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The Dependency Cycle: How Managers Create It and How to Avoid It
By Impact Achievement Group

No one consciously attempts to delay productivity, to stifle talent development, to increase response time for solving problems, or to thwart the morale and motivation of employees. But we have all seen organizations where these things happen, and they are a result of a dependent performance culture. Instead of demonstrating their own initiative, taking personal responsibility, and maximizing their own talent potential, employees “delegate up” situations and problems to the managers above them. Dependency in organizations, with all its problems, may not be intended, but it is the result of flawed management behavior and practices.

While most dependent relationships don’t end in tragedy, they do keep people from living the full, rewarding lives they have the potential to enjoy. The person in a dependent relationship easily acquires low expectations of himself, and his performance often begins to reflect this negative, inner voice. Appropriate management behaviors can develop initiative, trust, and personal responsibility and play a large part in ensuring that performance-hindering “dependency DNA” doesn’t take hold in an organization.

While a dependent performance culture is a major concern for organizations, so is the art of performance management. While managing the performance of others can be complex, we can offer some focus when we look at the process through an economic filter.

The process of people management is an investment in others and, like any other investment, we hope for good returns. Practically speaking, supervisors or managers only have two resources they can invest in their direct reports: the time they spend with them and the influence potential they have on them. Since time is finite, a manager’s influence can be enhanced or eroded by the effective use of time.

Delegation can be used to cross train, develop competencies, gain bench strength, and effectively use the precious work time available. When supervisors or managers fail to encourage the personal initiative and responsibility of their direct reports and avoid using delegation, they lose control over their time, and therefore, lose much of their ability to influence superior business results.

Developing Personal Initiative and Responsibility

To foster quick and responsive performance within an organization, along with personal ownership of assignments, the onus of initiative and responsibility must remain with the appropriate person. But all too often, the initiative and responsibility for action has escalated one, two, or even three levels higher in the organizational hierarchy than it needs to be or, for that matter, should be. The result is a slow-paced performance culture where employee initiative is rare, responsibility is avoided, and time and money are wasted as people are quite literally “on hold”—waiting to be told what next action they should produce.

To combat the phenomenon of initiative and responsibility escalation in organizations, leaders must do two things: (1) adopt a different mindset about managing their direct reports; and (2) routinely apply specific skills as they manage their direct reports.

Let’s take a closer look at how misplaced initiative can hurt organizational performance. Managers and supervisors must cope with competing responses from three different demands for their time—three demands that are typical requirements of any job.

  • Boss requirements—those tasks and assignments delegated down by the boss.
  • Organizational requirements—those assignments required by the organization, such as training or mandatory meetings.

  • Personal requirements—the tasks and assignments inherent to an individual’s job description.

Leveraged time is using these three time requirements effectively to deliver expected outcomes and results. But here’s the caveat. Often supervisors and managers take action on tasks that are not part of their three time requirements and thus compete for the limited resource of managerial time. This is called non-leveraged time—the time spent working on tasks, problems, or activities that their employees bring to them—work that the employees should be taking action on themselves. Non-leveraged time, which in the long run delivers very little benefit to the organization, the manager, or the employee, begins the moment a manager takes the initiative for action away from the employee.

Perhaps the clearest and most vivid understanding of non-leveraged time comes from the work of William Oncken Jr., who coined the “monkey” metaphor in his still heavily requested Harvard Business Review article in 1974. His legacy lives on in this time-tested approach to creating initiative and preventing—in his words—“upward delegation.”

Paraphrasing Mr. Oncken’s words, here is a typical “leaping monkey” scenario:

You are on your way to a meeting when you are approached by one of your employees. You are targeted with the line, “Hey boss, we’ve got a problem.” As managers are programmed to be the ultimate problem solvers for their employees (after all, what are bosses for?), you ask for a quick explanation. After receiving the brief overview, you realize that you don’t have the time to deal with it at the moment. You dutifully respond by saying, “Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I can’t deal with it right now—I will get back to you.” You then go your way and the employee goes his or her way. The employee no longer has the “monkey” that arrived on his or her back and you now leave with the “monkey” you erroneously accepted with your response, “I’ll get back to you!”

