Christmas shreddings

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was alone in the large office building where I was General Director. Every staff member had left already, but I’d stayed late to clear my in-tray before the holiday break. And now I was on my knees.

I’d realised some documents had to be shredded. That was straightforward. We had a large capacity shredder which I’d used many times. I switched it on, and dropped a few sheets into the slot. The shredder immediately cut out. I tried again, and again it stopped. I noticed a small light had illuminated – apparently the bag which caught the shreddings was full. Really? That shouldn’t happen, but someone had wanted a quick exit and cleared off without replacing the shredder bag.

But all I had to do was switch the full bag with an empty bag. Easy. Well, easy if you know where the replacement bags are kept. Which I didn’t. I searched every cupboard within any sensible distance from the shredder. No bags. I moved my search further out, and finally, 20 minutes after starting, I found a roll of large black bags. I pulled one from the roll, opened up the shredder, dragged out the vastly over-filled bag, attached the new one, inserted my documents and they were instantly annihilated. All was well.

All was not well because it’s impossible to slide clear an overfull bag of shreddings without spilling some of its contents. Tiny slivers of paper were scattered across the office carpet. If I left them there the cleaners would be unjustly blamed for not doing their job. So a new search began, this time for a vacuum cleaner or brush to sweep up the shreddings. I knew the cupboard where such things were kept, pulled on the door, but those cleaners guarded their equipment carefully. The cupboard was locked. Though I had many keys to the building, no-one had thought I’d ever need one for the brooms and brushes cupboard. Back I went to the shredder. Mary Poppins had not passed through and made all the shreddings disappear. The paper shards were still all over the carpet.

So I got down on my knees, and, with no way to sweep those pieces of paper into a pile, began the laborious, wearying job of picking them up one by one. That took at least 15 minutes. At some point I heard myself say, ‘On Christmas Eve, what other CEO is on his knees picking up pieces of shredded paper?’ Not many. Probably not any.

But that task brought home an important lesson:

Never think yourself too important to do the humblest of tasks

As I’ve thought about Christmas, I realised that down through the years the Christmas season has taught me many simple lessons like that one.

An early childhood memory was that my Dad went to work for half of Christmas Day. His occupation was on the administration side of the Post Office, and with mail being moved around and house deliveries made even on that day, someone had to be at the main office making sure everything went smoothly. That person was my Dad.

To wholly understand why he and many others in Scotland worked on Christmas Day you need some background details:

  • Until the Reformation happened in Scotland – in 1560 – Christmas was a recognised religious feast day of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Presbyterianism became dominant, gradually most Catholic festivals disappeared. That included Christmas, and an Act was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 1640 making any observance of Christmas illegal.
  • The mid-winter celebrations became transferred to New Year’s Eve – known in Scotland as Hogmanay. That change caused no problem for the religious authorities because Hogmanay was a secular event.
  • So, right into the second half of the 20th century Christmas Day was another working day in Scotland. Hence my father went to his office.

Of course, over many years the traditions from down south in England had crept north, and once television had spread and religious fervour diminished, Scots were also celebrating Christmas with trees, lights, presents and parties. Nevertheless, it was only in 1958 that Christmas Day was designated a public holiday in Scotland. (Did that diminish the celebrations of Hogmanay? Absolutely not! Canny Scots just chose to revel at Christmas and New Year, and often to do so with more enthusiasm than wisdom.)

However, remembering that my Dad went off to work on Christmas morning, there is another lesson:

Many people – especially in emergency or caring professions – have to work on Christmas Day, and for that we should be grateful.

Like most small children, my brother Alan and I were always up early on Christmas Day, running through to the room where we’d hung stockings by the fireplace, to see what presents we’d got. There was never much in those long socks – an apple, an orange and perhaps a bar of chocolate and tiny toy car. But we were fortunate because there was more for us. We gazed in awe at the nicely wrapped larger presents laid on the floor.

I never wasted a moment, ripping open the Christmas paper to find the toys or games or clothes inside those boxes. The clothes never excited me, but the games and toys did, and I’d have them all out and be playing with them in very little time.

