In 1999 The Harvard Business Review republished one of my favourite management and leadership anecdotes of all time. Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? by William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass was first published in 1974 but remains as relevant today as ever before.

Through the metaphor of monkeys sitting on your back, it highlights the tendency for managers to accumulate the problems of their subordinates. 'Leave it with me' we say, until our own workload grows to such an extent that we become the main blockage in the organisation.

It's an excellent piece about efficiency and learning to manage effectively and I would seriously recommend it to anyone who wants to manage teams. It depicts a feeling we are all familiar with.

While subordinates is a dated term in our collaborative world of freelancing, there is always management and hierarchy somewhere. Consequently there is a great deal of value in these leadership and strategy lessons.

Imagine an employee (the same applies to many businesses and commercial relationships) comes to you with a problem. They explain it and you recognise what needs to be done. Because we are nice, and tend to avoid conflict wherever possible, we often take on other people's problems. 'Leave it with me say' or 'I'll have a look and let you know'. Now the problem is your problem.

Weekend arrives and they still haven't received word from you because you still haven't solved their problem. Perhaps you are still working on your own problems. They enjoy a relaxing weekend and you expend mental energy knowing you still have 'monkey on your back'. You're responsible and your reputation and credibility are now at stake. You made yourself responsible and now you must prove yourself to your subordinate when really, we all know the dynamic should be the opposite.

To stay on top off these kind of things I follow these simple rules for making sure that when I delegate, I do not find these same tasks relegated back to me.

  1. Be aware when delegation is happening. Look out for it.
  2. Do not accept responsibility for other people's jobs. It both distracts you and prevents the other person from developing.
  3. Ask for solutions when something is too difficult. When a team member can't do something, ask them what their plan is to go about solving the issue. It is here you can explain how you might try another strategy; do not say 'leave it with me'.