Why Managers Run Out of Time

managers run out of timeManagers are charged with achieving results through the efforts of the team of people they directly supervise. Yet many managers complain that they never have time to do what they need to do, even though their staff are typically running out of work Why does this happen?

The reason for managers being busy and staff running out of useful things to do is often down to a phenomenon we call upward delegation or “monkey mismanagement”.

A “monkey” is something that really should be done by your staff, not you. It’s called a monkey because it sits on your shoulder chattering into your ear and distracting you from your other work. Managers can acquire monkeys from their staff whenever they are faced with a problem from a staff member. However, it’s important to recognise that a ‘monkey’ is NOT the problem, it’s the next move that is taken in resolving the problem. Therefore, the person who needs to take the next move holds the monkey.

When faced with a problem raised by a staff member, the monkey mis-manager will say “leave it with me and I’ll get back to you”. This leaves them with the monkey (the next move). The staff member still has a problem, but it is their manager who has the monkey. This often leads to the staff member taking no further action themselves until their manager has dealt with it.

A typical interaction will demonstrate this phenomenon more clearly:

Sarah is an office manager and has a team of 4 administrators reporting to her. Sarah has just arrived back from lunch and is greeted by one of her staff, John, who walks across to her desk and says “I’m so glad you are back, we have a problem… you see…”
As John continues to explain Sarah knows something must be done, but realises she doesn’t yet know enough to make an instant decision. Being acutely conscious of how busy she is she responds with “I’m glad you brought this up. I’m really busy right now so let me think about it and I’ll let you know.”

Let us now take a closer look at what has just happened between Sarah and John.

Before Sarah returned to the office, John was holding the “monkey”. Sarah’s problems started when she accepted the job of solving the problem from John and they will not stop until she either solves it or returns it to him to do something with it.

It’s important to recognise that there are always two people involved in every monkey – in this case Sarah and John. One person will do the “monkey work”, the other will supervise it.

By accepting the monkey, Sarah has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to John. She has allowed John to make her his subordinate by doing two things that a staff member is generally expected to do for their manager:

  1. She has accepted a responsibility from John, and
  2. She has promised him a progress report.

It is highly likely that John will later wander over to Sarah and cheerily ask, “How are you getting on with that problem? (This is called “supervision”).

The critical issue for managers is to ensure the next move (the monkey) stays with the staff member.

So why do Managers accept monkeys?

Managers are often told they must have an open door policy and help their team solve problems. This is fine in theory, yet if overdone will create monkey problems for the manager as in a very short space of time their staff learn to become totally reliant on the manager and so stop thinking, taking responsibility, or using their initiative to solve the many challenges that come their way.

Monkey problems arise because the manager and the staff member assumes that the matter under consideration is a joint problem. As a manager whenever a staff member says things like “We’ve got a problem” or “We’ve got an issue”, you need to be conscious that a monkey may be heading your way!

In these situations the monkey (the next move) is initially held by both of you but all that needs to happen is that it moves one leg from your staff member to you and your staff member’s responsibility to do anything disappears and you are left with another thing to do.

The best way to stop yourself acquiring monkeys is to prevent them from being shared in the first place. This means you need to give your people responsibility and let them take the initiative to solve problems. This does not mean you do not help them solve the problem, rather you do so in a way that develops their abilities rather than simply doing it for them. This means you need to develop your coaching skills.