One of the biggest struggles most new managers deal with is learning how to transition from daily production of task-based work to big-picture, problem-solving and oversight. I, too, struggled with this, as members of my team would ask “How do I…” “What should I … “ “Can you fix…” types of questions about their own roles. In some instances, the person asking the question was really looking for feedback to make certain they were meeting objectives or operating within a policy, in other situations, the person was deflecting responsibility in the hopes that I, having done their job and having full knowledge of their tasks, would do it for them. The real struggle here came down to my trial and error ability to recognize the former from the latter.
The scenarios presented are not meant to represent any specific person(s). They are real situations, though the names are fictional, and are intended to help us better relate to the problem and learn how to lead ourselves and others through like issues.
The concept and reference to ‘monkeys’ comes from the Harvard Business Review writings of William Oncken Jr., and Donald Wass (HBR, 1974). The concept was then covered by multiple writers as mentioned in the suggested texts. The term and use of the term Monkeys is never as a reference to people or individuals, the monkeys are the issues, problems, and burdens created.
Scenario 1: The Projection Monkey
Marissa is a department director and has recently promoted a staff member, Andrea, to a mid-level manager position with direct-reports. Marissa had initial reservations about Andrea’s ability to step into the role, as she did not show a great deal of initiative during the training period. On paper, Andrea was ideal, in reality, only time would tell. Prior to a final offer, Marissa meets with Andrea to share her concerns about her initiative and commitment to the role, and Andrea assures her that she will rise to the occasion.
Soon after Andrea takes on the position, she is coming into work noticeably tired, unengaged, and unwell. Seeing this, Marissa quietly takes on a number of Andrea’s normal duties to give her time and space to learn the role and for her professional training. She recalls what her own first year was like and empathizes with Andrea. As the months pass by nearing the one-year mark, Andrea continues to fall behind in her work, conflicts arise among her direct reports along with allegations that she is not trusted in her new role. Andrea begins to withdraw further.
Marissa is now hiring for the team to further limit Andrea’s workload, managing Andrea’s staffs’ questions when she is unable to answer them or gives inaccurate/incomplete information, coaching Andrea on how she needs to communicate and support her team, and growing less confident by the day in Andrea’s ability to handle the responsibility of the position.
In an attempt to build her confidence and show unity, Marissa defends Andrea to the staff that doubt Andrea’s aptitude, reminding them that she is still learning her role. Members of her team become more frustrated and vocal in their concerns, and one senior staff member resigns rather resentfully after unloading her complaints in Andrea’s presence. In the weeks that follow, the team begins to unravel further and Andrea is not stepping up to prevent the ensuing chaos.
When Marissa, finally exhausted and frustrated with Andrea’s lack of initiative to better the situation, speaks to Andrea directly, Andrea’s curt response is “If I feel supported, I can do my job well, if I don’t feel supported, I cannot.”
Marissa is shocked to hear this, as she has been doing 30-40% of Andrea’s job to this point. The senior staff member who resigned was also carrying the weight of Andrea’s job for months at a time. Marissa asks for clarification, “Do you feel you have not been supported?” Andrea says she has been and has felt supported, but if Marissa wanted her to do well, she would need more support because she was simply overwhelmed.
As the director, Marissa’s initial logic was to allow enough time and space for Andrea to settle into her role, yet now it seemed that Andrea expected others to do portions of her job for her as “support.”
Where did Marissa go wrong? Would it have been more effective to throw Andrea into her role completely and let her sink or swim? Would Andrea then recognize and value the support of those around her?
While Marissa’s logic of progressive learning is understandable, it was not coupled with clear expectations on the progressive relinquishing of duties to Andrea and the importance of Andrea taking on the responsibility of her full duties over the course of the year. Now, one might argue that this is simply extra paper-shuffling for Marissa and that Andrea should know her duties and the expectations, after all, she is the one who applied for and accepted the position. And, one would be correct. But, as managers and leaders, we do have a duty to keep that communication flowing so that our employees don’t lose sight of the expectations.
After things had settled, Marissa and Andrea sat down to discuss all that has occurred. In this conversation, Andrea once again says she needs more support to do her job well. Marissa again asks for clarification on whether she has felt supported and if she understands the aspects of her job that others have covered for her. Andrea acknowledges that she has felt very supported. This time instead of responding to a tactic* of projection and diversion, Marissa responds by reminding Andrea of how she has been supported, providing specific details of that support, she reminders her of the job description and how Andrea assured her that she said she could rise to those expectations. Marissa finishes by saying that as a manager and leader part of her job is not only initial training support but to recognize those who do their jobs well by offering further professional development. Since Andrea hadn’t mastered her job yet, even with ample support, it was now time to earn that support and trust, of management and her team, by showing people that she could do the job she was hired to do – and do it well, so it serves to benefit the team and the customers.
From that conversation forward, Marissa noted some positive changes in Andrea and overall improvements in the day-to-day operations of the team. Marissa relinquished all of Andrea’s responsibilities to her while remaining supportive when she needed guidance. In a few instances when Andrea came to Marissa and said she needed help getting things done, Marissa offered to answer her questions and make suggestions, but also made it clear that she would not take over the task.
Here’s what Marissa learned:
For a manager to invest more, they must see that the employee is first meeting, and hopefully exceeding the basic requirements. To know they are ready for further development, we must see the employee managing his/her time in such a way that it enables them to take on more growth and responsibility, not just dump more on their plate.
If the opposite is true, even though substantial support has been given, then it comes down to that seemingly uncomfortable conversation on expectations, responsibility, and accountability. It is now the employee’s monkey and burden to bear and repair, as the expectations have been made clear.
Now, this is not to say that we state what is expected and then ignore them until they fail or succeed. We check in, we communicate, we place our faith in their ability, we watch for struggle and then we revisit as needed. We don’t just manage to get through each day and hope for the best, we lead them to be better by being clear.
*It should be noted that if someone says I need A in order to do B, and A has not been provided, this is a perfectly reasonable statement and request of professional support. However, if A has been provided, and that person acknowledges it has been provided, then this statement can be perceived as a manipulative tactic of projecting blame on others (playing off their empathy) or diversion to avoid taking ownership of the problem and to shift the responsibility for the needed change.
What would you have done in this situation? Marissa had initial reservations about Andrea’s ability to take on the role, in this case, is hindsight truly 20-20? Or, are the initial hesitations unrelated?
Suggested books on this topic
Reviews: 4.5/5 stars
Shifting the Monkey – The Art of Protecting Good People From Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers
Author: Todd Whitaker
Reviews: 4.5/5 stars
About the Author
Gwendolyn is a lover of travel and culture, having visited over 13 countries and having lived most of her adult life in Europe and Asia – where she explored, learned, and fell in love.
In her professional career she has worn the hat of director in International Education, professor, trainer, strategist and fundraiser for nonprofits. Most recently she started lifeinherent.com and co-founded Laifeu LLC.
* The scenarios presented in this series are not meant to represent any specific person(s). They are real situations, though the names are fictional, and are intended to help us better relate to the problem and learn how to lead ourselves and others through like issues.
The concept and reference to ‘monkeys’ comes from the Harvard Business Review writings of William Oncken Jr., and Donald Wass (HBR, 1974). The concept was then covered by multiple writers as mentioned in the suggested texts. The term and use of the term Monkeys is never as reference to people or individuals, the monkeys are the issues, problems, and burdens created.