But my brother Alan had a different temperament, and took great care about opening his presents. He’d examine each parcel, undo the paper neatly, be excited about the contents, and then extract the toy and play with it. All before moving on to his next gift.

His meticulous process meant I was finished and done with my presents when Alan had only just started. I had to watch while he moved through his gifts one at a time. Some years I complained to my Mum that Alan clearly had more presents than I did. She assured me he didn’t. He just enjoyed each one fully before moving to the next.

So, another lesson:

There’s a lot to be said for what is now called ‘delayed (or deferred) gratification’, because many things are better by not being rushed.[1]

I grew up in a home where green vegetables were not a major part of the diet. My Dad grew peas, cabbages and cauliflowers along with root crops and fruit. But we didn’t eat ‘greens’ in any quantity. My Aunt Milla – a nurse who should have maximised health benefits – would put a tiny spoonful of peas alongside meat and potatoes ‘for decoration’.

But, on Christmas Day, we were always given a generous portion of what we called ‘Brussel sprouts’, though the first word probably should be pluralised because of the vegetables’ origin. What are Brussel sprouts? Let me tell you:

  • The Brussels sprout is a member of the Gemmifera cultivar group of cabbages (Brassica oleracea), grown for its edible buds. The leaf vegetables are typically 1.5–4.0 cm (0.6–1.6 in) in diameter and resemble miniature cabbages. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, from which it gained its name.[2]

I did not enjoy eating those edible buds of a cabbage. I simply didn’t like their taste. Some people don’t like broccoli[3], and I didn’t like Brussel sprouts.

But what was put on my plate had to be eaten. The usual warning was: ‘If you don’t eat your sprouts, you won’t get any dessert’. And since dessert was Christmas pudding, perhaps with cream, the blackmail to swallow those sprouts worked.

I must add that age has improved my taste. My willingness to eat Brussel sprouts gradually moved into the positive column. They are actually very good. But, in my early years, I ate them only because I had to.

So there is another lesson here:

We all have to do things we don’t like or want – that’s life.

Christmas has one form of annoying and unnecessary delayed gratification. It concerns the toy or appliance that won’t work without batteries, but no-one thought to buy them. When I was about seven I got one of those presents – a toy that was exactly what I wanted – but no batteries came with it and there were none in the house. My frustration was expressed loudly. So loudly my Dad set off on foot to find any shop open, but the few doing business didn’t sell batteries. I suffered (but not in silence) for about 24 hours, by which time batteries had been bought.

These days batteries are often packaged with the product, which helps avoid a Christmas crisis. But it’s not good to assume they’ll be included. Nor is it good to buy gloves that fit your hands but not the hands of the person receiving the gift. Or wrong-sized boots. Or a sweater with a dazzling design the recipient will hate. Or a tool they don’t need or want. Or music they’ll never play. Or a ‘Cooking for Beginners’ book for someone who already considers him or herself an expert. Or a dog for someone who likes cats. I even know a case where a few well-off individuals bought a CEO who was retiring a brand new SUV to replace the car he’d driven for years. The gift was amazingly generous, except the retiree whispered to me, ‘The problem is I really, really like my old car. I didn’t want a new car.’

The lesson, then, is this:

When buying presents, do your research and plan ahead.

When we lived in America we adjusted to the custom of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. In the UK turkey is the traditional meal at Christmas. Sometimes we’d travel back to the UK to spend Christmas with family, so we overate with US turkey in late November and overate with UK turkey in late December. Just as well we like turkey.

Many years before, when we lived in north east Scotland, our good friends Malcolm and Tina decided that they would buy us a turkey every Christmas. The only problem was that they never said explicitly that they’d give us a turkey every Christmas. Initially we thought they’d gift us a turkey once or twice, and then move on to give turkeys to other friends. But their turkey-at-Christmas kindness didn’t stop. A few days before each Christmas they’d call round with a turkey.

