No Excuses

“She’s 10, right???,” was my sister’s sarcastic response upon reading my daughter’s email to her classmates.

Yup, she’s 10 and she knows how to set clear expectations and hold people accountable. She acknowledged that her classmates have other priorities, or at least that one of them does. She itemized the tasks required and provided stores that stock the supplies needed. She asked for confirmation that the required tasks were (or were not) completed. With zero management experience or training, a 10-year-old demonstrated some serious managerial expertise. 

If a 10-year-old can appropriately hold people accountable, why do we, adults, have such a problem with it? Part of the reason it’s so hard to hold people accountable is that said people spend so much time trying to wiggle out of any and all responsibility. There’s even a book about it…a book about monkeys. Not Curious George and the man with the yellow hat, but about the monkeys that we all take on at work, whether we realize it or not. My husband read The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey while we were on vacation and went back to work refreshed, realizing that he had to delegate more, had to get the monkey off of his back or, better yet, to never let it get on there in the first place. 

Once the monkey is off of your back, it has to jump onto somebody else’s back. In any organization that strives to be successful, someone has to take ownership of the monkey. The monkey can’t be allowed to run around by itself or it will reek havoc on your organization. If the monkey really, truly isn’t your monkey, delegate, but delegate well. To operate effectively personally and as a team, we need to delegate well.

When I worked for a large, multi-national bank, there was an approach to work that I liked to refer to as hot potato. The gist of the “game” was that people tended to do everything they can to avoid taking on responsibility, treating work as an exercise in avoidance of ownership. No matter who I was working with, they all seemed to be playing a game of hot potato, never wanting any of the actual work to land in their hands, on their plates. It’s not uncommon in most companies to find a decent portion of people who try to abdicate responsibility. It’s not like we’re all sitting around staring out the window, sipping on a chai latte, waiting for someone to come knock on our door and give us something to do. We spinning a million plates, juggling a ridiculous number of potatoes.

How to Pass on the Potato:

  1. Make sure it’s really not your potato.
  2. If it’s really not your potato, determine the rightful owner of said spud.
  3. Gain the owner’s commitment by explaining why the potato belongs to them. In a gesture of goodwill, it never hurts to take a page from the 4th-grade paper mâché project and acknowledge that people have other priorities.
  4. Outline the problem or itemize the tasks the you are delegating. Be very clear in your expectations of results, timing, etc.
  5. Ensure that everyone is on the same page by asking for confirmation that the required tasks are understood and handed off. 
  6. Then, practice letting go. It’s okay to ask for updates, but trust those you work with and don’t follow up too regularly.

If the monkey really, truly is your monkey, own it. The truth is that there are some monkeys that should be on your back. 

Sometimes we just have suck it up, put on our big girl gloves, stop looking around for someone else to pass responsibility off to, and grasp tight to that darn potato.

Our 10-year-old’s project was a group one, one of those dreaded projects were you don’t get to pick your partner. She was paired up with two boys in her science class, tasked with writing a description of the Kawah Ijen volcano, collecting supplies to make a replica of the volcano, and then (always proves to be a highlight of the fourth grade year) exploding the volcano in class. As they were nine- and ten-year-olds, their teacher fittingly provided a four page document listing out all of the instructions, explaining who was supposed to bring what and outlining the paragraph they were supposed to write, going as far as to provide a sample paragraph.

The teacher literally could not have made it any easier for them. The kids had a four-day weekend over which they could purchase their supplies. At my daughter’s insistence, we hit a Dollar Tree and picked up one of those metal things you cook turkeys in on Thanksgiving and a two liter bottle of soda of some mystery purple flavor, I’m assuming grape, that was promptly emptied into the sink. Come Tuesday, neither of her group-mates came prepared with the supplies they were told, by the teacher, to bring. So few kids in the class brought in their things supplies, in fact, that the entire volcano building process had to be delayed by a day.

Taking the half an hour between lacrosse practice and soccer practice to email the boys to make sure they brought their things in by Wednesday, our daughter’s email was crafted entirely on the basis of her own frustration and a desire to actually be able to build their volcano, since, with no supplies, no volcano. The boys had, literally, no excuses. Yet, come Wednesday, the paper mâché was still a no-show. The excuse provided was that the child didn’t know what paper mâché was. Normally, that could be understandable, except that he had been provided a list of shopping locations in the email.

I sit on the board of a non-profit that does great things to help empower girls and to encourage them to be healthy and active. At our last board meeting, we joked about our day jobs and how hard it is to assign work when many of our co-workers actively try to abdicate responsibility for take-aways. One of the very accomplished women outlined, in great detail, a few strategies she uses to ensure that people take on their fair share of responsibility, including not waiting until the end of the meeting to talk through follow-ups so people can’t slip out early to avoid responsibility and sending follow-up emails to assign tasks. Don’t be that person who slips out early and does anything to avoid responsibility. 

If you’re the delegee, once you take the potato, get your sh*t done. Don’t make anyone send you a no-excuses email. If we all step up and accept responsibility, we’ll have less potatoes dropped. If we all hold ourselves accountable for the projects and tasks that we own, no one will have to tell us that we have no excuses and work will be a happier place to be.

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