Why is it that most managers seem to work around the clock?
The majority of an overworked manager’s “work” is often self-imposed tampering on tasks better handled by those they lead.
I learned this the hard way as a first-time sales manager when one of my direct reports invited me to golf on a Saturday. I politely declined as I had plans of “catching up” over the weekend.
As I plodded through my Saturday to-do list, an email appeared on my screen from the same sales rep who invited me to golf, “Just checking in to see if you made progress on the proposal.”
I was working on his issue when I received his email. I started to report back on my progress when something dawned on me.
Why in the world was I working on his sale while he checked in on me from the golf course?
I looked at the rest of my planned work for that Saturday. None of it belonged on my desk and I was 100% to blame.
The Hot Potato
Most children know the game of “Hot Potato.” Players arrange themselves in a circle and toss an object (a beanbag, soccer ball, or even a real potato) to each other while music plays. The player who is holding the “hot potato” when the music stops is out. The game continues until one player is left — that player is the winner.
This same game is unwittingly played in business, but beanbags are replaced with assignments, tasks, and projects. And when the music stops, it is often the manager left holding the majority of the potatoes.
To understand how a manager gets into this predicament, let’s look at where this problem originates. Imagine a scenario where a busy manager takes a call from McGillicuddy, one of her subordinates.
Skipping the chit-chat, McGillicuddy gets straight to the point, “We’ve got a problem. HR blocked me from raising the starting salary on someone I want to hire.” Short on time and recognizing this issue can’t be resolved in this conversation, our manager makes her first mistake.
“Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Let me talk with HR and get back to you.” She hangs up and jots herself a note.
What just happened? When McGillicuddy called, he held a hot potato that was clearly his responsibility. By the end of the call when the music stopped, who was holding this steaming spud of a problem? The manager.
Worse, our manager volunteered to snatch that potato. Unbeknownst to our manager, a subordinate delegated his work up the organization chart. She accepted a task assigned by her employee and promised to report back with progress.
Who is managing who?
Given the time-sensitive nature of recruiting, McGillicuddy will soon request a status update with a seemingly innocent email like, “Making any progress with HR?” McGillicuddy is a fantastic supervisor when someone else is doing his job.
Imagine for a minute if you were focused on a task and someone handed you a potato straight out of the oven. You start juggling it back and forth, making noises like a monkey, “Ooh, ahh, ooh, ooh.”
The same thing happens to a manager who is passed a task from a subordinate. The mind starts juggling the task like it were a real potato and it is difficult to focus on anything else until we give it back.
A Sack Of Potatoes
An occasional transfer of responsibility should be expected of any manager. It might be an opportunity for training or your subordinate could be swamped with volume.
Periodically rolling up your sleeves can be healthy for a number of reasons. First, it shows your team that you are humble enough to do work below your pay grade. Second, you can more easily empathize with your team when you understand the challenges they face.
But most managers are not strategic about the transfer of work that seems to flow in only one direction. Let’s follow our manager through the remainder of her day. On her way to the HR manager’s office, she is intercepted by her IT supervisor, Dorto. He is concerned that one department wants a software update that would rearrange current priorities.
Dorto is a people-pleaser and concerned with the unintended consequences of pausing one cohort’s project to satisfy another. Needing more information to speak on the topic, our manager asks Dorto to send her an email.
She dodged this hot potato directly, but it will be waiting in her inbox when she returns to her office. The work of pulling the team together to rethink priorities for the IT department’s limited resources will soon pass from Dorto to the manager.
When she can’t find time to work on this, Dorto will take phone calls from his various cohorts, “Are we pulling up this software update or not?” Having delegated this responsibility up the ladder, Dorto can deflect that pressure, “It’s out of my hands for now. It might help if you send my manager an email to see where it stands.”
Now our manager has multiple subordinates supervising her on tasks that don’t belong in her office. But before she can get to her hot potatoes, she picks up two voice messages. The first is a frantic message from her factory supervisor, Staines. A customer is demanding an expedited shipment, which will result in missing a deadline with a separate customer.
Staines loves quality but is easily intimidated by the sales team. The field thinks that his team should work overtime for every impractical customer demand. Staines wants to reject the request to expedite shipping.
Our manager is excited that someone is making a decision, “It sounds like you’ve thought this through. Just let me know if I can help.” Sensing the door cracking open just a bit, Staines takes her up on the offer, “I know they are going to push back and ask you for an exception. Can you let them know we’ve talked?”
Staines sighs deeply and blows on his hands, which are already cooling off after deftly passing along his hot potato. His workers are waiting to hear if they are working overtime, and he can now direct their irritation at our manager for holding up their weekend plans.
Our manager has more potatoes than hands, and she pulls out the burlap sack to handle her growing bundle of spuds. Next, she checks the second voice message which was left by an irritated customer. She returns the call and listens for thirty minutes before committing to return the call personally that evening.
This customer is in MacDonald’s territory and our manager reaches out to get his input. MacDonald is technically astute but tends to freeze under pressure from customers. Knowing this situation might take a turn for the worse, our manager agrees to be the point of contact for the customer while MacDonald does the legwork to resolve the issue.
Frustrated that the day got away from her, our manager drags her massive sack of potatoes across the dark parking lot for another night of working from home.
Who’s The Boss?
The common theme is that our manager takes a subordinate position to her direct reports. She walks away from every conversation with a self-imposed task and deadline.
