Understanding Subordinate Imposed Time

Subordinate imposed time was first introduced as a concept in the 1974 article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” by William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass. Here we expand on the general theme and try to update it.

The idea behind subordinate imposed time is that employees have a tendency to pass all issues on to the manager to deal with when they should in fact be dealing with them themselves. The manager then informs the employee of what he or she is going to do about it and the employee awaits the actions of the manager before the next step is taken. Here, theoretically at least, the roles have reversed. The employee gives the manager issues and the manager reports to the employees on progress made.

The trick as manager is then to stop these so called “monkeys” from being passed onto his or her back and restore the natural order of things. The critical moment  in the article is the first conversation between the manager and employee. When told “We have a problem!” the manager is to reply, “No, you have a problem. However, I will do my best to help you with your problem but at no point will your problem become my problem!”

Things, alas, are not always as simple as that. A lot of managers seem all too keen to deal with problems that their staff should be handling. These types of managers like to oversee every little thing and they clearly do not trust their own employees to get the job done right. This type of management is seriously flawed as it always begs the question “what do you need employees for if you intend on doing everything yourself?”

There is also the issue of professional development, otherwise known as training. Untrained staff are not going to be able to deal with issues. So get them trained! Again, what is the point of them being there if they are not going to be shown how to do things? Employees can and often will hide behind an inability to do simple tasks as a way to avoid having to take responsibilities and it is down to the manager to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Assuming the manager is buying into the philosophy and wishes to reduce his or her subordinate imposed time then the next step is to ensure that the staff buys into this idea. Different types of staff will react in different ways. Some will enjoy the freedom and relish the new responsibilities whilst others will find the transition difficult and attempt to keep passing those monkeys back to the manager.

Certain types of employee will attempt to spend as much time as possible doing as little as possible. It isn’t simply a case of laziness. They often feel they would like a job where they can have as little responsibility as possible but responsibilities do exist and they will have to fall somewhere. It is the job of the manager to ensure that they take on the responsibilities that are appropriate for them. If they work in a customer focused environment then they will need to deal with customer issues (it really is as simple as that). The idea that they only deal with the happy customers whilst the manager deals with the unhappy ones is nonsense.

The key to understanding subordinate imposed time is to realize that staff are paid to solve problems and not to pass them onto the manager. You can help them and guide them but you mustn’t allow their problems to become your problems.


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This entry was posted on October 28, 2012 and is filed under Managing Employees, Organisaton, Time Management. Written by: . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.