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Written by Mike Ellison   
Friday, 02 October 2009

While serving a mission in South Africa, three missionaries in my district and I decided to go for a scenic bike ride on P-Day. The plan was to visit Cape Point—where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet—and enjoy the natural beauty of the countryside along the way. The isolated road we followed was carved into a steep mountainside that ascended from the ocean below. It was lush and full of trees, vines, and bushes.

While we were riding leisurely, the trees and bushes above the road started to shake and rustle. Loud noises and what sounded like screams came from the dark undergrowth. Almost immediately baboons were running onto the road beside us. Adrenalin kicked in and away we went.

Baboons have long fangs and do not have cute and cuddly dispositions. They can be very dangerous and cause serious injuries.

After we pedaled frantically and for what seemed to be miles, the shrill scream of the baboons finally faded, and we relaxed and coasted to a stop. We were lucky to get away without any problems and headed back to Cape Town for safety.

What does this have to do with technology or management? Most managers have heard of monkey management, where the monkeys (or issues) of team members are somehow passed onto the manager's back, and the manager carries the burden. There are times when accepting a monkey is appropriate, but too often managers carry monkeys that are better handled by someone else.

When I first learned of monkey management in my career, I immediately related it to the story of my leisurely bike ride as a missionary in South Africa. Even now when I hear of monkeys jumping on a manager’s back, I always visualize baboons.

More than just learning a metaphor, though, as a missionary I also learned a simple tool to manage monkeys. I once had a conflict with a newly called zone leader. He was older than most missionaries and had been an officer in the South African military. He was a bit strict and was causing problems for most other missionaries I spoke with. A situation arose, and I received a call from my mission president asking what the problem was. After I recited a laundry list of issues, he responded by setting up a meeting with me at our zone conference the next week.

When the day of the zone conference arrived, I was nervously excited about talking to him, because I was not the only one having problems with the new zone leader. I had complete confidence that the mission president would take care of the problem. Instead, I learned an amazingly simple method of handling monkeys. After the normal small talk, he asked four questions and gave one admonition:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. How can it be resolved?
  3. What can you do to resolve it?
  4. What are you going to do?
  5. Go do it!

He didn’t give me any advice at all – he hardly said a thing. I did all the talking. I was surprised at the direction of that meeting. Instead of telling me what to do or talking with the problematic zone leader, I was the one left with the list of action items for resolving the conflict. I was amazed at what I just witnessed.

He let me define the problem and possible solutions. At the time, I thought all of the solutions I proposed had nothing to do with me because I wasn’t the cause of the problem. But then he asked, “What can you do to resolve it?” I was left a little speechless. I wasn’t planning to do anything; I expected that he would handle the situation.

I finally got it when he asked, “What are you going to do?” I realized I had been taught by a master monkey manager. Could you imagine the mission president taking on all the monkeys for every missionary in the mission?

While the monkeys we manage as employees, managers, parents, or Church members are not as physically dangerous as the baboons I faced in South Africa, they can cause burnout and reduce our energy and effectiveness. The next time you see a person ready to dump his or her monkey, use this simple method. You will be surprised how easy it is to keep the monkey from jumping on your back.

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