top of page
  • tish647

"Who’s Got the Monkey?"

Life Lessons Series: Six of One Dozen of the Other- "Who's Got the Monkey?"


As we work to settle our parents’ estate - my sister, husband and I have spent the last several months going through my mom and dad’s house. They bought the house brand new in 1965. Suffice it to say there have been many “treasures” revealed. We have made many local charities very happy.

One of the treasure troves I discovered was hundreds of binders and file cabinets of my mom’s research for her books, articles and consulting business. It has been a lot of paperwork to go through – my mom had some serious hoarding tendencies. And my goodness did she like paper! It has absolutely been worth the time and effort. I found many hidden gems of interesting information that have challenged me to see current business situations through a new pair of glasses.

One area of research my mom had was from a principle that focuses on time management (or lack thereof) and management style using the concept of a leader’s ability to control the Monkeys-on-their-Back. I hadn’t previously heard of this concept in my career experience. A Monkey-on-the-Back is the perfect description of so many ineffective leaders I have worked with. I really love this Monkey-on-the-Back concept and using it to find solutions for more effective time and people management. I hope you do too!

Note: the picture above is from a craft brewery in the Gaslamp District of San Diego, CA – Monkey Paw- that sadly closed in 2018. They had a very entertaining and colorful collection of Monkey paraphernalia. It should be noted that I restrained myself from using a highly inappropriate picture of a Monkey statue giving everyone at the bar "the bird," aka the middle finger.

What is the Monkey-on-the-Back Principle?

Imagine a Manager walking through the office and greeting his Subordinates. For this scenario let’s refer to the Manager as Mike and the Subordinate as Steve. When Manager Mike greets Subordinate Steve, he is met with “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see…” Here Manager Mike knows enough about Subordinate Steve’s work to get involved. Manager Mike does not know enough to make an on-the-spot decision that is expected of him. Manager Mike responds that he is glad this has been brought up. He needs to get to a meeting. He will think about it and get back to Subordinate Steve. Before the two of them met, the Monkey was on Subordinate Steve’s back. After they parted, the Monkey jumped onto Manager Mike’s back. In accepting the Monkey, Manager Mike has assumed a position now inferior to Subordinate Steve. In short, Manager Mike has accepted responsibility and promised a response/solution back to Subordinate Steve. Who is working for whom? This explains why Manager Mike works 10–12-hour days plus Saturdays and is constantly running behind.

How to Get Rid of the Monkey

Manager Mike needs to meet with Subordinate Steve and place the Monkey on the desk in between them. The goal of the meeting is to move the Monkey back to Subordinate Steve to find a solution to the problem. It may be that the right answer is to let the Monkey sleep on Subordinate Steve’s back and then have him return to Manager Mike’s office the next day to continue working together to find a solution. Either way, the Monkey is no longer on Manager Mike’s back. Subordinate Steve is no longer waiting on Manager Mike. Instead, Manager Mike regained control and effectively reassigned finding a solution for the issue back to Subordinate Steve.

It is critical when Manager Mike and Subordinate Steve meet that there are ground rules in place.

  • Manager Mike does not allow Subordinate Steve’s problem to become his problem.

  • When the meeting is over, the Monkey must remain on Subordinate Steve’s back. Subordinate Steve can ask for help and together they make a joint determination of the next move.

  • It should be a rare exception when the next move turns out to be Manager Mike’s. If that is case, Manager Mike will determine this with Subordinate Steve and not make the move alone.

  • Monkeys should be fed by appointment only.

  • Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, never by e-mail.

  • Every Monkey should have an assigned next feeding time.

Making Time Work for You

The Monkey-on-the-Back Principle calls out not only for stronger management control, it also calls for more effective time management. I love the statement “if you want something done, give it to a busy person to do.” So very true! It reminds me of a friend in college who spent all day every Saturday balancing her checkbook. She came from a wealthy family and did not have to work to pay for her rent or tuition. I worked full time, took a full load of classes and paid for my own rent and tuition. I balanced my checkbook for an hour, once a month at night. Still do!

Be sure you recognize and own the leading time wasters commonly experienced by Managers:

  • Phone Interruptions and Drop-in-Visitors

  • Meetings

  • Lack of Priorities, Objectives and Plans

  • Personal Disorganization (e.g. Desk)

  • Failure to Delegate Routine Tasks

  • Failure to Set Clear Lines of Responsibility

  • Inadequate, Inaccurate or Delayed Information

  • Indecision/Procrastination

  • Inability to Say NO!

  • Lack of Standards and Progress Reports to Keep Track of Developments for Subordinates

  • Fatigue!

How does a Manager best get things done each day? Try using these time saving tips.

  • Set Goals: write specific measurable outcomes you want to achieve in the next week, month, year and five years. Consider your work, relationships, play and well-being.

  • Plan and Prioritize: plan and then work your plan.

  • Use a Master “To Do List”: Categorize all of your to do ideas according to which goal each serves. Eliminate all others.

  • Get the Big Picture: plan your priorities so you work foremost on whatever gives you the biggest payoff and potential.

  • Cluster Common Tasks: do similar tasks in the same time block (eg: emails, errands, etc).

  • Create Systems: keep tools, forms, checklists and information handy and organized for repetitive tasks.

  • Delineate Time Blocks: schedule blocks of uninterrupted time (2-4 hours) to work on projects requiring concentration. Assure colleagues of availability outside of the blocked time.

  • Cut Meeting Times: use proven meeting time savers such as going to others’ offices, stand up meetings, setting and following an agenda.

  • Delegate: stretch your preconceptions about what you can and cannot delegate. Give clear directions and descriptions of expected outcomes.

  • Avoid Procrastination: develop a checklist for MUST projects that will produce results.

  • Reduce Panic: handle what worries you the most. Ask yourself “will this seemingly urgent matter 10 years from now?”

  • Take the One Minute Test: Periodically take a minute to ask yourself “am I doing this in the best way to meet my goals, serve others and take care of myself?”


For all who have been following my blogs, it is no secret I love anything popularized in the 1970’s and the Monkey-on-the-Back Principle is no exception. It is a concept easy to understand and recognize when it happens. At the same time when well managed the Monkey-on-the-Back principle provides timely and effective solutions that benefit both the Manager and the Subordinate, allowing each to walk away feeling a sense of accomplishment. When you yourself start slipping back on effectively managing your time, reacquaint yourself with the leading time wasters. Try to focus on results and not activity. Schedule at least one hour of uninterrupted time each day to work on your top priorities. If someone interrupts you, stand up. The other person will not sit down and get comfortable. Let people know you will always be available at a certain time to help discourage them from bothering you at other times. When a co-worker starts talking about non-work related items, change the subject back to work-related items. You got this…get the Monkey off your back once and for all!

What is Your Life Lesson…

  1. Do you allow Monkeys to jump on your back all too often?

  2. Can you see in your world how effectively managing the Monkey-on-the-Back principle could provide timely solutions to issues you are experiencing?

  3. What time saving solutions do you find effective in your day-to-day routine?

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page