Monkeys on Manager’s Back

Almost forty years ago, in 1974 Harvard Business Review published William’s Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey”? Insightfully, the article depicts how supervisors and their subordinates manage “monkeys” – the questions, issues, and problems that arise in organization’s daily life. Any time that an employee encounters a dilemma, a gap in information, or a need to make a choice, she’s got a monkey on her back. However, when employee approaches a supervisor with these dilemmas, and the supervisor takes the responsibility of solving them, a monkey swiftly jumps on the supervisor’s back. As Oncken and Wass satirically notice, at the end of week supervisor may find himself with 60 hungry screaming monkeys on his back. And when he returns to office early Saturday to catch up on feeding the monkeys, he notices through his office window in faraway view his subordinates playing golf…. Does the situation sound familiar?

In the last forty years management and leadership practices have gone through radical changes. Autocratic decision making and vertical organizational structures have been molded into participatory management, joint decision making, and teamwork – not always successful in practice, but at least observable in an intent. While several “monkey feeding rules” outlined in this classic article are not very relevant in today’s life of fast communications and high technologies, the fundamentals of delegation apply to us today.

Delegation is more the art than the science. The fear of losing control, the concern that employees are not fulfilling responsibility the way “I would have done it”, and the fact that the manager still carries the ultimate responsibility for tasks performed by employees – it all makes delegation a challenging process for many modern managers. Delegation and distribution of tasks may not be an overnight transformational process as so playfully pictured by Oncken and Wass; successful delegation depends on competency and confidence of the employees and it may require some time to develop. However, the benefits that effective delegation brings to the employee, manager, and organization significantly outweigh the potential risks. Delegation helps to professionally develop the employee, coach her to reach the next career step, increase ownership over organizational goals, and may improve employee morale. Initially, the manager needs to invest time to coach and train the employee; however in the long run delegating tasks and responsibilities saves the manager’s time and allows her to focus on the big picture rather than the daily feeding of monkeys. From an organizational perspective, delegation creates a positive culture of trust and engagement.

Thus, the classic article with the monkey feeding rules still carries a great significance for a contemporary manager. The more thought and energy the manager puts into crafting and carrying through an effective delegation process, the more tangible and intangible rewards he receives in return.

Oncken, W. Jr & Wass, D. L. (1974). Management time: Who’s got the monkey? Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec; p 75-80