When Too Much Help Is Just Too Much

In America’s bootstrap, entrepreneurial culture, the word “dependent” is reserved for children claimed on tax forms and for people perceived as weak, unproductive or clingy. It’s hardly a word anyone would want applied to themselves, and it is certainly not a characteristic managers and supervisors seek to instill in their direct reports.

So how is it, then, that so many organizations end up nurturing a culture of dependency? Talent managers may have to look in the mirror. Leaders set the tone for how their direct reports act.

Dependency in organizations, with all its problems, may not be intended, but it is the result of flawed management behavior and practices. No one consciously delays productivity, stifles talent development, increases response time for solving problems, or thwarts employee morale and motivation. But we have all seen organizations where these things happen, and they are the direct result of a dependent performance culture. Instead of demonstrating their own initiative, taking personal responsibility and maximizing their own talent potential, employees “delegate up” situations and problems to managers.

Dependent relationships can keep people from living the full, rewarding lives they have the potential to enjoy. People in dependent relationships easily develop low expectations for themselves, and their performance often reflects this negative inner voice. Appropriate management behaviors, on the other hand, can develop initiative, trust and personal responsibility and help to ensure that performance-hindering “dependency DNA” doesn’t take hold in an organization.

To foster quick and responsive performance, establish personal ownership of assignments and create interdependent manager/employee relationships within an organization, the onus of initiative and responsibility must remain with the appropriate person. However, often the initiative and responsibility for action escalates one, two or even three levels higher in the organizational hierarchy than it needs to be. The result is a slow-paced performance culture where employees avoid responsibility, and time and money are wasted as people wait to be told what to do.

To combat lack of initiative and responsibility escalation in organizations, leaders must do two things: adopt a different mindset about managing their direct reports and routinely apply specific skills as they manage. The process of people management is an investment in others, and there are two critical factors that can mean the difference between enabling a dependent performance culture and promoting an interdependent performance culture: keeping the work with the right person and commander’s intent.

Keep the Work With the Right Person
Practically speaking, supervisors or managers only have two resources they can invest in their direct reports: time and the potential to influence. Managers can enhance or erode their influence by the way they use their time. Further, use of this finite resource is a critical factor in creating an interdependent performance culture where initiative and responsibility remain with the appropriate, responsible parties.

Many managers and supervisors spend their time unwisely, taking on their employees’ responsibilities and decisions. One vivid illustration of this poor use of time comes from William Oncken Jr., who coined the “monkey” metaphor in his 1974 Harvard Business Review piece “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” — one of the publication’s two best-selling reprints ever. His legacy lives on in this time-tested approach to create initiative and prevent what he called “upward delegation.” He defined a monkey as the next action step to be taken and pointed out a frequent management flaw: Taking on work that belongs to direct reports, which decreases employee initiative and fosters long-term managerial dependence.

There are myriad reasons for this transfer of initiative from employee to manager. Here’s a short list:

• Not enough time to coach or teach: The manager, believing he or she can do something faster or doing so due to feelings of time constraint, steps in and takes ownership of a required task. It’s likely he or she will have to do so again next time as well, since a potential development opportunity was lost. This can breed managerial dependency.

• Done it before/can do it better: The manager most likely has the skill and experience to do the task well. Further, the task in question may be enjoyable —some technical or productivity action that is well-known, fulfilling or fun. Therefore, employees don’t get a chance to do it, and they can’t develop the acumen or skill to perform, again creating dependency on the manager.

• Lack of trust: Managers may not trust the employee to take the right action or solve the problem. As a result, they don’t facilitate the requisite learning and development that is fundamental to develop talent and foster discretionary effort in the workplace.

It is important for talent managers to rethink how they use their time if they want to plant the seeds of initiative into their organizational culture. The following three rules of engagement can help managers promote initiative in their direct reports:

• Require a full background on issues and recommendations for solutions when addressing challenges.

• Encourage employees to bring performance difficulties or problems forward before they surface from other sources.

• Require employees to routinely report in regarding the status of commitments and deliverables, potential difficulties and future action to ensure expectations are met. This generates feedback opportunities.

Expectations and Commander’s Intent
Borrowing a concept from the military — commander’s intent — can be helpful to create initiative, personal ownership of tasks and interdependent working relationships. The concept represents the key element in a framework to establish the freedom to act in direct reports’ execution of objectives.

Commander’s intent is the description of a desired end state — vision and business strategy — that an organization wants to see. Its purpose is to provide the freedom to act on one’s own in the context of achieving the business strategy without oversight or being told what to do.

The commander’s intent premise thrives on ambiguity, confusion, chaos and unforeseen circumstances that can’t be predetermined and that happen in the absence of senior leadership. In its application in the workplace:

A manager establishes well-defined outcomes, results or areas of responsibility.
Strategy execution happens in accordance with a higher commander’s intent. This requires independent action, and inactivity is unacceptable.

Periodically, employees will have to account for action and decisions with future action based on past learning.

Managerial expectations can influence the quality of performance and the motivation employees bring to the workplace. Better known as the Pygmalion Effect in management — or the self-fulfilling prophecy — essentially this means a manager’s expectations, positive or negative, strongly influence an outcome.

When a manager has high expectations, it can produce performance levels that are over and above what an employee may believe is possible to achieve. These high expectations are not only communicated with goals and motivational speeches, but by how the manager or supervisor treats and manages employees. The most effective managers use a combination of challenge and support, challenging employees to reach their potential while simultaneously supporting their efforts to do so.

Taking the initiative and responsibility away from direct reports sends a message that a manager has low expectations for them. This lack of trust and confidence creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for the employees by reinforcing their belief that they cannot and should not take the initiative.

Further, managers who have low expectations tend to not give their direct reports the opportunity to grow and excel, to be challenged, to try and err and then later to learn and succeed. It is often an ineffective talent manager — someone with perhaps the best intentions but who is misguided in his or her understanding of the role — who feels compelled to “help” employees by doing their work for them and stepping in to solve their problems rather than allow them to do so on their own.

In dependent organizational cultures, managers and supervisors are often overworked with poor work-life balance, employee talent isn’t managed well, dependency flourishes, organizational performance is slow and unresponsive, and commitments are routinely missed.

Consider the following story. There is a manager who continually brings work home. Always pressed for time, continually juggling priorities and possessing a high level of commitment to the organization, this manager uses weekends and evenings to catch up.

One evening his young son, who just started first grade, asks his mother, “How come Dad is always working late or bringing his work home?”

Mother responds supportively: “Well, Daddy’s job is very important, and he has to work hard to get everything done.”

Undaunted and still confused, the son asks, “Well then, why don’t they just put Dad into a slower group?”

Rick Tate and Julie White are senior managing partners with Impact Achievement Group Inc. White is the author of “People Leave Managers … Not Organizations!” They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.