Escaping The House Elf Management Trap

Credit: Keith Williams / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I would love to find a new name for this, now that JK Rowling is cancelled, but in the Harry Potter books, house elves are powerful magical beings, who are condemned to (mostly invisible) servitude, largely of people who would uphold harmful power structures (much like JK Rowling herself).

The tragedy of the house elf is that they could be capable of so much, but they do not get to do it, because they are busy pleasing people who can never be pleased. Some of them become so enmeshed in that situation, that they cannot allow themselves to be free, even when they have been freed.

What does this have to do with management? Well, new managers often present exhausted and overwhelmed, and the question I often ask in this situation, is, “how are you house elfing your team?”

House elfing comes from a good place, often tied to some idea of “servant leadership”. People who internalize this idea that they exist to work for their team, and the way they know how to do that is to pick up all the small annoying things, run all the meetings, plan all the team activities, pick up the boring grunt work, tidy up the bug list etc.

The outcome of this is that they are:

  • Wholly reactive ➡️ unable to focus on bigger / more impactful work.
  • Buried in small details ➡️ unable to step back and see the bigger picture.
  • Exhausted ➡️ running around all day picking up after people does that to you.
  • Overwhelmed ➡️ see also: reactive. By being buried in the details, you don’t have time to make the meaningful improvements.

Worse, these managers often start thinking it’s their job to make their team happy. Wrong! It’s your job to make your team effective. Constant picking up of small things does not make your team more effective – noticing the patterns and improving the processes, or the projects themselves does that.

And here’s the thing, the biggest problem I have with servant leadership: you can’t be the servant of people you have power over. So either you deny that power dynamic, or you give away that power.

Because if you behave in such a way that your team starts to believe your job is to make them happy, what is going to happen when you inevitably have to disappoint them? When you have to tell them they didn’t get the promotion, or the project has been cancelled, or the is no budget for the thing they want?

They will blame you.

Everyone on your team is – hopefully – an adult. You don’t need to “protect them” from the realities of the workplace. Trying to do so is patronizing and a recipe for making yourself miserable. If you believe people are adults, you can focus them – make it clear what’s important, what’s valued and what’s not – and trust them to take their share of team housekeeping.

I’m not saying you should refuse to do anything – I’m saying you should not do everything. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t help your team, that is an important part of your job. But it is your job to help them through kindness not erode everyone’s effectiveness with niceness.

The thing about house elfing, is that it comes from a good place – the desire to help. This is something to honour.

It can also be a product of some level of insecurity, that by doing small tasks you are providing value. It’s a way to get the small dopamine hits that we miss from writing code. This is something to critically evaluate.

To escape the house elf trap:

  • Pay attention to how often you are house elfing. Make a list of things you do when you catch yourself house elfing.
  • After a week or two, evaluate the list. How much is on it? What has that cost you in terms of focus time or energy?
  • Redefine your priorities. What are your most important things to do?
  • Catch yourself before you house elf. Let that thing go undone (by you). Does someone else pick it up? Does it need to be done at all?

Remember that even if you can successfully house elf a team of five, there is no way to succeed in this mindset with five teams of five. This can be one of the biggest ways that people get in the way of their own advancement – so the time to readjust your approach is now.