Over the past weeks, I have been catching up with clients.
Reflecting on these conversations one thing has struck me. Most of them are incredibly busy… and frustrated. When I poke a bit at that busyness it turns out that there is a common denominator. Somehow most of them have got trapped on the dance floor.
By that I mean, they are working on stuff that rightly should be done by someone on their team. That’s how it used to be but after all the confinements, shutdowns and staff shortages, they have drifted into sacrificing their own time for subordinate imposed time.
Let me explain.
Most managers operate within three main categories of time.
Boss-imposed time – used to accomplish tasks imposed by the boss and that can not be ignored without serious negative consequences.
System imposed time, meetings, request for support from fellow managers etc. Also, stuff that can not be ignored without getting into trouble.
Self-imposed time – is the time that the manager gets to work on ‘own’ projects, but a portion of that time will be taken by subordinate-imposed time. So when we deduct the subordinate imposed time from the self-imposed time it leaves us with the manager’s discretionary time.
Often this discretionary time is negative in the sense that it overshoots the number of hours available in what we would define as a reasonable workday or workweek. The manager is then faced with the choice of working unreasonably long hours or not working on their projects. An impossible choice. Hence the frustration.
This was all described brilliantly in a 1999 HBR article called, ‘Who’s got the monkey?’
Seems it’s still relevant.
Because of the ‘situation’ over the past many months, the manager has got into the habit of taking over the monkeys that subordinates are struggling with. This happens in more or less subtle ways.
“Boss, how are we going to cope with x now that y is no longer available to us?” “Hmm, I don’t really know yet, leave it with me and I will think about it.”
“Boss, I am missing two key people on my team, and I still have not sent that activity report for HQ – I just don’t know how to cope at the moment.” The manager thinks… don’t want to lose this lady as well, then responds. “Don’t worry leave it here with me I will sort it out later today.”
And so it goes on and on throughout the day.
In the process, subordinates have learnt that the best way to ease their workload and get home in a reasonable time is to drop by the manager and see if he will take over a monkey or two. It has become the new way of doing things.
It’s a swamp that will suck even the best manager under if not attended to.
But even worse, subordinates are learning to be helpless, it may be easier, but in the long run it is not very stimulating.
It’s time get off the dance floor and onto the balcony.
The first step is to be much more aware of what monkeys are truly yours and what monkeys are not yours. Subordinates who bring problem monkeys to you, need coaching, maybe direct advice, but when they leave your office they take their monkey with them.
It’s their monkey and they need to feed it.