More Why Managers Get Kooky Problems

by Krishna on January 28, 2009

Yesterday’s post on delegation perhaps requires some additional context about why managers are faced with greater challenges as they delegate more. The missing context is how teams are built and how individuals operate in the team.

In the beginning, you start as a manager for a team of people. Some (or all) of them may know your way of working from past projects, but let’s assume no one does and that eventually all of them will learn. To build a successful team, you have to trust and empower every individual to do their work and make necessary decisions that concerns them. What you don’t want to do is someone who makes their decisions or helps them with every problem, which would make them less self-sufficient and weaken the team.

Now here are the tricky questions: What decisions are team members allowed to make? How should they decide what decision to make? What problems should they attempt to solve by themselves and what should they ask for your help? How much of your time (per day or per week) are they allowed? Are they allowed to interrupt you, or just talk to you in regularly scheduled meetings?

These are tricky, because only you know the answers to these questions. You have to explain these “working rules” to your team, not just at the start of the project, but also in every interaction with them. For example, if one team member is consuming too much of your time, you have to be able to explain that it is an unsustainable situation and get them to change their ways. You will have to teach team members to search and find resources on their own.

But when you do this, you could introduce an entirely new problem. A self-sufficient team member could decide to take on more responsibilities and problems than they were meant to, or that they are capable of handling. This can happen for a variety of reasons. One is that they become over-confident after gaining more experience. But a bigger issue is: They think it is too much trouble coming to you with some problem that you would tell them to take care of on their own.

So here are the beginnings of a perfect storm. A team member has some problem that he thinks is too tiny to escalate and decides to handle on his own. The problem becomes bigger. But now, the team member has got his hands dirty with the problem and is perhaps partly responsible for the bigger mess. At this point, they know exactly what errors in judgment they made and that they will be blamed in some way for the problem. So, now they are really scared to tell anyone, least of all you.

Finally, the problem balloons to a disaster, which becomes impossible to hide. And that is when you get to know about it. And that is why you get the “uniquely kooky” issues.

So, what do you do? I suppose there are some possible things to do in these situations:

  1. This may be more work, but perhaps taking a slower road to delegation and team-building may avoid such scenarios. Use training to improve the skills and decision making of your team, but let them start out by relying on you for help and decision-making. Instead of you “telling” them to be self-sufficient, let them learn it slowly. Continue to keep an open door/phone/email so that you can get any bad news as early as possible.
  2. When the really bad stuff hits your desk, do not start post-mortems. Stand with the team member(s) and fight the fire, doing what is necessary. Even after things have calmed down, do not spend time trying to teach people how to do it better next time. The individuals have already learnt their lesson and your sermonizing can only make them feel guiltier, and more ashamed/frightened to bring you problems in the future.

Don’t create an image of yourself where you are perceived to be tough on mistakes and incompetency. The only benefit you would see is that people would never make the same mistake twice. But the team will continue to make new mistakes because they are just scared to bring those problems to your desk.

This is not easy. It is not natural – the natural reaction is to be loudly angry or maybe passive-aggressive, if you don’t like yelling. It calls for a lot of restraint and patience, which can be tough when you are faced with crises that you know could have been prevented. Yet, it seems to be the only way to avoid recurring crises.

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