Who's Got the Monkey?

October 1, 2020 - Pastor Bill Mitchell

Who's Got the Monkey?

Pastor Bill Mitchell
October 1, 2020

Sometimes, our BocaLead sessions focus on big picture topics and ideas. Today, we’re getting down to the nitty gritty details of how we live our day to day lives at work. We’re talking about the tactics we use to interact with others in our businesses every day.

A classic Harvard Business Review article, reprinted regularly due to its popularity, used the analogy of, “the monkey on your back,” to talk about the subject of time management, and how we handle the way people pass off responsibilities, aka “the monkey,” to us.


Five Types of Work Time

As we look at these “monkeys,” or responsibilities in this BocaLead session, we have to first understand that, expanding on Harvard Business Review’s principles, there are five types of time at work. The way we manage and look at these types of time can determine whether we handle our responsibilities well, or whether we get burnt out.

1. Boss-Imposed

Boss-Imposed time is any directive your supervisor, client, CEO, etc. gives you. What they ask you to accomplish is part of your job. It’s not a “monkey;” it’s what you’re hired to do.

2. Job-Imposed

Like Boss-Imposed time, Job-Imposed time refers to things that fall under your job description. This is also not considered to be a “monkey.”

3. Self-Imposed

This third type of time is one where the “monkey” can get in and take over. It’s when someone asks you if you have time to help them with something, and you say yes. By doing this, you have self-imposed the “monkey” onto your own back.

4. Others-Imposed

Others-Imposed time refers to when someone brings you into their problem alongside them. All of a sudden, you find they’ve given their “monkey” to you. Keep in mind that this does not apply to your boss, clients, customers, etc. – as we said previously, their problems are part of your job description. Instead, this is talking about when subordinates, co-workers and others to whom you do not report try to give their issues to you to fix for them.

5. Discretionary

No matter how many things we have to do, we always have a little time that we can use at our own discretion. It’s in these slivers of the clock that other people try to fit their problems. The “monkey” sneaks in, and never leaves.

What to Do When You’re Asked to Take on a “Monkey”

Monkeys bite. They can carry rabies and other diseases and are considered nuisances in their native countries. In the same way, other people’s responsibilities that they try to pass off to us are time wasters and nuisances. So, how do we react when we experience this in our work life?

1. Turn it into a Question

We at BocaLead believe a great way you can keep the monkey off your back, and learn what the real issue is, is to ask, “What outcome are you looking for with this conversation?” or, “What are you trying to achieve?” Sometimes, we take on others’ problems without knowing what the problem actually is, so taking a few minutes to ask questions is vital in understanding what is really going on.

In addition to asking questions when someone wants to talk, you can also:

  • Show Empathy

Maybe all they want to do is rant. Just listen. Show care and empathy. Don’t take the problem onto yourself.

  • Use Your Expertise

The person may just need your help in making a decision. If you’re further along in business, this is a great opportunity to give some legacy expertise.

  • Use Your Experience

Sometimes, all someone needs is for you to be a sounding board – to listen and to repeat back to them what they’ve said. Speak to them about your own experiences, and don’t be afraid to use your failures. Remember that we learn as much from our mistakes as we do our successes.

  • Encourage and Energize Them

It’s possible the person really just wants to get out of doing the task they’ve been assigned and are trying to hand it off to you. This may be caused by laziness, fear, or lack of initiative. Remember that just because different people have different levels of initiative and ability, this doesn’t mean you need to do their job for them. Encourage them and give them the boost they need to handle it themselves.

Now, look back over this list. Taking five minutes to do one of these things can save you hours by keeping others’ responsibilities separate from your own, while also giving them what they need to accomplish the job themselves.

However, if you don’t have the five minutes to spare, take a look at the other three ways you can respond below.

2. Discuss the Issue or Schedule Time for Later

If you have time, you can choose to discuss and handle the issue, or you can ask them to schedule a time with you later to talk about it then. It’s so important to ask the other person to schedule the time, because if you take the responsibility to schedule it yourself, you have then taken on the “monkey.” If the issue is important enough to them, they will contact you to schedule time.

When scheduling time to discuss, remember two words: NO EMAILS. We have a policy at BocaLead that emails should only be used for the purposes of scheduling; not for discussing issues. Emails are the easiest way for someone to shift their responsibility onto someone else, not to mention that things like tone and intent can be easily misread in an email. We always recommend you meet either face to face, or in these times of social distance, voice to voice over the phone or Zoom.

Also remember that sometimes the issue someone brings you isn’t something you should be handling. It might actually be best handled by someone else. In these cases, you can quickly and easily tell the person who they should really be talking to about the problem, thereby keeping the issue out of your hands and in the right ones.

3. Take the “Monkey” and Solve the Problem Yourself

Choosing just to solve the issue yourself isn’t always, or even often, the best response. Sometimes, though, it’s the only one. In doing so, however, consider how much time this response will cost you. Decide how much time you will assign to resolving the issue for the other person, and stick to that limit.


The question we often ask at BocaLead is, “If we can’t lead ourselves, how can we lead others?” We believe leadership is a vital part of our lives, now, more than ever. During this time of change and upheaval, it is so important for us to step up as leaders in our communities and impact others for good.

We want to encourage you who join us in person or on our livestream, or who are reading this month’s Takeaway, to be intentional in reaching out to those that may be covering up some of their pain in these difficult times. It’s in the midst of difficulties when our character shines through.

We’ve created discussion questions below to help you do just that – to reach into others’ lives, and to help them think about the implications of the lessons taught in this BocaLead session. So, as you share this TakeAway, use these questions to start ongoing conversations with those around you. We can’t wait to hear about your stories from this exercise at the next BocaLead.


What is your biggest takeaway and why?

What specific steps can you take this week to implement one of the things you’ve learned?

Source: William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. “Who’s Got the Monkey?” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1999 Issue.


Engage With Other Leaders

eBook Download

Download Pastor Bill's eBook Not Life As It Should Be

Bad things routinely happen to good people. Discover the power of moving onward and upward.


Related Links

Hear Pastor Bill Sundays at 10:30AM Learn More

Come See What God is Doing

We're Right Around the Corner

Boca Raton Community Church
470 NW 4th Avenue
Boca Raton, FL 33432 | directions

Join us on Sunday at 10:30 AM

Stay Up to Date

We respect your privacy, and will only send out one newsletter per week.

© Copyright 2021 Boca Raton Community Church. All Rights Reserved.