Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

There’s a lovely expression that I came across a few years ago, that has helped me through some difficult and challenging situations: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Or, in the original Polish, “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.

The origins of the phrase are a little uncertain, lost to the mists of time and the obscure rabbit hole that is the internet. Which in no way keeps it from being a lovely turn of phrase.

It is often interpreted as a sign to not take oneself (or one’s job) too seriously. That the chaos around you isn’t your problem. That the problems belong to someone else, and therefore you’re probably better off to just ignore them and let them be. Given the figurative translation of the quote as “not my problem,” these would be fair interpretations.

But that’s not wholly where the value lies for me in the quote. Just assuming something isn’t my problem comes dangerously close to abdicating any involvement or role in resolving it. And it doesn’t do anything to identify whose problem something actually is to solve.

A different saying (because I seem to be all about the aphorisms today) is that “all communications problems are shared 60/60.” Now, that’s an interesting comment all by itself. It grabs your attention, because the numbers aren’t what you expect, and they don’t add up to the total you would presume they should. The point of the original speaker was that while a communication problem might well be shared, each of us owns going a little bit more than our fair share to trying to resolve the issue. And that if everyone does go a little bit further than just halfway, many of the communications problems that exist wouldn’t actually be problems.

Back to the circuses and monkeys, though. Part of what makes the proverb valuable is that it includes both circuses and monkeys, not just one or the other. It would be entirely easy to simply say, “Not my circus.” And just as easy to offer, “Not my monkeys.” But this is both. There is a circus, and there are monkeys, and just for the record, neither of them belong to me.

I’ve written before about the challenge of being a consultant, that you are outside of the system and yet trying to improve how it operates. This is an essential role, in that it provides perspective and objectivity. It affords the opportunity to see the bigger picture, to see improvement opportunities, and to be honest about the roadblocks and barriers that exist today. And while that’s all wonderful, the challenge of being a consultant is that you don’t own the problems, and you don’t own the solutions. You can recommend, but you cannot control. You can see an opportunity, but you can’t make someone else take it.

In other words, when you’re a consultant, you’re always dealing with someone else’s circus. They’re the ringmaster, and they control what happens in the tent. And whatever insights you might offer and recommendations you might have, it’s up to someone else’s monkeys as to whether anything gets done with them.

In this context, “not my circus, not my monkeys” isn’t throwing up my hands and saying “not my problem.” Rather, it’s a cautionary admonition that while I have a role to play, how my input gets used is entirely up to someone else. It recognizes that my role is passing and transitory. It also implies that if I’m going to have any impact whatsoever, it’s up to me to ensure that the advice, guidance and input that I provide is heard. And hearing that means not just that someone listened (or read my report). It’s that they understood, that they accepted and that they chose to do something with it.

This is an equally relevant quote when facilitating. The role of facilitator is again separate and distinct from the group being facilitated. They are there to have a conversation; the facilitator’s role is to create the environment for that conversation to occur as effectively as possible. That requires an interesting balancing act between creating the circumstances for allowing dialogue, without controlling how that dialogue occurs. The facilitator owns the process, but it’s the participants that own the content of their conversation.

This is a slightly more nuanced take on circuses and monkeys. Most facilitated conversations occur because they are important and unlikely to be successfully managed on their own. There is context and background shaping the conversation; that same context and background, though, also contains all of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that can prevent outcomes being realized. Sometimes they can keep the conversation from even starting properly in the first place. Circuses and monkeys take a back seat when there’s an elephant in the room that everyone sees, and no one is prepared to talk about.

Good facilitation addresses the elephant. And the circus. And the monkeys. A recent meeting I was facilitating, for example, involved a team that had been struggling from the outset to collaborate and work together. There were personality conflicts, there were differences of opinion on the purpose of the team, there were divergent views of the goals the team should be working towards and there was no agreement whatsoever on who was in charge.

It’s always interesting to walk into a situation like that, because you have no idea how it is going to play out. As a facilitator, I am absolutely clear about the challenges and difficulties that are present. I’m usually relatively aware of the dynamics in play and the tensions that exist. What I don’t know is how they are going to resolve themselves. Ultimately, it’s up to the group to work through. What I do know is that it’s my job to help them to find a way to work through it.

In the meeting at hand, the elephant was rarely as clearly drawn and visible as it was on that day. Having worked through an exercise to explore what was working and not working on the team, I—and everyone else in the room—was able to see that the group had been brutally honest in their assessment. There were numerous post-it notes on the wall that described clearly and vividly the dysfunctions and difficulties of the team. And while there were other issues present as well, team dynamics clearly represented the most significant challenge.

