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 to try to find the elusive person to solve your problem?
Often this shuffling is accompanied by finger-pointing and blaming, where each person you talk with blames another area for a) passing the buck and b) why they can’t act.
Or have you tried delegating an issue 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 back-stabbed 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 brilliant 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.
Roger suggests that there are two main parts to the problem of people not taking responsibility at work: The manager’s personal attitude and the manager’s skills in delegating.
He places the problem firmly at the feet of the leader/manager, and not the team (which can be confronting if you are the manager in question.)
He suggests that 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.”
Before you know it, you 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 where they think they are competent (whether or not they are in practice).
Ego is not a long-term successful leadership strategy!
Ego based leaders often burn out or end up hitting the end of their competence and then flaming out in a chorus of disapproval and anger.
The Delegation Ladder
If the manager is not ego driven, they may still be missing core delegation skills.
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 their authority to act in relation to a particular task or their role.
The bottom rung 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 – each assuming that their rung is correct.
Without an explicit discussion about which rung is right, then employees may take more responsibility than you intended, resulting in getting their butt kicked for exceeding their authority.
Alternatively, they default to the lowest possible option and try to run everything past you or wait for your directions to remain safe from your censure.
By discussing their boundaries and your expectations up front, you are more likely to have an employee step up, and complete the task to the correct level.
The thing to remember is that not all tasks need to be at the same rung of the ladder. You may have a person on rung one with a project that is totally new to their skillset, but at rung three with a project they have done a few times before. That is totally fine!
And if a project is going off the rails or if the project suddenly becomes political, it is also OK to drop someone down the ladder for a while, so you get a closer scrutiny over the process. This again is fine and acceptable.
Using the delegation ladder model as a basis for discussion helps to explain your reasoning behind your decisions, and helps create shared understanding in the team.
So if you want to tackle the SEP Syndrome in your workplace, first work out what part of your attitude or approach has helped create the problem, and then work out how to delegate the task correctly so that all parties understand the scope of their ability to act.