I just finished the book, “Shifting the Monkey”, by Todd Whitaker. In this book, the author defines “monkeys” as responsibilities, obligations, and problems that we deal with each day at work. William Oncken, Jr., and Donald Wass first introduced the concept of out-of-place monkeys in their article called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1974. Whitaker takes the concepts of monkeys further by distinguishing three types of leaders, which he calls Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Tier 1 leaders are simply interested in shielding themselves from monkeys and danger. Tier 2 leaders protect themselves and their good workers. Tier 3 leaders go beyond shielding themselves and their good workers; they structure the organization so that things go well even when the boss isn’t around.
As school leaders, we must learn to identify the multitude of monkeys that exist in organizations and the employees who happily pass their share of these monkeys to other employees who care enough about the success of the organization to accept them. These monkeys can include the Fear Monkey, the Guilt Monkey, the Responsibility Monkey, the Concern Monkey, the Extra-Work Monkey, and so on.
The three questions about organizational monkeys that all leaders should ask are:
- Where is the monkey?
- Where should the monkey be?
- How do I shift the monkey to its proper place?
The author also describes several destructive monkeys that leaders often shift to members of their organization. One of these is the Blanket Monkey, where in the effort to correct the behavior of one or two employees, the leader issues a blanket warning or decree to all. It is used when the leader does not want to deal a person or group individually. The author argues that this approach is almost always ineffective, and is often destructive as it places several types of monkeys, such as Guilt and Fear Monkeys, on your average and best performing employees. Never dish out mass punishments or implement policies that make it harder for everyone, when just a few employees are causing the problem.
One of the most destructive is the Blame Monkey, often employed by ineffective leaders who act as if nothing is ever their fault. These highly destructive managers lay all problems at someone else’s feet and immediately look for an employee, policy, or supervisor to use as a scapegoat. When a problem rises, these leaders duck and let the monkeys land on someone else’s back. Good leaders understand that they get to take credit for things that go right, but that they also must accept responsibility for problems and failures. Instead of wondering, “How do I protect myself?” a great leader asks, “How do I protect my good people? How do I make the world a better place?”
Two management techniques recommended in the book are to practice anonymous public praise and to ignore complaints by the poor performers. By practicing anonymous public praise, we focus on the vast majority of employees who are doing the right things and have good intentions. And by ignoring the comments and complaints of poor performers, we ignore their attempts to shift their monkeys to you or other members of the organization.
When it comes to management and educational strategies books, I like ones that can be read quickly and the main points easily gleaned. This book fits the bill and is one that should be read by all school leaders. It’s about protecting your best employees and holding your worst performers accountable. It also deals with the ways that misguided leadership practices can damage a workplace and make life miserable for a lot of people. As most leaders will attest, some team members are experts at shifting monkeys. Recognizing when this is happening and becoming skilled in preventing it is something that every school leader should master early in their careers.