Picture of Monkey from Gibralter. Photo credit: Joyce Bredesen

Dear IT Director,

I am a new manager. My team keeps coming to me with questions. They seem unable to make decisions on their own. I have too many of their tasks on my plate, and I can’t get it all done without working 16-hour days and weekends. Help!

Drowning in Delano

Dear Drowning,

Ouch, sounds like you are paying the price for a prior manager that didn’t trust their team. Changing behavior like that is hard. You need to trust that they can do the job you expect of them, and they need to trust you to provide them useful advice and guidance. The bottom line is that you are starting from scratch on the trust game. Here are some suggestions.

You are the one that needs to take the first step. Read the Harvard Business Review article, “Management Time: Who’s Got The Monkey?” Your staff walks into your office with monkeys and leave with empty shoulders. You end up with lots of monkeys that aren’t yours. Many of them will starve. Even if you work long hours and take work home.

Get your staff to take care of their own monkeys. They need to understand that they are responsible for feeding, training, and ultimately releasing each of their monkeys. The monkeys can’t take a detour through your office. It starts with you politely, but firmly refusing to take their monkeys.

When employees come into your office with the full intention to hand you a monkey, don’t let them. If they give you several choices, ask them which option they think is the best and why. Ask a few questions to point out areas for consideration. If they know the answer, great. If they don’t, the monkey is still on their shoulder while they figure it out.

Silence is your friend here. Silence isn’t something that you need to fill. Ask your question and wait. If they come back with a quick “I don’t know,” you will need to push back a bit to get them to think. Maybe you can ask, “How would you figure it out?” or “What are some issues here?”

Often, you can build on the answers they provide. “That’s a good point. Here are some other things to think about.” Try to avoid the “No, that’s wrong” answer. Nothing kills initiative faster than asking them for a recommendation and then telling them they are wrong. It is a teaching moment, so build on where they start from.

If they are missing some important pieces, teach them. What important factor are they missing? Or maybe they aren’t missing it but have a different opinion on its importance. Ask them if they have considered this factor or that issue. Explain why you think one aspect is more important than another. Encourage them to disagree with you and make them explain why. Talk about risk in the decision.

If they are heading towards an acceptable answer, encourage them. Note that word. “Acceptable.” Most of the decisions at this level have multiple answers that can be successful. Your way is not the only way. It may not even be the best way. Let them make the call. Clarify that it is their decision and you support them.

And this is the hard part for you, Drowning in Delano. Are there decisions you can delegate because they are low risk and because your team knows what is important? Of course there are. Let them make those decisions and support them. Otherwise, you end up in the situation where they come to you to find out your right answer.

Conversely, if you are searching out monkeys to take, then you are really doing it wrong. Don’t stick your nose in unless you feel it is very important.

One other analogy. Coaching sports. Soccer (football for my non-US readers) coaches do most of their work during practice sessions and don’t call out plays during a game. Watch a top tier professional soccer match. Very few coaches yell and scream from the sidelines. They have trained their team to deal with what they will face in the game. Football coaches, on the other hand, call each play on both offense and defense.

(Excuse me a moment, while I talk to the serious sports fans in the back for a moment. Yes, I know it isn’t the same and that each sport is different. “Analogy” doesn’t mean “is exactly the same in all aspects”. Your sport is awesome and an excellent example of some of the most physically demanding and skilled play on the planet.)

Management in the business world should aim to be more like the soccer coaches. While there aren’t practices and games, working with your employees so they can manage the day-to-day decisions and actions more on their own will help them, and you, be more productive.

One last check on how you are doing in this process. What happens when you go on vacation? Is there an enormous pile of questions and decisions waiting for you when you return? Or have they managed their work in your absence? Work towards that and your team will thrive more, and you will have more time on your hands.

Good Luck Drowning in Delano,

Sincerely,

The IT Director

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