The Art of Managing Monkeys

Do you ever go home feeling that you’ve spent the whole day doing jobs on other people’s “to do” lists instead of your own?  Do you feel that you’re doing more but accomplishing less?  Your life may seem out of control, but it doesn’t have to be if you learn the art of monkey management.

Several years ago I had a chance to work with the leading expert of monkey management, Bill Oncken, Jr., who authored, with Don Wass, one of the all-time best-selling articles published by the Harvard Business Review entitled Managing Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?  Bill and I joined forces with Hal Burrows to write The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey (Morrow, 1989).  It was a fabulous experience and I learned quite a few things about managing monkeys that still hold true today.

For those of you who are still scratching your head, allow me to explain. A “monkey” is the next move after two individuals meet, as illustrated here:  Say you meet an employee in the hallway.  He says, “Can I see you for a minute?  We have a problem.”  He explains; you listen; time flies. Twenty minutes later you know enough about the problem to realize you’ll have to be involved, but you don’t know enough to make a decision.  So you say, “This is very important, but I don’t have time to discuss it now.  Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

The detached observer understands what just happened, but when you’re in the middle, it’s harder to see the big picture.  Before you met your staff member in that hall, the monkey was on his back.  While you were talking, the matter was under joint consideration, so the monkey had one leg on each of your backs.  But when you said, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you,” the monkey moved squarely onto your back.

The problem may have been part of your employee’s job, and he may have been perfectly capable of proposing a solution.  But when you allowed that monkey to leap onto your back, you volunteered to do two things that this person was generally expected to do as part of his job:  (1) You accepted the responsibility for the problem, and (2) you promised him a progress report.  Just be sure it’s clear who’s in charge now, your staff member will stop in on you several times the next few days to say, “Hi!  How’s it coming?”  If you haven’t resolved the matter to your employee’s satisfaction, he may begin to pressure you to do what is actually his job.

To avoid this travesty, monkey management is necessary.

Managers must be careful not to pick up other people’s monkeys.  When they do, they broadcast the message that the employees lack the skills to care for and feed the monkeys themselves.  Managers who grab monkeys off their people’s backs often kill employee initiative, and everyone is left waiting for the boss to “make the next move.”

Nobody wins when you take care of other people’s monkeys.  You become a hassled manager and don’t feel very good about yourself.  And you have workers who look to satisfy their needs elsewhere, because they feel underutilized and unappreciated.  They often become dependent upon the boss.  The care and feeding of other people’s monkeys is the ultimate lose/lose deal.

Bill Oncken, Jr. developed four rules of monkey management to help managers give back monkeys without being accused of buck-passing or abdication.  They are:

1.  Describe the monkey. The dialogue between a manager and a staff member must not end until appropriate next moves have been identified and clearly specified.

2.  Assign the monkey. All monkeys shall be owned and handled at the lowest organizational level possible.

3.  Insure the monkey. Every monkey leaving you on the back of one of your people must be covered by one of two insurance policies:  (1) recommend, then act, or (2) act, then advise.

4.  Check on the monkey. Proper follow-up means healthier monkeys.  Every monkey should have a checkup appointment.

If you follow Oncken’s rules, you’ll stop viewing your people as the major source of your problems and will soon start seeing them as major solutions, because each of their backs can be a depository for several monkeys.

Try monkey management—it works!

7 thoughts on “The Art of Managing Monkeys

  1. Ken,
    This is so true.
    I will handle these monkeys the best way- leave them on the back of the person who can handle them.
    You’re right:
    people don’t do what you expect,
    they do what you inspect.
    Thanks!

  2. Ken,

    You e-smacked me right cross the face with this article today; thank you, I needed that. I am guilty of this. Now I know better.

    Bobby

  3. Don’t hold the hot potatoes, push them to other people, keep your hands free, good luck. Push them to the lowest level but keep the monkeys in the company until you decide whether they are cheerful birds or not.
    İt is always a good idea, thanks for your time to describe the solution.

  4. Easier said than done, though it is the right way. Unreasonable deadlines in the world of today, less equipped staffers leave little room to maneuver for options. It leads to the head of department usually taking the initiative, which is why the term ‘upward delegation’ was invented.

    You can dodge monkeys or throw the banana the other way for a while but on several occasions you’ll have to pick up the monkey as you’ll need to off load yours some day, even if it happens less than taking on monkeys.

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