No More Monkey Business: How to Avoid Unwanted Tasks

September 17, 2020

I’ve been susceptible to collecting monkeys throughout my career.  What’s a monkey?  It’s an action assigned to someone else that you’ve taken ownership of.  Does this sound familiar?  

How to Avoid Unwanted Tasks

Monkeys are agile creatures that can appear without warning and with surprisingly high frequency.  Here’s an example of how a monkey can jump from one person to another:  During my normal walk around the plant, one of my team members reported a potential safety issue due to machine electrical cords being a trip hazard.  I listened to him describe the issue, then I made a critical mistake:  I responded by saying,

 “Thanks for bringing this to my attention - I’ll look into it and get back to you.”  

Well, what do you know, I just added another monkey to my collection, as I spent the rest of the day tracking down the safety/facility guys and trying to get a resolution in place.  

  • Why did I do this?  How did I let this monkey land on my shoulder?  I think in my case I wanted to show my team member that I was genuinely interested in his concern, and I wanted him to see action on the matter.  
  • But was there a different way to handle this?  Certainly, but that darn monkey came out of nowhere and surprised me, so I guess I just panicked.

Another common one:  A direct report manager has a problem with poor meeting attendance in one of her key initiatives.  I’ve had many instances of team members complaining about how they can’t get things done due to the inactions of others, then coming straight to me with their burden.  While I’ve gotten much better at monkey detection/avoidance over the years with this situation, I still need to constantly remind myself to watch for the monkey.

As you can tell from the above examples, it’s a challenge to keep monkeys where they belong, but I’ve developed several tricks to repel them and create accountability.  (And they work pretty well as long as I have the presence of mind to use them…)  All of my reactions are structured in the form of questions intended to deflect or reinforce proper ownership of the monkey.  Try asking one or more of these questions to help keep monkeys in their place.

What did X say when you talked to them about it?  

This one is my favorite because it generates the most ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ looks.  Some people can answer this question because they’ve already attempted to address their problem and now need advice for how to punch through an obstacle.  That’s a great leadership moment for you and your team member.  Many individuals, however, did not make such an attempt, and are now trying to take a shortcut by having you do it for them.  Your monkey-meter should be in the red zone when this occurs.  The “What did XXX say…” question keeps that monkey firmly anchored to the other person. 

What do you think you should do? 

In my experience, employees who are committed to learning and growing will usually have the right instinctive response; what’s missing is the confidence to execute on that instinct, which is why they’re trying to get you to adopt their monkey.  This is another great leadership opportunity:  As long as the employee is willing to take action and they just want your advice/feedback/etc., then support it, even if it isn’t exactly what you would have done.

Who besides you owns this action?

This is the blunt warning to the other party that there’s no room in your zoo for another monkey.  It has a tendency to turn the conversation back towards what the team member can do to solve their own problem.  This question has a bit of a negative tone, however, so I normally don’t ask it unless the monkey shows signs of being unusually aggressive or persistent.

It’s also important to follow up to make sure those monkeys don’t start getting antsy for new ownership.  In your daily walk-arounds, make sure to ask the monkey owner how it’s going with the project.  By reinforcing monkey ownership, it will serve to minimize the opportunity for the monkey to land on you.

Thinking back to the safety monkey that I collected, what could I have done better?  How about this:  “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.  What happened when you informed the safety team?  What solution did they come up with and how long will it take to get it implemented?”  With this simple change in my response, who would have had the clear next action?  The employee!  In my subsequent plant walks, I would then make sure he followed up with the safety team in order to keep that monkey where it belongs.

Managing monkeys takes some effort.  Even though I’ve been long-aware of monkeys, I still lapse into monkey-mode on occasion.  I hope that by using and building upon the tips I’ve developed, you can be more successful than me at keeping monkeys at bay.


Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

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