Who’s got the monkey?

My blogging friend Persia inspired a revisit to an old topic with her recent quote courtesy of Henry Ford, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about fifteen years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time. The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens, is the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Persia’s Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view.  The article can be linked to below.

https://hbr.org/1999/11/management-time-whos-got-the-monkey

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15 thoughts on “Who’s got the monkey?

  1. Those quotes are indisputable, and “bringing the monkey back” and giving to the manager to resolve is simple upward delegating, which should be blocked and the individual redirected. Sadly, upward delegating is routed so deep in most of us as we simply try to avoid taking any responsibility for anything – “Dear God. Please make the world a better place to live in.” Need I say any more? 🙂

    • Colin, great comment. Upward delegating is an apt term. I have shared with others per Solomon, God gave us a brain and we honor Him when we use it. To me the better prayer is give me strength and help me think through the ways to solve my dilemma. Many thanks, Keith

  2. Note to Readers: I had a client who was overwhelmed as she allowed her subordinates to pass the monkey back to her. She also had an age old problem of being too busy to train her staff to handle things better. So, she took on far too much. I shared this article with her and she took it to heart. We worked with her to train her staff better, so that the monkeys would be fewer on her shoulders. This stuff can be debilitating as it was for her. In the end, your work and health suffer, so it is truly something to take to heart and change.

    This poor friend had issues with her son and her mother’s health, so she was constantly working. I asked her if she just sat and relaxed. Her answer was telling. She said when I just relax, I fall asleep. It did get better for her, but it shows how big an impact it can have.

    • Erika, the filing the nails drives managers crazy. In my career I have observed work finds good people. The ones who get it done tend to attract it.

      With that said, the 80/20 rule applies to managers, with only about 20% knowing what to do. A key part of their time has to be setting things up for staff to work on. When they fail to do this, it lands on their shoulders. Keith

      • That is important what you mentioned here. Sometimes people don’t know how much they are allowed to do OR they are not clearly told their range of action AND are criticised all the time. A profound job training and clear instructions may help a lot too! Because many are willing but are often confused and discouraged!

      • Erika, if the manager lays out the task and provides boundaries and touch points, then the subordinate knows the limits and times to ask questions.

        I have worked with some very smart people, who were horrible managers. So, I suggested to the subordinates an idea I learned from an interview applicant – manage your boss’ time. He would set a meeting at 11 am on Wednesday to ask all of the questions he had. I thought this was brilliant.

        Keith

  3. Good post … good points! Back in the day, there were many times the monkey got thrown back onto my back … I usually just took the monkey, figuring it would be quicker to feed and groom it myself, but in the long run it would have paid off to have taken your advice. So … where were you when I needed you? 🙂

    • Jill, I think it is hard to resist the temptation to fix it yourself. Some see it as easier than teaching someone else. I have been guilty of this as well. Keith

  4. Note to Readers: Working with busy people who cannot say no is problematic. They take on too many monkeys and let folks down. I have sobs my share of begging, greasing the skids, gaining more time from the client, where it becomes its own skill set. Yet, it can be frustrating and stressful. I would wish the person would say no, but he or she does not want to let anyone down. Yet, they cause much angst and sometimes do.

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