Mr. Oncken says, “At the end of a dialogue between two parties, the person who takes the next action has the monkey.” We can see that these monkeys cause you to lose control over your time while simultaneously losing your influence potential—not a good recipe for effective performance management or talent development.

There are a wide variety of reasons for this transfer of initiative from employee to manager. Here’s a short list:

  • Not enough time to coach or teach: The manager, believing he or she (1) can do it faster or (2) feeling time constrained, steps in and takes ownership of the action to be done. The result—a guarantee that they must do so again next time—breeds managerial dependency down the road.
  • Done it before/can do it better: The manager most likely has the skill and experience to do the task well. Additionally, often the task is enjoyable—some technical or productivity action that is fulfilling and can work as a form of “catnip” for the manager. The result: a guarantee that employees won’t develop the acumen or skill to perform, again creating dependency on the manager.

  • Lack of trust: Not trusting the employee to take the right action, or to solve the problem. The result: not allowing the requisite learning and development that is fundamental to developing talent and fostering discretionary effort in the workplace.

Keeping Initiative in its Proper Place

We acknowledge that there are critical times when a manager must step in and take action or solve a problem that technically belongs with the employee to avoid a crisis. But, more often than not, managers and supervisors jump in and take action when, with a little coaching, the employee could actually handle the problem. We offer the following tips for keeping initiative with employees and cultivating personal responsibility for performance.

Make sure employees:

  • Bring performance difficulties or problems to you before you find out about them from another source.
  • Take the initiative to set up times to “get back to you.”

  • Collect all relevant information or data for any issue or problem and use their best efforts to tackle tasks or assignments before bringing them to you.

  • Bring possible solutions for any problem they bring to you.

Manage others without usurping their initiative and leave the personal responsibility to achieve results with them. Let others learn, develop, grow, and reach their full potential.

The Art of Delegation

Delegation is a managerial practice that, when well done, can allow employees to learn and grow and also keep initiative for action in the appropriate place. However, far too many managers either fail to delegate or do so ineffectively. We encounter far too many managers who have been “burned” in the past. They’ve delegated some key task or project, gotten poor results, and had to step in at the eleventh hour with Herculean efforts to clean up the mess. As a result, they’ve now essentially stopped delegating, or only delegate routine tasks.

But the solution is not to stop delegating; it is to become more strategic in what you delegate. There is considerable research that poor delegation is the number one reason that managers fail to routinely exceed expectations.Effective delegation requires the confidence to make decisions and the skill to manage the process. While not easy, it is a necessity when you look at all the positive benefits to the organization, the manager, and the employee.

Effective delegation allows for increased cross-training—developing multiple skills for the employee and creating more flexibility for the manager. Delegating challenging work that will prepare employees for upward mobility is an excellent way to reward good performance. Delegation can offer deviations from routine work responsibilities, giving employees both a change and a challenge. And delegating routine tasks by spreading them around to direct reports can give a manager significant leverage for carrying out more critical responsibilities and also frees up managerial time for tasks and functions that only the manager can (or is required) to do.

Managers who effectively delegate make significant contributions to their organizations by building bench strength, developing better talent, and providing more flexible and competent responses through cross-training. Delegation, used properly, also reduces the need for managers to step in and take initiative away from employees as confidence and trust are built.

While there are many excellent books on delegation practices that can benefit managers and supervisors, we offer two important tips for effective delegation:

The Delegation Triangle: A significant obstacle to effective delegation is the failure to include all three elements of the Delegation Triangle. Managers often delegate just the responsibility for tasks (1) without considering the level of authority needed to make things happen; and (2) without the control over the work process necessary to reach the desired result.

Without the authority and control to handle the responsibility, employees can feel “set up” in a no-win situation as they experience difficulties carrying out the assignment. Trust and confidence can suffer downstream between both parties.

Delegation is positioned for success when managers assign responsibility for a job, task, or project with the commensurate authority, and assign the amount of control over resources to achieve the desired performance results.

