Managers: Use Your Strengths To Avoid the Monkey
We live in a crazily busy world, where many of us are dealing with never-ending “to do” lists. Why as a manager do you typically run out of time and feel overwhelmed yet employees seem under less pressure? To understand why this can happen, we will explore time management as it relates to the interaction between managers, their peers and subordinates and we will use Strengths to get us to a better place.
Let’s start with asking “How is a manager’s time spent?” In many cases, managers struggle to balance their workload, juggling their own projects, leading their team and delivering what is expected of them. The classic Harvard Business Review issue “Monkey On Your Back” grounded managers in realizing how much they were taking on the problems or responsibilities of others. Employees and peers often subconsciously, lay their challenges on the shoulders of a manager and then walk away free of responsibility. In time this can be overwhelming for a manager and can also take away growth opportunities for the employee. This continued ritual leads to lower productivity, lower engagement and motivation for all.
The article “Monkey On Your Back,” was originally published in 1974 and has been one of the HBR’s best-selling reprints ever and the content is still very relevant today. For its reissue, HBR asked Stephen R. Covey to provide a commentary. Specifically, Covey speaks to three kinds of management time:
1. Boss-imposed time: This is the time used to accomplish activities your boss requires of you and you cannot disregard without a direct penalty. If you are self-employed, think of these activities directly aligned to your critical business goals.
2. System-imposed time: This time is used to accommodate requests from peers asking for support. Neglecting these requests will also result in penalties, though not always as direct as boss-imposed time.
3. Self-imposed time: This is time used to do those things a manager originates or agrees to. A certain portion of this time is taken up by your subordinates and is called subordinate-imposed time. The remaining portion is your own and called discretionary time. Self-imposed time is not subject to penalty since your boss or the system can discipline you for not doing what they did not know you intended to do in the first place.
To accommodate these many demands, managers need to prioritize and control the timing and the content of what they choose to do. Boss and system-imposed time are subject to consequence, managers should not falter with those requirements and should make them a priority. Thus a manager’s self-imposed time is an area where they have the most autonomy. Managers should try to increase the discretionary component of their self-imposed time by minimizing the subordinate component. They will then use the added increment to get better control over their boss-imposed and system-imposed activities. Most managers spend much more time dealing with subordinates’ problems than they even realize. Hence we shall use the monkey-on-the-back metaphor to look at an example of how subordinate-imposed time comes into being and what a manager can do about it.
Where Is the Monkey?
Let us imagine a manager, Ted, is walking down the hall and he notices one of his employees, Joe, coming his way. When the two meet, Joe greets Ted with, “Good morning Ted! By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Joe continues talking, Ted recognizes in this problem two characteristics common to all the problems his employees bring to him:
(1) Ted knows enough to get involved, but
(2) Not enough to make the on-the-spot decision Joe is expecting.
Eventually, Ted says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m on my way to a meeting right now, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Joe part company. Notice how the responsibility of the problem (the monkey) went from the shoulder of Joe over to Ted? Ted now has more to do and Joe is somewhat off the hook, at least for now.
Use your Strengths as a solution
Ted’s Strengths Finder themes are Maximizer, Responsibility, Learner, Deliberate and Empathy. Ted’s natural talent of having a high level of Responsibility and desire to get to the best solution (Maximizer) is likely driving him to take on Joe’s problem. However, if Ted continues to do this over time he will become overwhelmed. An alternate approach for Ted could be to lean on his Learner strength to bring a “teaching moment” to the conversation. He could have asked Joe what he has learned about the problem he faces, or what he feels he needs to learn to solve it for himself. Ted might show Empathy with what Joe is facing and partner his Learner with Deliberate to help Joe anticipate possible obstacles and solutions he has not yet thought of.
If Ted knew the strengths of his team then Ted could also tailor his conversation to make the most of how Joe views his world, communicating in a way that makes most sense for Joe. Leveraging Joe’s strengths can increase Joe’s engagement in an effective solution. Using strengths this way to handle such common manager challenges can accelerate your solution. Putting the monkey back on Joe’s shoulder by taking the time to coach Joe and getting Joe to think of a solution himself may take a little longer, but it would also allow Joe to learn and grow. In the long term it will result in Ted salvaging time for his more important responsibilities and it will help Ted develop his employees.
Are you taking on the monkey too fast? In those “monkey-moments” instead of taking on more work, lean on your Strengths and be a great coach. Grab the teaching opportunity to empower your employee and ask great questions to let them go figure it out instead of trying to solve it for them. You will find you and your team will be even stronger for it!
We hope that this approach provides you value. If you need more help for you and your team please do not hesitate to reach out to us.
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