Monkeying Around

monkeysIn the last post here I talked about delegating (and honestly I think of all the people skills that academic managers could profitably improve delegating would probably be number one), but there is a flip side to the idea of delegating that also needs to be addressed. This is being delegated to by someone you manage.

Now let me try and explain that, because we tend to see delegating as something which only happens from manager to subordinate (apologies for that term, which I don’t like). But in fact a lot of delegating happens the other way around, and it can cause the academic manager(or indeed any manager) a lot of problems.

What happens is this: A teacher (say) comes to you with a problem. Your reaction, because you are a nice person and because you enjoy being helpful, and because you want to try and unburden your staff from problems, is to tell them to leave that problem with you.  That you will solve it.  Simple and effective. In the stroke of one act you have both demonstrated your willingness to help and also taken a burden from one of your staff.

But of course, there is a downside.  Well more than one downside  Firstly you have added to your own workload (and didn’t you already have a lot of stuff to do?); and secondly you have ensured that the staff member remains incapable of solving a similar problem the next time it arises.  It seems like you’re being helpful, but in the end you’re ensuring that you have more to do and the teacher in question doesn’t gain anything (apart from having the problem solved) .  How would you feel if the same teacher responded to a student question about the sentence transformation section of a test, by offering to do it for them?  It might be a nice thing to do, but it wouldn’t actually be very helpful.

This form of upward delegation is often referred to as Monkey Management, which is originally from this HBR article

So, anyway, what should you do if someone comes to you with a problem? The first step is to sit down with that person and together think about possible solutions. Eventually, you agree on which action to take, and the teacher leaves with a clear action to take to deal with the issue.  They brought the problem (or monkey, if you want to go down the whole animal metaphor route) to you, but crucially they left still holding the problem/monkey.  They didn’t leave it behind with you.

As time goes on, they will know what to expect when they have a problem and rather than just presenting the problem, they will come to you present the problem and present what they think is the best solution. At which point you may agree and tell them to go ahead and do it, or you may have reservations and you can then have another discussion.  But slowly, the teacher is becoming more responsible for solving these problems.

Eventually, once he/she knows (a) that you trust them to solve it, and (b) that they actually trust themselves to do so,  they will react to a problem by dealing with it, and then come and tell you what the problem was and what they have done.

In going through this process you have -to all intents and purposes – coached this teacher. She has learned how best to deal with issues, and knows that you trust her. It’s not about you abdicating responsibility, it’s about empowering* people to take responsibility, which is not only a learning process but also motivating

(*Yeah, yeah, another word I can’t stand. It is the right word, but I understand how people have come to hear empowering to mean “more work for no more money”. I did management jargon on here a few years ago)

One final point to note: Sometimes the monkey is in fact your monkey.  The problem that the teacher brings to you, when you look at it, is in fact a problem you need to take care of because it is your job, and it turns out the monkey actually belonged to you in the first place.


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