Break the Monkey Collecting Cycle

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Photo from Missbrendatoyou

You’ve arrived early to work and are making great progress on that huge to do list.  At 8:30, one of your employees comes in with a problem. Fifteen minutes later, you’ve added 2 tasks to your to do list.  At 9:00 a second employee comes in and 15 minutes later, you’ve added another 2 tasks to your to do list.  At 10:00 a third employee comes in and 15 minutes later, you’ve added another 2 tasks to your to do list … and so on … and so on …

Sound familiar?  This is what William Oncken calls “taking on monkeys.” Taking on monkeys is work you take on that others should be doing and it’s a great metaphor to help managers understand where their time has gone and why their team is not functioning well. Why do managers take on monkeys?  Any number of reasons including:

  1. They are unsure about their subordinate’s abilities.
  2. They are unable to distinguish between helping subordinates and doing their work for them.
  3. They think it would take longer to get results from someone else than to do it themselves.
  4. They are unable to say “no”.
  5. They are control freaks.
  6. They are perfectionists.
  7. Others???  Just keep asking yourself why 5 times and you’ll get to the heart of the matter for you.

While familiar with all of these myself, I still struggle with #3 … just ask my husband and business partner Dave. I am definitely impatient and want everything done yesterday and done right (ok I might also struggle with #6).

So, what’s a manager to do?  Well, the main goal is to move through your day without collecting monkeys (and ideally getting rid of a few of your own monkeys!) and if you do accept a monkey, be deliberate about it and feed and care for it (in other words, if you take on a monkey then do that “to do”, don’t let it starve to death on your to do list.)  So the first thing you need to do is some soul searching about WHY you are collecting monkeys. If it’s any of the reasons above, get yourself a coach to wean you off a few bad habits.

If you’ve got subordinates who don’t have the skills or inclination to look after their own monkeys then Oncken suggests you need to help your subordinates move up the initiative scale. There are 5 levels on the scale as noted below:

5 Act on own; routine reporting (highest initiative)
4 Act, but advise at once
3 Recommend, then take resulting action
2 Ask what to do
1 Wait until told (lowest initiative)

There are two things a manager should do in relation to these levels. One is to not let their employees operate at levels 1 and 2 (and this is where getting your own control behavior tamed is so important … if you think that no one can do things as well as you, you are doomed to a life of longer and longer to do lists.) The second is to have your employee walk out of your office with their own monkey and absolute clarity about the level at which you expect them to operate.

So, help yourself and your team by breaking the monkey collecting cycle today.

This blog is based on the 5 of Spades, Delegate with Care, taken from our Teamwork Explorer. Written by Tammy.

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