Monkey Management

Imagine one day that you are walking down the hallway at your organization, and a subordinate approaches you with a problem about one of his subordinates. "I cannot believe how Jane is acting toward our customers. She is curt, unfriendly and sometimes downright difficult. I have told her several times that her behavior is just not acceptable, but it doesn't seem to help. Can you visit with her and see if she takes it better from you?"

As a manager, you have a number of choices. Which is the right choice for you, for the supervisor, and for Jane?

In a classic article in the Harvard Business Review in 1974, authors William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass offer a theoretical framework for seeing this situation in its true light and making the right decision. In the article "Who's Got the Monkey?" the authors tell the tale of an overburdened manager who allows his employees to delegate upward. When a manager takes an unsolved problem from his subordinates, he is allowing a figurative monkey to leap from the employee's back to his back. When a manager has too many monkeys, he is increasing his own load, failing to develop his subordinates, and probably not solving the problems effectively in the final analysis.

Oncken and Wass offer a well defined basic law for managing monkeys. It is:

At no time while I am helping you will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you will no longer have a problem. I cannot help someone who hasn't got a problem. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and who will make it.

Refusing to accept problems that subordinates try to delegate upward, and instead giving them opportunities to meet with you to "feed the monkey" is the best choice for both the monkey and for its keeper. The employee who is closest to the problem usually has the knowledge and skill to solve the problem, if empowered to do so. Consultations with the manager will serve to broaden perspective and offer new ways of seeing the problem. And as the employee feeds and eventually solves the problem, he or she learns important skills that make them more valuable to the organization and to the managers.

In addition to the law of monkey management, the authors list six rules of managing monkeys that are instructive to managers. These include:

1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. No one likes the consequences of a starving monkey. They tend to be very disagreeable and squeal and raise a ruckus. Monkeys must be fed periodically; in this analogy, the problem must be dealt with between the manager and the employee with the problem on a regular basis. If the monkey can be shot (the problem solved quickly), then feeding times are not necessary.

2. Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and a degree of initiative. After a feeding session, the manager should select an appropriate time for the next feeding and should have a number of action steps for the employee to take. "Can we meet next Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. to see how things are going and what we should do next?"

3. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number that the manager has time to feed. The authors suggest that it should take 15 minutes to feed a monkey, and that managers should keep the list of problems that are in various stages of solution at a manageable number.

4. Monkeys should fed by appointment only. Allowing employees to bring problems to you on their timetable increases the chances that the monkey will move from the employee to the manager. By setting specific times for addressing the problem, managers empower employees to make interim decisions about the problem, and still report back.

5. Monkey feeding appointments may be rescheduled but never indefinitely postponed. Either party, the manager or the subordinate, may reschedule a feeding appointment for any reason, but it must be scheduled to a specific time to avoid losing track of the monkey.

6. Monkeys shall be fed face to face or by telephone, but not in writing. Holding feeding sessions via e-mail or memo transfers the monkey to the manager. An employee can pass the monkey to the manager by simply requesting a response. Feedings that take place in person or on the phone require the monkey to remain with the employee unless the supervisor takes an affirmative step to take it.

Proper delegation skills, properly applied as suggested in this creative approach, can help managers better solve problems and develop their employees' problem solving skills. Visualizing each problem as a monkey that is impatient and noisy can help managers see problems as they really are and address them in the best possible way. Beware of the monkeys that may come into your life today!