Why does the small business owner always seem to work harder than their employees? Why are the employees the ones on the golf course on Saturday while the boss is in the office trying to catch up? Aren't the employees the ones who should be working overtime in the office?

Entrepreneurs are lousy delegators; they think they can do everything better themselves. If employees complain that something is too hard or if they poorly execute a task, the frustrated boss just decides to do it herself! It's like the monkey-on-the-back metaphor; employees give tasks to their bosses to complete instead of doing it themselves. Most business owners spend more time than they realize dealing with problems assigned by their employees. The more the boss tries to catch up, the more likely she is to fall behind.

Being able to delegate is a critical skill for any business owner, and it's important to have a team of productive employees to do the work. Take for example this typical scenario described in Harvard Business Review's classic 1974 article "Who's Got the Monkey," by William Oncken Jr. and Donald L.Wass.

Imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, 'Good morning. By the way, we've got a problem. You see….' As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, 'So glad you brought this up. I'm in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I'll let you know.' Then he and Jones part.

The boss now has the monkey! The employee has given the task to the boss! Sound familiar? Here, Oncken and Wass suggest these rules to get your employees' monkeys off  your back and get them to accomplish their own goals.

"Monkeys should be fed or shot. Otherwise, they will starve to death, and the manager will waste valuable time on postmortems or attempted resurrections." Give the monkey back to the employee immediately to accomplish or kill it by telling them they should not be working on it. That action needs to be taken at every interaction.

"The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed. Subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as [they] find time to feed, but no more. It shouldn't take more than five to 15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey." How many tasks can the employee handle at one time? This is a lot less than he thinks.

"Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The manager should not have to hunt down starving monkeys and feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis." There should be set appointments to talk about follow up and to address all of the employee's tasks at one time. No do you have a minute in your office tactics. It wastes valuable time.

"Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, but never by e-mail. (Remember: With mail, the next move will be the manager's.) Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of feeding." E-mail only extends the process and many times is not action-based.

"Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree of initiative. These may be revised at any time by mutual consent but never allowed to become vague or indefinite. Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the manager's back."  Set specific follow up tasks and dates for the employee to take action and accomplish his goals.

How many monkeys are you carrying on your back right now? Are you running your company or are your employees in charge?

This post first appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum.

About the Author(s)

Barry Moltz

Barry is a nationally recognized speaker on small business who has given hundreds of presentations to audiences ranging in size from 20 to 20,000. 

Speaker, Consultant & Author