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.




delegatingOne of the key skills of any manager is delegating tasks.  I’ve yet to meet an academic manager who doesn’t realise the value of delegating tasks, but have also met very few who actually do it as much as they should.

Why delegate?

There are a number of reasons why delegating some tasks is a good idea. Here are a few:

  1. Higher efficiency – which is to say that you are not doing tasks that could be done by someone else
  2. Increased motivation – giving people new and challenging tasks, giving them responsibility all aids in motivation.
  3. Skill development – doing new tasks develops new skills. It’s a form of professional development to take on new activities that you previously hadn’t been involved in.
  4. Better work distribution – if you (or anyone else) is overworked and has too much to do, perhaps work is not distributed evenly

However, even though the benefits of delegating are clear, many of us don’t do it.  I’ve asked a lot of managers over the years why now and the responses are always fairly similar:

  • “It’s easier to do it myself” 
  • “By the time I’ve explained what I want to be done, I could have done it myself”
  • “I still have to keep track of what people are doing, and that takes up time too”
  • “It’s not fair to ask my staff to do some of these tasks”
  • “I can do it better”

All of these may be true.  Well, at least the first 3 often are. It sometimes does take longer to explain something than to actually do it.  But that doesn’t stop you setting up short useful practice exercises in the language classroom – exercises that you know to be useful and valuable learning experiences.  And again it certainly would be easier to do that gapfill yourself in the classroom, but what would be the point?  (OK those analogies don’t entirely work, because the job still has to get done, and it is not simply a learning experience), but there is an element that does fit.  Often (not always) when I dig down and keep asking questions, it becomes clear that actually deep down, the reason for not delegating more is the reluctance to give up control.  And there is definitely a sense of lack of trust in others to do the job well.  So for many of us delegating is actually an exercise in letting go. Very zen.

How to delegate

I can’t force you to delegate tasks, but hopefully you do get why you should and how useful it is.  And perhaps by providing a model for how you can delegate more effectively I might persuade you to do it more often. Challenge yourself in the next week to delegate at least one task.

Make a list of all the tasks you regularly do (not the emergency ones that come up without notice, because probably you’ll have to do those anyway). Next to each one write K (keep), S (share) or D (delegate)  [Ricardo Semler recommends that you keep no more than 5, but this may be going a bit far – but at the very least, go through it again and see what you have put in K that really could go in S or D]. All you need to do then is to decide who to delegate the tasks to.

When you’re doing that there are a lot of factors to consider.  Who actually needs to develop the skills that doing this task will develop? Who already has those skills and can therefore be trusted to carry this out successfully and efficiently? Who might be interested in doing this?  And of course, last, but by no means least, who actually has the time?

Now sometimes, you may have a good idea of who has the right skill set or of who might be interested in such a task, but other times you may not.  Let’s take timetabling for example. Now timetabling is one of those tasks that DoSs either enjoy or loathe with a passion.  I’ve met academic managers who have to lock themselves in their office for three  misery-filled days at a time in order to devote themselves to this task.  I know of one very well known ELT organisation in which their very well known academic manager who is a brilliant teacher trainer, seems to spend nearly all his time devising timetables. In short, timetabling could be a D task (or perhaps – see below, an S task).  But you probably don’t know which of your teachers would enjoy timetabling, because they’ve never been asked or they’ve never done it before.  But timetabling is like a logic puzzle – matching classes to teachers to rooms within certain detailed parameters.  The kind of logic puzzle that some people love trying to solve. Who do you see doing sudokus or crosswords in their spare time?  Those might be the people who would actually enjoy timetabling.

[I ought to point our here that while timetabling is in some ways the ideal task-to-be-delegated, it can involve a level of stress and responsibility that perhaps needs to be the manager’s job – which is to say that timetabling confers an element of power. Certain teachers want certain timetables, and giving the responsibility of doling out such things may be something you want to avoid – not that your timetabling teacher will play favourites, but that he or she will likely gain favour with some and become persona non grata with others. So tread a bit carefully and possibly be part of that process, to make it clear that the buck stops with you.]

The big danger when you start delegating tasks is that you give all the tasks to the people that you really trust and that you know will devote a lot of energy and responsibility to the task. But, if you do that, you risk burning those teachers out or at the very least irritating them a significant amount. Plus the teachers who you think need to learn the most never get the opportunity (and if there ones you perceive to be lazy, you reward them for that by allowing them to be)

Once you’ve chosen who to delegate it to, make sure you clearly explain the task. What are the deadlines? What are you expecting to be done? What is the objective of this task (why is it there at all)?  Make sure that the person you’ve given the task to understands, and also, if they need any special access to anything (databases, records, whatever) to do the task, that they are given that access.

Once they get started monitor and offer support, but don’t get too close. They probably will not do the task in exactly the same way you would have done, but that’s OK (it might even be better).  They will almost certainly take longer over it than you would have, but that’s because you’ve done this before and they are learning it.

Finally get feedback from them about how it was – whether they got everything they needed, what else you could have done to support them, whether the task was totally clear, what the person thinks about the systems that they had to interact with to get it done, and so on.  One of the hidden benefits of delegating is that other people might notice areas in which the organisation as a whole could work better.

For another good article on this, try this one from the very useful MindTools site





If anybody would be willing to complete a very short survey on communication issues in your language teaching organisation, I’d be very happy 🙂


This is for a bit I’m doing on “Internal Communication in a web2.0 world – what do we need to bear in mind?” for the IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG Pre Conference Event on Wednesday April 7th in Harrogate.  For anyone who is interested the full programme of the day is as follows:

Technology and Innovation for Leaders and Managers

Nik Peachey:Technologies for teachers (what your teachers should be using/familiar with)
Arthur McKeown:New learning technologies for managers
Andy Hockley: Internal Communication in a web2.0 world – what do we need to bear in mind?
Maureen McGarvey: Managing online courses
Gavin Dudeney: Web 2.0 for Marketing

I will also, of course, post any findings and something from my talk on here as soon as possible!