In 1974, Oncken Jr and Wass introduced 'problem monkeys' as a visual tool for tackling various time management issues. The jovially visual analogy aimed to help managers recognize when they were taking on too many employee problems, or tasks.  Without such whimsical metaphors, we've discussed how the pitfalls of upwards and sidewards delegation and how to avoid it whilst constructively dealing with the issue.

Imagine you're working on an important task, and a co-worker interrupts to ask for your help. They indicate they've hit a dead-end, have a problem they can't solve. The task they're working on needs co-operation from another department that won't reply, and the software they're using is highly technical and overly confusing for their skillset.  Given your competency and strong relations with other departments, they ask your advice and after a half hour discussion, you realise you have to get back to your task at hand- so you promise to find a solution later, and offer support to your coworker.

In this scenario, you've relieved the team member of their task as they now won't progress on it until you have completed your newly assigned roles in the problem solving. You're now accountable, and as someone depends on you to progress the task, the urgency of said task should therefore increase in your time management. This is not ideal.

We believe that managers and teams should aim to better each other, improve the possibilities, development, opportunities and productivity of all. A 'problem' should be that deemed urgent. Therefore, taking on a problem means dedicating immediate time to something - and therefore delaying other operations. When possible, we should always seek to empower team members in their own tasks and give them the tools and knowledge to complete their assigned work appropriate for their role/job description. Should a team member constantly be seeking additional support, they may be in the wrong role for their talents, and a productive analysis between employer and employee can lead to more constructive output of their skills.

Whose problem is it to solve?

Define whose job description is linked with the task.
It's important to be alert to 'upwards-delegation', that is, employees passing their work to their manager. And sideways-delegation, of team members giving away tasks they don't want to do (or think they can't do).

Is the problem clear?

Defining a problem can be tricky and without a clear understanding a solution may not be found. Ensure that the problem is clarified before wasting time on a solution.

Can this problem be handled alone?

Before taking on someone else's problems, and making them dependent on you, seek opportunities to help them work on it alone (effectively). When you take on tasks from others, you encourage them to continue burdening you with further tasks in the future. Don't be the go-to person for unwanted or complex tasks, or you'll never finish your own work. Before offering a solution, ask the team member what they think they should do - give them the opportunity to solve the task themselves, and offer a peer review. If your expertise is required, aim to give them the advice to handle the solution themselves - it'll be an esteem boost to them and keep your precious time as your own.

Feed the task, or kill it.

Prioritizing is important. Take a step back and decide how urgent the problem is in the grand scheme of things. If it doesn't need solved right there and then, consider killing it - i.e.g don't let it distract you or your team when it shouldn't. If it's deemed fairly important, consider 'feeding it' by assigning time to it. Should you decide to dedicate your own time to it, clearly assign time for yourself and the team member to go through the problem. If you're unable to solve it in the allocated time, be sure to arrange another clearly defined time to keep it under control.

Note: Wednesday at 1pm is clearly defined time. 'Later' is not clearly defined time.

Problem handling rewards.

Handling a problem does not have to mean taking ownership and responsibility for it. By effectively aiding team members to handle their own issues you'll reap such benefits as:

  • Greater job satisfaction for your team members- due to their ability to solve complex or troublesome tasks assigned to them.
  • Increased problem-solving skills- both your ability to help others, and their ability to help themselves.
  • Effective time management. You won't be taking on hours and hours of extra work, and leaving other team members waiting hours and hours for you to allow them to progress to the next steps.
    In Ken Blanchard's 'One Minute Manager', he paints the picture of a boss sat at his desk at the weekend, realizing the large pile of work on his desk belongs to the same employees that are currently out on the golf course having fun and hoping their work is done for them come Monday morning. Immediately the boss goes home to spend a relaxed weekend with his family, ready to hand the work back to those that should be responsible for it.  Blanchard highlights that managers could get bogged down trying to do the work of their four team members, alongside their own.


Manage your time effectively by structuring your own tasks, and helping others structure their own tasks. Know your physical capacities and limitations. Prioritize your workload.

It is easy to be led off track by a genuine desire to help, and whilst it's commendable to be selfless there does need to be thoughtful structure in place for how to effectively help others without creating more future problems from poor time management.

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