Who has a monkey on shoulders?
January 31, 2020

Team Management

Manager and subordinates: who has a monkey on shoulders?

By Alexander Sergeev

Whether you are engaged in managing a software development project or any other activity, the burden of tasks being done by employees can lie on a manager’s shoulders in the end. In this article, we’ll tell you how to get rid of this burden. We will look at the importance of time-management and how to divide it among managers, directors, colleagues, and subordinates. 

There are 3 types of working time spent in a managing process:

  1. The time spent by a manager on doing a task he/she has got from a manager. If the task isn’t fulfilled, an instant reprimand follows.
  2. The time spent on tasks laid on by a system, for example, active support to manager-colleagues when they need it. Neglecting this work type may also end up in a reprimand but not always direct and instant as in the first case.   
  3. The time spent on doing your own tasks or tasks a manager agrees to complete. But a part of your own time will be spent on work with subordinates. Even if a manager uses the time inefficiently, it won’t have any consequences as neither director nor system can punish for something they’re not aware of.

In order to fulfill the above-mentioned requirements, a manager should control deadlines and the quality of work done. He/she can’t deal with tasks assigned by directors or system on his/her own as there will be a reprimand for not completing them. That’s why a manager should efficiently use his/her own time.

A manager’s task is to increase his/her own time by minimizing the amount of work with subordinates or complete refusal from it.

It gives additional time for solving tasks assigned by directors or a system. The majority of managers aren’t aware of the fact that a lion’s share of time is spent on solving the problems of their employees.

From this moment, we will use the analogy “a monkey on shoulders” with the purpose of investigating the necessity to allocate a certain time to subordinates and how a manager should deal with it.

Where is the monkey?

Let’s assume that a manager is walking along a corridor and sees a subordinate called Jones. They greet each other, and Jones says, “Good morning! By the way, we have a problem that…”

Jones describes the problem, and the manager sees that there are two characteristics typical for all the problems: the manager (a) knows enough to take part, but (b) not enough to make an instant solution which is expected from him. In the end, the manager says, “I’m glad you told me about that. I have no time right now, but I will think about it later and let you know” and shakes hands with Jones.

Let’s analyze the situation: On whose shoulders did “a monkey” sit? On the subordinate’s shoulders. And where did “the monkey” move to later on? To the manager’s shoulders.

The time imposed by subordinates starts from the moment when a monkey jumps successfully from a subordinate to a manager and doesn’t end till the monkey goes back to the owner for care and food.

Taking the monkey, a manager voluntarily becomes a subordinate to his/her subordinate. The manager takes the subordinate’s responsibility and even promises to make a report on the work done. It means he/she allows Jones to consider the manager his subordinate.

The subordinate doesn’t want the manager to forget about the problem. So, he would drop in the manager’s private office and gaily inquire: “How’s it going?” It’s called performance control.

Or let’s imagine that, after the conversation with another subordinate, the manager says: “Ok. Send me an email on this question.”

Now a monkey is still on the subordinate’s shoulder as he/she will make the next step but still isn’t ready for a jump.

Let’s observe what the monkey will do. Jones is writing the email and sends it to the manager. If the manager doesn’t reply fast enough, Jones will send another email with a reminder. It’s another form of performance control. The longer it takes for the manager to reply, the more dissatisfied the subordinate gets (as he works idly) and the more guilty the manager feels (the tasks imposed by subordinates increase).

Or let’s assume that, when the manager meets a subordinate called Smith, he/she agrees to provide all the necessary support for PR, she was to prepare by herself. And the manager says: “Let me know when you’ll need me.”

In the beginning, a monkey was sitting on the subordinate’s shoulders. Will it stay there long? Smith knows that she can’t “let the manager know” until he/she approved the offer. She knows, based on her experience, that it will get dusty on her table until the manager will be able to examine it. So who has the monkey now? Who has control?

Reed is another subordinate who just transferred from another department. He needs to organize and manage a new commercial project. The manager says that they should meet soon in order to discuss the goals of the new project and adds: “I’ll write a preliminary variant and we will discuss it”.

Here’s an analysis. The subordinate has got a new job (official appointment) and full obligations (delegated officially) but the manager has to take the next step. Until the manager takes it, he/she has the monkey and the subordinate does nothing.

Why does it happen like that? Because, in each example, the manager and the subordinate consciously and subconsciously assume that the discussed question is their common problem. In each case, there are monkeys on their shoulders. A careless motion and the monkey jumps to the manager’s shoulders.

Who does work for whom?

Let’s assume that all 4 subordinates appreciate their manager’s time. They do their utmost in order not to let more than 3 monkeys jump to his/her shoulders. So, at the end of the week, the manager has “only” 60 screaming monkeys. It’s almost impossible to deal with such a pack. That’s why the manager has to spend his/her own time on subordinates to the prejudice of his/her “priorities”.

Friday. Late evening. The manager is still at work, thinking over the situation behind a closed door. At this moment, the subordinated are waiting at the door. Tomorrow is a day off, and it’s the last chance for them to remind of the necessity to make a decision. We can only guess what they are telling about the manager while waiting for their turn: “He’s so slow. I can’t understand how a person unable to make a decision could get such a position in our company.”

The worst thing is that the manager can’t make even one “necessary step” because he/she spends all his/her time on fulfilling tasks of directors and the system.

In order to fulfill them, the manager needs free time, which decreases because of these monkeys.

It’s a vicious circle, and the time is simply wasted.

The manager asks the secretary to tell the subordinated that he/she will be able to see them on Monday morning. Then the manager goes home with an intention to go to work on Sunday in order to finish all the tasks. On his/her way to work, he/she gets to the office and sees 4 players on the nearest golf field. Can you guess who they are?

