How Many Monkeys Are On Your BackMy last blog (Breaking the Manager-Employee Dependence Spin Cycle) discussed how Dave, a recent participant in The Extraordinary Coach workshop, realized he’d locked himself into an ever increasing cycle of taking on more and more of his employees problems. He was getting busier and busier while his employees were getting ever more frustrated waiting for him to solve their problems.

This all too familiar problem was identified decades ago in a Harvard Business Review article by William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass entitled, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” Their powerful metaphor has become a common way to describe a big trap ensnaring many harried and overworked managers.

When an employee approaches or emails his or her manager and says, “Hey, boss we’ve got a problem,” they’ve got a monkey on their back and want to get rid of it. When both players are caught up in the vicious Manager-Employee Dependence Cycle the employee is looking to take the monkey from his or her back and give it to the boss. While spinning in this dependence cycle an unspoken agreement between both players is that the manager was promoted and gets paid to solve problems. So the less effective manager allows the monkey to climb onto his or her back. This frees up — and perhaps even rewards — the employee to hunt for more monkeys to bring back to the boss.

Meanwhile back in the stressed out and overburdened manager’s office — which is looking like a zoo — ineffective monkey management has created reactionary crisis management and short-term fires to be put out. Caring for and feeding the monkeys — and keeping them from making a complete mess of the manager’s work life — has become a fulltime job.

Here are a few signs of managers caught in Monkey Madness:

  • Managers are overwhelmed by emails, meetings, phone calls, and urgent priorities.
  • There never seems to be any time for longer term development.
  • The manager does most of the talking when working with an employee to deal with operational problems/issues.
  • The manager is frustrated by low employee ownership of problems/issues and having to continuously check-up on their progress.
  • Employees fail to meet deadlines and keep commitments.
  • Coaching discussions center on the manager providing performance feedback and giving advice.

How many monkeys are on your back or ripping your office apart? How’s your monkey management?