Recognizing ‘Monkey Business’ Helps Defining Work Boundaries

Recently, a friend of mine was frustrated because she had more than enough work to do and certain people, who appeared either helpless or entitled, dumped their work on her. Sound familiar? If not, you might be unaware of this inequitable “work transfer” happening within your own team or organization. We get so accustomed to this dynamic it is sometimes hard to recognize. Many of the women Debbie and I coach feel like they must take on this extra work, that it is somehow part of their job or they need to please the people they work with by “being a team player.” This dynamic causes stress and unhappy and dysfunctional work environments. My friend was experiencing all of this when she came to me with her complaint.

Gain clarity to avoid the monkey business
I shared with my friend a lesson I learned from a former boss that helped give me clarity on responsibilities at work and freed me from the monkey business. My boss had a bowl full of plastic monkeys on her desk in her office. When someone came in to ask her to solve a problem, she would first ask herself, "Is this my job or action to take?" If the answer was no, she gave the person a monkey and explained that the monkey was theirs to solve.

Yes, I got a monkey on that visit, but I admired my boss because she didn’t deliver the message with a negative or belittling tone. She explained in a humorous way that she was working on communicating her boundaries more clearly. Taking that monkey away with me helped reframe my expectations and inspired me to act. Although this happened years ago, the concept stuck. The image of that plastic monkey reminds me to think first –whose job is this? Am I trying to transfer my monkey to someone else? Is someone else trying to give me their monkey? Let's face it, we all have enough to manage with our own monkeys!

What to do with that monkey on your back
People try to give you their monkey because they don't think they have the ability or power to solve the issue. This behavior can be due to the organization’s culture where every move must be approved by someone higher, or worse, the boss changes or rejects almost everything because it wasn't done the "right" way. These are two ways organizations and leaders take away agency from people– they are trained to give their monkeys away.

So, what can you do about this?

If you are the boss:
1. Speak about boundaries – yours and the people that work for you. Be clear about your expectations around work statements, level of quality, policies, practices, and communication.
2. Consider the monkey metaphor. You might use a bowlful of monkeys to make the point in a fun, positive and encouraging way. When someone tries to give you their monkey, use the opportunity to reiterate why this is their monkey and not yours. Let them know they have this job for a reason, the biggest of which is that you have faith in their ability and reiterate that they have the power to solve the issue.
3. Finally, when the person comes back with their response, thank them, and accept their solution, assuming that they did meet expectations. (If they did not meet expectations, then there is a different conversation needing to happen.) 

If you are the colleague (my friend):
1. Speak about boundaries. Defining boundaries also works with people who are your peers. By being clear with your intent and letting them know that you are working on honoring your own boundaries, as well as theirs, you are focusing on the work and not personality or emotion.

2. Use or create concrete work statement definitions, responsibilities and expectations. If needed, work with your boss and teammates to create these together. This negotiation discussion could end up changing your understanding of the work and boundaries may adjust overall and be a positive outcome for your team.
3. Consider the monkey metaphor. The Polish proverb – not my circus, not my monkey – can be particularly freeing for those trapped in the cycle of taking on too much at work. When we empower others to solve their own problems, the team is stronger.

bowl full of plastic monkeys

Eventually, we all experience a boss or colleague with unclear monkey boundaries. Remember you have options! Do your best to create boundaries by documenting your work and having regular conversations with the team about behaviors, progress and results. Continue to work on issues in a professional way. If you find yourself in a no-win situation, where after clear communication boundaries are still ignored, then it might be time to find a different situation. Always work to retain your personal power and you may find that your leadership example will influence your boss or colleague positively and everyone will benefit. Remember when someone is trying to give you their monkey, check yourself and others on boundaries and repeat ‘not my monkey, not my circus!’  


Want more help defining and keeping boundaries? Read more on this topic from the Seasons Leadership blog The Almanac:

Boundaries – set, honor, survive: a “how to” guide

Practicing resilience in your daily life

Get on my calendar

Susan Ireland draws on 30+ years of leadership experience in corporations to help people positively impact the world. As an ICF-Certified Professional Coach, Susan works with executives, entrepreneurs and leaders at all levels to enhance their leadership and business acumen, encourage self-discovery and turn challenges into positive results. Her belief in the unique value of individuals and appreciation for the wonder and awe of their journeys inspires enduring, transformative change.

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