Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Don't look now there's a monkey on your back.


Why can't you do it?
Why can't you set your monkey free?
Always giving into it
Do you love the monkey or do you love me?

~ George Michael


A fellow Grady doctor-friend sent me this really great article from the Harvard Business Review a few years back. It was a short read geared toward business leaders and managers called "Who's got the monkey?" Honestly, I'd skimmed it back then and had forgotten about it. Then I haphazardly ran across it again a few days ago and reread it. This time, it really resonated. The idea behind it was one I know well but hadn't really thought of this way.

Until pretty recently.

Okay, so check it. You run into someone in the hallway. They tell you of a problem or an issue. And you listen and nod and make a few suggestions. Then you agree to "check on a few things" or "look into it." And the minute you do, according to the author, you have taken the monkey off of their back and placed it squarely upon your own.


The author goes on to make a few suggestions that help with not taking the monkey. Or rather, how to close the loop and make a plan that leaves the person with the full understanding that this monkey is theirs and not yours. Or, at least, it's mostly theirs and you are not the primary caregiver of the monkey--they are.

So that. Yeah, that got me thinking. Thinking about how many monkeys I take on and also how many of those pesky little critters I try to put off onto someone else without even thinking. George Michael said it best:

"Watch out! Baby who's that? Don't look now--there's a monkey on your back!"

Of course these monkeys aren't only in the work place. Of course not. They're dangling off of cell phone calls and leaping between emails and swinging from text message to text message. Sometimes it's in the form of someone just "running something by you." Other times they come with a clear declaration of what it is:

"Dude. We've got a problem."

"We do?"

And just like that, out jumps the monkey. So you listen. Then you tell yourself that it's okay to take on one more very small and well-behaved monkey. I mean, taking care of such monkeys is what you do, right?


See, that's the hard part. For a lot of folks, taking on monkeys is what they do. And my hand is raised high because, Lord knows, I've been known to even solicit my share of back monkeys--especially in the work place. And all of it is a struggle because some part of not only my job but my life involves this. Not to mention it's also just a part of who I am.

Then there are the emotional monkeys. Other peoples' personal burdens and mental blocks that they have chosen to discuss with you on a regular basis. Now. I'd be lying if I didn't say that I, too, am guilty of this. Because emotional monkeys can be the hardest and most exhausting to care for.


You get a call. It's a friend who is flying on one wing about something or maybe you are the one doing the calling. You talk and one person asks the other what they think. One person says reassuring words that make the other feel better. And, after a while, that becomes a regular occurrence. Which means that the monkey has now just found a new home.

Recently, I was talking to friend. And that friend began telling me about an issue shared in confidence with them (not me) about another mutual friend. And there was true concern in this conversation and not one drop of gossipy-empty-messiness. No there was not. So I listened and I nodded. I asked a few questions and explored what this all meant. Then, this friend said:

"So what should we do?"

And just as I parted my lips to answer, I heard George Michael warning me in my ear. Watch out! Baby who's that? I pulled my shoulder to the side quickly to keep that monkey from jumping onto my back.

Surely did.

The person had spoken to my friend, not me, about this problem. And yes, I imagine that the person of concern likely could ask my thoughts on this but, as of right now, they hadn't. No they had not. So this? This was someone else' monkey for now. That they were trying to give to me. Despite the very best of intentions, I recognized it for what it was.

"I need you to get involved," my friend said. "I suggested they talk to you."

"But they talked to you. What did you say?"

"I wasn't sure what to say so I just listened. This is the second time they talked to me about this and last time I encouraged them to get your insight."

"My insight?"

"Yeah. Your insight."

"Dude. You're trying to give me the monkey."

"The what?" my friend replied with a laugh.

"The monkey. The one that's on your back. You're trying to give it to me. But it's your monkey. Not mine."

And my friend just paused for a moment and tapped their fingers on their lips while staring at me. We faced each other down. And eventually we both had to just laugh out loud.

"Dude. I'm tired. Like, I'm out of things to say," my friend finally admitted.

"Yeah. This sounds heavy. And I agree that we both care about this person but let me suggest what I think you should do. And then you can take or leave that advice."

And so. I employed the business guru approach. We identified the issue and what is needed. We explored a plan of action. Then we agreed to revisit the concern later -- and not in the hallway. That follow up will be a dedicated discussion because formality puts the monkey under a spotlight. Those hallway pow wows lead to some of the stealthiest monkey relocations.


I have thought of this a lot. And I'm not saying that this means that you should just shut any and every person down who comes in your direction needing your help. Not at all, actually. Sometimes, it's good to take on another monkey. Like, sometimes it's the absolute right thing for you to do and not doing so would be wrong on several levels. But sometimes? Sometimes the smarter thing is just to pet that monkey where it is and send it home with its rightful owner. I don't always know which is which. And therein lies the problem.


So me? I'm just trying to pay attention. Especially when my life is super busy like it is right now, I want to be careful with taking on monkeys but equally thoughtful about the monkeys I try to pass on to someone else. Because I know that feeling of relief that comes with pushing a metaphorical monkey--emotional or work-related--off onto another person. Yet I also know all too well the feeling of being that other person, banging the heel of my palm into my forehead and asking myself why, why, why or how, how, how did I become responsible for this random monkey? And don't even get me started talking about the whole pride issue that comes from being the "go to" person. You know--the kind that leads to boundary crossing and getting swirled up into things that are way, way out of your lane.


