Let’s suppose you’ve assigned Bill and Abby to lead a special implementation team on an important project. You choose Bill for his interpersonal skills, which will be critical for the project’s success as the team interfaces with and needs support from other departments, and Abby for her technical skills, which is her strength and where she clearly shines.
A short time later, both Bill and Abby have requested time with you to talk about some problems they’re having with the project. Each has strong opinions of how the work should go forward, but they do not agree with one another, and they cannot come to agreement. They each want you to decide how they should proceed.
Which of the following options would you choose to resolve the standoff?
Option A: You could listen to both of them independently, choose the better plan based on your experience, and tell them to proceed with that plan.
Option B: You could listen to both of them independently, and create your own plan for them to follow.
Option C: You could listen to both of them together, choose the better plan based on your experience, and tell them to proceed with that plan.
Option D: You could listen to both of them together, and create your own plan for them to follow.
I would argue for “none of the above.” Here’s why:
When you assign responsibility to a team member, you pass the “monkey” of getting it done to that person. If they get stuck, they may attempt to return the monkey by asking you what they should do. If you aren’t careful, you’ll accept the monkey and take on what is essentially their job (since you delegated it to them).
“Management work” is getting results through others – not doing it for them when they’re faced with an obstacle. If you resolve this issue using any of the options presented above, you might feel better about moving the project forward, but you will have taught Bill and Abby that they do not need to figure it out for themselves – whenever they’re stuck, they can rely on you to save the day.
That’s not doing management work, that’s doing “vocational work,” and what’s more, you’re actually stunting Bill and Abby’s professional growth.
The best choice for you, it seems to me, is to bring them both into your office, and keep the monkey where it belongs – on their shoulders. You should let them know that you’re not going to make this decision – they are – and that you have confidence that they will make the best decision. You can offer to help them sort it out and make sure they’re really listening to one another, but you’re not going to make the final decision.
After all, you put them in charge of the project – an expression of your confidence in their competence.
Bill and Abby may resist. They may complain (either publicly or privately) that you’re ducking your responsibility. They will be feeling the heat because they were unable to put their monkey up for adoption. But if they’re as competent as you believed them to be when you gave them the assignment, they will find a path forward. And, they will have greater ownership of that plan, because they created it rather than having it handed down from you.
Be careful not to accept the monkeys that belong to your staff. It’s seductive because you can feel wise, powerful, caring and important when you solve their problems. But it’s a short-sighted strategy that will consume your time, stall the growth of your staff, and lead to dependency-based relationships.
And next time, put one person in charge of a project. It’s cleaner that way.
For more information, read Managing Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey, by William Oncken.