April 2000

Where is the Monkey?


Have you ever noticed that as a manager you are always running out of time while many of your subordinates are running out of work? William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass discuss time management for managers in an article in the November-December 1999 Harvard Review (reprinted from a 1974 issue). It is the second most requested reprint in the history of the journal.

Oncken and Wass explore three forms of work time imposed on managers. The first is boss-imposed. This is time spent on activities imposed by your boss. You have few options with this time because you can’t disregard orders from your boss. The second is system-imposed. You must maintain your basic duties within the system: meetings, reviews, research, reporting, and so on. You have some discretion to control your time in this area but not very much. The third form described by the authors is self-imposed. This is the time that you originate-the time you have the most control over.

A problem that all managers have that cuts into their self-imposed time is subordinate-imposed time. Although you have control over what you do for your subordinates, you often spend large amounts of time working for them. The authors use a monkey metaphor to examine how subordinate-imposed time originates and what you can do to minimize it.

An Example

Your employee greets you in the morning, “Good morning. By the way, `we’ve’ got a problem….” You reply, “I’ll take a look at it when I have time and get back to you….” What has happened in this common exchange? The subordinate had a monkey on his back and with this simple exchange, he has transferred it from his back to yours. Why did it happen? Because you know enough about the situation to get involved but not enough to make an instantaneous decision. The subordinate has successfully transferred his work to you. You know you’ve been “had” when the subordinate comes up to you the next day and says, “How’s it coming?”

The authors offer a variety of scenarios illustrating how subordinates transfer their monkeys to you. All have the same result-you end up working for them. And they will keep trying to transfer the monkeys to you. If you want to keep your self-imposed time free from being used up doing your subordinates’ work, you must find ways to transfer the monkeys back to them.

As a manager, you must find ways to keep the monkeys on the backs of your subordinates. How do you keep the initiative in their hands? You must transfer the initiative to them.

The authors report five levels of initiative that a subordinate can exercise in relation to his boss.

1 wait until told (lowest initiative)

2 ask what to do

3 recommend, then take resulting action

4 act, but advise at once

5 act on your own, then routinely report (highest initiative)

A manager should outlaw initiatives 1 and 2. These put the monkey onto the manager’s back. In each case, the manager and subordinate should agree on what level of initiative (3, 4, or 5) the subordinate should exercise. In addition, the manager and subordinate should agree on a schedule for the next meeting about the situation.

With this technique, subordinates will learn and master “completed staff work” and the manager will have preserved precious self-imposed time. CIDMIconNewsletter