Home, Work-Life

Series: Managing to Manage While Learning to Lead

Managing the Monkeys- The Guilt Monkey

Smart companies know that their greatest assets are their committed people, which means that many companies promote from within when looking for new leaders. This presents a great opportunity for professional growth, but can also create obstacles for employees making a transition from peer and colleague to manager and leader.

What happens when your friend and colleague becomes your direct report?

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 a reference to people or individuals, the monkeys are the issues, problems, and burdens created.

Scenario 2: The Guilt Monkey

Elizabeth is a newly promoted mid-level manager, still within her first year and learning the scope of her role. She reports to the director, Jean.

Gabby is Elizabeth’s friend and colleague. They were hired within a few months of one another and quickly bonded as a result. Now, due to the promotion, Elizabeth is Gabby’s manager.

One day Jean walks into the staff lounge to find Elizabeth noticeably upset, having recently cried. When Jean inquires, she finds out that Elizabeth is feeling overwhelmed by her new role. When asked what support she needs, Elizabeth reveals that Gabby has been alluding to the idea that they can no longer be friends since she is now one of her “staff” or direct reports. It is also revealed that Gabby has been asking Elizabeth to do a great deal of her work to cover for her when she is running late or unprepared. When Elizabeth finally explains to Gabby that this ‘covering of duties’ cannot continue, Gabby threatens to end their friendship, and questions Elizabeth on her priorities and whether their friendship or her new job is more important.

In a confessional-style manner, Elizabeth confides in Jean that she told Gabby if it came down to choosing between their friendship and the job, she would give up the job.


This scenario, which happens far more often than we realize, now places additional stress and burden not only on Elizabeth but on Jean as well. Gabby has decided that she is free of responsibility in the problem, when in fact, she is the root of the problem.

As a manager and leader, what would you do in this scenario? How should the actions of Elizabeth and Jean be different when solving the issue?

Jean attempts to be a voice of reason and empathy with Elizabeth. She reminds Elizabeth that she is more valuable to the team and department than Gabby, and as a result, if Gabby’s behavior is impacting her work, Gabby is the person who could face reprimand. Elizabeth acknowledges that Gabby’s behavior is having a negative impact and that it is unprofessional, as well as hurtful.

It is difficult for a higher-level manager to get involved in personal issues, as we should not have to even though we empathize with the person. Unfortunately, when the issues are affecting our employees in the scope of their job, something must be done.

So who does the guilt monkey belong to? Should Jean intervene to solve the problem? Let’s say she does, and Gabby denies it, what then?


The guilt monkey really needs to be handed back to Gabby. As her direct manager, Elizabeth needs to have a very honest conversation about the expectations of work and separation of personal matters. While this isn’t going to be an easy conversation, Gabby’s response will offer Elizabeth insight as to her motivations. If Gabby resents the fact that Elizabeth was promoted before her or that she now reports to Elizabeth, Gabby needs to find the balance between their professional and personal relationship and continue to meet the expectations of her own job just as she would with any other manager. If Gabby sees the use of the ‘guilt’ monkey as a means to manipulate her manager into doing her job, then that is a separate conversation of a much more punitive nature.

Regardless of the underlying motivation, Gabby is the one responsible for making the needed change and improvements. This is not a guilt monkey for Elizabeth to carry – she has a team to manage and a job to learn. This is not an issue for Jean to intervene in, as Gabby must learn to recognize and respect Elizabeth as her direct manager. If Gabby cannot make the necessary adjustments and improvements, such as being on time, being prepared, and being professional, it may negatively impact her job in the end.

As a manager and leader, what would you do in this scenario? How should the actions of Elizabeth and Jean be different when solving the issue? Tell us what you think by leaving your feedback below in the comments. 

Suggested books on this topic

The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey

Authors: Ken Blanchard , William Oncken Jr. , Hal Burrows 

Price 8.00-15.00

Reviews: 4.5/5 stars

Buy on Amazon Now!

Shifting the Monkey – The Art of Protecting Good People From Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers

Author: Todd Whitaker

Price 10.00-14.00

Reviews: 4.5/5 stars

Buy on Amazon Now!

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.