• James Walton

Take Your Monkey With You, or, How to Respond to Reverse Delegation

Reverse delegation is that uncomfortable feeling when an employee takes a job you've given them and comes back to you with a handful of problems that need resolving, making it your task again.

Someone once put it this way: imagine everyone who knocks on door with a problem as having a monkey on their shoulder. They're in your office to have you deal with their monkey. Adopt everyone's monkey, and pretty soon you're running a zoo where your desk used to be.

You know you're in trouble when the dominant emotional response to a team member's inquiry is resentment and fatigue. Running a zoo will do that to you.

This inclination to reverse delegate by the employee is usually honorable - they want to do the job right, and you're the resident expert so they're checking in because they're afraid of doing it wrong. Unfortunately, the entire system of education they're a product of has reinforced being a good cog in a system, not a strong, independent thinker.

But if a leader consistently adopts the monkey, several negative outcomes result:

  • You'll infantilize your team, teaching them you're the only one with the answers.

  • The quality of your work life deteriorates; you're here to run a business, not a zoo. The quality of your home life deteriorates dramatically with all the stress you feel, knowing you're the only one driving business innovation.

  • You'll never escalate team members into a owner's mindset.

Here's how to avoid running a zoo by the end of each day.

  • Evaluate your training systems. If one employee is struggling to understand the right next step, it might be the employee's fault. If most everyone is struggling, then it's likely management's fault to not implement a clear process.

  • Hire people smarter and better than you. If you're the expert-in-residence on everything, you've bottlenecked your organization.

  • When delegating a task, spend a few extra moments to ask the team member to walk you through their process on accomplishing the task, where they'll go when they get stuck, and how they'll recognize success at the end. Yes, this is slower at first, but if wanted to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you'll need others along with you.

If an employee does come back around with a monkey, ask these questions to help them process their next step (which isn't giving it back to you).

  1. What's the actual problem?

  2. What's been the work done to resolve the problem thus far?

  3. Who else has been involved?

  4. What documentation has been consulted?

  5. What is something you definitely shouldn't do?

  6. What do you think is the best next step?

  7. What can we do to test this theory?

This process isn't easy, but it's worth it. Your work is too important and your team too valuable to not help them discover how capable they are.

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