Monday, October 23, 2006


Quite a few years ago William Oncken, Jr. developed the monkeys-on-your-back concept. He said that in a work environment we all have monkeys to feed and for which we must care. These monkeys are our projects/tasks/problems. If we are not taking care of our monkeys they jump around on our back and cause us to have pangs of guilt and anxiety. Everyone must take care of their monkeys. Some of the indicators that monkeys are not being taken care of very well:

Papers piling up on your desk
Not getting back to people through phone or email.
Delayed decisions - frustrating both your superiors and your subordinates.
Getting farther behind every day.
Working late and working on our days off.

All monkeys must be handled at the lowest organizational level consistent with their welfare (this is a key point in “monkey management”). A problem occurs when managers end up caring for the monkeys of subordinates. When your subordinate’s monkey winds up on your back, you have one more thing to do, they have one less, throwing you behind in their work as well as your own. The problem must be resolved either by hiring new staff who can care for monkeys, or more often, by changing the attitude of the subordinate and manager in regard to monkey care.

Both the subordinate and manager can contribute to the problem of monkey-care being “reverse delegated”: a) the subordinate when s/he is unable or unwilling to care for the monkey and is all too willing to let the monkey go to the manager; b) the manager when s/he doesn’t trust the subordinate to care for the monkey and is all too willing to take the monkey off the subordinate’s hands. It is sometimes tempting to do things that other people are supposed to do, for several reasons:

We do them well, thus like to do them;
Doing is often easier than managing them; and
Doing them gives our subordinates the chance to watch “genius in action.”

The amateur boss takes on so much of the subordinate's work (making his staff boss-reliant rather than self-reliant) that s/he inevitably runs out of time for them and others in the organization, leaving everybody dissatisfied. Some of the indicators that monkeys are being “reverse delegated”:

Increasing subordinate-imposed time commitments (there should be boss-imposed, system-imposed and self-imposed time commitments).
Less discretionary time for the manager than the subordinate (the boss is super-busy, while the subordinate doesn’t have things to do).

How does a monkey climb from off the back of a subordinate onto the back of a supervisor? Very subtly. Prior to monkeys shifting from one person to another, there is often a conversation that includes the plural pronouns “we” and “our.” You might say, “We need to solve this somehow” or “What are we going to do about our problem?” At the moment that you speak the words “we” or “our” the monkey reaches out a leg and now begins to straddle both the subordinate and the supervisor. You can tell who ends up with the monkey at the end by asking “Who has to take the next step?”

Monkeys need regular feeding times (to do lists) and checkups (appointments). If you are not going to feed a monkey, you should shoot the monkey, assign the monkey, or delegate the monkey (assigning involves a single monkey; delegation involves a family of monkeys).

Managers should retain monkeys only when:

Only the manager can handle the monkey.
It takes no more than 15 minutes a day to feed the monkey.
The monkey population is kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed.

There should be insurance taken out on monkeys to make certain that monkeys are being cared for well. There are two kinds of insurance. The kind of insurance you choose depends on “the anxiety index” (how critical you consider the decision to be):

Recommend, then act (high level insurance) and
Act, then advise (low level insurance)

The goal of managers is to increase discretionary time and decrease reverse delegation or subordinate-imposed time requirements. As Oncken says, “The more you get rid of your people’s monkeys, the more time you have for your people.” At CTK this is one of the more significant payoffs of good monkey-care, since relationships are a high value.

To guard against reverse delegation a manager must

Make sure monkeys are clearly assigned by discussing “next moves”
Take care to avoid reverse delegation whenever possible by clearly communicating the following (either in words or attitude):

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become mine. The minute your problem becomes mine you will no longer have a problem. I cannot help someone who hasn’t got a problem. The monkey will leave this meeting on your back. I can advise you on how to care for your monkey, and will even agree at times to help you with it, but it will remain with you.”

The professional manager eliminates subordinate-imposed time demands by requiring that his subordinates become self-reliant members of an interdependent team, thus giving him/her more time for (a) subordinates, boss, peers and for (b) planning, organizing, leading and seeing to it that things stay on track. Both the manager's leverage and the managee's freedom increase when the managees do more and more on their own (Output) per unit of their boss' time (Input).

At CTK one of our values is empowerment. Perhaps Oncken’s equation of Managee’s Output per unit of the Boss’ Time is a way to measure how well we are executing on this value. In our context we might say Ministry Output/Pastor Time. How many hours of volunteer-led ministry are happening each week relative to the pastor’s schedule? Over time, the ratio should grow dramatically if we are doing a good job of having everyone take care of their own monkeys.

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