Then the year came when they didn’t. Not on December 20, or 21, or 22, or 23. By then we’d realised no turkey would be arriving. Alison, happily, had put some turkey in our freezer, so we wouldn’t fail to have our traditional meal. The 24th – Christmas Eve – dawned and Alison and I spent a hectic day preparing food, organising presents, putting final decorations in place, and, as pastor of a large church, I had events to prepare for and attend. In the evening I joined a group singing carols in a local hospital, hurried home and then went out again to lead and preach at our Watchnight Service which started at 11.15 pm and continued into a celebration of Christ’s birth at midnight. Around 12.30 am I headed home. Thankfully the children were all in bed and asleep. Alison was busy preparing various parts of our Christmas Day meal. I hadn’t had a moment to wrap presents, so I settled down to that task. Given my significant lack of expertise, gift wrapping was not a quick process. I finished around 3.00 am. Alison was still occupied in the kitchen, and I had a few more things to do before I could go to bed. At 3.30 am we heard a van arrive in our driveway, our doorbell rang, and it was our friend Malcolm with our turkey. Apparently we were his final delivery and he’d made us last because, as he said: ‘I knew you wouldn’t be in your beds yet!’ No, we weren’t. But it was 3.30 on Christmas morning!! More than a little on the late side to be delivering a turkey for that day’s meal. But we were very grateful, not just for the turkey but for friends like Malcolm and Tina.

So, this time two lessons:

Be generous and kind to all this Christmas.

But, if you can, don’t deliver turkeys at 3.30 in the morning.


This message is posted on Christmas Eve, and comes with my sincere hope that you are able to enjoy a happy Christmas, appreciating the wonderful truth that God sent his Son into this world. And, if possible, I long that you will have good food and friendship to enjoy.

This particular year (2022) the news is filled with stories of severely cold weather across much of the USA and Canada, and of power cuts imposed on the people of Ukraine resulting in much suffering from the cold and shortages throughout this winter. Many others in our world also struggle, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers, and, if you can, provide support for those in such great need. May 2023 bring many good days for which you can be thankful.

[1] In the UK there is a magazine called Delayed Gratification, which covers news which is moving out of the headlines. Its slogan is ‘last to breaking news’.

[2] From Wikipedia:

[3] Including some US Presidents:

‘Is my family odd?’ Yes, but that’s normal

My wife, Alison, was planting bulbs around a family grave in my home town. I wandered off, reading the words on headstones. One made me stop and stare. I had never seen a grave stone inscribed like this one.

Three things made it different from all others. Two of the three were truly remarkable.

First, though the headstone was not unusually large, there were more family names on that stone than I would have thought possible. Several generations were being memorialised.

Second, very strangely, the last name listed was someone not yet dead. The person who’d had all the family names inscribed on the headstone had added his own. His name and date of birth were there after which there was simply a space, presumably to be filled eventually with the date of his death.

Third, and most peculiar of all, was the inscription right at the foot. I had never seen anything like it on any grave stone anywhere, so I took a photograph.

The wording may not be readable, so here it is:

All of the above names and characters evoke a lifetime of memories / mostly really good – a few not quite so good / and some amazingly bizarre and in any normal life, unbelievable!

Gravestones usually have tender words, kind sentiments praising the life of the deceased. This inscription wasn’t unkind; just the most honest I’ve ever seen.

The truth is that all of us – or, at least, most of  us – belong to odd families. When Alison studied health science, including the sociology of health, her lecturer said most people wonder why they’re the only one to struggle with health issues, while the truth is that everyone has health problems. And, likewise, we wonder why our family is so odd compared to others, but actually almost every family has its share of mad, bad, sad and some glad individuals.

It might be the eccentric and extrovert uncle who embarrasses everyone at weddings with his off-key singing or crazy dancing, so dreadful the rest of the family pretend he’s not related to them. Or a brother who’s recently re-joined the family after several years of being accommodated by the government because he dealt in drugs. Or the sister who has been married and divorced so many times that everyone is terrified they’ll use the wrong name for her latest partner. Or the father who abused his daughters. No-one who knows what happened ever mentions his name. Or the niece who has been weak and ill almost all her life. Or the cousin who has changed jobs repeatedly and been spectacularly unsuccessful every time. Or another brother and his wife who lost their only child, killed by a drunk driver. And sometimes, one or more who have found happiness in relationships, success in career, and comfort and hope in their beliefs.

