What is monkey management?

Spending too much time taking on your staff’s problems instead of dealing with your own workload is not an uncommon issue for managers of all levels.

Picture the scene: a staff member comes to you for help with a problem that’s stopping them completing a task and you agree to get back to them with the information they need. Without realising it, you’ve just taken on responsibility for your staff getting on with their job. You’ve just taken on their monkey.

Monkeys on your Back

Ok, so let’s just be clear we’re not talking about actual monkeys here. The monkey in the previous scenario is a metaphor for the ‘next step’ in a given work related challenge, task or problem. In other words the employee who came to you with the problem has shifted the onus onto you to get back to them with the information they need. They’ve offloaded the monkey on their back onto your back.

Whilst it’s completely normal to be helping your staff with problems, there can be a tendency for some managers to end up taking on too much and become bogged down by other people’s monkeys. This will not only affect your ability to perform your own duties but can be a self-reinforcing management style, in that it can lead more people thinking it’s alright to come to you to offload their monkeys. What’s needed here is some good monkey management.

Management Time

The easiest way to understand the practice of good monkey management is to think of how your time is divided up into three areas:

  • Boss-imposed time
    This is time used to accomplish tasks required by your boss
  • System-imposed time
    This is time you spend on things that aren’t directly related to your boss or your staff (red tape, meetings, incoming phone calls, etc).
  • Self-imposed time
    This is the time you allocate to working on things you decide to do and it is between discretionary time and staff-imposed time. The former relates to your own initiatives and the latter are the monkeys you pick up from your staff along the way.

Good management involves minimising the staff-imposed time and getting boss and system-imposed time under control in order to maximise discretionary time. To do this a manager must learn the art of delegation, by helping staff to become more independent and more capable of doing their job without the need to offload their monkeys on you or other managers.

The Rules of Monkey Management

The art of monkey management is to help your staff manage their own monkeys by not actually taking them on yourself. Instead you need to supervise their monkeys to help them become more independent and you to focus on your own work.

Here are some golden rules to follow:

  • Define the Monkey
    Remember, the monkey does not represent the entire task at hand, only the next move in completing that task. Therefore, work with the task owner to define what that move is and what’s needed to accomplish it.
  • Monkey Ownership
    Monkeys should be handled at the lowest organisational level consistent with their welfare so it is important to make sure the monkey is sitting on the appropriate staff member’s back.
  • Taking the Initiative for Monkeys
    There are various types of initiative but these can be broadly broken down into: ‘recommend, then act’, ‘act, then advise at once’, and ‘act, then routinely advise’. The key point is that for anyone to be able to develop the initiative, they must know that they have it.
  • Feed your Monkey
    Monkeys should be ‘fed by appointment only’. In other words, a monkey’s true owner should only be seen by appointment, face to face or by phone, to ensure they understand the next move and that there is an agreed upon level of initiative to act, including an agreed time and place for the next appointment.


You may recall from a previous post how we talked about monkey management in relation to Greiner’s crisis of autonomy, when business growth is constrained by an overly rigid and process led management hierarchy. Learning to delegate in this environment starts with good monkey management principles, which apply at every level and extend throughout the organisation.

If you’d like to find out more about how our management consultants help the leadership teams of our clients maximise their discretionary time, call us on 0117 332 1002, or contact us today.

Author Kim Jones