Could you be sacrificing your own performance by taking on your employees’ burdens? In a classic Harvard Business Review article (“Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”, published in the November/December 1974 issue), William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass explain an age-old management problem they refer to as ‘monkeys on one’s back.’ While the article is more than four decades old, the challenge remains prevalent in today’s workplace environment.

Imagine this scenario: An employee drops by your office and informs you of a problem. At that point you have enough information to get involved, but you don’t have time to make an on-the-spot decision. So, you tell your employee you’ll get back to him or her. The ‘monkey’ in this scenario is the problem your employee is presenting. It started out on your employee’s back, then, almost imperceptibly, it jumped to yours — and it’s going to stay there until you return it to its proper owner. In fact, your employee will probably pop his or her head back into your office in a few hours or days and ask how it’s going — almost as if you’re working for him or her.

Now, consider the wider implications. If you have 10 employees, each of whom transfers a monkey to you every day, by the end of the week you’ll have 50 monkeys on your back. You’ll spend all of your time juggling these monkeys — along with your own responsibilities. Not only will you jeopardize the quality of your performance; you’ll also be on the fast track to overwhelm and burnout.

Related: Executive Coach Round-Up: How to Avoid Leadership Burnout

Sound familiar? Most mid- to senior-level managers have carried their fair share of monkeys —and the best of them know that the key to avoiding these problems is developing a culture of accountability — starting with yourself.

Learn how monkeys jump: subordinate-imposed responsibilities

Do you ever wonder why you always seem to be running out of time while your employees always seem to be running out of work? Most managers have little idea of just how much time they dedicate to subordinate-imposed responsibilities, which begin the moment a monkey leaps from an employee’s back to the manager’s. In other words, subordinate-imposed responsibilities start the moment you accept responsibility for an employee’s problem. In doing so, you begin to work for your employee. Often, you’ll even promise a status update — and if you don’t provide it soon enough, your employee will probably call, email, or drop by your office to ask for it. Who works for whom then?

You may think you can get rid of a monkey easily. You may, for example, refuse to accept the problem immediately, asking for an email detailing the problem instead. But watch that monkey. Yes, it’s on your employee’s back again, but it leaps to yours as soon as the employee sends the requested email. Moreover, if you don’t reply to the email, your employee will once again be calling, emailing, or dropping by your office, asking for a status update. It’s important to remember that monkeys can sneak up on you when you least expect it. You may, for example, think you’ve avoided a monkey by overseeing an employee who’s been recently hired to manage a new project. You agree to meet with the employee to create objectives for the project. Where’s the monkey then? Your employee has a new job that comes with responsibilities, but you’ve agreed to make the next move. Until you do, the monkey will remain on your back.

“In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate.” —”Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”

transfer the monkeys – permanently

Monkeys jump because you allow them to. In essence, you accept (either explicitly or implicitly) that the problem presented to you is your problem. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The key to monkey management is to avoid accumulating monkeys in the first place—and quickly discard the ones you do find on your back. This can be accomplished in four simple steps: 

  1. Make appointments. Let your employees know that from this point forward, any problems will be discussed by appointment only. When employees drop by your office or stop you in the hallway to discuss problems, ask them to schedule a meeting. In doing so, you’ve avoided the monkeys, at least until the appointment takes place. Things are as they should be: Your employee is working for you.
  1. Address all monkeys. This doesn’t mean you should ignore monkeys forever. When the appointed time to discuss the problem arrives, spend 15 minutes discussing each problem, then decide what to do. Monkeys, says the Harvard Business Review article, should “be fed or shot.” Harsh as this may sound, this is wise advice, because if monkeys are allowed to linger, you’ll waste valuable time on attempted resurrections.
  1. Transfer initiative. Next, ensure monkeys that are not shot will stay on your employees’ backs. To do so, it’s important to understand that there are five levels of initiative you can encourage your employees to take:

(i) wait until told what to do;

(ii) ask what to do;

(iii) recommend an action, then implement it with your approval;

(iv) take action alone, but advise you as to what it is; or

(v) take action alone and provide only routine updates.

Keeping monkeys off your back entails outlawing levels one and two. Instead, assign levels three, four, or five to your employees.

  1. Agree on a status update. Never accept ad-hoc status updates, as they could be monkeys in disguise. Instead, after transferring initiative, make another appointment, this one for your employee to provide you with a progress report.