I can’t think of any family who has the whole package I’ve just described. But I also can’t think of any family without a substantial mix of stresses and struggles. Is it the norm to have a happy extended family with everyone friends and no serious problems? Absolutely not.

One of the most memorable speeches of Queen Elizabeth, who died in 2022, was given 30 years earlier when she described 1992 as an annus horribilis, literally a ‘horrible year’. What especially made it so horrible were family troubles:

  • February: The estrangement between (then) Prince Charles and Princess Diana became all too evident when she was photographed seated alone in front of the Taj Mahal.
  • March: Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson announced they were separating.
  • April: Princess Anne and Mark Phillips were divorced. They were already separated, and news had recently broken that he had fathered a child a few years earlier with a New Zealand woman.
  • June: the ‘tell-all’ book Diana: Her True Story, written by Andrew Morton, was published. It revealed Diana’s deep unhappiness, including an attempted suicide.
  • August: Photographs appeared in the press of Sarah Ferguson in an intimate relationship with her Texan financial advisor.
  • November: Windsor Castle, the beloved retreat of the Queen just outside London, went up in flames. A spotlight in Queen Victoria’s chapel had ignited a curtain, and the fire then spread to the roof and other locations. It destroyed 115 rooms, including nine state rooms. (The castle was restored at a cost of £36.5 million, a cost equal to almost £90 million in 2022.)

Only the last of these was not a problem of relationships within the royal family. The year was truly an annus horribilis for the Queen, sadly not her only one. There is no family without its troubles.

If worries and woes are the norm, what are wise ways to respond and cope? There are probably many, but here I’ll suggest four.

Let’s be honest. I like the inscription on the grave stone because of its honesty. Not everyone in the family had been good, and some were bizarre to the point of being unbelievable. I’ve sat through funeral services where the deceased person is made to sound like the greatest of all saints, except everyone knew he wasn’t. Someone might well have turned to his neighbour and asked, ‘Whose funeral was that, because the preacher certainly wasn’t describing Joe?’ Our family troubles shouldn’t be turned into headline news, but neither should we pretend everything and everyone is wonderful. A reasonable honesty about life and relationships is good.

Let’s be comforted. If it’s news to you that having odd, difficult or bad people in your family is normal, it may reassure you that, after all, your family isn’t unique. Over the years Alison and I have received Christmas newsletters which mention only great achievements for someone’s children and other near relations. We have looked at each other, and smiled as we said ‘our family is not like that’ and ‘we don’t believe that’s the whole story for their family either’. Sometimes the harder truths have emerged later, perhaps that someone’s marriage has broken up, or a family member has dropped out of university without any plan for what’s next. There is no place for rejoicing over anyone else’s troubles, but there is reassurance in knowing your family is not the only one with misfits and miscreants.

Let’s be caring. I was being humorous earlier about having an uncle so embarrassingly crazy the rest of the family pretend they’re not related to him. That’s not exactly true, but it’s also not exactly untrue. Sometimes families shun relatives who are weird, or super-needy, or old, or behaved badly, or who are simply unlikeable. Can that ever be right? I don’t believe it is. Yes, family members can be difficult or demanding, but they are family members and that relationship creates an obligation to care. The New Testament is very straight about family responsibility: ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ (1 Timothy 5:8)

My Aunt Milla was a nurse, her career spent mainly in challenging places with very disadvantaged people. She was hard to shock. For the last few years of her professional life, however, she was a hospital almoner (a social-service worker in a large hospital). Her work included liaising with families whose elderly mother had completed treatment, and was now fit to be discharged except she could no longer live alone. Would the patient’s family take in their mother? Most times the answer was a very firm ‘No!’ That did shock my aunt. Their children were grown up and long gone from home, so the house had spare bedrooms, but people would not look after their mother. They enjoyed their freedom, and caring for mother would restrict that. The only thing they were willing to do was put mother into a care home.

Family members are often not easy, but please let’s care for them.

