Performance Management. It’s not your monkey…

I remember, looking back at my first job as a Personnel Officer that I took on all challenges with gusto and enthusiasm.  But there was one particular area that seemed to bring sorrow and a sense of impending doom to employees, supervisors, union convener’s and managers alike – Performance Management.

On any particular day I would see a procession of individuals, all complaining about the latest poor performer and looking to me to ’ ‘sort it out’, which at times seemed a big responsibility.

However over the years I have had two enlightening moments, which turned the tables for me both as an HR professional and a leader of teams of my own.

The first was provided by the very capable but modest HR Director where I had my first job.  After a few months of observing my progress he took me to one side and said:

Him: “You need to stop taking everyone’s monkey, young man”

Me: “I beg your pardon?!”

Him: “Look around you. Everyone has problems, and they wear them like monkeys on their backs, constantly niggling away at them and wearing them down.  The more problems they have, the more monkeys they have on their back, and the bigger the burden.  They can’t wait to get the monkey off their back and right now you are turning into Monkey Central!”

I know it probably sounds naive but as a green PO in my first gritty environment I hadn’t seen it and this was a light bulb moment.  Suddenly I could see monkeys everywhere and with the guidance of my boss, learnt the skills to deflect the monkey back to its rightful owner.

“It’s their monkey, not yours”

His words still pop into my head to this day.

The other light bulb moment came much later after discovering Jim Collins and his excellent book Good to Great.  Motivation is a much used term and as leaders we are often charged with ‘motivating’ our people.  So much so that the challenge of motivating a team, especially during difficult times can seem like an impossible task.

Well, I credit Jim with teaching me that I don’t have to motivate anyone.  It’s not my job. And neither is it yours if you manage or lead a team.  Why? Because as Jim quite rightly points out, our job is not to motivate, but to remove barriers and blockers to an individuals SELF MOTIVATION.

Without self motivation for what they do, people are rarely going to be able to excel in their job.

Taking responsibility for someone’s motivation, and ultimately performance, is simply taking on their motivational or performance ‘monkey’.   Pass it back and concentrate instead on what’s preventing them from finding the key to their own self-motivation.

Or, as my first boss said, rather mischievously at the end of that first conversation over 20 years ago:

“If ever you can’t pass the monkey back – then make sure you pass it on to someone else as quickly as possible!”

Remember, it’s not your monkey…


  1. Great post Gareth.
    You are not only right but also describe a common problems of all HR beginners in short yet precise way. And you are also right about fact that this is a lesson which lasts for rest of your career. Why? Because people will never stop passing their monkeys.
    As a HR pro. it might be a good idea to make sure people realise you are there to help yet nothing is better than making them understand a great benefits of dealing with their own monkey (and they are many).

    In regards to motivation: What an excellent way of describing role of ER and how removing barriers to self motivation makes perfect sense.
    Thank you for this post Gareth, it recovered some of my old thoughts and gave me lovely perception.


    1. Indeed Peter. Sometimes, when you are in the early stages of your career, the desire to develop can mean you perhaps get too involved and take on too many monkeys – i certainly did. Lickily i had a geed boss who steered me in the right direction.


  2. As someone that likes “getting things done” and used to fall into the trap of “its quicker if I do it myself” like you I’ve got fed up with everyone else’s monkeys. What I do now, and encourage clients to do, is to ask yourself “am I the best person to do this?” If you don’t have the skills and passion to achieve and it’s not your role I recommend delegating or outsourcing.
    Good read – thanks


    1. Yes we often thinks its best to ‘do it ourselves’ as you say. Tim Ferris in his book ‘the four hour working week’ really argues this point well. I know he is not everyone’s cup of tea, but his points about not doing stuff that is not reflective of your skills or value are quite pertinent. Thanks for the comment!


  3. I don’t disagree, but I do offer a note of caution here for HR people. One of the major factors in HR losing their focus over recent years in its desire to be more strategic is the attempted move to say that everything is “line manager” responsibility. Some of those monkeys ARE yours and you need to step up and take responsibility.

    If, for example, performance reviews aren’t taking place then the answer isn’t for you to do them, sure. But the fact that they aren’t taking place is your issue. Simply passing it off as someone elses fault/responsibility will not get things solved.

    Don’t take on other people’s problems, help them with them. But don’t use this as an excuse to shy away from the things that you don’t want to do through delusions of grandeur.


    1. Ah the voice of reason! lol. Good point, especially in relation to ‘Business Partners’. Unfortunately, I think Ulrich’s model has been taken too far and some of the Business Partner roles seemed to be created with this new sense of absolving responsibility. There was (is) nothing wrong with being a HR generalist and being in the thick of it. As long as you remember, in the context of this post, that a persons performance is their responsibility, not yours, or the line managers. One thing that struck me and something i didnt quite make clear in the post was how many line supervisors and line managers take on the monkey of one of their teams performance when in reality it should rest with the individual. Thanks for the comment and the note of caution!


  4. I remember a recent time when you told me the very same thing, be it regarding staff I managed directly or suppliers I was managing externally. To continue the monkey analogy, all is well and good to know in one’s own mind that this is not their monkey, but I have felt in the past that other people see someone’s monkey as on MY back – what would you say to that?


    1. I guess that depends! Whilst its OK to pass back someone’s monkey or avoid it coming your way if its not yours, by the same token, you cant pass off a monkey, or problem/challenge if its really yours.

      I’m not 100% clear on your comment, but I’m assuming you mean what if someone sees a problem/monkey as your monkey, rather than theirs that they are passing off? If so, only you really know if that is the case. If so, you have to become adept at explaining that whilst it might on the face of it look like yours, it is in fact not. This can be difficult if the person in question is as skilled a monkey passer as you!

      Seriously, if it really is yours – and you know in your heart of hearts if it is, then its yours to deal with. If its not, then you have to be brave and pass it back, with absolute clarity. Might help if, in passing it back you offer to help, but be clear that you are not, and shouldn’t, be taking responsibility.

      Hope that helps!


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