Published 09.10.2019

Written by Darcy Luoma

Darcy Luoma is one of America’s most highly credentialed coaches. She’s worked in 48 industries, with more than 500 organizations, and has impacted tens of thousands of leaders and employees.

Got a Backpack Full of Monkeys?

Your colleague walks into your office complaining that they haven’t been able to get the feedback they need from the rest of the team and are in danger of missing a deadline. Before you know it, you have agreed to send a message reminding everyone to get their feedback in and promise to notify your colleague when you’ve heard back from everyone. 

Look at you, problem solver. Getting things done!

Except now you’ll spend lots of time that you need for your own work solving someone else’s problem. Oops.

The Problem With Being a Problem Solver

This used to be me all the time, every day. When I first started managing Senator Kohl’s office, I was in charge of a staff for the first time ever. I wanted to make sure I seemed like I knew what I was doing, so I committed myself to being the Chief Problem Solver.

The challenge is that Senators’ offices are really nothing but problems that need solving. So, eventually, I was trying to do my job and all the hardest parts of everyone else’s.

And then I read an article that totally clicked for me. Along with the coach training I was doing, it helped change my behavior. In fact, I found it so useful that I am still using it when teaching 20 years later! I noticed that it has been resonating with a lot of people recently, so I wanted to share it with you.

No More Monkeys

The article is Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?. I’m not its only fan; it was originally published in 1974 and then appeared as a favorite classic reprinted in 1999. It’s a really good article.

While it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing, I’ll give you a partial Cliff’s notes version. In the discussion of time management, it focuses on why managers never seem to have enough time, while their team doesn’t have enough work. 

Why is this? If we envision problems as monkeys, what happens is that people tell their managers about a problem, and the manager agrees to help, or at least to think it over and follow up. And now? The monkey is transferred to the manager’s back.

If you keep this up, eventually your office will be a zoo, and you’ll have no time to focus on what’s important. 

Send Those Monkeys Back

How do you keep from taking on everyone else’s problems? The article has some suggestions, but if you ask me it really comes down to using coaching. Rather than jumping in to fix and solve, ask your colleague some questions to help them get closer to figuring it out on their own. Hold them as the expert.

In the Senator’s office, I started telling people that if they brought me a problem, they also needed to bring a few ideas about how to solve it. Then we could spend time discussing solutions, and they could leave with a good idea about how to proceed (but with the monkey still firmly planted on their back, not mine!).

What I noticed is that after a while, my staff understood that I wasn’t going to take all the monkeys off their back, so they stopped trying. They got better at identifying solutions and moving things forward. They chose the solutions and came to me for a final okay, rather than at the beginning when everything was still a mess. Not only did I have more time, but I had empowered, engaged employees! AND the solutions were better.

Next time someone walks into your office with a monkey on their back, don’t take it, no matter how tempting it is! 

Leave the ball in their court and the monkey on their back. If they are used to you being a fixer they might push back. But if you stay curious and encouraging, you can be helpful without ending up with an office full of monkeys.

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