urgency based on that single communication. They were wrong most of the time. These managers ended up having to follow up with another e-mail, phone call or face-to-face meeting 72% of the time in order to ensure things stayed on track. The clarity of their original messages didn’t make a difference, either. Frequency mattered more in convincing employees to get working, and managers who were deliberately repetitive from the start tended to move their projects along faster and received less resistance from their teams.

The lesson is that you can save yourself stress down the road by reiterating instructions in a couple of different forms at the beginning of a project. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to go to such lengths. A lot of management literature states that if recruiters hire the right individuals, motivating and directing them won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, there are ideals, and then there’s reality. You can’t always choose everyone you work with, and that means a little strategic prodding may be necessary