Know When to Delegate
By Lauren Keller Johnson
Most managers realize that a key part of their job is helping subordinates develop professionally, including honing their problem-solving and decision-making powers.
Most also are aware of the dangers inherent with taking on the problems of those you supervise. But what about when you’re under immense time pressure and someone tries to hand you one or more “monkeys” – the memorable term for subordinates’ problems that William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass introduced in their classic 1974 Harvard Business Review article, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” In high-pressure circumstances, accepting a monkey can seem a lot more efficient than taking the time to coach your employee to resolve the problem.
Returning monkeys to their rightful owners seems even more difficult today than it was in 1974. For one thing, managers have come under increasing pressure to generate measurable results faster than ever. And as the highly effective, best-selling author Stephen Covey maintains, some managers fear being viewed during tough economic times as unimportant or unnecessary if they delegate more to employees.
But just as delegating has grown more difficult, it’s also become more crucial for companies seeking to compete. In Covey’s words, “Twenty or 30 years ago, only 30 percent of the value added to goods and services came from knowledge work. Now it’s 80 percent. So if companies hope to survive, they must empower people to think for themselves and draw on their experience and wisdom.”
Fortunately, experts and executives across a wide range of industries have continued developing techniques aimed at making delegation easier – and more effective at keeping the monkeys with their rightful owners.
1. Make yourself let go – Many managers continue to assume that it’s faster and more efficient to take on employees’ problems than to teach them to handle their own, says Patti Hathaway, author and business adviser with The Change Agent, a consulting firm in Westerville, Ohio. “They believe they know more than their direct reports do.”
These assumptions, Hathaway says, only increase managers’ desire to control problem solving and decision making rather than empower their employees. To help counteract this, she encourages her clients to think as leaders, not as managers. Managers, Hathaway advises, “manage details (by solving the problems of direct reports, for example). Leaders manage people by encouraging a sense of ownership and accountability among subordinates.” By envisioning themselves as leaders, managers become more comfortable with delegating tasks initially and to passing monkeys.
2. Ask, don’t tell – Letting go of problems is only as effective as the manner in which you delegate them. To that end, skilled delegators know to ask questions rather than dictate orders. “Asking ‘What do you think should be done?’ teaches people to come up with proposed solutions the next time they bring you a problem,” says Joyce Gioia, president of the Greensboro, N.C.-based consulting firm The Herman Group.
3. Use open-ended questions – “What do you think led to this problem?” “What are things we might consider if we implement the solution you’re proposing?” or “How did we handle this situation with customer B?” can reveal the degree to which subordinates have thought through their respective problems.
As Edward Massood, president of MGM Transport in North Carolina, notes, “Before I started asking questions, people used to be lined up outside my door, and I was staying at the office until seven or eight at night to clean up problems. Now they come to me less frequently. And when they do, we resolve problems a lot more quickly because they’ve thought through several possible plans.”
Managers can avoid taking on subordinates’ monkeys by matching delegated tasks and problems to individuals based on their assessment of each direct report’s capabilities and development needs.
“Delegate in ways that enable people to stretch,” advises Bette Price, a management consultant at The Price Group in Chicago, “and treat mistakes as growth opportunities. Explain your assessment of each member’s capabilities so they understand why you’re handing certain tasks back to them.”
4. Cultivate independent thinking – The more an employee thinks independently and feels a sense of ownership in his job, the fewer monkeys he tends to bring to his supervisor. At Planterra, a Michigan-based interior landscape company, director of business development Shane Pliska uses a “monkey rating” system adapted from the approach Oncken and Wass described in their article.
“We ask employees to rate their problems on a number scale,” Pliska says. “One means the manager solves the problem; two means the manager tells you how to solve it and you follow up; three means you propose a solution and ask for your manager’s approval; and four means you take action and tell your manager about it afterward.” When people come to their supervisor’s office, Pliska explains, the manager asks, “What number is it?” To cultivate a sense of ownership, Planterra managers encourage employees to make as many “four” decisions as possible.
5. Link people with resources – Linking direct reports with the resources they need to solve a problem also helps reduce the number of monkey-toting reports at your door. Think of resources in broad terms – as people, tools, information and developmental opportunities that can help employees resolve issues on their own. Serving as a resource connector can be as simple as saying, “You need to talk to Joe in marketing.”
Informational tools can also be valuable. For example, The Change Agent’s Hathaway advises clients to provide an intranet phone directory organized by department and function, not by name, for new employees who don’t know anyone yet but need to know where to bring specific types of problems.”
Michelle Van Dyke, senior vice president of retail at Ohio-based Fifth Third Bank, leverages the power of information. “I use emails and meetings to share information with employees about our industry, our bank’s strategic focus, and our financial performance. They need to know the same things I know if they’re going to make smart decisions and solve their own problems.
Know When to Delegate