A constant refrain in work environments—why can’t people just do their jobs?
Coworkers struggle to understand cross-team politics and process. Some departments have a reputation for being the place good ideas go to die. Managers coach new employees on the bad practices necessary to get things done.
What most managers don’t understand is their role in this dysfunction. It’s kind of like trying to see the back of your own head. Sure, you can grab a mirror, but that only gives a rough estimation of what is really happening.
Take a step back and assess whether any of these situations are holding your teams back.
1. Picking up / handing off monkeys
Imagine holding the door open for a colleague who is busily texting on their phone. You did such a good job; management designates you as the building’s new entrance facilitator. In addition to your actual work, jumping up to hold the door open for colleagues is now top priority.
Right? That’s ridiculous. So is delegating tasks from one person to another, simply because it’s more convenient.
Helping out in a pinch does not equal taking on a new job.
People can be hesitant to step in if that work is likely to become their responsibility long-term.
Early in my career, a mentor describes the concept of picking up monkeys (tasks or questions without natural owners). While the natural tendency is to pick them up, monkeys can quickly overwhelm even the best employee. Too many monkeys affect productivity and overall morale.
It’s important to take a step back periodically and evaluate the structure of your teams. Business needs shift over time, as do people’s interests and skill sets. Objectively reviewing process owners and workflows can help identify monkeys. Empower your teams to self-evaluate as well. Again, you can’t see the back of your own head.
If you constantly use the phrase “rolling up your sleeves” or “wearing many hats”, it could be time to evaluate how resources are being allocated.
2. The cost of delegating low-value tasks
We all know the drill. Go into a weekly meeting, have great conversations, and then someone asks for a volunteer to take notes. Crickets. Eventually, one person (usually the same person, usually a woman, usually because she is “good at it”) is tagged. This approach is always so tempting. Don’t do it.
Designating to one person does a couple of things: It conveys that their time is less valuable than other teammates, while also limiting their capacity to contribute in larger ways.
If person A is always taking notes, their attention is drawn away from the discussion. They are put in the position of ‘task master’ if additional follow-up is needed, and they invest time keeping things up. This model damages the sense of collaboration and equally-valued contribution.
Unless these tasks are within the scope of a person’s role—such as an admin or similar support person—they should be shared across the group.
One extremely effective approach is the roundtable format. Responsibility for the agenda and note taking rotates each meeting. One person prepares the agenda, another takes notes and sends updates. Following session, these responsibilities transfer to the next two people, and so on.
Think of it as an “on-call” list for managing meetings and shared responsibilities. Everyone contributes toward a common goal.
Creating an equal level of contribution also prevents people hiding in the background.
Team members learn more about things outside of their functional area. Rather than passively listening (or checking email) while others are presenting. Every person is more effectively engaged.
Of all the incredibly talented people I’ve worked with over the years, very few enjoy taking notes. Even fewer are actually good at capturing things in a ‘sharable with others’ way. Admittedly, I am the worst offender. My notes trail off mid-sentence and are typically surrounded by lines or stick figures.
However, that shouldn’t let me, or anyone else, off the hook for this shared responsibility. Low-value tasks, (like taking notes, preparing agendas), are still very necessary in tracking and communicating progress.
Sharing the effort improves the immediate outcome, as well as the long-term team cohesion.
We all have a short list of people who can get things done—either because of their connections in the industry, amazing SQL skills, or deep tenure with an organization. Short-list people quickly become the go-to for time-sensitive info.
I always caution new managers to handle their short-list people with care. Tapping these individuals should involve one of three things: Horsepower, expertise, or connections.
Be clear upfront about what you need and why.
If you are looking for a connection, ask them for an intro, whereafter they can graciously extract from the conversation. Few people are interested in brokering meetings. Make it easy for them. Most importantly, ensure that their intro is valued. Follow-up and circle back on the outcome.
Also, be open to learning how to fish. If this is a recurring need, tend toward self-efficacy. That coworker who can somehow bend time or MacGyver anything out of nothing. Ask them to share their expertise over an hour-long workshop. People often enjoy knowledge-sharing, and this expands the resource base.
Effective teams collaborate. Now get out there and cultivate a better set of mirrors.
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