Who’s Got the Monkey
Full disclosure: This post is an excuse to show our youngest granddaughter with the screaming monkey.
Audiences love “Who’s got the monkey” stories. The idea is based on a 1974 HBR article by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. (Republished in 1999.)
The monkey in the video was a gift from a workshop participant in Oregon.
Not long ago, I playfully bopped Ellasyn on the head with the monkey. It screamed. She yelled, “Ow!” and lowered her head for another bop. She yelled “Ow!” And so on.
One day she bopped herself on the head. It’s fun. But it’s not so fun when someone hands you their monkey.
Unwitting managers have an office full of monkeys.
Carl meets you in the hall with, “I have a problem.” You listen and realize you can’t solve it on the spot.
“Let me get back to you.” Carl’s monkey just jumped on your back.
- Carl delegated a task to you.
- You assumed reporting responsibility.
Later, Carl drops by to ask for an update.
The monkey is the next move.
Whoever is responsible for the next move has the monkey.
We share responsibility for issues and problems in organizations. You can’t ignore Carl’s monkey. You can help. You don’t have to own it.
Let’s repeat the scenario.
Carl meets you in the hall. “I have a problem.”
You listen and realize it’s not a quick answer. You also realize that the monkey needs to remain with Carl. (Sometimes you should take the monkey.)
Ask Carl, “What do you need to do next?” You may be able to point him to a resource or person who can help.
Agree on Carl’s next step.
Conclude by saying, “Stop by this afternoon and let me know the result.”
Carl feeds his own monkey.
How might managers/leaders better manage monkeys?
This hit home. I listen. I say “I’ll get back to you.” I assumed responsibility. Doh!
Dan, you have a lovely granddaughter. Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend.
Thanks Jackie. She’s a cutie.
Same to you, have a wonderful holiday.
What a fun article on Friday! You nailed it with the monkey! I try not to accept monkeys from others, but it is really hard. Thanks for concrete ideas on how to avoid doing that.
Thanks Lisa. I feel a tension between the desire to help and not taking responsibility for other’s monkeys.
Being helpful isn’t always about doing things for people. 🙂
Absolutely correct. Often, being helpful is actively listening, reflecting the conversation to assist with clarity, providing advice, clearing road blocks or assisting with resources. assist but don’t take responsibility for the next move. That ensures they experience the success of achievement.
YES! It’s helpful to redefine helping.
You are doing something for that person, you are helping them to grow and problem solve.
Great article. This one spoke right to me. My leadership style is participatory aka I want to be in the weeds with everything. Unfortunately this robs those that I lead the learning opportunity and doesn’t help them moving forward. Like you said there are times to be in the weeds and times to let others grow.
Thanks Josh. I think helping people can either create dependency or strengthen capacity. We’re better off doing the latter.
Relevant article for me as a conversation with a leader recently revealed the Monkey on her back that I almost accepted. Was wondering at my own hesitation to agree to speak at an event she will be running in the fall until I read your article.Because I am always intrigued with monkeys your analogy was perfect! Thanks for your insight Dan Rockwell. Positively, Pauline
Thanks Pauline. Congratulations!!
Loved it! In education leadership circles, Todd Whitaker has written a book entitled Shifting the Monkey. A great read with the same theme. Thanks for sharing – your granddaughter is wonderful 🙂
Thanks Jay. I’m sure the folks in education appreciate the reference to Whitaker’s book.
Ellasyn is awesome. She comes up and eats all our raspberries! 🙂 She picks one. Puts it in the box. Takes it out and eats it. (Repeat)
Very Good Leadership article that we all need to share on our trail that we hike every day
Thanks Terry. Yes indeed.
This is a great perspective. Saying that I’ll get back to you is a statement when I really should be asking a question to keep the other person accountable and thinking for themselves.
Thanks Eric. I find that success often includes asking the right question. Surprisingly, the best questions may not come naturally.
I have always been a “fixer” and it did not matter what is broke or who owns it, I fixed it. Working in emergency services just reinforced this. Now as a leader I am learning that it is not my job to fix (or feed) someone else’s monkey. My job is to make sure my people have the tools and the skills to do their job. I try hard to not use the term “I will get back to you”. Either give them an answer or set a time to talk about it or give them information or resource to find or fix the issue themselves.
Thanks Walt. I’m glad you used the term “fixer”. We all relate to that and I find that the desire to fix requires intentional effort to hold back. Sadly, when we give free reign to our inner fixer we often end up overwhelmed.
I agree Dan your granddaughter is a cutie! As part of one of our in-house leadership training courses we discuss the article you referenced, “Who’s Got The Monkey”. Many years ago one of our managers suggested that our monkeys were often so big that they were more the size of a gorilla. The idea resonated and we began giving out plastic gorilla figures as part of the class “graduation” ceremony!
Thanks Larry. Love it. Great idea.
I recently had a client that bought monkeys for their team. They toss them around the office. 🙂 .. Fun
Dan, this is a good approach – an excellent line between taking on everything, and the common response where I work “Not my circus, not my moneys”.
Thanks Mitch. Yes, we should be careful of detachment. “Not my monkey” shouldn’t be about standing aloof.
Many good points and suggestions.
Some of my students try to give me their monkey. “My printer is out of ink.” “My car has a flat tire.” ” I lost my book.” “The dog ate my homework.” My favorite question to them –“Who owns that problem?”
Thanks Paul. So much of success is about ownership. We begin falling back when fail to take ownership.
A great read as always Dan. Too many are quick to give their problems up for adoption by a willing manager. When I say I’m out of bananas, most understand the underlying meaning.
Thanks Redge. Great seeing you here today. I find your langue colorful and useful. It’s one thing to care. It’s another thing to adopt someone else’s monkey.
As usual, spot on Dan. I find your tips very hands on and relevant. Thank you.