Let’s be gracious. The word gracious comes from ‘grace’ which means undeserved favour. In the Bible parable, grace is what the father showed to his prodigal son, the one who took his inheritance early, then squandered it and nearly starved before coming to his senses and returning home. His father could have shunned him, but instead flung his arms around the boy and welcomed him back into the family.[1]

Our relatives know when they’re being shunned, or judged, or looked down on, or hated. I won’t pretend it’s easy to be kind to those who have hurt us in terrible ways. But – as far as possible – our goal should be forgiveness and restoration.

Some years ago, during long car journeys, I’d listen to the songs of Chuck Girard. One stood out particularly. Here’s the chorus: Don’t shoot the wounded. They need us more than ever. They need our love no matter what it is they’ve done. Sometimes we just condemn them, and don’t take time to hear their story. Don’t shoot the wounded. Someday you might be one. At one time Chuck Girard struggled with alcoholism. His song may reflect the need he once felt to be taken back into family and fellowship. What’s more, as Girard points out at the end of the chorus, one day we might be one of the wounded, and then long desperately for restoration.

Let me finish with this. Over the years I’ve often been tempted to label a colleague or a church member as a ‘problem person’, someone with a special ability to annoy me or make my life difficult. Then, one day, I realised something obvious: that if someone was a ‘problem person’ for me, I was surely a ‘problem person’ for someone else. That person would find things I said or did annoying, or my decisions difficult to accept.

The hard truth is that none of us are perfect. All of us need forgiveness and acceptance, not just from God but probably from our families too. The writer of the gravestone inscription didn’t think all his family had been good, and some were amazingly bizarre. He was a little odd himself, with the strange summary of his family and having his own name on the gravestone while still alive. But oddness is normal, and recognising and accepting that will make for happier families.

[1] The story can be found in the New Testament, Luke chapter 15. I wrote about the prodigal a few blog posts ago – see

Monkey Business

Probably less than five times in my life I’ve read something that stunned me, which made me realise I’d uncovered an insight into a problem I’d wrestled with for years. One of those five times was with the delightfully titled book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey.[1]

I believe there are now 18 books in the One Minute Manager series. I read the original, The One Minute Manager, soon after it first appeared in 1982. I was thrilled by its simplicity, insight, and practicality. So were many others. It has sold over 15 million copies, been translated into 47 languages, and described by Time magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Business Management Books.

The One Minute Manager books typically involve dialogue between a storyteller and a perhaps fictitious leader that everyone called the ‘One Minute Manager’ because he got great results from his people with apparently little time and effort on his part. The books are littered with smart sayings or questions, such as this one early on in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey: ‘Why is that some managers are typically running out of time while their staffs are typically running out of work?’ When I read that, it landed with a thud in my thinking. Yes, why is that true? It made me read on.

The book begins with a description of the storyteller’s frustration that even when he worked extra hours every weekday and all weekend, he could never get on top of all his work. It seemed he was doing more but accomplishing less. Getting desperate, he attended a time management seminar, which made him more efficient, but that increased efficiency merely made room for more work. His staff always seemed to need something from him before they could move on further with their work.

When the storyteller met with the One Minute Manager and poured out his troubles, he was soon made aware that he was the problem. Or, more specifically, his problem was MONKEYS! These are not monkeys who live in a jungle or zoo. Rather, the One Minute Manager’s definition of a ‘monkey’ was ‘The Next Move’. To explain what that means, the One Minute Manager gave the example of walking down a hall, and being stopped by one of his staff who wanted his input on a problem. He likes solving problems, but that discussion lasted for half an hour. Now the One Minute Manager is late for a meeting, so promises to think about his colleague’s problem and get back to him later. So, what happened there? Until the hall meeting, the monkey (next move) was on his staff member’s back. During the discussion the monkey was on both backs. By the time they parted, the monkey had moved from the subordinate’s back to the manager’s back. No longer was the next move the subordinate’s problem, it was his boss’s problem.

