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Delegating monkeys rarely solves problems

As I See It

The November/December 1974 issue of the Harvard Business Review contained an article which dealt with the subject of workers delegating problems up to their bosses. The authors used the metaphor of a monkey-on-one’s-back being shifted from one person to another to illustrate their points. I found the article entertaining and enlightening then and have since decided that the message is timeless.

The theme of the article is that the burdens of subordinates tend to end up on the manager’s back. This is called “reverse delegation.” This phenomenon results in the managers constantly running out of time while their subordinates are typically running out of work. The secret is to help subordinates solve problems without the manager taking away the subordinate’s responsibility for solving the problem.

The “problem” can be considered a monkey-on-the-back. To keep from solving the problem personally, one must hand off the monkey to someone else. There are telltale signs that a monkey is about to leap to a new host.

“Good morning boss. By the way, we’ve got a problem.” After a brief description of the problem, the boss realizes that he does not have enough information to solve the problem. So, he departs the conversation by telling the subordinate, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

The subordinate is now freed from responsibility to solve the problem, he will patiently wait for his boss to “get back to you.” The monkey has jumped from the back of the subordinate to the back of the boss.

Generally, bosses have a pretty full schedule with tasks assigned to them by their bosses. Consequently, when reverse delegation occurs, the boss ends up with more on his plate than he can handle. The result is frustration and unnecessarily long hours for the boss and golf for the subordinate.

The solution to this problem can be found in the following mantra which should be ingrained in every manager’s mind:“ At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.

“When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in — on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and which of us will make it.

“In those rare instances where the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”


The article concludes with several rules for the care and feeding of monkeys, i.e., keeping projects moving along while leaving the responsibility for solving the problem with the subordinate.

1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. Otherwise, they will starve to death, and the manager will waste valuable time on postmortems or attempted resurrections.

2. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.

3. Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The manager should not have to hunt down starving monkeys and feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

4. Monkeys should be fed fact-to-face or by telephone, but never by mail. With mail, the next move will be the manager’s.

5. Every monkey should have an assigned next-feeding time and degree of initiative.

Though this metaphorical approach to a common management problem is humorous, it points out some very valuable supervisory techniques. Give it some thought and see if the process works for you.


A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.


Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is cpajones@msbusiness.com.


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