Be careful about taking tasks accidentally…
In the classic Harvard Business Review article Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?, William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass present the idea that tasks can be considered as monkeys sitting out our shoulder. We have to feed them and take care of them. The more tasks we have, the more monkeys on our shoulders. As leaders, we need to be very aware of our team’s monkeys and make sure they don’t jump to our shoulder.
We transfer monkeys to our own shoulder in very subtle ways, and often with the best of intentions. Anytime we say “Let me check into that” or “Send me an email about it,” we have allowed the monkey to jump from the employee’s shoulders to ours. We now have a brand new, hungry monkey to care for. How many times do we do this in a day or week?
Taking the monkeys has two problems. First is the extra work we signed up for. We have to feed this monkey (work the task) or watch it starve to death, providing a good dose of guilt as we look at yet another task on our plate that we didn’t get to. Second, it teaches our teams that they can hand off problems to us. This conflicts with the goal of building a team that stands on its own.
Our team will get a lot more done if they manage their own monkeys — identifying them, feeding them, and releasing them to the wild. (Yeah, the analogy isn’t perfect, but stay with me here.) There will always be a few that need to ask questions, but the better equipped our team is to handle them, the fewer the monkeys will jump to our shoulder. More gets done and we can stay focused on managing our own monkeys.
When a team member shows up with a monkey on their shoulder either in our office or email, the monkey immediately starts looking at our shoulder as a nice new place to live. We have one of three choices:
We can take the monkey. Now we have a responsibility for the next step in the task. The employee has raised a question or issue about something they are working on and comes to us for help or guidance. It is so easy to come out of this situation with the monkey on our shoulder. “Let me think about it for a bit.” “Send me an email and I’ll get back to you.” “I’ll talk to that person.” All these scenarios end with the monkey joining our already too large menagerie.
We can leave the monkey with the employee. We answer their questions and concerns immediately. In most cases, this is the best solution. It may take more time to talk with the employee about it, but teaching the employee how to deal with it keeps the monkey seated comfortably on their shoulder. And they (the employee, not the monkey) learn how to take better care of future monkeys.
If there is communication that needs to happen, teach the employee how. If a decision needs to be made, ask them what the decision points are and what is important. Add our thoughts into the mix and have them decide. If we have to decide, make it there and then and make sure the employee keeps the monkey.
There is one last option. We can make the monkey disappear. Some monkeys are not important enough for us or our employees to keep around. Being ruthless in making monkeys disappear can help everyone stay focused on the important tasks.