A month or two ago, for the Princeton Emerging Leaders Program, we read an article from Harvard Business Review called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” The gist of the article is that employees will often come to their bosses asking that they solve their problems. This puts a “monkey” on the bosses back. The more monkeys that a boss accumulates and the bigger they are, the less time that the boss will have to devote to his or her own responsibilities.
To be frank, I was fairly skeptical when I first read the article; it wasn’t that I disagreed with it, but rather that I felt that the points that it was making were fairly obvious. However, in the weeks after I read the article, I subconsciously mulled it over and realized that I had a situation in my own work where I was accumulating monkeys that shouldn’t have been on my back, and that this had been one of the bigger stress factors in my job recently.
For about two years, essentially by default, I had taken the lead on maintaining a database that forms the crux of almost all other activities on my team’s project. Since I had only minimal time to devote to this task, the project (and my sanity) suffered. Therefore, we eventually decided to bring on someone new whose primary responsibility would be to coordinate the upkeep of the database.
I was very happy with this opportunity to take some work off of my plate, and to have a better maintained database. However, I was frustrated that, months after this new person joined the team, I was still feeling the burden of the database weighing on me. I was struggling to figure out exactly why this was, and only after reading “Who’s Got the Monkey?” did I start to understand: I realized that, although the new employee was doing work on the database, at the end of the day, I still ultimately felt responsible for the quality of the database, and my team was continuing to treat me as the responsible person.
This seems like an obvious conclusion, but for some reason it had evaded me until the article laid out the ideas clearly in front of me. Once I identified this as the problem, the solution was fairly easy: as team members continued to come to me with questions about, or problems with, the database, I would direct them on to the new employee, rather than try to tackle the problem myself; I took a similar tactic for the problems that I identified with the database. Eventually, the team including the new employee, adapted to this new structure, and I now feel that the monkey for the database as a whole has be transferred to its proper owner. I continue to accept small database-related monkeys, but with this new format, I am less stressed, and the larger monkey that is the database itself, is finally getting the attention that it needs from our new employee.