It’s the last straw. Now he/she understands who works for who. Moreover, he/she sees that if he/she fulfills the task he/she has for the days-off, the enthusiasm of his/her subordinates, along with the number of monkeys, will grow enormously. The more he/she hurries up, the more he/she lags behind.

He runs away from the office like a person running for his/her own life. What next? Now he/she needs to do something he/she hasn’t time for in the last years: spend time with his/her family. It’s only one of many variants.

Now he/she has definite plans for Monday, and he/she enjoys 10 hours of undisturbed sleep. He’s going to get rid of the time imposed by subordinates. It will give him the same amount of personal time, but he/she will spend a part of it controlling how they mastered a tough but noble art of team management called “monkey care”.

The manager will have much free time for solving tasks assigned by directors and required by the system. Changes may take months but if compared with what was going on earlier, the benefit is great. His/her main task now is to manage his/her own time.

How to get rid of monkeys?

Early on Monday morning, the manager comes to the office late enough so that the 4 subordinates are already waiting at the door. He/she asks them to come in one by one. The topic of the conversation is to take the monkey, sit it on the table and decide together what next step the subordinate should take. Some monkeys may disturb a lot. Sometimes it’s difficult to define what step a subordinate should take. That’s why the manager can offer the subordinate the possibility to take the monkey home for one night and come with it back to the office tomorrow morning and continue the search for particular actions that should be taken by the subordinate.

The manager watches how subordinates leave with their monkeys. And it’s the manager who will wait for the results, not the subordinates.

Sometime later, the manager comes up to the subordinate and asks: “So, how’s it going?” The time spent on the action is personal for the manager and imposed for the subordinate.

Taking a monkey, a manager voluntarily becomes a subordinate to his/her subordinate.

When the subordinate (with the monkey on his/her shoulders) and his/her manager meet at the appointed time the next day, the manager tells the rules of the game: “The fact that I help you to solve this or that problem doesn’t make it mine. When your problem becomes mine, you have no problem anymore. But I can’t help with something that doesn’t exist. At the end of the conversation, the problem will leave the office the same way it has got here – on your shoulders. You can ask me to help you at the appointed time, and we will make a decision together about the next step and who will make it. There are rare cases when it’s me to take the next step, and we will define them together. But I personally won’t take any steps.”

And the manager realizes that there are no more monkeys. They will come back only at the appointed time according to his/her personal calendar.

Handing over initiatives

The analogy with monkeys on shoulders shows us that managers are capable of giving back initiative to their subordinates. And it should stay there.

We also tried to underline a simple truth, which is evident and elusive at the same time: before developing initiative in subordinates, a manager should give it.

If a manager takes it, he/she loses it and can say “Goodbye” to his/her own time. It’s totally spent on work with subordinates.

Also, a manager and a subordinate can’t use the same initiative efficiently. The phrase “We have problems, boss” creates this duality and represents a monkey on the shoulders of 2 people, which isn’t good.

So, let’s take a look at “Anatomy of managing initiative”. There are 5 stages of initiative that a manager can use concerning directors and a system:

  1. to wait for instructions (low-level of initiative)
  2. to ask what else to do
  3. to give a recommendation and take necessary measures
  4. to act but tell about it immediately
  5. to act your own way and make a report (the highest level of initiative)

It’s evident that only a sufficient level of professionalism can allow a manager not to abuse the first and the second initiative levels concerning his/her director or system.

A manager who uses the first level of initiative can’t control time on task solution assigned by a director or system and thus loses the right to appeal against a subject or deadline.

A manager who uses the second initiative level controls time but not its contents.

The 3rd, 4th and 5th levels give a manager a possibility to control both, but the last one gives the greatest control.

As for subordinates, a manager has a double task.

Firstly, to get rid of levels 1 and 2, leaving no other choice than studying and mastering skills on using personal initiative. Secondly, to agree with each subordinate who leaves a manager’s office on the level of initiative, place, and time of next appointment for solving a definite problem. And it also should be marked in a calendar.

Food and care for monkeys

In order to clarify the analogy with a monkey on shoulders and the process of task and control distribution, let’s discuss an appointment schedule of a manager. It should conform to 5 strict and clear rules called “Food and care for monkeys”. Violation of the rules leads to a reprimand – deprivation of time on personal tasks.

Rule 1. Monkeys should be fed and put to sleep. Otherwise, they will die from hunger, and a manager will have to spend priceless time on resurrecting them.

Rule 2. The number of monkeys shouldn’t be higher than the amount of time a manager can spend on feeding them. Subordinates will find time for working with such a number of monkeys, for which a manager has time. It takes 5-15 minutes to feed a well-groomed monkey.

Rule 3. Feed monkeys at the appointed time. A manager shouldn’t run for monkeys and try to feed the ones he/she can catch.

Rule 4. Feed monkeys face-to-face or by phone, but not via email. Documentation can be an addition to feeding, but not a substitution.

Rule 5. Each monkey should have appointed time for feeding and the level of initiative. It can be revised from time to time on the basis of a mutual agreement; however, they should always be clear and definite. Otherwise, a monkey will die from hunger or will jump to the manager’s shoulders.

Here’s an important tip for everybody who wants to manage time: “Intensify control over time and work contents.”

The first manager’s rule is in increasing his/her time by the liquidation of time for work with subordinates. The second manager’s rule: a manager is to use a part of personal time for providing an initiative to subordinates and controlling the way it’s applied. The third manager’s rule: a manager should use another part of increased personal time on solving tasks of directors and system, and controlling the deadlines.

All these measures expand the manager’s possibilities and almost infinitely increase time, necessary for management.

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