The Idea in Brief
You're racing down the hall. An employee stops you and says, "We've got a problem." You assume you should get involved but can't make an on-the-spot decision. You say, "Let me think about it."
You've just allowed a "monkey" to leap from your subordinate's back to yours. You're now working for your subordinate. Take on enough monkeys, and you won't have time to handle your real job: fulfilling your own boss's mandates and helping peers generate business results.
How to avoid accumulating monkeys? Develop your subordinates' initiative, say Oncken and Wass. For example, when an employee tries to hand you a problem, clarify whether he should: recommend and implement a solution, take action then brief you immediately, or act and report the outcome at a regular update.
When you encourage employees to handle their own monkeys, they acquire new skills—and you liberate time to do your own job.
The Idea in Practice
How to return monkeys to their proper owners? Oncken, Wass, and Steven Covey (in an afterword to this classic article) offer these suggestions:
• Make appointments to deal with monkeys.
Avoid discussing any monkey on an ad hoc basis—for example, when you pass a subordinate in the hallway. You won't convey the proper seriousness. Instead, schedule an appointment to discuss the issue.
• Specify level of initiative.
Your employees can exercise five levels of initiative in handling on-the-job problems. From lowest to highest, the levels are:
1. Wait until told what to do.
2. Ask what to do.
3. Recommend an action, then with your approval, implement it.
4. Take independent action but advise you at once.
5. Take independent action and update you through routine procedure.
When an employee brings a problem to you, outlaw use of level 1 or 2. Agree on and assign level 3, 4, or 5 to the monkey. Take no more than 15 minutes to discuss the problem.
• Agree on a status update.
After deciding how to proceed, agree on a time and place when the employee will give you a progress report.
• Examine your own motives.
Some managers secretly worry that if they encourage subordinates to take more initiative, they'll appear less strong, more vulnerable, and less useful. Instead, cultivate an inward sense of security that frees you to relinquish direct control and support employees' growth.
• Develop employees' skills.
Employees try to hand off monkeys when they lack the desire or ability to handle them. Help employees develop needed problem-solving skills. It's initially more time consuming than tackling problems yourself—but it saves time in the long run.
• Foster trust.
Developing employees' initiative requires a trusting relationship between you and your subordinates. If they're afraid of failing, they'll keep bringing their monkeys to you rather than working to solve their own problems. To promote trust, reassure them it's safe to make mistakes.