Don’t Collect Monkeys – Delegate Wisely

Don’t Collect Monkeys – Delegate Wisely

Are you working extremely long hours while others around you seem to cruise along?Picture of a Monkey Dancing. Don't Collect Monkeys

Do you find yourself constantly picking up work that you had delegated to someone else, but somehow you seem to be finishing it off?

According to William Oncken and Donald Wass, you may be guilty of taking on other people’s monkeys. By monkeys, I mean, those tasks that you have either delegated to others or tasks that others are responsibility for doing that have somehow found their way back to you. In essence, the monkey is now on YOUR back and it probably shouldn’t be! (Oncken, William, and Donald L. Wass. “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”  Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1974, Reprinted and updated in HBR: Nov-Dec 1999)

Some examples of collecting monkeys are:

You ask a team member to write a report to Upper Management on a particular issue or problem. After a few reminders, he/she finally sends the report to you to check it over. As you read, you realise there are plenty of omissions and much more work to do on this before you can send it along. Because the report came to you so late, you decide to finish it off yourself. BINGO! The monkey is now on your back!


A staff member pops into your office and starts to tell you all about a problem they have with a major supplier. The staff member is not sure what to do about it and you can tell the person is getting frustrated and even a bit angry.  They ask for your advice. It just so happens that you are seeing the supplier tomorrow at a social function. You respond by saying; “Leave it with me and will raise it with them tomorrow evening”. BINGO! The monkey is now on your back!

Take a moment to consider how this happens? At some point, the monkey jumped from their back onto your back.Think carefully about how this happened. Replay the moment you took it back. What could you have done/said differently that could have kept the other person responsible for completing their assignment.

Whilst undoubtedly there are times when it may be appropriate to get actively involved in some else’s issues or assist in some way, you need to be very careful you are not continually taking on other people’s monkeys and relieving them of their responsibilities.


Don’t collect monkeys – some strategies to use

  • Be very clear on WHAT you want/expect and WHEN you need it completed.
  • Agree on a Check in Date for a progress update on delegated tasks.
  • Remember, when someone comes to see you with a problem, they should leave with the problem and hopefully a strategy to fix it.
  • Encourage staff to come to you with solutions not just  problems
  • Be the Coach. Ask THEM what solutions they might have. What were they thinking they might do next?
  • And…mind your language!


Mind your language

If you hear yourself saying things like;

  • “Leave it with me”
  • “I will look into that for you”
  • “I need to think about that for a bit…”
  • “Let me phone them and see what they have to say”


BE CAREFUL…. this is the type of language to try and avoid. It is the language that tends to breed monkeys. And watch out, monkeys have been trained really well and can leap off a person’s back at unexpected times and in very subtle ways!


Use coaching language instead

  • “How were you thinking you might resolve this?”
  • “What solutions do you have for resolving this?”
  • “What were you thinking you might do next? “
  • “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” etc


I hope you found this article helpful. Love to hear from you and any thoughts you may have on this.


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, September 2013

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant


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