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Monday, July 23, 2012

Who’s Got the Monkey?

Is anyone else still a little shaken by the Harvard Business Review article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” And not just because of the graphic metaphor of monkeys on your back as work problems. Before reading this article I thought of myself as a good and growing people manager. I had a basket full of buzzword-worthy skills—ready to empower, open to feedback, lead by example, manage for results, manage for change—that I tried to exhibit in my management. And now I can add a new and rather ugly epithet, “monkey hoarder.” Yep. I have a long history of hoarding my direct reports’ monkeys and treasuring them as long as I can. When I reflect back on my management experiences I see myself weighted down by more monkeys than I can count. Still I never recognized this tendency until I cringed my way through this article. Monkey hoarding is a subtle problem, not easily identified. 

The scariest part about the hoarding is how much initiative I have actively taken away from my direct reports as much as they have given problems me. Any why you ask? Well, doesn’t it feel great to be a problem solver, to be ready to put your work aside to help someone else? I always equated that quality with good management, as the building of a trusting relationship through a mutual dialogue. But, as Oncken and Wass note in the article, “Before developing initiative in subordinates, the manager must see to it that they have the initiative.” It is not good management, then, simply to solve your direct reports’ problems. You become too busy to be effective and your direct reports are robbed of their own development. In reality those quick fixes evolve into long-term management problems which are much harder to solve.

This article was one big “Aha!” moment for me.  I also recognize that monkey hoarding does not, on its own, disqualify me from being a good manager. It does, however, stop me from being a better manager. I am now doing my best to kick the habit.

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