Keep the Monkeys Off Your Back

The Harvard Business Review classic articles, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? explores the management concept of delegation and empowering employees. The ‘monkey’ is the proverbial monkey-on-your-back as a metaphor for a problem, task or challenge.  Here is how the author’s frame the situation:

“You’re racing down the hall.  An employee stops you and says, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ You assume you should get involved but can’t make an on-the-spot decision.  You say ‘Let me think about it.’

Has this, or something similar, happened to you?  It certainly has happened to me, and I’ve taken the bait (or the monkey-on-the-back) more times than I’d care to admit.  After all, isn’t this what we are supposed to do as managers, help remove obstacles in our employee’s paths, and help them focus on their work?  NO!  What has happened here is the person has assigned you a task, which they will expect to have taken care of in a timely fashion — in short, they are managing you.  In the article the authors suggest that what we need to do is help our employees develop their own initiative and problem solving skills.  We need them to NOT bring problems, but rather bring solutions.

In 1974, when the article was written, management styles were more focused on command and control.  It was easy for the authors to tell us to simply give the monkey back and expect the employee to take care of it.  In today’s workplace it is expected we build more of a partnership with our employees.  We need to build trust, and help them develop their skills.  “What do you think we should do?” or “What do you see as the critical elements of the situation?” are good ways to respond.  Encourage them to take the initiative, but also to check in with you at a scheduled time to provide an update.  Avoid giving them a solution — ask questions, and probe how they would address the situation.  Remember their ideas on how to proceed may not match what you would do.  If they are clearly headed for a collision, step in, but otherwise it may be that their path will work best for them.  And if not, it is a good learning moment.

In reading the article, it struck a familiar chord.  I am sure I’ve read it somewhere back in my management studies.  And of course the theme of delegation makes sense.  But how to put it into practice?  For me that monkey-on-the-back image is really useful, as people drop by my office or catch me in the hall, to bring a situation to my attention.  I may not be able to fend of every one of those monkeys, but I am keeping my eyes open for them!

Keep the Monkeys Off Your Back

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