Don't Take the Monkey From Your Employee's Back

Solving Everyone's Problems Is No Way to Run an Agency

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Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
Small agencies are great places to work for people like me. I like to get my hands dirty. For example, this morning I got up early and came to work so I could draw some storyboard pencils for one of my art directors. It was therapeutic to just sketch away. The rest of my day wasn't nearly as much fun, running from meeting to meeting to deal with the analytical part of my job. I like doing the work, even the menial task of drawing a layout. I miss it. And therein lies a potential problem. If I take on my employees' problems, they don't learn, grow, gain confidence or feel gratified.

I learned this from an article I read on the Harvard Business Journal website. The article explains how a problem is like a monkey -- one that can easily leap from your employee's back to your own if you're not careful. This really opened my eyes. I began to think back on the past. Monkeys were all over me. That wasn't because of my employees but because of me. I'm a doer and I'm a fixer. I'm the good scout, the big brother who sticks up for his younger, weaker siblings. In other words, I'm the problem.

The most illuminating part of the article was that the manager who takes monkeys on without hesitation doesn't do his own job as well. That made me remember one of the most repeated criticisms my employees make about me: "You don't have time for me."

I finally realized why I didn't have the time my employees deserved: I was too busy taking on the problems they should be solving.

Now this was a humbling revelation. One of the reasons is because, though my desire is to help people, I'm not allowing them to grow into problem solvers themselves. Secondly, by solving others' problems, I'm not solving my own, resulting in the very same people seeing me as unavailable to them.

The article finishes up by telling managers to check their motives for being a monkey burro: Will I feel less useful, strong, or relevant if I don't take on the monkeys? Ouch. I'm going to have to say there might be something to that. When you've worked in a small agency for a long time, you only feel normal if you're doing everything. The final point given is that a person can't keep the monkey where it belongs (on an employee's back) unless the employee trusts that it's safe to make mistakes. As obvious as that might seem, when an agency has high standards, it is even more likely that an employee would fear the consequences of a mistake.

So I've made myself a promise. I'm going to remember that as cute as that monkey is, it's not mine. I've got my own and that should be enough.

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