What was fascinating, though, was what happened next. The participants were asked to organize the contributions into meaningful groups of ideas that explained what was going on, and then prepare to present to the larger team the overall ideas that they were reviewing. All of the post-its notes about team interaction and conflict got clustered together, along with a few others. The team members that were presenting back that particular section walked through in reasonable detail all of the other issues, which were usually represented by one or two post-it notes. And for the large grouping about the team? Quite literally, the person speaking waved their hand over the pile of notes, uttered the word “politics” and moved on.

That was it. It was astonishing. And it was beautiful. And as a facilitator, you rarely get a better gift. But the key question is what to do with it when it’s offered to you. This was one giant elephant, so very clearly described, and yet so amazingly ignored and willed away. There isn’t a carpet in the world big enough for that elephant to be swept under, and yet that’s exactly what the team wanted to do.

It would be easy to go along with the presentation, thank the speaker, and carry on. To wilfully ignore the post-it notes. That would be the safe thing. It would avoid the conflict that lurked within a (large) handful of small, yellow pieces of paper stuck to a wall. It would keep the elephant alive another day. And it would absolutely the wrong thing to do.

With a muttered “not my circus, not my monkeys” under my breath, I dove in. “So tell me about the politics. What’s going on there? What’s happening? What’s the behaviour that you are seeing? Why do you think it’s happening?” There was a collective sharp intake of breath that was remarkable to experience in its own right. There was a quizzical look of “What? Are we really going there?” on the faces of some. And one brave soul started speaking. The conversation went from there.

So why did I utter “not my circus, my monkeys” under my breath? Largely, because it would have been easy to go along with the group and avoid the difficult conversation. In another time and another life, I might have done just that. And I would have completely abdicated my responsibility to the group. The group was there to have that conversation. It was my job to guide them through it. I needed to do that as safely as possible for the participants, and hopefully well, but going there was the entire purpose of the meeting.

The phrase, in that setting, meant a couple of things. For starters, I don’t own the political dynamics of the team. I’m not responsible for what has happened or why. I don’t own the solutions that will allow the team to move forward. It is their circus, and they have to dance with their own monkeys.

What I did own, though, was the room that we were in that day. I owned the process. I owned the space that the conversation would occur in—physically and metaphorically—and the way that the conversation would unfold. I owned the trust that the group (and the sponsor) had placed in me to have the conversation. That room was my circus, and I owned all the monkeys inside of it.

When there are problems, it’s easy to look the other way. It’s easy to do the safe thing. It’s easy to utter “not my circus, not my monkeys” and have it genuinely mean that it’s “not my problem.” And there are certainly times when it isn’t your problem. But there are also times when it is. When you do own the circus. When you are, in fact, ringmaster. And when the monkeys are all on your back. That’s when it’s time to step up and reinterpret just what that phrase actually means.

This is your circus. These are your monkeys. Have fun.

6 Comments to “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    Great article and perspective on this all to common attitude. We use a similar saying that involves a different venue and a farm animal however the concept is the same. I never really gave much thought to the actual meaning and implications of what we were saying. As a transplant from the municipal public safety space to private industry, I find it difficult at times to determine where my circus ends and which monkeys are actually mine. Your thoughts have given me some clarity to this that will be useful moving forward. The 60/60 concept is fantastic and should be included when initiating all new teams! Thank you for sharing!

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks, Michael, for the thoughts! Some great points. You’re right, sometimes there is some bleed of circus boundaries (and the monkeys don’t necessarily respect those boundaries anyway). And while formal role clarity is always helpful, it isn’t necessarily actually present. This has helped me to constructively define my role for me. Hopefully it helps for you, also!

  2. Inger says:

    I have this saying in my desk to remind me other’s work issues are not mine

    I enjoyed this take on it. I am always amazed that an outside facilitator can get groups to talk about “waving hands – politics “ in a team.

    I have seen this done before, before I knew the saying.

    As a team member it is often the eye roll that gets me the most at team meetings.
    When a discussion is really needed to deal with the source of the issue. But instead faces are made, hallway discussions are had and nothing changes.


    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Inger.

      You are absolutely right. It’s easy for there to be one-on-one recognition and hallway discussion, where nothing changes in the group. Getting the discussion to happen IN the group is the real challenge.

      Being that facilitator is a role that I’ve played often. For me, it helps to be outside; nothing is off the table, and I can ask the obvious questions that everyone else has already deemed undiscussable. And then we can get somewhere.

      Thanks again!

  3. Cheryl says:

    ‘I owned the process.’ Powerful, concise and speaks volumes to the accountability of the facilitator role. Thanks Mark.

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