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Managing the Monkey

September 4, 2012

Who works for who?  If you are the boss, shouldn’t you tell those working for you what to do?


Many times the boss spends inordinate amounts of their time on subordinate imposed time.  This is when the subordinate asks for help, and the boss tells him or her that he will have to get back to them.  The boss usually does not have the time upon demand to help them, but he says he will think about the problem and will report back.  The subordinate now has this job [or monkey as the jobs are referred to] off their back, and it is on the bosses back.


Picture a job at hand as a monkey that is on the shoulders of the person who has to do that job.  When a subordinate asks for help and the boss says he will think about it, the monkey jumps from the shoulders of the subordinate to the boss.  At the end of the day, the subordinate has no open items.  The boss, though, has the load of four or five subordinates, who very carefully and diligently shed their monkeys from their shoulders to that of their boss.


The trick is to not end up with the monkey.  Never allow a subordinate to leave you with the monkey.  If a decision needs to be made by you, ask the subordinate to present two or three alternatives so you could pick the best one.  This way your subordinates leave your office with the monkeys.  Manage the Monkey!


Adapted from Management time: Who’s got the monkey? by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass ©1974 Harvard Business Review [Reprint #74607]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2012 4:31 pm

    Great article, with provocative thoughts for managers and subordinates alike.

    So that we “avoid the monkey,” I follow your advice by always encouraging our team to present ideas/options/proposals to our group VP, so that he can choose from among those. In addition to saving him time, it puts our team in a position to add value. (If he needs to make all the decisions, then why are we here?)

  2. Drew West permalink
    September 4, 2012 4:32 pm

    Great advice for managers and subordinates alike. To avoid “passing the monkey,” I encourage my team to always submit some ideas/options/proposals to our group VP. In addition to saving him time, that approach puts us in a position to show value. (Otherwise, if he has to make all the decisions, why are we here?!)

    • September 4, 2012 9:22 pm

      Drew, thanks for the input and comments.
      FYI, I give my staff reprints of the HBR article so they know what to expect in dealing with me.
      Also, a great book on the subject is “The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey.”

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