August 26, 2015 Anil Saxena

Throwing The Monkey

One particularly excellent method of passing the blame from one individual to another is called “throwing a monkey”.

There is a colloquialism in the United States about a problem or burden being “like having a monkey on your back” – A big problem to solve, an issue that can’t be dealt with easily or causes great stress.
People are busy.  No one is interested in inheriting or taking on other people’s problems. But surprisingly, many people view managers (parents, clergy, political leaders, etc. ) as receptacles for solving problems that they either don’t want or don’t know how to solve.  They take the problem or monkey off their backs and put it on the manager…and the manager lets them.  In fact, MOST MANAGERS ENCOURAGE IT!
Leaders think they are the most able or don’t trust their folks to solve problems correctly.  Thus creating a vicious spiral of making sure that employees are reliant on them, the leader, to solve problems.  Then the manager/leader has the audacity to think – I can’t trust my people to solve problems or they don’t have initiative!

One of the most powerful lessons that a manager can provide to a team is the ability to analyze and solve problems. Empowering the team to solve problems and innovate creates a high performing team. It also eliminates the nasty practice of throwing one’s own monkey (or problem) onto another person (manager).

One of the most powerful ways to end the practice of monkey throwing is replacing it with the “taming the monkey” methodology. This is a simple and effective way to increase accountability and creativity the same time. It works like this:
Any problem that is brought up must be coupled with a potential solution(s) or recommendation(s). This encourages the person that brings the issue forth to contemplate remedies to solve the problem.
When someone approaches the manager, leader or colleague with an issue it must be paired with a suggested remedy or next step to solve said problem.
Thrown Monkey (incorrect):
This process is SO broken!  What are you going to do about it?!?!?!
Tamed Monkey (correct):
This process is SO broken!  If we created a form to help the processor note the request, that would stop the confusion.  I mocked up what one might look like, what do you think?
Now the manager or colleague is not trying to solve a problem but COLLABORATE ON CREATING A SOLUTION.  Its empowering, freeing, and creates energy.
This way of thinking can be called “don’t tell me that the monkey is wild, tell me how to tame it“. Just telling someone that the monkey is wild is useless because they can SEE that.   Providing ideas or solutions to tame it will ensure that everyone can be safe.
Clearly, some problems must be addressed by the person to whom its brought. However, no leader is interested in simply being handed a problem to solve. Ideas or recommendations for the potential solutions may not only always be used, but are always welcome. Promoting this practice is a great pathway to encouraging leadership.
Remember – Keep your monkeys to yourself.  Tame them by encouraging your team to develop and implement solutions!
What do you do when someone tries to make their problem yours?  How do you tame your monkeys?

Anil Saxena is the President of Cube 2.14, an organizational development consulting firm that works with clients to increase both customer and employee engagement while decreasing turnover, improving customer retention, and increasing profitability within organizations.

Saxena is a certified High Impact coach and trainer and a Joint Application Design facilitator. He is also certified by both Rush Systems and IBM as a focus group facilitator. He is an inaugural member of Northwestern University’s Learning and Organizational Change program, and he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


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