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Managing our monkeys properly will free up time to deal with priorities

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Jonathan Trampel
  • 92nd Maintenance Group Superintendent
Have you ever heard of the phrase, "Monkey on my back?" If you haven't, a monkey on the back is a phrase used to define a task or problem that needs to be solved.

As managers of Air Force resources, we are responsible for many monkeys from budgets to aircraft -- we manage all kinds of things. We also manage monkeys at home and the way we deal with monkeys is very important as it sends signals to our subordinates, or family members that we may not want to send. It could also create more work for ourselves. 

In his book, "The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey," Kenneth Blanchard offers several examples of monkeys that we all take on when they should belong to somebody else. He also points out that by managing our monkeys properly we will free up time to deal with priorities like taking care of our Airmen and families. We'll begin with an example of a monkey.

Let's say I'm walking down the hall and run into one of my subordinates, who says, "Can I see you for a minute? We have a problem." I am always willing to listen and definitely want to be aware of any problems so I get sucked in. As I stand there and listen, I realize that I can help and this one is right up my alley. I offer to look over the problem since I know just enough about it that I know I will have to get involved and help out. I tell him, "This is very important but I don't have time to look at it right now. Let me think about it and I'll get back to you."

As an outsider looking in, you probably realize that I took the monkey squarely on my back. Before we ran into each other in the hallway, the monkey was on the subordinate's back. When we were discussing the matter, the monkey had a leg on both of our backs. But when I said, "Let me think it over and get back to you," the monkey moved squarely on to my back. Now consider the possibility that the monkey was actually part of my subordinate's job, and that he or she is perfectly capable of offering up solutions or even fixing the problem. When I allowed the monkey to jump on my back, I volunteered to do two things my subordinate should be capable of doing -- to take responsibility for the problem and to give a progress report on the problem.

Kenneth Blanchard points out, "For every problem there are two parties, one to work it and one to supervise it." When I acquired this monkey, I became the worker and my subordinate became the supervisor. Now, he or she can come to me looking for progress reports.

Just imagine how many times this happens at work and think of the message it sends. "I want all of the monkeys," or, "You aren't capable of fixing this problem -- only I am," and once that message is sent beware because the monkeys will now fly onto your back.

Now let's give another example that might be nearer and dearer to us and our spouses. Let's say Jimmy comes home from baseball practice and is all excited because he has just made the varsity team. But, he is going to need a ride to practice three times a week.

What was great news, when he told you, quickly turned sour as you and your spouse are both very busy and just don't have time to take him to practice. As you pass the bad news on to Jimmy that you just can't find the time to take him to all of the practices you realize, "I could call some parents of the other team members and see if they could give you a ride." Jimmy agrees! Then off he goes to wash up for dinner and enjoy the evening while watching television. Congratulations, you now have another monkey on your back.

In this instance Jimmy is fully capable of calling his friends and setting up transportation, but you took that option right out of his hands. He probably could have learned some responsibility and problem-solving skills in the process.

When we take on other people's monkeys, we make them dependent on us and in the process we cripple them by doing things for them. Some managers have become very good at taking on everybody else's problems and neglecting their own problems.

What I learned from Kenneth Blanchard in this book is that the more I take on other people's monkeys, the less time I have to take care of my own monkeys. And, in the process, the less time I have with my Airmen and family. Also, the more people become dependent on me, the less likely they are to fix problems on their own.

It is empowering when people solve their own problems and helps them grow. It is part of our charge as Air Force managers to train our replacements to the extent in which we get our Airmen to manage work and problems on their own. A testament to how well you have done is when you have more time to spend with your Airmen.