Tame the Monkeys in Your Library


I wrote earlier this year that I was going to try to write more about leadership and management topics. One of the best lessons I ever learned regarding management was to keep the monkey on whoever’s back it belongs. Sounds like good advice, but let me explain exactly what that means, and why it is an important lesson to learn. 

Does this situation sound familiar? John steps into your office and says; “Boss, we have a problem.” and your initial reaction is “OK, tell me about it and I’ll fix it.” That is usually most supervisor’s reaction to hearing one of their employees say “we have a problem”, because “we” are a team, which is a good thing, so any problems that one person has are problems we all have. And John knows whether it is a “we” problem – doesn’t he? ABSOLUTELY WRONG!

Consider that problems in any organization are like monkeys. They hang on to everything, are noisy and constantly wanting to be fed. Somebody has to take care of them or they get totally out of hand and become monstrous. They can make a real mess out of the office causing chaos. ALL employees walk around with monkeys (work related problems) on their back virtually all the time. Some are cute little fellows, and others are gorillas, but they all have to be taken care of.

Here’s why “I’ll fix it.” is the totally wrong answer. Before John said “We have a problem.” it was John’s problem. Right? If the supervisor says, “Let me see what I can do to fix it.” BAM! it has become the supervisor’s problem, because you’ve effectively said; “OK, this is now my problem. I take responsibility for getting it solved.” If you enable or even allow John to let his monkey jump from his back onto your back – which is why John came to you and said, “WE” have a problem – then you are helping no one.  Think about it for a minute and you’ll realize that if EVERY employee you have does that to you, your time will be consumed by resolving THEIR problems – probably to the neglect of your own direct responsibilities.

Every employee is responsible for something. That’s what they get paid for – to be responsible and work to accomplish whatever activities and goals their boss tells them to do. But, what about those problems/issues that invariably crop up that are beyond an employees’ decision making authority to resolve? Isn’t he/she responsible to bring that to the attention of their supervisor for resolution? Of course! But there’s where the line is drawn. Bringing it to a supervisor’s attention doesn’t mean making it the supervisor’s problem. It is still John’s problem until his supervisor tells him it is no longer his concern.

John is being paid to do his job. If you enable him to dump part of it on you, you’re not doing him any favors because John will never learn how to totally do his job without a significant amount of your assistance and supervision. He and others are likely not going to get your proper attention if you’re spending all your time solving everyone else’s problems. John should do his job, and you should support him – not do it for him.

So, what should your response to “Boss, we have a problem.” be? Next time that happens to you try this response; “OK, tell me about it and let’s fix it.” or even a simple “What problem?” You don’t have to acknowledge that there is a problem until you determine that it is actually ‘a problem.’ Require John’s monkey to stay on his back, but let him know you’re there to help him figure out how to care for it. Listen to the situation. Even if you don’t have time to deal with John’s monkey right then – NEVER say “OK, let me think about it.” That effectively takes the monkey on your back until you get back to John with your additional questions or potential solution. John doesn’t have to give it a second thought until then. That would be wasting his time and yours.

It is ESSENTIAL that you ask pointed diagnostic questions, because you need to get to the root of the problem, not just John’s perception of the situation. Ask these kinds of questions, if John hasn’t already shared the information with you.
• How long have you known about this?
• Have you spoken to [whomever] about this? What did they say?
• Did you think about doing [something specific] to resolve this?
• Tell me what you think we should do about this.

The last statement is critical to getting John to take care of his own monkey. DO NOT let his problem become your problem, even if it requires you to get involved in the solution. Often times problems require more investigation and examination of solutions. That’s why John needs to remain its owner, otherwise you’re the one who will be doing all that work instead of John.

Based on John’s answers, either send him back to get answers and pursue potential solutions, or let him answer the questions and outline solutions he may have already thought of. If you have all the information you need, make a decision. If not, send John off to get answers, more information and pursue solutions. NEVER do it yourself! Otherwise you have set precedence for John that all he has to do is bring you his problems and you’ll find him solutions.

This is where the ‘teaching moment’ – as it is often called – comes in for good use. Let John learn something more about the situation and investigate the possible solutions. It is better for you and for John if he can reach a good solution. It will give him a sense of accomplishment, as well as increased confidence, and he just might learn something new.

Among “professionals” – like librarians – it is expected that people will be motivated, use their education and some initiative to address everyday little problems that crop up, resolve them and keep working toward their assigned objectives. Let them use those characteristics to care for their own monkeys. There is no reason for the supervisor to take responsibility for everyone’s problems just because they say “Boss, we have a problem.” Don’t be too quick to jump in as the problem solver. Think about the situation from a bigger picture perspective, and teach your employees how to care for their own monkeys. You have enough of your own to care for.

If you handle it well, you may even get your employees to the point where they don’t bring you problems – they bring you solutions. When that happens, people will have learned to care for their own monkeys, and you’ll have tamed the monkeys in your library.

Adapted from “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey” by Oncken and Wass, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1974; p 75-80

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Tame the Monkeys in Your Library

  1. Anastasia Weigle

    I love what you have written here. I have been a library manager for many years, up until February 2012. I have had employees come to me with similar statements. “Can we talk? We have a problem.” I respond with, “Take a seat. Let’s talk about what’ happening.” OR “Oh oh, what’s up.” OR
    “What problem.” Then I give the floor to the employee to explain what the situation is and all the details so I can determine (in my head first) if this really is “Our” problem or “His/Her” problem. If it’s “Our” problem, we work out a solution and I usually bring in the other librarians or paraprofessionals to discuss it. Why? Because the solution may impact all departments. If after the conversation it seems it is “his/her” problem then I allow that employee to think of a way to resolve this problem. The tricky part is when the problem really isn’t a problem but something that the employee just doesn’t like—like a policy. If the policy is important to the management of collections but creates additional work for the employee, well then, you may have an employee that doesn’t like his or her boat to rock, if you know what I mean and that’s a whole other story there.

  2. JB Nye

    I had a similar “aha!” moment when I first read the “management monkeys” article in an MBA course. I have never forgotten it, and have shared it with many colleagues. Glad to know it has worked for you, too.

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