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How Much Do They Suffer?

  • Moscow, Russia
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Remember the famous article Who’s Got the Monkey? The gist of it is simple: good managers always make their subordinates responsible for their own results. When they attempt to send the monkey back to the manager’s shoulders by making excuses, the manager has to be on the alert and not accept the monkey, always keeping workers fully accountable and responsible for what they are doing. It’s a terrific principle, but it doesn’t work for most managers. Here is why. Let me tell you a story.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) by Wes Anderson
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) by Wes Anderson

I was having dinner yesterday with a friend of mine, long after work hours, when she suddenly exclaimed, “Damn, I forgot something!” and she ran away. When she came back half an hour later I asked what had happened. She said that her marketing team of two guys were at an expo in another country and had asked her to help them upload some videos to their YouTube channel. They needed those videos for the upcoming conference next morning and she was the only one who had access to the channel. I didn’t get all the technical details, but I asked her why she was worried about it so much. She said that if she didn’t help them, they would not be able to complete their expo mission properly, which would mean a failure for her, a co-founder of the startup. It sounded like this, literally:

Me: “Why do you have to worry?” Her: “It’s my startup, duh!”

Here is what happened in “monkey” terms:

She delegated the expo job and gave them the monkey (the responsibility). They asked her to help them and sent the monkey back to her. She was sitting with the monkey on her shoulders while having dinner with me. It was only a matter of luck that she even remembered it. If she hadn’t, the expo job would have failed. Who would’ve been guilty? She would. They’d have the perfect excuse: “We asked you for help and you forgot, don’t blame us!”

I’ve seen many similar stories, haven’t you?

To be honest, professional employees should always do everything possible to send monkeys back to their bosses. Only those slaves who are junior and incompetent always try to do everything the boss says, making no attempts to “fight back” and win some room for excuses. Seasoned experts know how to manage their owners managers. Thus, those two expo guys did everything right. The mistake was on the co-founder’s side:

She didn’t make them worry enough.

The result of the expo was very important for her and she was expecting it. She hired two guys to attend the expo and bring back some leads, or whatever else they had to bring back. She explained to them how important it was. Obviously, however, it was not enough.

They still worried less than she did.

That’s why they were not calling her every minute asking for the videos they needed. That’s why they didn’t plan it all properly upfront and instead left it till the last moment. That’s why she was the only one worrying.

By “worry” I mean two things that go together: reward and punishment—even though some people prefer to call them consequences. No matter what you call them, there are both positive and negative things that happen if you succeed or fail. My friend, the co-founder, knew very well what the reward would be if the expo went well, and what the punishment would be, for her personally, if the expo failed. However, she didn’t transfer these two things to her employees proportionally.

As she explained to me, they were getting monthly salaries and some bonuses for each lead they brought back. When I asked about the absolute amounts, she told me that the bonuses are much smaller than the salary, “of course.” How can we expect them to worry about the leads, if we clearly demonstrate our priorities: salary first, results second.

This is what was wrong.

The job of a leader is to decompose a larger objective into smaller ones and delegate them to subordinates. An objective means the consequences those subordinates will have to face when they either fail or succeed. However, what happens in most cases? Leaders decompose and delegate the scope of the work, but forget to decompose and delegate the consequences. A monthly salary is not the right way to delegate consequences. Moreover, it is a particularly bad way, because it sends a false message to subordinates: you are doing great until I fire you, and there is nothing in the middle.

Most likely they won’t be fired for the missed video. Instead they have a good excuse: “We asked you to help us and you forgot; where are our paychecks?”

Simply put, good managers know how to make the suffering of their subordinates more hurtful to them than the mistakes they make are hurtful to the project. The same is true about the rewards.

Of course it’s impossible to put the blame for the entire business failure on a single employee, just like it’s impossible to reward a single employee for the overall success of the company. But it’s necessary to make all team members win and lose proportionally.

Otherwise, it’s not a team.

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