Who’s Got the Monkey?



Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? by William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass  This one of the greatest articles I have read.  I first saw it in 1986 when I was a subordinate and the managers at the firm wanted to encourage employees to take more initiative.  The article outlines the plight of a manager who when his subordinates bring him a problem he realizes that he knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision.  As a result, the problems shift from the employee’s problem to the manager’s problem.  The authors note that the subordinate may even check up on the problem with the manager by asking “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)  The monkey has shifted from the employee’s back to the manager’s back.  This happens repeatedly until the manager is overwhelmed.  Finally, the manager realizes the situation and takes action.  He has a conversation with each subordinate in which he basically says:

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.”

I try to keep this conversation in mind when dealing with both subordinates and superiors.  It is exceptional advice for all managers.

In addition, the article outlines the five degrees of initiative.  It talks about them in the context of a boss and employee but they apply in all parts of life.

There are five degrees of initiative that the manager can exercise in relation to the boss and to the system:

1. wait until told (lowest initiative);

2. ask what to do;

3. recommend, then take resulting action;

4. act, but advise at once;

5. and act on own, then routinely report (highest initiative).

I keep the five degrees of initiative on a card on my bulletin board to constantly remind me of them.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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