07/11/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

The Magnification Effect: Minimizing Your Hidden Cost as an Executive or Manager

The team had worked gathering data and comparing options for months. The selection of this equipment would have ramifications in their production line for a decade - and might make or break their ability to compete in the marketplace. Perhaps more importantly, such a large purchase required approval from their company's Chief Operating Officer, second to the CEO and a stickler for critical thinking. Their recommendation needed to be well-prepared, to be well-presented, and to impress.

Now the facts were in, the recommendation prepared, and the time for the COO's approval had come - but with a wrinkle. Late data and aggressive financial goals created a situation where the company could benefit financially from a quick decision. But the COO was out of the country for several days. So the Team Lead wrote up the criteria, the recommendation, and the reason for quick action. He attached the large document to an email containing a brief message stating the most critical question - the type of communication he knew the COO to prefer - and he sent it off with a sigh:

Attached please find the final data and our recommendation, to go with Option B and to commit contractually in the next five days, for reasons outlined therein. Do you have any reservations, or may we proceed with the recommended purchase?

Because of the time difference, the response came in overnight, and the Team Lead awoke to find the COO's reply in his inbox:

I don't buy it.

Predictably, this colloquial rejection led to a flurry of activity. By 8:30am, the whole team had already been in emergency session for 90 minutes, trying to determine where the flaw in their data or recommendation had been. By 10am, a full-fledged reconsideration of the analysis had begun. Over the next few days, all other important work was set aside as the team reviewed the massive set of data, recalculated hundreds of results, and reexamined every aspect of their argument. This voluminous work was interrupted only for periodic meetings about topics like "the most compelling visual presentation of the data," and "how best to influence the COO."

Their original argument, as they suspected, remained sound. The problem was convincing the executive.

Nearly a week later, COO and Project Lead bumped into each other in the hallway. "I'm just back from my trip and eager to hear how the equipment purchase is going," the COO said. The project lead, caught by surprise, began a clumsy promise that the team was nearly ready to meet with him again to revisit approval.

"Revisit?" interrupted the COO. "What is there to revisit? You asked if I had any reservations in purchasing the piece of equipment. And I said, 'I don't! Buy it!'"


This amusing (or depressing) anecdote is more than just a reminder to proofread your emails. It's a case study in the magnification effect of senior leadership.

Be careful what you ask for, and what you say.

A recent study from Harvard Business Review looked at the amount of work created by senior managers and executives, and rediscovered what many of us know intuitively: executives throw off a lot of work. Specifically, the authors reported that a senior executive creates the equivalent work of about three people, and that lower level executives and even upper level managers create the equivalent of one to two additional people.

These man-hours aren't limited to their own assistants. The work gets distributed throughout the rest of the organization in the form of information requests, meetings, and the like - a sort of hidden tax. A small tug of the rope at the high level gets multiplied as it goes down the chain of command, and this multiplication of force can easily drag even the most competent workers far off course.

So, this anecdote is a reminder for you, as an executive or manager, to keep the impact of your requests in mind.

Be careful what ask for, and what you say.

It's tempting (and only human) to ask a question when you have a question, and to make a request or command when you want something done. Indeed, much of your value lies in asking the right questions and making the right requests and commands. But there's a difference between the right ones and the rest of them, and that difference is meaningful - and potentially expensive!

The better you are at being an executive or manager, the more relevant your requests and commands will be, and the more you'll properly hold people accountable for fulfilling them. And, the more those things are true, the more your own magnification effect will be focused on your best workers. They're the ones with the data you're asking for, and they're the ones best qualified to carry out your new mandates.

Those are the same people who are doing the organization's most important work. Do you really want to pull them off the job of producing the results -- the results that will make you successful -- just so that they can put together the PowerPoint presentation you want?

If the answer is yes - if, in your judgment, the cost is worthwhile - then by all means, give the request or command. But, if the answer is "maybe not," think twice. Don't let your interest in getting something you want parlay into a waste of resources.

Be careful what you ask for, and what you say.

And, don't forget to proofread your emails.