“Troubles hurt the most when they prove self-inflicted.” – Sophocles (Oedipus the King, c. 430 B.C.)
In his book “Monkey Business,” William Oncken describes this all-too-common — but easily fixed — problem that most managers run into:
It’s 10 o’clock Monday morning. You are walking down the hall on your way to your office. This morning, you are going to shut the door and get to work on a project of great importance — something you’ve been wanting to do for some time. You are feeling pumped, because you know that by noon you will have accomplished something very important for you and your business.
As you proceed down the hall, whom do you see at the other end coming in your direction but George. And when the two of you meet, he says, “Good morning, Boss. By the way, we’ve got a problem.”
That remark stops you dead in your tracks. You’ve never been known to walk away from a problem. That’s one of the reasons you were promoted to the management position you hold now. So you stand there transfixed as George disembowels the problem all over the floor in front of you. You listen as he goes through, in excruciating detail, the crisis that now confronts him.
Why are you listening? Because you had his job once and therefore know you can solve his problems. In fact, you can probably solve his problems more easily than your own.
Solving George’s problems feels good. It gives you a sense of control and intelligence.
Plus, you have a humanitarian side to you. It gives you pleasure to make George’s problems disappear. And you feel that George will benefit from watching a genius (you) at work as a fringe benefit of his job.
As George talks, the problem begins to embroil you. You recognize in this problem the two characteristics common to all problems that people bring to you:
1. You know enough to get involved.
2. You don’t know enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of you.
After what seems to be five or 10 minutes, you look at your watch and realize a half-hour has gone by. You say to George, “Tell you what, George. I’m late for something. This is a very important problem, and we’ve only scratched the surface here. I’d like to make a decision now, but I can’t. Let’s do this. I’ll think it over, and I’ll let you know later today.”
That satisfies George, and the two of you part.
You proceed to your office and prepare to work on your big project. You get the preliminary stuff done, but you can’t set your mind to the problem. You are preoccupied with George’s crisis. You make a quick phone call to George to clarify a particular point. You promise once again to get back to him. You try to get back to your project, but it’s difficult to get into it. You go back to George’s problem, because it is more irritating and also more resolvable.
The hours slip by. Suddenly, it is noon and you’ve done almost nothing on your own big, important project. George pops his head into the office. “Got an answer for me, Boss?” he asks. You feel enormously agitated as you tell George, “No.” He looks disappointed. He shakes his finger at you mischievously and asks, “What time shall I check back?” You promise to have his answer by the end of the day.
No sooner has George closed the door than you get a call from Sally. She asks if you have returned the critique of her memo that you promised. You apologize profoundly and promise to get it right back to her. You search your office and find what you hoped was a two-page memo. It’s an inch-thick bundle of single-spaced type. You settle in to your critique.
Then your assistant interrupts you with a call. It’s your boss. He wants you in his office immediately. You spend the rest of the afternoon talking to a group of investors he’s entertaining in his office.
At five o’clock, you go back to the office, weary and frustrated. There, sitting by your door, are George and Sally. They are smiling. You want to kill them. “I’m on it,” you tell them as you trudge into your office. Forty minutes later, your secretary buzzes you to tell you that she is leaving but that George and Sally are still waiting for you. “They seem annoyed,” she tells you. “Shall I tell them to come back on Monday morning?”
You concede. You call your spouse and explain that you’ll be working late, that you’ll be spending most of the weekend catching up. And that’s what you do. You work until 11, at which point you go home and fall asleep. You dream of monkeys. You are perched high up in a tree, hugging a limb — and there are monkeys on your back. Dozens and dozens of monkeys. They are pulling your hair, tugging your shirt, trying to get you to fall off the limb and go crashing to the ground. You are hanging on for dear life.
The next day, you wake up and get yourself coffee. You switch on the computer and think about what you are doing.
Yesterday morning, you were all set to get to that important project. Just the thought of getting it done was giving you energy. But then you bumped into George and he told you his problem. You listened to him and promised to come up with a solution. When you walked away from George, he no longer had the problem. You did. By the end of the day, you had both Sally and George’s problems on your back, but you could get to neither because your boss’s problem took precedence. You left the office having solved only one problem — your boss’s. George and Sally’s problems were unsolved and delayed. And your own important project was postponed … perhaps indefinitely.
To put it another way, by promising to give George and Sally advice on their problems, you accepted responsibility to take the next step. Thus, you temporarily (at least) shifted the burden of the solution from George and Sally to you. From their point of view, they gave their problems to you.
Oncken explains this process in terms of monkeys. He says that the monkey is “the next thing that has to be done.” When you first met George, he had a monkey on his back. Thirty minutes later, that monkey was on your back.
And it’s not just George and Sally — it’s just about everybody who has a problem and has heard about how good you are at solving them. “He may not be good at getting it done on time,” they say to one another, “but eventually he will get it done for you.”
Promise yourself you won’t let this happen to you. Today, make a resolution that you’ll carry no more monkeys on your back except those you put there yourself … or those your boss puts there.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you how to get rid of your monkeys — and keep them off your back for good.