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How Many Monkeys Do Your Leaders Have On Their Backs?

Two monkeys sitting on a rock

Weird question? Maybe a little abstract?

What if we told you those monkeys are problems? And that the more people leaders manage, the more problems they are likely to carry.

This blog isn’t the result of a weird brainwave at BCF Towers.

The monkey analogy is from a book about delegating business tasks called The One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey.

Written by Ken Blanchard, the humorous book explores how managers and leaders can overcome being weighed down by the problems of their team members.

“The idea is that as managers, we tend to take on other people’s problems,” said Dan Boniface, one of our leadership and management coaches.

“We all carry a monkey on our back. And it is essentially the next task we need to do.

“That could be a crucial meeting, a presentation to the board or a problem with your CRM system that you can’t seem to solve.

“But as managers, someone will come to us and say, ‘I’ve got this problem’.

“And we typically respond with ‘no problem, leave it with me - I’ll get back to you’.

“What you are doing is taking on their problem. You are letting the monkey jump from their back on to yours. That means not only do you have your monkey, but you have someone else’s.

“Then what happens is the next person in the team comes to you and says, ‘I’ve got this problem’. And their monkey jumps on your back because you are giving the same response.

“You see this all the time – managers who are very time-poor because they are doing their jobs and bits of everyone else’s. That’s not what they are there for – they are there to lead and manage."

That’s a situation that will be relatable for many of us.

So, how can leaders break the cycle of taking on other people’s monkeys? The answer lies in business coaching techniques.

“Instead of taking on other people’s monkeys, we need to empower the other person to overcome that problem themselves,” Dan said.

“Rather than our response being ‘leave it with me’, use some coaching approaches, ask open questions, and use the word ‘you’, to help them get to the root cause and work on solving it.

“As a manager, you are always there to support. But you are not taking on their problem.”

Dan believes this approach helps leaders empower their colleagues.

He said: “In our management training, we teach delegates that if you keep giving someone the answer, they’ll keep coming back to you with problems. They don’t learn from the process.

“But if we help them get to the answer, it becomes cemented in their brain. And the next time they come across it, they’ll know how to resolve it.

“That gives the manager time back. And empowers, motivates and gives better job satisfaction to the employee.

“Humans thrive on autonomy and having the freedom to make decisions. If we can create that with our team members, we are much more likely to get buy-in.

“With motivation, we talk about creating a future state. ‘We have this problem today, but let’s fast forward a month, and you’ve solved it – how do you feel?’

“It makes people feel empowered and motivated, and it reduces stress because they don’t feel like they are putting their problems on to others.”

But isn’t this approach the same as that “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions” line so many of us have heard before?

“That old cliché can be good if you have an experienced, competent, confident team member that can solve problems,” Dan said.

“But you might have someone in the team who has just come out of college and is new to the workplace, and they may not have those problem-solving skills or the experience to overcome issues.

“In which case, telling them to go away and think about it isn’t enough.

“You have to use coaching principles to elicit information from them so they can solve the problem.”

So, how hard is it for leaders to stop other people’s monkeys from leaping on their shoulders and clinging on?

“Like a lot of things in leadership and management, the change is easy to talk about but harder to put into practice.

“The first step for me is a mindset change. And that’s difficult. But you need a mindset change of getting into a business coaching perspective and asking questions.

“My biggest tip is to ask ‘what’ questions, not ‘why’ ones.

“’What’ questions typically evoke more information and are less judgemental. If you ask ‘why did you do that’, it gets people on the back foot and makes them feel defensive.

“But ‘what was your plan’, ‘what were you trying to achieve’, or ‘what were you hoping the outcome would be’ is a much nicer approach and encourages more information from people.

“Leaders need to fight their natural response to take on a problem. They should instead go through the coaching process.”

As well as this change of mindset, there are four rules leaders need to follow to stop taking on other people’s problems.


What are the next moves to tackle the problem?

Leaders need to be specific about what the monkey is and what the next moves are. This comes from business coaching questions.

“Open questions are vital,” Dan said.

“But never take the first answer as the actual answer. There is always more to give. Quite often, what we say isn’t what we mean. So, you need to dig deeper. Go back to those ‘what’ questions until you get to the specifics.”


Who does the monkey belong to? Clarity is crucial.

Dan said: “You need to be clear on who the problem belongs to. You don’t want to have a conversation where no one is quite sure, and the monkey ends up with one foot on a shoulder of each person.

“Be clear – ‘this is your problem. You are holding on to the monkey. But I’m here to support you’.


Leaders must ensure the risk is covered.

“The only caveat with any of this is that if it is a critical situation that could damage the business, as a leader, you may have to make a decision and jump in,” Dan said.

“You have to determine the level of risk of a team member keeping hold of the monkey. If it is out of their capability, it is not fair to leave it with them.”

Can you do that without it being demotivating?

“Being clear about the message is key,” Dan said. “You could say something like ‘you don’t quite have the experience or knowledge yet, but why don’t you come with me, and I’ll talk you through it’.

“Or ‘observe me, and afterwards, I’ll talk you through what we have done so you learn from it’.

“Although at that moment you have taken their monkey, you are giving it back to them after. The next time it happens, they will be able to do it. And you’ll be safe in the knowledge you have trained them up and given them the opportunity to experience it.”

Monkey Feeding

Or regular check-ups.

“Although you are leaving the monkey with the team member, you still need to check in and see how they are getting on,” Dan said.

“Don’t just leave them to it even if you trust them. Check-in. It can be through a formal meeting or a corridor conversation.

“But without it, the team members will feel you are leaving them to it. And one of the high motivators in employment is having a supportive manager and leader.”

The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.

We deliver training that makes a difference. Find out more about our business coaching, management training and interpersonal skills options.

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