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Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and other Slackers

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Todd Whitaker 

Reviewed by Holly Chesser
{Headlines} February 2013

Whether the setting is a school, an office, or even your home, there’s always someone who doesn’t follow the rules. For instance, who hasn’t endured dirty cups or plates in the sink, left with the assumption that they will simply clean themselves? When the irritation becomes unbearable, an email is sent out or a meeting is scheduled to let everyone know that leaving a mess behind will no longer be tolerated. It’s a fair request, but you, who don’t drink coffee or never leave a crumb behind, react either with annoyance or guilt. Feeling that your tidiness is underappreciated or unacknowledged, you resent this blanket statement that applies to someone else. Or, as a classic overachiever, you accept the full weight of this rebuke and assume an additional role as maid. Meanwhile, the shirkers who regularly dump their dirty dishes are relieved to learn that they are not the only culprits and are reassured that individuals will not be held responsible. 

In Todd Whitaker’s leadership book Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and other Slackers, he argues that managers regularly place the burden of responsibilities on the wrong backs because they believe that it’s easier to shift monkeys than hold individual employees accountable for their own obligations. Whitaker acknowledges that all institutions have strong and weak employees. However, he contends that we place an inordinate attention on the latter at the expense of the former. The problem, Whitaker emphasizes, is not lazy or incompetent employees; rather, it’s that leaders allow them to shift their load onto others. Instead, he advises, great leaders should ensure that their top performers feel secure, valued, and autonomous.

Whitaker, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, former principal, and author of the national best seller What Great Teachers Do Differently, argues that the situation above occurs regularly at schools. Tight on time and anxious not to micromanage their staff, administrators, he claims, often unwittingly find themselves employing “blanket monkeys,” chastising everyone for the fault of a few. For example, at a faculty meeting, a principal may admonish her staff for failing to keep their grades updated on the school website, stating, “It’s critical that our students and their parents know on a current basis where they stand academically so that they can plan their efforts accordingly.” It seems like an effective and efficient message, but Whitaker contends it causes damage. The diligent teachers often bear resentment, and those to whom the comment is addressed don’t change their behavior. 

So what’s the answer? At the faculty meeting, he would focus exclusively on positive behavior, thanking those who have kept their grade books up to date and clarifying why this is essential for students who wish to take ownership of their learning. As for the slackers, Whitaker would recommend that the principal “take the issue directly to these few who behave inappropriately – not with ineffectual – criticism, but with firm enforcement of your expectations.” In this particular instance, he might suggest the principal ask any repeat offender to print his or her grades weekly and place the report in the principal’s mailbox. Importantly, the monkey – used metaphorically to represent the responsibility - is not shifted to the principal’s back; the teacher must ensure that he or she fulfills the obligation.

In this slim, quick read, Whitaker encourages leaders to continually ask three essential questions:

  1. Where is the monkey?
  2. Where should the monkey be?
  3. How do I shift the monkey to its proper place?

Likewise, he counsels leaders when seeking how to proceed to remember three paramount imperatives:

  1. Treat everyone well.
  2. Make decisions based on your best people.
  3. Protect your good people first. 

The obligation to live out the golden rule reflects Whitaker’s argument that the general spotlight should be on the positive, emphasizing the good work that is being accomplished. If a few of your teachers generally run late, don’t install a time clock for the entire faculty. Instead, explain why there is a need for punctuality and praise anonymously and publicly those who regularly arrive on time. Of course, top performers deserve recognition, which you can award privately, but they also desire autonomy, which you can grant confidently. Whitaker emphasizes the need to remember who’s in the majority – the good people – and how critical they are for the fulfillment of your institution’s mission and purpose. 

His last injunction to leaders to protect their good people first involves making it clear that placing monkeys in the right place is the leader’s responsibility, not theirs. Dedicated professionals often raise their hands first when assistance is needed. Whitaker encourages leaders to give those people occasional permission not to volunteer. Shift that monkey to shoulders that are rarely burdened. Your loyal, hard workers will know that you are looking out for them, and it will offer you the opportunity to assess the performance of those who rarely take up the slack and perhaps to help them build their capacity to assist the organization. As Whitaker explains, “Your people are not equal; they excel in different areas and should be treated accordingly. It’s OK to give preferential treatment to your superstars, as long as you give everyone else an opportunity to improve and shine.”

As Whitaker acknowledges, you can’t escape the zoo: monkeys are here to stay. But if you want to ensure that your teachers work in a positive, productive environment, it’s critical to make sure that individuals carry their responsibilities and only their responsibilities. Are you working to ensure that there’s no monkey business going on in your school?

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