Delegation Triangle

Figure 1: Delegation Triangle

Levels of Delegation Authority: Few managers and supervisors have the luxury of having direct reports who have the necessary skills and confidence to handle every assignment and task. So, we often shy away from delegating for fear of poor outcomes. By thinking about two attributes—ability and confidence—as performance vital signs, managers and supervisors can still use delegation with a wide variety of employees with good results. Depending on the degree of ability and confidence the employee brings to the delegated responsibility, there needs to be an appropriate level of authority to act.

Level Description Level of Authority
1 Employee has little ability at present and lacks the confidence to take on the responsibility. Advise me before you act.
2 Employee has moderate ability and confidence to take on the responsibility. Act, but advise me right away.
3 Employee has excellent ability and high confidence to take on the responsibility. Act on your own—keeping me in the loop as needed.

Expectations and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Both research and real life experiences have illustrated how managerial expectations influence the quality of performance and the motivation others bring to the workplace. Better known as the Pygmalion Effect in management—or the self-fulfilling prophecy—this means that a manager’s expectations (positive or negative) strongly influence the outcome.

When a manager has high expectations in his or her own talent, combined with high expectations of the employee’s potential, it usually results in performance that is over and above what the employee herself thought she could achieve. The research in this area indicates that these high expectations are not communicated merely with goals and motivational speeches. They are communicated by how the manager or supervisor actually treats and manages employees. The most effective managers use a combination of challenge and support—challenging employees to reach their potential while simultaneously supporting them in the process.

Taking the initiative away from employees and failing to use delegation to develop their skills and talent sends a message that the manager or supervisor has “low” expectations of those he or she manages. This lack of trust and confidence creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for the employee, reinforcing the belief that they can’t and shouldn’t be doing things for themselves. This process builds a cycle of dependency in the organization that is not congruent with a high-performance DNA.

The human capacity is poorly served by managers who have low expectations about the potential and capability of others, because they tend to never give anyone else the opportunity to grow and excel—to be challenged, to try and err and then learn and succeed. The manager who, misguided in his or her understanding of their role as manager or supervisor, feels compelled to help employees by doing their work for them and stepping in to solve their problems without letting them work through issues themselves, unintentionally denies others the opportunities available in the organization.

Managers and supervisors provide real help when they coach others instead of doing for them, when they ask questions and teach judgment rather than simply answering questions, and when they leave initiative and action to the employee. As the old adage goes, teaching them how to fish, not giving them a fish creates self-reliance, interdependency, and personal fulfillment.


When we see managers and supervisors routinely caught up in this selfinduced time trap, frantically overworked with poor work/life balance, we are reminded of the story we heard a few years back. This is the tale about the manager who continually brings work home. Always pressed for time, continually juggling priorities, and possessing a high level of commitment to the organization, this manager uses weekends and evenings to “catch up.” One evening his young son asks his mother, “How come Dad is always working late or bringing his work home?” Mother responds in the traditional supportive manner, “Well, Daddy’s job is very important and he has to work hard to get everything done.” Undaunted and still confused the son then asks, “Well then, why don’t they just put Dad into a slower group!”

The ultimate effect on managers and supervisors is negative when they (1) take on tasks and solve problems that employees should be handling themselves—effectively, taking their initiative away; and (2) don’t build bench strength through routine delegation. These managers experience an overwhelming erosion of their time and influence that hurts their personal productivity by creating a “dependency culture.” Organizations don’t meet their goals when employees don’t learn, grow, and develop bench strength and competency building.

Impact Achievement Group is a training and performance management consulting company that provides assessments, coaching, story-based interactive workshops, and simulations for managers at all levels of organizations worldwide. Impact Achievement Group helps companies dramatically improve management and leadership competency for bottom-line results. Company experts Rick Tate and Julie White Ph.D. are internationally recognized authorities in leadership development, human performance, customer-focused business strategies and workplace communications.

To find out how Impact Achievement Group can transform your managers into more effective leaders, visit>.

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