Her team is conditioned to delegate difficult problems to their manager. Rather than being resourceful, they pass along several hot potatoes every week until their manager is weighed down by a sack that would make Santa Claus jealous.
Our manager spends her day working on requests from her boss, who understands how hierarchy is supposed to work. When she finishes with his requests, she starts juggling the “priorities” of her subordinates.
Even when she works late into the evening and through the weekend to get through her growing sack of hot potatoes, our manager is only rewarded with more potatoes. But even a superhuman boss will reach a limit of how many tasks they can carry at one time.
Is her team appreciative of this Atlas-like effort to take on every problem? Of course not. You can imagine the conversations once our manager starts getting behind: “How did she get promoted in the first place? She is late on every commitment, and can’t make a decision to save her life.”
Her team resents her for creating a traffic jam of important, time-sensitive decisions.
This carries on until our manager is completely overwhelmed. The performance of her team now has her manager’s attention. He calls for a meeting, hoping to understand how he can help.
Expecting the worst, our manager explains how she spends her time during the day. She talks of the endless procession of problems that require her specific expertise. Or at least, so she thinks.
After hearing enough, her manager smiles and declares, “I see your problem and the solution is simple. You are doing everyone’s job but the one I hired you for. Your team is playing a game of “Hot Potato” with you and they never lose. Give those potatoes back and stop taking new ones.”
Feeling a sense of relief, our manager agrees on a strategy and looks forward to what the next week will bring. It is time to dump those hot potatoes.
Giving Back The Potatoes
Our manager gets to the office the next day to find the usual line of subordinates gathering at her office door. Before they can question her about the status of their problems, she hands them a schedule of one-on-one meetings.
During each individual discussion, the manager reaches into her sack and pulls out every hot potato that has been assigned to her. She admits that she has been an obstacle and has meddled too often in affairs best handled by her team.
She places each steaming spud on her desk and asks her subordinate to propose the next appropriate action. Next she challenges each direct report to accept responsibility for that next action. As expected, there is hesitation as our manager conditioned this team to delegate difficult tasks up the chain of command.
- McGillicutty is reassured that he is capable of negotiating an appropriate starting salary with HR without his manager’s help.
- Dorto is asked to pull together the cohorts with competing demands and come up with a suitable schedule that balances resources and priorities.
- Staines is asked to push back on the sales team, given his scheduling challenges.
- MacDonald is asked to call his upset customer and notify her that he will be her new point of contact. MacDonald will update our manager at the end of each day until the customer is satisfied with the resolution.
One by one, potatoes are sent back where they came from. For those problems where the next move is not obvious, the subordinate is still left to decide on the next course of action.
For the first time in months, our manager leaves the office at 5 PM free from the weight of her typical burlap sack. She has a glass of wine with her husband and time to watch a movie with her children.
The next morning, she stops by each office for status updates, reclaiming her position of authority. With a clear schedule, our manager has discretionary time to focus on work more appropriate for her pay grade.
She can now invest her time removing resistance that impacts her entire team, and not singular projects that benefit one person at a time. Loving her new schedule, she pulls her team together and sets some new ground rules.
“I want to make sure I’m not slowing you down. From now on, when you surface a problem, I will help but you will retain ownership. The problems that you bring into my office will leave with you. I have mistakenly taken on too many situations that you were more than capable of managing. For that, I apologize. I need to do a better job of trusting this team to handle the situations you were hired to overcome.”
A Question of Ownership
A common gripe from managers is a “lack of initiative” from their team. What they miss is how quickly they take initiative away when a problem arises. They are more interested in playing the role of a superhero than developing people.
These mangers mask their credit-grabbing by claiming that they are “jointly working on a solution.” But two people cannot own the same problem at the same time. One person always has the next obvious action. When a subordinate approaches a manager with, “We’ve got a problem,” they insinuate a transfer of ownership unless otherwise directed.
After notifying the manager of the problem, subordinates follow up by asking for advice. This appears innocent but leads to a transfer of accountability to someone who is one step removed from the situation. How is a manager better suited to solve a problem than someone who is closely involved with the situation?
This is solved by answering a question with another question, “Well, what do you propose?” A subordinate must have some idea of what the next step is when they approach their manager. They might lack confidence but they have a gut feel for the next logical action required.
The role of the manager is to help people think through those difficult decisions and leave with a clear next action step. Questions force us to think about the pros and cons of any potential action. Here are some questions that a manager can use to draw out the next best path:
- Have you experienced a similar situation in the past? If so, how did you handle it? If it was not effective, why?
- What are the potential unintended consequences of your proposed solution?
- What would happen if you did nothing?
- If your proposed solution is not effective, what is your Plan B? Why do you believe that your Plan B is inferior to your preferred solution?
- Can I share a personal experience that might help you think through this situation?
The last question gives the manager a chance to share their experience without directly assuming ownership of the problem. When the subordinate leaves this conversation, they must believe in the next step and feel ownership of the solution. Without conviction, the solution is doomed.
In addition to ownership, both parties should agree on the next time they will meet to discuss progress. This follow-up discussion should be explicitly noted on both calendars. Once a date is set, the manager can stop thinking about the problem. They know that their subordinate owns the next step and shouldn’t feel compelled to juggle their hot potato.
Organizations work best when work is handled by appropriate parties. Subordinates want to own their responsibilities and expect their manager to spend their time on activities that make life easier on the entire team.
But first, managers must rid themselves of hot potatoes.
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