You just can't get the staff

It was a lovely bank holiday weekend and after all of the rain from the previous week, the garden is starting to look a bit overgrown.  So while I attended to some of the weeds, I asked my 14-year-old son to cut the grass.  Looking up from a particularly troublesome patch of dandelions, I wondered why he had not been past to empty the clippings into the compost.

“Oh” he said, “none of the clippings went into the bag so it did not need emptying.”

Sure enough, you could see exactly where the mower had passed by the neat rows of clippings left on the lawn.  Well the grass was shorter, but it was not exactly tidier and before long the clippings would find their way into the house.

“Look” I said, “the shoot is blocked with clippings – no wonder none of it is getting into the bag – and if you drive it too fast when the grass is quite long it  gets blocked.  Didn’t you think to unblock it?”

Pulling out the compressed clippings and putting them into the collecting bag I sighed saying “Do I have to everything myself?  You just can’t get the staff”

He shrugged with the eloquence of the teenager that clearly said “I have cut the grass like you asked – what’s your problem?” and sauntered off.

Maybe this is a typical teenage interaction, but actually it is also a metaphor for the workplace.  How could we have done this differently to get a better result?

Think about the outcome.

I asked him to cut the grass, he cut the grass, but I did not sufficiently explain the outcome I wanted.  Had I said that I needed a tidy lawn and no clippings walked into the house then might he have done this?  The trap so many of us fall into is to assume that tasks are the same as outcomes.  We know from our own experience how to do things in a way that does not cause adverse consequences in other areas and it is natural to assume that other share the same experience, but why should they?  If we are clear about what we really want to achieve, then we are far more likely to get it.

Think about learning and motivation.  

We learn far more from what we experience than what we are told and often resent or feel patronized when we are told exactly how to do things.  Had I given him the choice – ‘sure you can mow faster, but you need to rake up the clippings if they do not go into the collector – it is up to you’.  Most of us are rational.  We will find the most effective way to do things if given the chance to experiment and when we discover for ourselves, we own the choice and make sure it works.  This can extend into other areas like emptying the bag in good time to prevent it blocking up or overflowing and dumping more clippings on the lawn or something really innovative.

So the next time you feel exasperated with team members or staff, think about the parable of the teenage mower.  Take the time to explain what you really want and give people the freedom to experiment with how they achieve it.  Sure, it may be harder the first few times, but before long you will have more effective staff who are a joy to work with.


My son mowed the lawn beautifully the other day.  He now appreciates that more haste = less speed, but because has worked it for himself he believes it.  After all what do grown-ups know?

Banner image © Mark Neild 2013  Dolphin in Bay of islands New Zealand taken shortly before we went swimming with them.