I’ve been building my collection of Morganisms—personal nuggets of business advice—throughout my career. I’m always collecting articles, lists, notes, and ideas while reading, listening to speakers, or just talking with people.

One of my favorite Morganisms is called Who Owns the Monkey?

Let’s say that one of your staff shows up in your office with a problem—a monkey—on his or her shoulder. As a manager, you want to acknowledge that you see the monkey, and that you care about the monkey. You may even pet the monkey for a few minutes. But you can’t let that employee leave the monkey behind for you to take care of. You want to be sure that when your employee walks out the door of your office, the monkey goes too. Owning the monkey means the person responsible cannot pass the buck; they must think through the consequences of decisions and try to solve the problem. There is no need to escalate it to the top at the first sign of trouble.

Both for-profit and nonprofit leaders are often overworked and under-resourced. Problems can easily move up the chain of command. You need to create a culture of accountability to ensure that the only issues that land on your plate are the ones that are your clear responsibility. When you empower employees to make decisions, you also empower them to solve problems that arise from those decisions.

The idea of owning the monkey comes from an article in the Harvard Business Review published back in 1974, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. They describe how managers should respond to employees who try to put a monkey on their back:

“At no time while I am helping you with this problem will your problem become my problem. When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in—on your back.

“You may ask for 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 manager transfers the responsibility back to the direct report and keeps it there.

Oncken and Wass describe five degrees of initiatives that can empower staff decision-making.

The employee could:

  1. Wait until told (the lowest initiative).
  2. Ask what to do.
  3. Recommend an action, and wait for a decision.
  4. Act, but inform at once.
  5. Act, then report on the decision in due course (the highest initiative).

The manager’s job is to outlaw the use of 1 and 2, and to ensure that for each problem leaving his or her office, there is an agreed-upon level of initiative assigned to it.

Years later, management guru Stephen Covey pointed out in talking about monkeys, you should keep in mind that empowerment means you have to develop your staff’s skills, which is initially much more time-consuming than simply solving their problems on your own. But the investment pays off.

In a culture of accountability, employees are comfortable acknowledging reality, warts and all. Individuals do not just wait and hope things improve or spend their time crafting excuses or pointing fingers at others. They take responsibility for finding solutions and making improvements.

Make Your Management Toolkit

I have always encouraged people to develop their own sets of guiding principles. I urge everyone to do that as a habit that serves as a constant reminder that we evolve over our lifetime as managers, and there are always new ideas that can be helpful—or old ideas that suddenly apply to a situation in which we find ourselves. Learning to be a better manager is a lifelong process.

Latest Morgan Publishing News

I’m excited to launch a brand new website for my books, still at the old URL, www.appliedwisdombook.com. There are two main features. First is that I’ve brought all of the content related to my books under one roof. Second is that I’m launching two new resources, an accessible, downloadable audiobook of Applied Wisdom for Nonprofits, and also a set of snappy bite-sized videos to introduce newcomers to the core concepts in the book.

Here’s the video of the introduction:

As always, complimentary copies of Applied Wisdom for Nonprofits, both print and digital, are just a click away.

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