“When you encourage employees to handle their own monkeys, they acquire new skills—and you liberate time to do your own job.” —”Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”


  • Rule 1: Monkeys should be fed by appointment only.
  • Rule 2: Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone.
  • Rule 3: Monkeys who are not fed should be shot.
  • Rule 4: Every monkey should have an assigned initiative.
  • Rule 5: The monkey population should be kept low.


empowering employees

This sounds easier than it actually is. You probably know you can’t simply give monkeys to employees and expect them to go about their daily business. That’s because when you delegate responsibilities, you have to ensure that employees have the desire and ability to accept them — which isn’t always the case.

Indeed, Stephen R. Covey, who wrote an afterword to the Harvard Business Review article, pointed out that the monkey management solution, while ahead of its time, is fairly dictatorial. “‘Command and control’ as a management philosophy is all but dead, and ’empowerment’ is the word of the day,” he noted. That doesn’t mean monkey management is outdated in today’s workplace, however. The key to success, says Covey, is developing employees. That, too, is hard work, however. First, it requires the support of the entire business culture so managers are rewarded for developing people and delegating responsibilities. Second, it requires that managers actually want to delegate monkeys. Most managers, says Covey, recognize that employees are underutilized; still, many can’t let go of the monkeys, perhaps because they subconsciously fear that giving employees power will increase their own vulnerability.

Transferring monkeys, then, requires significant introspection as well as the willingness to establish an inward security — which Covey calls a “mentality of abundance” — that enables you to relinquish control and encourage the development of those around you. Covey makes an important point: I couldn’t agree more that many leaders’ need for control and ineffective delegation methodologies create leaping monkeys. However, both Covey and the original authors fail to adequately address the deep psychological underpinnings that drive this ineffectual managerial behavior in the first place. The capacity for change relies on developing both keen self-awareness and astute observational skills. Without them, the foundation for transformation isn’t solid, and managers end up repeatedly missing opportunities for implementation. But many managers have some level of self-awareness yet are still ineffective at making behavioral changes. Why? Because competing beliefs and values rival the desired change. Without alignment, the manager ends up sabotaging his or her best efforts despite the conscious desire for change.

Alignment level 1: Thoughts. What thoughts are driving the manager’s behavior? Are his or her ideas in alignment with the desired behavior? Examples of ineffective thoughts include “No one can do this as well as I can” and “It will take me longer to coach him to do this than to do it myself.”

Alignment level 2: Moods. What emotions are driving the manager’s behavior? Are his or her feelings in alignment with the desired behavior? Examples of ineffective emotions include “I could lose respect or status if I delegate,” “I don’t trust my employees to do it right,” and “I need to please my employees.”

Alignment level 3: Behaviors. What behavioral changes need to occur to produce the desired results? Once thoughts and emotions are in alignment, the manager has to act—and that can be difficult in and of itself. Ineffective behaviors include procrastination or avoidance.

Thoughts, moods and behaviors must be aligned in order for real, sustainable change to occur.

Monkey Management

“Monkeys sleep just as soundly overnight on subordinates’ backs as they do on superiors’.” —”Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”


  1. You have ulterior motives. Many managers willingly take on their employees’ monkeys. In many cases, this is the result of a subconscious belief that rewards in life are scarce. If you’re afraid that giving power to an employee will weaken your own position, it’s hard to avoid or return monkeys. In order to delegate monkeys, you have to want to.
  2. Your employees lack desire or skill. When employees try to give you their monkeys, it’s because they don’t have the desire or ability to handle them. You can help keep monkeys where they belong—on the backs of employees—by developing your employees’ problem-solving skills. It may take more time up front than taking on the monkeys yourself, but in the long run, it will pay off.
  3. Your employees are afraid of making mistakes. If your employees are afraid of failing, they’ll always bring their monkeys to you. Keeping monkeys on employees’ backs requires you to establish a workplace where it’s safe to make mistakes.


Identify your priorities

In order to eradicate monkeys, you’ll need to differentiate among three kinds of responsibilities:

  • those that are required by your boss or management team
  • those that are required by the nature of your job, such as supporting your peers
  • those that are self-originated, such as projects you’ve initiated (discretionary responsibilities) and problems you’ve chosen to resolve for your employees (subordinate-imposed responsibilities).

Responsibilities within in the first two categories are mandatory; disregarding them will result in penalties. Responsibilities within the third category, however, are discretionary; you can’t, after all, be penalized for failing to do something no one knows you intended to do in the first place. Therefore, it benefits you to decrease the time you spend on self-originated responsibilities in order to increase the time you spend on responsibilities that are required by your boss and by the nature of your job. Moreover, the time you spend on self-originated responsibilities should be primarily dedicated to discretionary responsibilities. As a leader, it’s certainly your job to oversee your employees — but it’s not your job to solve all of their problems.


Need help ridding yourself of monkeys on your back in your management style? Our Executive Coaching services will show you how to delegate monkeys for good.