Have you ever gone into a store, or contacted a business only to be told “sorry, that’s not my department” and then get shuffled from person to person until (if you are lucky) you find the elusive person to solve your problem? Or do you delegate to your team members, only to find that almost magically the delegated task somehow ends up back in your lap? Do you give your team the task of managing a project, only to find the actual doing of the task somehow slipped through the cracks while everyone backstabbed each other or played power games?
Welcome to the SEP Syndrome – or someone else’s problem. Every person and every manager has experienced the frustration of SEP Syndrome. The challenge is what to do to fix it.\
“The Responsibility Virus” by Roger L Martin is a great book that looks at why managers have challenges with delegating responsibility, and why delegated responsibility keeps bouncing back like a tourist at the end of a bungee cord.
There are two main parts to the problem of people not taking responsibility at work: The manager’s personal attitude and their skills in delegating.
If a manager operates from a “hero” framework, they tend to take all responsibility for critical choices. When faced with problems they work harder, do more and go it alone and they don’t collaborate or share their leadership burden.
The problem is that heroes are primed to look for problems, and at the first sign of a problem they leap in to rescue the situation (whether or not the person needed rescuing in the first place). Subordinates quickly learn that if there is a problem, it is easier just to get out of the way and let the hero save the day.
This sets up a vicious cycle of the hero doing more rescuing and becoming more and more exhausted in the process, and the subordinates becoming more and more passive, cynical about their boss and the lack of development they are receiving.
The subordinates then spend an awful lot of time working out whose responsibility it is to do things (it is never theirs) and the manager can’t work out why people just won’t “step up”, and we are in a full-blown SEP Syndrome situation.
Managers and leaders need to stop before donning their superman or superwoman costumes, and work out “do these people really need rescuing or do they just need help to find their own solutions“.
Managers and leaders also need to get out of the way of their own ego and work out if they are stepping in just to make themselves feel good in an area they are competent. Just because they can do something, doesn’t mean they should.
The Delegation Ladder
One useful model I have adapted from Roger L Martin’s book is what I call the delegation ladder. It is designed to help frame a positive discussion with a team member about their level of scope and authority in relation to a particular task or their role.
The bottom of the delegation ladder is, “don’t move a muscle without checking with me first“. This is usually reserved for trainees and new employees.
Next up, is “come to me with any issues and we will talk it through“. At this level, you and the employee talk through the problem and work out potential solutions together.
After that comes, “you work out the problem and bring me a couple of options to consider”. You get to keep the final decision-making role, and the employee gets to think through the issues.
Above that is “you work out the problem, bring me a couple of options and make a recommendation as to the best course of action and why“. This is a gentle step up from the previous level, asking the employee to consider the best decision.
At the top level is “you work out the problem, work out options, find the best solution and implement it. Just keep me informed generally about the project“. This one gives the employee the highest level of autonomy of action.
Why a lot of delegated responsibility fails is that managers and employees are operating from different rungs of the ladder. Without an explicit discussion about which rung is right, then employees are likely to take more responsibility than you intended, resulting in getting their butt kicked for exceeding their authority or default to the lowest possible option to remain safe.
So if you want to tackle the SEP Syndrome, first work out what part of your attitude or approach has helped create it and next work out did you delegate the task correctly in the first place.