A report from 1974 about a metaphorical monkey is among the most-read management advice ever published by Harvard Business Review
- An effective boss lets employees tackle problems on their own, according to a classic article in the Harvard Business Review.
- But too many bosses are inclined to take on their team members' burdens, so that the employees are effectively supervising the manager.
- The authors of the HBR article say it's important for bosses to let their employees know that they can't and won't solve their problems alone.
- More recently, other experts have shared similar advice, about not answering your employees' questions directly.
One of the most widely read pieces of management advice published by the Harvard Business Review has to do with a monkey.
Specifically, the monkey on your back.
If you're a people manager, you likely have (at least) one on you right now. The monkey is a metaphor for a burden that one of your team members has, ever so subtly, transferred to you.
The HBR report was initially published in 1974, by the late William Oncken, Jr., who was chairman of the William Oncken Corporation, and Donald L. Wass, who heads the Dallas-Fort Worth region of The Executive Committee. When HBR republished the article, it noted that it has been one of the publication's two best-selling reprints ever.
The article tells a rather amusing story about a disgruntled boss who winds up having to deal with four different employees' problems at once. When the boss comes into the office on Saturday to work on these issues, he sees the four employees engaged in a casual game of golf nearby.
The boss falls into this trap as easily as most managers do.
For example, when one employee presents him with a problem, the boss says, "So glad you brought this up. I'm in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I'll let you know." Just like that, the burden of solving the problem - the monkey, if you will - has been transferred from the employee to the boss. As the article implies, the employee is now "supervising" the manager.
The article also lays out guidelines for what the manager should instead tell employees who come to him with problems:
"You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and which of us will make it. In those rare instances where the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone."
The main point here, the authors write, is that "before developing initiative in subordinates, the manager must see to it that they have the initiative." That is to say, if the manager agrees to solve employees' problems on his own, he's effectively preventing them from ever becoming autonomous actors.
Many experts agree that you shouldn't answer your employees' questions right away
HBR later published a commentary on the article, by the late Stephen R. Covey, who wrote that many managers are afraid that "a subordinate taking the initiative will make them appear a little less strong and a little more vulnerable." That's something they need to work out if they ever want to tackle the true "gorillas" in their job.
More recently, experts have shared similar advice for managers at any level of an organization. For example, writing in Fast Company, psychologist Art Markman says an effective manager will put off answering their direct reports' questions right away.
Markman writes: "By encouraging [your team members] to solve problems on their own before coming to you, you're developing them into more efficient, high-value workers and reinforcing the fact that you have your own priorities (which they should respect)."
And leadership expert Simon Sinek recalled the best boss he ever had, who taught him the virtues of "self-reliance" by never answering a single question. As Sinek previously told Business Insider, "What he taught me to do was trust myself, and if I made the wrong decision, he always had my back."