Image of Man with Monkey

We work in an exceptionally hectic world, where a significant number of individuals grapple with endless “to-do” lists, which can be exhausting and stressful. Gallup’s research confirms that managers are more likely to be burned out and disengaged than their teams. Only 3 in 10 managers strongly agree their supervisor keeps them informed about what is going on within their organization, plus just 48% of managers strongly agree that they currently have the skills needed to be exceptional at their job. All adding to the stress of a people leader role.

It’s perplexing why, as a people leader, you frequently find yourself running out of time and feeling overwhelmed, while your employees appear to be under comparatively less pressure. To understand this phenomenon, we will look into the intricacies of time management and empowerment in the context of workplace dynamics between managers and their bosses, peers, and team members utilizing Strengths and coaching as a guiding framework to steer us towards a more optimal state.

“How does a people leader allocate their time?” Often, a leader can find it challenging to strike a balance in their workload, as they navigate their own projects, lead their teams, and fulfill the expectations placed on them. The classic HBR piece titled “Monkey On Your Back” highlighted the extent to which managers were shouldering the problems or responsibilities of others. Subconsciously, employees and peers can unload their challenges and ideas onto a manager, absolving themselves of responsibility. Over time, this can become overwhelming for a manager and also hinder the growth opportunities for the employees involved. This recurrent pattern results in diminished productivity, reduced engagement, and dampened motivation for everyone involved.

The Three Divisions of Your Leadership Time

The article “Monkey On Your Back” was originally published in 1974 and has been one of the HBR’s best-selling reprints ever since, as its content is still very relevant today. For its reissue, Stephen R. Covey provided commentary, and he speaks to three kinds of management time.

1. Boss-imposed time

This is the time you use to accomplish activities that your boss requires of you, and that cannot be disregarded without risking a direct penalty.

2. System-imposed time

This time is when peers ask for your support. Neglecting these requests may also result in penalties, such as relationship issues, though not always as direct as boss-imposed time requirements.

3. Self-imposed time

This time is your work hours dedicated to two sub-categories: subordinate-imposed time (aka Team Member-imposed time) and discretionary time. Subordinate-imposed time is dedicated to solving problems for team members that do not normally fall to you. Whatever hours remain is your discretionary time and includes ideas and projects that you originate as well as time for your health and wellness.

Crucial to harnessing the potential of your self-imposed time is realizing this time is not subject to penalty, since your boss or the system can’t discipline you as they did not know what you intended to do in the first place. You need to consciously prioritize and control the content of your self-imposed time to prevent fighting a feeling of being overwhelmed while attempting to meet your team’s many demands.

Image idea is of a professional at a desk piled high with project folders, etc. with a clock behind them

Time Management Solutions to Avoid the Monkey on Your Back

Addressing time management is crucial for you to alleviate the burden of competing demands. At the end of the day, you should not be the only one stuck at your desk with an unfinished to-do list.
As you have the most control of your self-imposed time, there are ways to enhance your subordinate-time and increase your discretionary time. The extra time this frees up can be strategically used to gain better command over activities imposed by superiors and peers. There are ways to enhance time spent on team member issues by harnessing coaching and strengths.
Using the metaphor of the “monkey on your back,” we can examine how team member-imposed time is created and explore proactive measures you can take.

So What is the Monkey?

Let us imagine a manager, Ted, is walking down the hall when he notices one of his employees, Jackie, coming his way. Jackie says, “Good morning Ted! By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jackie continues talking, Ted recognizes two characteristics common to all the problems his employees bring to him:

(1) Ted knows enough to get involved, but

(2) Not enough to make the on-the-spot decision Jackie is expecting.

Eventually, Ted says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m on my way to a meeting right now, but let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Notice how the responsibility of the problem (the monkey) went from the shoulder of Jackie over to Ted? Ted now has more to do, and Jackie is somewhat off the hook, at least for now. The “monkey” is the weight of all the tasks that leaders take on for their team members instead of empowering the team member to problem-solve for themselves.

Use Your Strengths and Coaching as a Time Management Solution

Manager Ted’s CliftonStrengths themes are Maximizer, Responsibility, Learner, Deliberate, and Empathy. With these strengths in mind, Ted’s natural talent of having a high level of Responsibility and desire to get to the best solution (Maximizer) is likely driving him to take on Jackie’s problem. However, if Ted continues to do this over time, he might become overwhelmed. An alternate approach for Ted could be to lean on his Learner strength to bring curiosity and a “coaching moment” to the conversation, and avoid the monkey on his back.

For example, Ted could have asked Jackie what she has learned about the problem, or what she needs to learn to solve it for herself. Ted might show Empathy with what Jackie is facing and partner his Learner strength with his Deliberate strength to help Jackie anticipate possible obstacles and solutions that she has not thought of yet.

Let’s take this a step further, examining how Ted could use his understanding of leadership strengths to empower his team to solve their own problems, providing Ted with more discretionary time in his workday. If Ted knew the strengths of his team members, then Ted could also tailor his conversation to make the most of Jackie’s strengths and perspective, communicating in a way that makes the most sense for her.

Using strengths and coaching this way can empower team members to solve for themselves. Putting the monkey back on Jackie’s shoulder by taking the time to coach her and by supporting her creative, solution-oriented process might take a little longer initially, but will also allow Jackie to learn, build her confidence and grow. In the long term, the result will help Ted to salvage his own time for his more important responsibilities and to become a better manager who is focused on talent development and creating a healthy workplace environment.

Do You Often Feel Overwhelmed as a Manager?

Are your managers and leaders taking on the “monkey” too quickly and missing the opportunity to empower team members to problem-solve for themselves? In those “monkey-moments,” instead of taking on more work, people leaders can learn to lean into their Strengths and learn to coach team members to solve for themselves!

At Churchill Leadership Group, we offer our “Leader as Great Coach” course to help your leaders expand their coaching capability and confidence and a variety of CliftonStrengths programs to empower talent of leaders and teams. We invite you to reach out to us today to learn more.



Jayne Jenkins – CEO, Churhcill Leadership Group

is the founder and CEO of Churchill Leadership Group. After 23 years as a seasoned Fortune 500 leadership veteran, working for AstraZeneca and Sanofi-Aventis, Jayne recognized the need to unleash untapped talent in the corporate world. Through her work in the US and Europe, Jayne observed many leaders and teams struggling to reach their full potential. Jayne’s years of corporate experience included building high-performance sales and operations teams, including an organization delivering annual revenue of $600 million.

In 2012, Jayne’s mission was to build a global coaching organization that could partner with corporate and government clients to maximize the talent they are already paying for! Today, Jayne is a certified Executive, Team, Strengths, and Conversational Intelligence® Coach. She proudly leads Churchill’s global team of over 400 coaches and SMEs in North and Latin America, Europe, The Middle East, and the Asia Pacific.

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