It’s time to get the monkey off your back – forever!

It’s 10am and you’ve just arrived at the office after winning the project with Naughty Nice Co. You’re over the moon and your team will be too when you share the news.

Before you even have the chance to say, Marilyn hits you with a question – “Hey, I got a call from our sales team who want to know when the next sales cycle should start for our New Zealand and Singapore campaigns”. She looks at you expectantly.  You know that you had this conversation with her 2 days ago and you’re dumbfounded.  Did she not listen?  Isn’t this her job?  This is what you hired her for.

Then Mike pipes up.  “What should we do about our new platform?  I have narrowed it down to 3 providers, but I am not sure how you want to go about the next steps”. He looks at you and waits.  This is Mike’s job!  He’s the one with the experience in procurement and Project Management.  Why is he asking you?  He should know the answer.  And why is he asking now?  This could have been raised in Monday’s workflow meeting.

While answering their questions now might feel like the right thing to do, since in both cases, the answer is OBVIOUS, this is exactly the wrong move!  Especially if this is a pattern of behaviour in your team.

We call this passing the monkey. Team members bringing along the problems, annoyances, challenges and concerns and offering them to you, the leader, to solve.  The temptation to solve can be strong. But realise that saying yes means that annoying little monkey jumps from their back to yours.  The burden then belongs to you.

What’s worse, this can actually become a cycle of learned helplessness.  Your team members get used to handing the problems over and you get used to solving them.  You solve them because it feels faster, more efficient, because the answer is easy for you and because you have to – the business needs it done and there’s no time to wait.

But there’s a cost.  The cost of building reliance rather than capable, independent thinkers and this ultimately limits what’s possible for you and the business.  The cost for you is being bogged down in minutia and unable to elevate your strategic thinking.  Frustration, fatigue and a feeling that you’re on your own in forging forward.

Breaking the cycle is essential!  This will start with you. Follow these tips to begin to reverse the pattern:

   1.  Consider the quality of your original request

When you asked Marilyn, Mike or anyone else to ‘take responsibility’ for their portfolios, how clear were you in your expectations of what they needed to do in order to meet your standards?  Did you outline what you wanted, by when, your delivery conditions/standards, the context and imperative of their work and were there any concerns you needed to articulate early on?

In many cases, you may inadvertently be contributing to the situation playing out by not articulating what you expect as their leader at the very outset – this can even be a direction on how you want them to think about and consider challenges they experience before coming to ask you.

   2.  Get explicit buy in

In any busy business, the pace of everyday life can stand in the way of making time to gain ‘shared understanding’.  Shared understanding happens when you, the person delegating work, takes a few minutes to ensure that the person you’re handing it to clearly and explicitly understands what you’re asking for and has ample opportunity to enquire into specifics and ‘repeat back’ the request for the sake of getting on the same page.

This is an under-utilised practice that can be ultra-helpful when handing over a major piece of work.  It gives your team members the chance to ask questions at the start.  It gives you a chance to ensure your standards are clear.  It gives you the capacity to move on with an understanding that they completely own the work.  You might even coach them through what they might do if they encounter problems so they’re not presenting them back to you without first taking some initiative

   3.  Meet challenges with questions

It is possible that over time, your team or workforce has become accustomed to bringing problems your way.  If this is the case, it’s important that you recognise moments when Marilyn and Mike ask a question and resist the temptation to reply.  Instead, try meeting their questions with a question:

  • What have you considered so far?
  • What have we done in the past when something like this happened?
  • What are the pros and cons of what you’ve considered?
  • What else might you need to do to validate your assumptions?
  • Who have you consulted to test your ideas?

And if they still pose questions, perhaps you can help them reflect on their ‘concerns’?

  • What is the key issue for you?
  • What is missing for you?
  • What is at stake for you?
  • What needs to be cleared for you to make progress?
  • Is there a more constructive mood that might help you make progress?

Notice, you did not offer to help at any point.  More, you were crafting questions that deal with the problem first and the way they were seeing it second. Try these approaches to ignite your team members and see what shows up.

   4.  Provoke problem solving

Once you’ve covered off the ‘problem style’ questions, it can be helpful to begin stirring their creativity and innovation.  For this, you’ll need a different orientation.  One that focuses on possibilities and options

  • What is the best possible outcome you can imagine?
  • What options have you explored so far that might support this?
  • What if you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you try then?
  • If you chose a direction that didn’t work, could you be at peace with that?
  • What possibilities become available if you can accept whatever happens?
  • What actions could you take to make progress on what’s emerging?
  • Are there requests you can make of others to make progress?
  • What actions are now available to you?

   5.  Recognise and reward innovation

If you’re sparking insight and creativity amongst your team, it can be helpful to build personal, collective and ‘structural’ incentives to have them do this more. This means creating a culture that values new ideas, celebrates progressive thought, is focused on learning and failing fast and drawing on lessons each time this happens.

As a leader in this kind of culture, questions are king, clear, powerful requests are essential and standards and boundaries for ‘risk taking’ make it safe for team members to try, experiment and continuously take the learning forward.

Over time, if you’re able to change your style from reactive and telling to enquiring and curious, using questions to uncover the genius in each person, you’ll break the cycle of your team shifting their monkeys to you. You’ll be free to innovate, think, converse and lead into the future you really want to create.

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