One of my personal rules is that my phone is always off when I’m with a client or conducting workshops because I believe they deserve 100 percent of my attention. Calls are returned and emails answered later.

While curled up in my hotel room one evening, I returned calls and answered emails. I saw that an acquaintance had called earlier in the day. She didn’t leave a message, so I did nothing, surmising she’d rung me by mistake.

When I saw her a week later, she was cool and clipped.

“Hey, is everything all right?” I asked, detecting the emotional distance.


“Anything I can do to help?”

“I’m mad at you.”

“Mad at me? Why?”

“You let me down.”

“How did I do that?”

“You didn’t call me back last week. I really needed to talk to you.”

“You didn’t leave a message.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Help me out. What’s the point I’m missing?”

“You saw that I called, right?”

“I did.”

“You should have called me to find out why I called you.”

Her expectation took me back years ago to a former boss. He kept a toy—barrel of monkeys—on his desk. When he gave anyone on his team an assignment, he gave us a plastic monkey and placed one on his desktop, telling us, “Now you know what to do, and I know what I asked you to do. We’re in this together.”

We returned the monkey to him when our assignment was complete. He’d return his monkey and ours to the barrel.

One day in a staff meeting, someone asked him why he kept a monkey when he gave us an assignment.

“It’s a symbol,” he said. “Giving you an assignment doesn’t take me out of the equation. I’m always responsible. I can’t give that responsibility away. I own it. The monkeys remind me of that ownership.”

“Is that something you’ve always done?” Asked a colleague.

“Early in my career, I asked an employee to do a task. He didn’t get it done, but I didn’t follow-up with him either,” replied my boss. “When my boss asked me why the work wasn’t done, I told him I’d asked an employee to do it and that the employee had failed to get it done. My tone obviously implied the issue wasn’t my fault. My boss looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Don’t paint yourself as the victim here. Assigning work to someone never takes the monkey off your back. You own it, no excuses, no blaming.’ I learned a big life lesson that day.”

The boss gave all of us a barrel of monkeys game at the next staffing saying, “Remember, if you need it or want it, own getting it done.”

I still have my barrel of monkeys. It’s a symbol to me, just like it was to that long ago boss.

That acquaintance tried to give me her monkey. She blamed me for not acting when she hadn’t made it clear she wanted action, so I refused to let myself feel guilty.

Unspoken expectations are tricky things.

I think that being a leader who is clear about he/she wants and who owns up and follows up is a double bonus recipe for liking ourselves and for working better with others.

Your thoughts?

Image credit before quote: Pixabay