Back in 1974, William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass wrote Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? for Harvard Business Review. The article aggressively deconstructs the common mistakes in management that often lead to senior staff taking the burden – the metaphorical monkey-on-the-back – of their subordinates; a burden that can only result in added stress, lower output, and overall inefficiency throughout an organisation.

It’s a definitive guide for anyone in a position of leadership, and remains the second-most popular reprint in HBR’s history. 43 years later, it’s as relevant as ever, give or take a few archaisms (like the idea that an employee would physically mail their boss).

That said, Who’s Got the Monkey? was tailored specifically for a corporate environment, one in which the chain of command is a highly structured cornerstone of a successful workforce meant to rigidly define the scope of each tier’s responsibility. For entrepreneurs with small businesses, chain of command is generally more fluid. Yes, there is a hierarchy, and skilful management is just as, if not more important, but when you’re working on a smaller scale, it’s difficult for the General not to be pulled into the trenches.

What can we do to stop this from happening? Can Oncken Jr. and Wass’s report aid entrepreneurs struggling to distance themselves from the daily minutia, or must more extreme steps be taken?

Let’s take a look.


Rule One: Monkeys should be fed or shot. Otherwise, they will starve to death, and the manager will waste valuable time on post-mortems or attempted resurrections.

Like most of these rules, this hinges on strict but open communication. We’ve discussed previously the importance of fostering transparency in the office, and here’s why. Without it, monkeys are likely to lurk for some time before you become aware of their presence.

Once revealed, they must be dealt with. As the authors note, there are only two options. The first is to feed, to address the issue and find a solution. This must happen immediately, so as to keep the impetus on the employee. Any kind of delay, even as casual a suggestion as ‘sleeping on it’, and you’re likely to find the monkey weighing on you while you lay in bed.

If they fail, or if the the search for a solution is not worth the effort, the second option is to shoot the monkey. As a leader, you must have the courage to make such decisions; if the employee has made a point of bringing the problem to your attention, they will not be the ones pulling the plug.

The ability to stay flexible is crucial to entrepreneurs. There’s no time for grief. If you’re going to shoot the monkey, you must immediately move on.

Rule Two: The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed. Subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as he or she finds time to feed, but no more. It shouldn’t take more than five to 15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.

Constant monkey outbreaks are a sign of bad management. They demonstrate that employees are overworked, and therefore less focused. Without a chance to dedicate proper time to any particular task, they flounder, and problems are going to arise.

There will be times, however, when an outbreak is expected: in the lead-up to an important event, at key points during projects etc. It is at this time that effective managers need to step up and keep employees on course, without taking on all the obligations themselves. Entrepreneurs have a habit of sacrificing themselves to become heroes in such important times, but that is not why we have people working for us.

Rule Three: Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The manager should not have to hunt down starving monkeys and feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

Honestly, I think this should be rule one, especially in small businesses. Meetings are a powerful tool, and when scheduled correctly, provide employees with the surety that they will have their issues addressed soon, and managers with the freedom to handle their own tasks without being distracted.

What kind of meetings you have, and how frequently you have them, depends on how your team operates. Having weekly staff meetings, bi-weekly department meetings, and monthly one-on-one meetings can be a great way of ensuring all bases are covered.

Rule Four: Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, but never by mail. (Remember—with mail, the next move will be the manager’s.) Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of feeding.

E-mail wasn’t around in 1974, but represents an even greater issue in this context than physical mail. If the problem is particularly pressing, employees should be taught to request a meeting, rather than simply detailing the issue. If it’s not urgent, encourage employees to wait until the next meeting.

Rule Five: Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree of initiative. These may be revised at any time by mutual consent but never allowed to become vague or indefinite. Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the manager’s back.

In short: create consistency! Problems are only problems when a means to a solution is unclear. Lead by example, and stick to the above. When you’re employees see you doing it, they will as well.

These are Oncken Jr. and Wass’s rules, but I am inclined to add my own.

Rule Six: Employees should be taught the principles of monkey managing.

In small, fast-paced businesses where each employee may be a department unto themselves, it’s not feasible to rely on CEOs or other directors to become involved every time an issue pops up. The referenced article speaks to middle management, not those who are responsible for managing everyone across an entire company, including themselves!

Teaching employees to manage their own monkeys is a critical skill now, and will only become more so in the future. The ability to take the initiative and responsibility upon themselves, where relevant, with the knowledge that they are keeping the business moving not only provides them with a greater sense of importance, but also frees you up for more important matters.

Followed precisely, these rules will ease tension and increase productivity across the organisation. They will inspire initiative and quick action to keep monkeys under control and the business moving ever-forward.

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