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The Monkeys On Your Back

If you are in your first leadership role you will be confronted with the situation that your team needs information and decision from you. That’s normal life of a leader.

But, these things will cost you a lot of time.

These things will get so many that you are not able to do the things you actually need to do as a leader.

This post describes how you can manage.

The Monkeys On Your Back

Some time ago, a read a great article on Harvard Business Review. It is about team management, team encouragement, initiative and delegation.

Tasks are referred as screaming and hungry monkeys that need be fed and treated properly.

The article describes the dilemma many leaders and managers are in. They have a big team but are still underwater with their tasks (=monkeys). And they collect constantly new ones.


Because too often managers promise to do something that is actually their subordinate’s (team member) task.

For example, the manager promises to read a memo and give a feedback.

Or the manager promises to check a project presentation and take a decision.

Or the manager is asked to do something by a subordinate on the corridor and sais something like: “Let me think about it. I will come back to you.”

In every case, the manager takes the monkey from the back of the subordinate and puts it on his’ or hers.

The manager becomes overloaded, the subordinate becomes immobilized. Both get frustrated.

How to solve this?

Delegate properly.

If your subordinates have tasks, encourage them to take (and keep) the initiative.

If your subordinate needs a memo, let them write it and ask them to invite you to a meeting to review and agree on it.

If your subordinate wants you to review a presentation, let him or her invite you to a meeting to present it to you.

If your subordinate needs a decision, let him or her invite you to a meeting to present the facts and take a decision.

Be a good leader

In this way, your subordinates keep the initiative (and the monkey) but are no longer waiting for you.

You can plan your time better.

And you do what a good leader does when he or she delegates properly. You give someone a task and you direct, train and coach them to deliver successfully.

You increase your discretionary time (see article). Now, you have time to lead your team. Now, you have time to manage the things leaders should manage. Now, you decrease frustration on all sides.

Furthermore, you create trust within your team. And trust is fundamental to the success of a team.

The article.

My daily life example

Some days ago a team member sent me an Excel file. In his Email he asked:

“Please, can you print this file out for the department head to review?”

(I see the department head more often, that’s why he asked me.)

I looked at the file and it was huge. It was not possible for the manager to review it. Frustration was already on its way.

This was one of the cases described above. A subordinate wants his manager to review something. He wanted to put the monkey on the managers back. As it is my task to prevent this I replied:

“It’s much too big and too much text. He will have no time to read it. My proposal is that you invite for a review to present the main points directly to him.”

Now both will meet and agree on the content. The manager has no additional monkey. The initiative remains on the subordinate. Nobody will get frustrated.

In addition, it’s a chance for the subordinate to present his work and be visible.

Do you also know this feeling from monkeys on your back? Let me know in the comments.

1 Comment

  1. […] Delegation is to pass on tasks or projects that are actually yours. It is not to pass on work. It is to pass on responsibility: Bad leaders delegate work. Good leaders delegate responsibility. Read my article for further instructions on how to delegate. […]

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