The One Minute Manager points out that two things can be assumed: 1) the matter being considered was part of the staff member’s job; 2) the staff member could and should have offered solutions to the problem. Thus, what the manager allowed during the hall conversation was for him to do two things his subordinate was expected to do: 1) accept responsibility for the problem; 2) promise to bring forward a progress report, in his case to his subordinate. In other words, they had switched roles: the manager took on the worker’s role, and the worker took on the supervisor’s role. Unsurprisingly, the worker now follows up on his boss to see if he’s made progress, and thus pressurises him to do more on what was actually his job.

The example of role-reversal triggered several examples from the storyteller of how he had acquired ‘monkeys’ from his staff – tasks he’d taken off their shoulders and put on his own. Some were straightforward, such as Maria who enlisted her boss’s help because he had a better understanding of certain problems. Maybe he did, but he was now doing her work. He also described ricochet monkeys, for example criticisms from staff about Maria’s work and style because these things caused problems for them. They complained to the storyteller who promised to follow up and report back to them.

Then there was Ben, who was very creative, always generating new ideas, but poor at turning them into finished products. So Ben would submit proposal after proposal, many of which had potential, which he, the boss, would then try to do the work of turning them into viable projects.

These – and many more – should have been handled by the staff themselves. But in each case the storyteller manager had allowed the monkey to climb onto his back. The biggest part of his work overload were those monkeys. Because he was doing large parts of his staff’s work as well as his own, he’d begun to steal time from his personal life: exercise, hobbies, family, church, etc.

Eventually he had run out of time completely, yet monkeys kept coming his way. All he could do was delay, promising he’d eventually get to every task. He was procrastinating; his staff were waiting. Which meant no-one was progressing the monkeys.

What surprised the storyteller was what the One Minute Manager said next – that he had once had the same problem of overwork, except much worse. But then – out of desperation – he attended a time-management seminar. And there, thankfully, he learned about monkey management.

The seminar leader was Bill Oncken, and he told a remarkable story that paralleled the One Minute Manager’s situation near exactly. And what follows is the story that astounded me.

Oncken described working long hours but never keeping up. Early one Saturday morning he got ready again to head for his office, telling his disappointed wife and children that he was sacrificing himself for their sakes. The office was gloriously quiet, no-one else there, and he poured into his work. Finally he paused. His office window looked across to the neighbouring golf course, and there he saw his staff getting ready to start their round. Oncken said: ‘They were teeing up, and I was teed off!’ He looked down at all the work on his desk, and gasped. These papers were not his work; it was their work he was about to do. With a jolt as if struck by lightning, it hit him: ‘They’re not working for me; I’m working for them!’ And with four of his staff producing work but passing it up to him, he’d never get caught up. The more he did, the more they would give him to do. He wasn’t behind with his work.  He was behind with their work.

Oncken finished his story by relating how, after realising whose work he was doing, he fled from his office, drove home and spent the rest of the weekend with his family. That Saturday night he slept so deeply that twice during the night his wife thought he was dead.

By now, you’ll have grasped the core theme of The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. I’ll stop summarising now, though I’ve given you only the highlights of just over one quarter of the book. I encourage you to get a copy and read it all.[2] It’s full of thoughtful insights and much wise guidance.

This blog post is the follow-up to my previous one on delegation. (See So, in what remains, I’ll add further comments on that subject, including some arising from points raised above.

Bosses must resist the temptation to go back to doing the fun work    The best managers are often people who’ve worked their way up through the ranks. They understand the issues at ground level, the place where the company’s work interacts with the concerns and wants of its customers. When they did that work, they performed well, so they were promoted and began overseeing the next generation of ground level workers. That is exactly as it should be, but it often leads to two problems.

