Don’t Take the Monkey


As the director hurried into his office, his phone buzzed with the text message:  “I just learned that governmental auditors will be in my office next week, and I still don’t have current documentation of our revised safety processes.”    

The manager texted back, “OK, after my 8:00 o’clock meeting, I’ll check with the safety training officer and get back to you.”

Very quickly, the manager allowed the staff member to pass the responsibility to him.  With the responsibility off his back, the staff member can ignore the issue while awaiting the boss’s solution.

Authors Oncken and Wass, writing in the Harvard Business Review several decades ago, described this process as “Who’s Got the Monkey?”  A “monkey” is responsibility for the next move.

In the case above, the monkey sprang from the back of the subordinate onto the manager when the manager agreed to check on the issue. 

Some managers, because they are confident they can resolve issues quickly, often overburden themselves by accepting subordinates’ problems. 

A more effective approach is to keep the monkey—the responsibility—on subordinates’ backs by asking such questions as:  “OK, it is important that you have the proper documentation.  How are you going to take care of that?” 

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