A Barrel of Monkeys Create A Power Struggle


I played with my barrel of monkeys to the extent that I decided I wanted to and being a four-year old bent on testing the boundaries, got up and walked away from them. Yes, in case you are wondering, the walk away included leaving the monkeys spread all over the floor; not put away as the rules called for.

This scenario sets the stage for dynamics that play out in living rooms, board rooms, team meetings and many supervisor to worker interactions daily.

As the script so predictably would call for, mother enters stage left. “CORA CELESTE, GET IN HERE.”

I wandered in, plastering on my best Alfred E. Newman, “What? Me?” face. Standing over the monkeys spread out all over the floor, is my mother. She has “that” look, complete with hands on hips and tapping toe. Is this a universal pose for mothers? She strikes a new pose as one hand comes off the hip and aims at the monkeys with accusation. “Why are these not picked up young lady?” As any self-respecting red-headed Irish girl would answer, “I don’t WAAAANT TO,” delivered with my own look of defiance. “Do it NOWWW,” is the reply.

Battle lines were now drawn. Sound vaguely familiar?

Engaging in this battle resulted only in tears and shrieks of frustration; yet not one single monkey had moved from the floor to the barrel.  So mother called in the heavy artillery. The battle cry echoed through the house. “Ronald, your daughter is not doing what she is told.”

In the business world the script typically calls for this role to be played by the next level in the hierarchy, or the compliance police in human resources.

In this particular story, the script takes an interesting turn. My father was not one to engage in power struggles; he found empowerment to be a far more effective strategy.

“Cora, before you took out your barrel of monkeys, did you not remember the toy rules? That you are to put away what you take out when you are done with them?” “But I DON”T WANT TO PUT THEM AWAY RIGHT NOW!!”

“Ok. Well, you have a few choices. You can choose to pick them up now and join the family in watching Gunsmoke. Or, you can choose not to pick up the monkeys now, in which case you will need to go to your room by yourself until you decide to pick up the monkeys.  Finally, if you decide not to pick up the monkeys by the time I go to bed and I have to pick them up, you will no longer have a barrel of monkeys. Your choice. You decide.

One of the most common fought over commodities is power; and the best strategy for gaining power in a conflict is to give power. By giving power one gains power.

Whether a four-year old or a forty-year old in the midst of a power struggle, the behavior may look a little different, but the dynamics will remain consistent; and although this four-year old continued to throw a temper tantrum, my father calmly continued to resist my invitation into a power struggle by placing the choice in my hands. “Cora, make your choice; I will give you a few minutes to decide to pick up your monkeys and put them away, go to your room and pick them up later, or not pick them up and no longer have a barrel of monkeys.” Then he calmly walked away.

Obviously I was a bit of a challenger and felt the need to exert my independence; therefore I could not simply pick up my monkeys. So I chose option B. I went to my bedroom (loudly stomping my feet mind you) just long enough to show I was in “control.” A short time later (after all, I was missing Gunsmoke) I came down quietly and put all the monkeys back in their barrel and put them away. I then went into the living room, crawled onto the couch next to my father, and proceeded to watch Gunsmoke with my family.

How had my father gained power?  By empowering me to have control of my choices, he ended the power struggle and achieved the outcome.

What is the bigger picture in this scenario? Of course we all know demanding compliance through formal power exists as an option. So what is gained with empowerment? Compliance may complete the task short-term. Long term, empowerment teaches cause and effect, imposes accountability and aligns decision-making (if I take a toy out, I will be accountable to putting it away, causing me to think before dumping all the monkeys out on the floor next time). Simply put, compliance focuses on the person, empowerment focuses on the decision.

When I am “told” what to do, who might I hold accountable to the outcome? When I experience cause and effect and am empowered to make a decision, whom might I hold accountable to both the action and the decision? How might either approach influence future actions and decisions?

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