When my oldest son, Michael, was Chief Student Affairs Officer at Paul Smith’s College, he used to use the phrase, “helicopter parents,” when describing parents who ran interference for their kids, made all the decisions, and then told their kids what to do. This might happen with a roommate argument, upset over dining hall food, or whatever. The parent ran to the rescue and the student remained a child.
I think we have some “helicopter managers” who approach problems in the workplace by running to the rescue and trying to fix everything themselves. It goes like this, for example: an employee is late meeting a deadline without saying much about it, or trying to think of an alternative fix for the problem. In fact, when asked along the way “how are things coming along?” the employee gives non-verbal indications (head nodding) that everything is on track to be completed on time. Towards the end, the manager realizes the deadline is approaching and will likely be missed, gets anxious and starts to take action – asking for others to jump in to fix the problem, or doing it in a rush him/herself.
Let’s look at the extent of what “helicopter managers” do. They rush in to fix a problem themselves; they ask the questions and provide the answers; they make all the decisions for everyone, usually in a rush against time. The result of these actions is that the employee is never held accountable for the full weight of the problem created. Most often, the employee misses the fact that a herculean effort was made, by the manager and others, to save the day. With answers supplied by others, the employee doesn’t learn how to think for him/herself, figure out alternative answers, recommend solutions or solve problems. In other words, the very actions of the manager continue to perpetuate the original lack-of-accountability problem in the employee.
So, what is a different approach? First, we have to be very clear about who “owns” the problem and not violate that boundary as a manager. When an employee is assigned a task and given a deadline, we need to make it clear from the beginning exactly what is expected of the employee in terms of information flow throughout the process. As soon as communication does not occur as expected, the manager approaches with a question, “I haven’t heard from you about the project. What’s going on with that?” Chances are the employee will respond, “Oh, everything’s fine.” The manager stays focused on the original problem – not the deflection – and replies, “That’s not what I asked. Everything may be fine with the project, but not with the information flow we agreed to.” The employee responds, “Well, I didn’t want to bother you; you seemed so busy.” Again the manager doesn’t take the bait about being busy, but instead questions, “How does that align with our agreement? I’m missing something here.” Employee responds, “Oh,yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Now right at this junction, it is so tempting to say, “Well, here’s what I need you to do”…and then list the actions one by one. Instead, the manager clearly places responsibility where it belongs and replies, “What’s your plan to fix this then?” Turning the responsibility right back to the employee in the form of a direct question makes it very clear who is expected to take accountability for the issue. The employee may even reply, “Well, I’m not sure what to do now.” Again, another tempting dodge of accountability that will hook a “helicopter” manager. The effective manager replies, “Well, think about it and get back to me by the end of the day. I want to hear your solution.”
Today’s manager must avoid the trap of compensating for the poor performer. Organizations cannot afford to have managers engaged in doing the work that is already being paid for by other employees.
Today’s manager must avoid the trap of compensating for the poor performer. Organizations cannot afford to have managers engaged in doing the work that is already being paid for by other employees. The “slippery slope” comes as the manager is attempting to give or gather feedback and, in the process, unconsciously accepts responsibility for the task.
I encourage managers to stay very focused during the feedback process on who is owning the problem. When it begins to slip and the helicopter starts to take off, call it back with direct questions that place ownership where it belongs.