She thought they were partners on the project. She knew they were not doing as well as everybody would like, but in her mind it was a shared problem and the solution would have to be a shared solution.
She was flabbergasted the day he embarrassed her in front of several people by blaming her for all the project’s difficulties. He publicly dumped everything on her and took no responsibility upon himself. She was outraged, hurt and disappointed.
By the time she told me about the encounter she was more perplexed by the man’s behavior, but the anger and hurt lingered.
My reaction was swift. “He’s trying to sell you his monkeys!” She looked at me like I had one eye in the middle of my forehead. “His monkeys?” she asked.
It’s one of the earliest management lessons that made a huge impression upon me. If memory serves correctly, an early ‘80s Harvard Business Review article made a splash when it described people who attempt to unload their responsibilities and foist them upon you as “selling you their monkeys.” The article prescribed methods to prevent monkey-sellers from pushing their problems onto you and on others in your workplace.
I was someone who had always believed most problems had my name on them, and I was somehow morally obligated to fix EVERYTHING. So this was a very hard lesson for me. Early in my career I learned that there was no end to the people who would like to dump their monkeys on me, and for many years I was a willing monkey-buyer. Some boss or other directed that article to my desk and it made a huge difference in my life and in my leadership style.
I started to realize that I not only couldn’t fix all problems, I shouldn’t. I started to learn how to empathize with the people who were struggling with monkeys and even express opinions about how they might deal with them, but gradually I stopped buying their problems. I stopped taking possession of their monkeys and I learned how to help and sometimes force them to own those problems and responsibilities.
There are emotional issues that prompt some people to shirk responsibility and try to dump it on others. And, there are emotional issues that spark that overwhelming sense of responsibility and guilt that makes some of us greedily embrace other people’s problems and challenges.
Some people who try to sell their monkeys are mean-spirited and manipulative. They want positive credit, but they are AWOL when it is time to be accountable. And some monkey-buyers take on other people’s problems so they can convince everybody, particularly themselves; they are indispensable to the organization.
The great culprits behind all this monkey business in the workplace: unclear mission, responsibilities and accountability. When leaders fail to carefully delineate exactly what must be accomplished, who owns responsibility for accomplishing that task and who will be held accountable for success or failure, monkey-sellers can flourish.
In this case the leaders didn’t do that and I advised my friend she needs to confront her project partner directly and firmly.
She needs to make it clear to him their responsibilities are shared and his attempts to unload it all on her are unfair and won’t be tolerated. Then the two of them need to agree on a new “contract” that makes those responsibilities clear. And she should offer support, but not accept his responsibilities.
They must go forward without trying to trade monkeys so their working relationship and their enterprise can succeed.
Tip for your search: Are you a monkey-buyer or seller? To stop the vicious circle, empathize with others, but draw boundaries. Make sure everybody knows each other’s responsibilities and accountabilities. Do not let expectations go unstated. Then praise work well done.
Resource for your search: “The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey” by Ken Blanchard (William Morrow, 1989)
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