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There's a Monkey on My Back! Thinkstock Managers can’t let subordinates dump their problems on them, it’s like getting a monkey on your back. (Steve Porter/Thinkstock)
There's a Monkey on My Back! Thinkstock Managers can’t let subordinates dump their problems on them, it’s like getting a monkey on your back. (Steve Porter/Thinkstock)

Managing problems? Lose the monkey on your back Add to ...

Mike Dowling was an engineer, a technical guy working for a telecom company, when, as happens to many people, he was rewarded for his competence by being promoted, without training, to be a manager.

Suddenly he had about 18 direct reports and, as a result of a reorganization shortly after, about 30. He had been an expert in one area, but now supervised six or seven areas of activity. He had been responsible for his own work, but now he was in some way responsible for those subordinates as well, and he kept getting drawn deeply into their work, making decisions for them.

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“They were driving me nuts. I couldn’t get anywhere,” recalls Mr. Dowling, who was working for B.C. Tel at the time.

So he turned to the corporate library at the company’s Brockville, B.C., outpost, where he worked and found some videotapes and other material about a program called “Managing Management Time,” by William Oncken Jr.

Applying the principles of that program, he turned himself into a manager. “It was profound,” said Mr. Dowling, who is now semi-retired and a part-time consultant in Vancouver.

Mr. Oncken, who died in 1988, wrote one of the classic articles in Harvard Business Review with Donald Wass, titled “Who’s Got The Monkey?” In this case, classic should not be interpreted as outmoded or outdated. The ideas in the 1974 article remain tangible, highly practical – and can lighten your load significantly at work.

The underlying ideas may describe the meeting just held with a subordinate, or a brief conversation in a hallway. It starts with a subordinate telling the boss something such as, “By the way, we have a problem …”

In the conversation, something is raised that the manager knows enough about to get involved with, but not enough to make an on-the-spot decision. So the manager says, “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”

When they part, according to the essay, the manager now has a monkey on his back – it’s something he must deal with. Before the encounter, the subordinate had the responsibility for the issue. Now the monkey has shifted, and the boss has in fact become the subordinate, accepting responsibility for the issue and promising a progress report.

It’s all so innocent. But when it happens over and over again, in conversations and e-mails, you can pick up far too many screaming monkeys. So you’re struggling to define priorities between items that shouldn’t even be on your to-do list.

Mr. Dowling met with his staff, explained the concepts of the time management program. He viewed the monkey as making the decision about what “next move” a subordinate should take. He told his staff they had to pay attention to who had the monkey and apply the techniques the article recommended to straighten out the situation. In particular, he focused on group leaders, because they had a supervisory role, and he noticed they became happier as they applied the idea.

Interestingly, his success came in a company of about 1,000 people, where only his team members were directly using the ideas – evidence that you don’t need an overall corporate program to be successful instilling the notions in a unit. Even Mr. Dowling’s boss didn’t subscribe to the program, but that didn’t stop it from from being successful.

The Harvard Business Review article suggested that the process of change begins by calling back each employee who has given you a “monkey,” and returning it – along with a blunt message about future monkeys: “At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in – on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be, and which of us will make it. In those rare instances when the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”

The article also ranked five degrees of initiative your subordinates might take on matters facing them, from the lowest (least effective) response to the highest:

  • Wait until told what to do.
  • Ask what to do.
  • Recommend, then take the resulting action.
  • But advise your manager at once.
  • Act on your own, then routinely report.

As a manager, you might want to ban the two lowest responses (waiting, and asking). Not only are they not productive, they drain you and divert you from more effective supervisory activities. The three other paths prod your employees to learn and master the work they have been assigned. When handing out assignments, you should also specify which of the three degrees of initiative you expect the employee to take on a matter, and note that in your calendar.

Controlling the monkey worked for Mr. Dowling in that job back in 1980 and in other positions over the years. And it may well work for you.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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