Monkey Business

Monkeys should be fed or shot!

“Monkey business” is a popular game in hierarchical organisations: the aim of the game is to delegate tasks from the bottom to the top wherever possible. Managers find themselves having to deal with the fact that tasks originally delegated to subordinates end up back on their desks. In isolated cases, this may be because they delegated incorrectly in the first place or asked too much of their subordinates. However, it is often simply part of the monkey business.

In 1974, in what is still one of the most frequently read articles in the Harvard Business Review, Oncken and Wass described this phenomenon and proposed the following mechanism for it.

Managers have three types of time available to them: boss-imposed time, i.e. time used for activities required by their bosses or the employment contract; system-imposed time, which is determined by system requirements; and self-imposed time. In recent years, system-imposed time has grown, reducing the available amount of self-imposed time and competing with core business, i.e. the assigned task itself. If managers do not fulfil their boss-imposed tasks adequately, they can expect adverse reactions and possible penalties. If system-imposed tasks, e.g. quality management or time recording, are neglected, the reaction is somewhat less harsh. So where is the room for flexibility? It goes without saying that this is found in self-imposed time, which in turn must be divided into “subordinate-imposed time” and “discretionary time”. “Subordinate-imposed time” is when managers have to deal with work that was originally delegated to a subordinate. “Discretionary time” is the remaining time, which nobody checks and which can be used strategically for personal development and for making a specific impact on the organisation. The prize question is therefore: how can managers increase their “discretionary time”? This is obviously only possible by reducing “subordinate-imposed time”, i.e. by reducing delegation from below. So, what are the monkeys here?

Oncken and Wass use the metaphor of a “monkey” to describe a task delegated to a subordinate. If the manager happens to bump into the subordinate, the latter may say something along the lines of: “Hi boss. I’m glad to see you. We have a problem!” At this point, the monkey is on the subordinate’s back, but the aim is to hand the monkey over to the boss during the encounter. The monkey is transferred with a “Could you have a look at this?” or “You’re the one who has to make this decision”, and as they go their separate ways, the monkey is on the boss’s back. If the boss has several subordinates and each subordinate has several monkeys, the monkey population in the boss’s office rises. There are also numerous “mail monkeys”, which can be passed on as attachments.

With the hand-over of the monkey, responsibility for monitoring progress is handed back, and subordinates start asking the manager how things are going with the monkey. In a certain sense, they have become the manager’s boss.

Frequent upward delegation of tasks from subordinate to manager results in decreasing availability of their “discretionary time”, concomitant declining influence, and fewer possibilities for shaping the organisation.

So, the new basic rule is that monkeys will sleep just as well in the subordinate’s office as they do in the boss’s office. However, in-between they can be specifically fed by both the subordinate and the manager, which is short-term processing of the task within the framework of a mutually agreed appointment.

To successfully prevent the upward delegation of tasks, Oncken and Wass recommend the following rules for handling monkeys:


1. Monkeys should be fed or shot.

2. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number that a manager has time to feed.

3. Monkeys should be fed by appointment only (15 minutes at most per feeding).

4. Monkeys should always be fed face-to-face or by telephone.

5. Monkeys should always have an assigned next feeding time.


The aim is to recognise the monkeys in your surroundings and to ensure that they don’t live with you, so that you can make more time for the two main career boosters: strategic networking and self-marketing.