  1. The leaders loved the down-in-the-trenches challenges of aligning products or services with customers’ needs and problems. It was tough but stimulating, and when it all went well generated a wonderful sense of achievement. Then they moved up the company hierarchy, and they lost that satisfaction. They’re sent reports of successes, but reports don’t generate gratification like they felt when they handled those contracts themselves. Therefore, managers face a massive temptation to dive back into the detail work their staff member should be handling. Such leaders tell themselves they’re just lending a hand, but their motives are suspect, and hijacking their subordinates’ jobs keeps them from their own work and deprives their staff of the experience and satisfaction which rightly belongs to them.
  2. The leaders I’m describing won their promotion to management by being good – really good – at their work. Perhaps they were the best sales person, or highest achieving accountant, or best machinist on the factory floor. Now, as managers, they see the workmanship of their staff and think, ‘I know the best approach’ or ‘I could do this so much better myself’ and, next thing, they’ve taken over the work. Again the result is that they’re neglecting their management-level work, and robbing staff members of the experience that comes only from trial and error learning moments.

It’s very hard for leaders to concentrate only on their own work, but they must.

There’s a real danger that a leader becomes a rescuer    The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey book defines a rescuer as ‘someone who was doing for others what they could do for themselves’. That has all the dangers I’ve just mentioned above, but also delivers a negative psychological verdict on their staff member’s work. When I rescued my two-year-old daughter who was out of her depth in a swimming pool, I did that because otherwise she’d have drowned. I had to save her because she couldn’t have saved herself. That’s exactly right. But what’s not right is taking over work someone is capable of doing. As the storyteller in the book says, when we do that we send the message to them they are ‘not okay’, that they’re so unable to handle a problem you have to take care of it for them.

They may not yet be as capable as their boss, but they’ll never have equal ability if the boss does their work.

 What if the staff member can’t handle the task you set?    In the last blog post I said delegation can happen only when someone is available and suitable. Here the issue is about suitability – a subordinate having the skills and experience necessary to do a job. If they don’t, and you still delegate to them, several questions are raised:

  1. Why are you delegating the job to someone who can’t do it?  If the task is outside someone’s skill set, they don’t fail. You do. Requiring them to do what you knew they couldn’t do is bad management. You have one less job in your in-tray, but the botched work of an inexperienced colleague will make everything worse. The badly done job won’t please you, or your boss, or your client. In fact, the client may move their work elsewhere, and you may soon be working elsewhere too.
  2. Why didn’t you know what your staff member was capable of doing?  Let me be charitable that you didn’t intentionally cause your colleague to fail. I’ve seen that done in order to have a reason to fire that person. It was not only wrong but also cruel. But, let’s assume you simply didn’t know the person’s capabilities. Well, you should have. If there’s a good reason why you can’t know their skills – such as when someone has only just joined the company – then either don’t delegate to them yet, or delegate only light tasks and gradually make them more substantial as you discover what they can do.
  3. What if they are capable but simply didn’t do the task or turned in sloppy work?  A case like that needs care. What if there’s some crisis at home for that employee? Or they’ve just been diagnosed with a serious medical condition? Or this poor piece of work is a complete exception, and everything else they’ve done has been very good? We need to think about Issues like these before we react. But let’s assume you have every reason to believe your staff member didn’t care, or gave scant attention to the task, or pretends they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. I’ve known employees like that, guilty of culpable ignorance or culpable inability. Given the position they held, they should have known what to do and be able to do it. So, when work is either not done or done badly, that’s not a time to pretend it doesn’t matter, nor should we avoid confrontation by taking the job back and doing it ourself. One of the other One Minute Manager books makes it clear that if it takes two people to do what should be done by one, then someone is unnecessary. With your incompetent employee, you may wish to give another chance; you may be required to issue an official warning; you may be allowed and deem it necessary to bring their employment to an end. Whatever is appropriate, do it. Avoiding the issue is the worst of outcomes.

So, to finish, three last quick statements about delegation:

Anyone who tells you that delegation is simple doesn’t know much about delegation.

Done well, delegation puts the right work in front of the right people, which is good for job satisfaction and excellent workmanship.

Never feel guilty at giving work away, but you are guilty if you take work away from the person who should be doing it. That’s not good for you, nor productive for your business.

I wish you well in delegating wisely and often.

[1] Blanchard K, Oncken Wm, Burrows H (1990), The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

[2] At the time of writing, it’s available in paperback for £6.99 in the UK, and used from $4.39 in the USA where the paperback version no longer appears to be for sale.