So me? I'm prepared to shock the monkey, man. (Yes, the answer is in yet another 80's Billboard hit.) Shock the monkey, people. No, not shock him by never allowing him to ever get on my back, but instead only bringing him on with my permission.


"Don't you know you've got to shock the monkey?"

~ Peter Gabriel

Happy Tuesday. This could make perfect sense to you. Or none at all. (If it's the latter, blame it on me being up late.)

Now playing full volume on my mental iPod. . . . wisdom of the '80's!

First. . . . . ."Monkey" by Geo. Michael.

and then this little gem. . . . Peter Gabriel rocks out to "Shock the Monkey."


  1. I wonder if this could transfer over to the problems in Syria?

    I am reminded, in all seriousness, of the Buddhist/meditation term of "monkey mind," the thoughts that leap here, there, everywhere. The aim of meditation (if there must be an "aim") is to still that monkey brain or at the very least just observe it without judgement.

    1. I love this idea. I pray but I don't meditate enough. The closest I get is when I run without music. I like the idea of stilling the monkey.

      As for Syria, I can definitely see a parallel. But it sounds like most of our combat stems from monkeys--the question remains, which ones do we feed?

  2. Stayed up too late, got up too early but I can still recognize a brilliant post when I read it!

  3. Wow. This one hit me squarely between the eyes...mortal wound! I have a terrible habit of picking up monkeys that need to stay right where I found them. Courtesy of this post, I will now be thinking about whether I should just be petting that monkey and walking away every time I find myself in this situation. Thank you for giving me the mental picture that will allow me to crystallize the issue and address it!! Brilliant indeed.

    1. Girrrrl, it was a mortal wound for me, too. It's so hard to figure out when to take something on and when to pull back. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mama D!

  4. One of my wisest friends had a saying which is perfect here. When someone tried to dump their problems on him, he would say, "Not my monkey. I'm not going to feed it."
    I used to take on everyones' monkeys and feed the hell out of them. Guess what? They grew and they grew and I WASN'T REALLY HELPING ANYONE and I was screwing up my own life. This is what some refer to as co-dependence.
    I don't do that any more. I don't take on monkeys unless it is the true, right, moral thing to do. I have my own. Trust me. And I'm not trying to get anyone to take mine on either.

    1. Your friend was super wise for sure. I like the point about them growing and NOT REALLY HELPING ANYONE and screwing up your own life in the process. I am still striving to not only push away the monkey's that aren't mine, but also not push mine on others."

  5. I have a monkey habitat on my back, I needed to hear these words and with my busy fall, start plucking them off back to their original homes.

    1. Okay, but you have to keep me in your collection because your back is super warm and cozy for me. Ha ha ha. Seriously, though, I hear you. And I appreciate your friendship which I hope does not feel like a monkey on your back!

  6. Wow! I really needed to read this today. Someone tried to give me a monkey this morning and I have been feeling annoyed but now I am going to give it a pat and let it stay right where it belongs!I am sooo guilty of grabbing monkeys when I probably really don't need to even be patting them much less taking them on as a personal pet. I shall be mindful when at the zoo...
    Coach B

    1. I love it, Coach B! And you know how much I miss you. I doooooo!

  7. That actually comes from the book "The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey". My counselor suggested that I should read it a few months ago. I was able to order it through Thriftbooks.com, but there isn't a Kindle or Nook version of it. It's a fantastic book, but harder to practice in reality, we get so used to all those monkeys.

    1. Actually, it's the opposite way around, Lisa. The original article in HBR was written by a guy named Oncken in 1974 and has been republished and passed around for ages. Ken Blanchard, the mind behind the One Minute Manager books, crafted a version of his book in 1991 based on this article. Oncken is even one of the contributing authors. I loved the One Minute Manager so will totally download this version. And yes, it is very, very hard to practice, isn't it?

  8. omgosh....I love this post! and a great way to think about it!!! Don't you think all of us who take on other people's monkeys never ask anyone to take one of ours?...This and "stay in your own lane" are two of my favorite sayings lately...thank you!

  9. I heard about this a couple of years ago, and it's something that I have to consciously remind myself NOT to do. It's so easy to take other's burdens on as our own, and then we become overwhelmed.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Oh, and by the way- I've been reading your blog for over a year now, sharing it with friends and my husband and I think this is the first time I've commented! I love your blog and I'm so grateful for your willingness to share your stories. All of them.

  10. Along similar lines: "Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy" is Polish for, "Not my circus, not my monkey", which has been my new favorite saying when I find myself accepting monkeys.

  11. Right on time! I have been super stressed lately (to the point of having palpitations) over all these daggone monkeys. My coworker just commented this morning about how we 'got that monkey off our back' when another group tried to push THEIR project on us...again! I looked at her like she made a racist remark...then Lo and behold I read this post!

    I.needed.this! Just thank you for doing what you do.



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