Managing Monkeys

Managing can sometimes feel more like running a zoo than overseeing a smoothly running team.

Constantly shifting priorities, little time to delegate effectively, and personal inefficiencies can contribute to chaos.

Let’s take a closer look at the monkey section of the zoo.

For over 20 years, I’ve referenced the powerful resource Who’s Got the Monkey? (published in 1974 and reprinted in 1999). When asked why I still recommend it, I answer, “It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Some things never go out of style.” One would think that almost 50 years later, we’d have figured out how to manage our monkeys. One would be wrong.

While you don’t need to read the article to fully understand the monkey concept in this post, it’s highly recommended. It provides additional context to the metaphor and offers insights into why you might be prone to taking on “monkeys.”

We’ll begin by exploring five key monkey concepts. Then, we’ll dive into strategies for sending monkeys back where they belong—in confined spaces, fed and cared for by our team members.

Key Monkey Concept #1: What Are Monkeys?
“Monkeys” are delegated activities you’ve assigned to someone, yet they “jump back” and become your responsibility again. The good news: Once you’ve mastered the skills in this post, you’ll be out of the monkey business for good.

Key Monkey Concept #2: Your “Zookeeper Mentality”
A “Zookeeper mentality” allows monkeys to jump back once delegated. Common “head trash” such as, “I want to be a hands-on, helpful, available, fun, nice (insert your version) manager,” or “I don’t want my team to think I wouldn’t ________ (insert your ending)” ensure monkeys are well-fed.  If your true desire is to be an effective manager (which is what most team members desire), you must change your mentality and empty this detrimental head trash.

Key Monkey Concept #3: The Cost of Monkeying Around
If you wear the manager or leader hat, you’re in the people—not monkey-feeding—business. You were hired to activate others (hence your title, “manager”). You have people reporting to you who need your guidance to get stuff done. If you delegate an activity, yet end up taking it back (because of poor delegation skills), you immediately double expenses for your organization. Equation: You delegated something (your “hourly rate”). They tried, didn’t’ succeed, and gave it back to you (their “hourly rate”). Instead of (giving back the monkey), you did it yourself (your rate + their rate=double the cost to the organization).

Key Monkey Concept #4: Catching and Redirecting Monkeys Mid-jump
You may not realize it, but chances are you are inviting monkeys that you don’t catch until it’s too late. For example, you often work late while your team members are home eating dinner. You’re about to accept a monkey when you say, “Leave it with me, and I’ll look it over again” or “What else can I do to help you solve this issue?” All of a sudden, the things you’ve delegated have boomeranged, and you’re doing the work.

Key Monkey Concept #5: Not My Circus; Not My Monkeys
Managers who are powerful collaborators tend to take on others’ work under the guise of being “helpful.” While this is an admirable trait, consider if you and your team have the time and resources to do the work. The Polish saying, “not my circus; not my monkeys,” serves as an important reminder for sorting the activities you or your team should handle. Rather than taking on a monkey that is part of a bigger “circus,” save your energy and time for your own responsibilities.

Now that we’ve explored key monkey concepts, let’s dive into how to remedy monkey business, once we catch ourselves in it.

Tackling Monkey Concept #1: Recognizing Monkeys

  • Before you can address monkeys, you first have to realize what they look like. If you’ve delegated a task, and it lands back on your desk, you likely have a monkey on your hands. Review how clear (or vague) your instructions were. Did you communicate what a successful outcome would look like? Did you break it down into steps? Did you set clear deadlines? If your answers are ambiguous, then correct and re-delegate the activity. Avoid the temptation to do it yourself because it’s faster. Review the post Delegating Like a Pro and consider the skills you must sharpen to ensure delegated activities stay delegated.

Tackling Monkey Concept #2: Zapping the Zookeeper Mentality

  • Write a leader manifesto. Describe what kind of leader you want to be. Consider leaders you’ve worked for (or admired) who didn’t take on monkeys. Instead, they coached others to grow, take personal accountability, think creatively, and own results. Recognize that “doing work for others” is not a viable or helpful strategy. It will exhaust you and leave others demotivated and unchallenged.

Tackling Monkey Concept #3: Reconciling the Monkey Balance Sheet

  • Once you’ve delegated a task, leave it alone until it’s returned to your expectations. You might find it eye-opening to calculate your “hourly rate” and that of the person you’re delegating to. (This also works great if you’re managing external vendors.) Based on the numbers, which task should you handle (high-ticket item)? Which should you delegate in support of the company’s bottom line? Ultimately, you’ll need to invest in coaching and training your team to deliver on delegated activities, and that investment should yield return. If you keep delegating, but end up doing it yourself, your balance sheet is off.

Tackling Monkey Concept #4: Catching and Redirecting Monkeys Mid-jump

  • Don’t expect perfection. If a monkey has jumped, you can always return it to the original caretaker. Once you catch yourself saying, “Leave it with me” or “I’ll take one final look at it,” redirect. It’s okay to “return the gift” by saying, “Actually, I’d like you to review it one more time. Ask a peer to look it over to help you catch mistakes or clarify potential issues. Once you’ve done that, schedule time with me. I’ll expect you to take me through the details, and I‘ll coach you to make any last-minute changes.” This way, you’re providing coaching and feedback, instead of doing the work for them. It’s a win-win.

Tackling Monkey Concept #5: Stay Out of Other People’s Circuses

  • If you get caught in someone else’s circus, politely excuse yourself and apologize. Let them know you initially thought you and your team could be helpful, but you have realized you aren’t able to dedicate the resources. Side-tracking your team’s time and energy will not help anyone in the end.

Managing monkeys is a key part of delegation.

You’ll know you’ve mastered this skill when your workload is manageable, you have time for strategic planning and initiatives, and your team’s capacity and engagement have expanded.