Monkey on the shoulder

We attribute the paternity of the expression “the monkey on the shoulder” – or “Monkey on the back” – to the American William Oncken Jr (1912-1988). He used this expression in his lectures he had through all the United States on the time management for the company executives.

William Oncken would have found his inspiration for this analogy in the Persian fable ” Sinbad the sailor ” and more particularly in his adventures during his fifth journey. In this episode Sinbad tries desperately to get rid of an old man who caught solidly on his back.

Whatever the exact origin the expression is, it had a worldwide success and became a great classic in the theories of management and more recently in the coaching ones.

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Actually the monkey symbolizes a problem that we would like to get rid of by transferring it to somebody else. Something as the bad cart in some game that we should not keep into our hand. Basically it is advised to the manager or to the coach of the person who has the problem to do all his best to help him to solve it but in any case to never substitute for him for fixing it. That avoids taking care of all the problems of the world to the detriment of our own commitments and it also allows the person to learn how solving his problems in a autonomous way. This advice often also applies to our friends !

That said, it is not always so simple not to take the monkey on our shoulder. Techniques were developed to avoid falling in this trap.

For me the most effective technique consists in saying: ” That’s not my problem ?Manage it by yourself ! “. Well, I should admit it is a little bit rude. Nevertheless it should be kept in the outfit of possible techniques… for the situations that do deserve it !
Obviously the best response is to go there more smoothly to preserve the good relationship that we have with the person facing the problem and to help him to fix it alone

One of the basic techniques is at first to never take the monkey without your knowledge ! Don’t smile it happens more often than you think. For example let’s imagine : you leave your office in a hurry, one from your employees stops you in the corridor and submits you an issue “in the air”. In this situation you should absolutely avoid any quick and polite answers such as : ” OK I’m gonna think about it. We talk about it later”. The monkey jumps up immediately on your shoulder. It is done for !

Even worse the monkey will stay there because your interlocutor will never come spontaneously to pick it up again, too happy that somebody is now in charge of his problem ! Say rather simply: ” Sorry I have not enough time right now. Please come and see me early tomorrow to speak about it more in detail”. Simple no ? And the monkey stayed well in its place.

Other techniques are essentially based on a good questioning.

Generally speaking it is better for that to ask open questions (those to whom we cannot simply answer yes or no). We should also better use questions beginning with what, when, which, who, how much rather than by why and how.

We would recommended to keep in mind the following steps when questioning :
1 – Characterize the monkey,
2 – Qualify and understand its environment,
3 – Make the one having the issue thinking about the possible evolutions,
4 – Decide together on the best options,
5 – Then ask him to define himself his plan of implementation integrating regular meetings with you to speak about his progresses.

You will see with a little of practice that it works very well and that the person whom you help will be very grateful to you for it.


One thought on “Monkey on the shoulder

  1. Pingback: Le singe sur l’épaule | La vie est large

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