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Lessons from a Whale

March 4, 2003
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Related Topics: Downsizing, Performance Appraisals, Featured Article
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For as long as there have been jobs to do, managers have had difficultygetting people to do them. Managers ask staff to do things, but there arecertain aspects of the job that they just don’t like to do. There are otherparts of the job they prefer, and that is where they put their efforts. But thisdoes not always support the larger objectives of the organization. Therein liesthe problem. How can we get staff to perform the more onerous aspects of theirjobs, those things from which perhaps there may be less immediate positivereturn?

All managers have had this problem, even those you might not think. Take forexample the story of Jonah. We all think we know the story, but from a humanresources perspective, Jonah was a performance problem.

They’re under performing
    God tells Jonah that there is a department, Nineveh, that is under performing.God is considering downsizing, or as they said back then, smiting Nineveh. Godwants Jonah, one of his managers and a crack turnaround specialist (hisfunctional title is Professional Primary Help Tech, or ProPHeT), to go andtackle the problems in Nineveh and warn the people that they must improve theirperformance or there will be corrective actions up to and including "termination."

Jonah has heard all this before. With the possible exception of the time theyoutsourced Sodom & Gomorrah, Inc., God hasn’t pulled the trigger onanyone. God is just and merciful. God’s just too nice a boss for His own good.Jonah also knows that his reputation is on the line. If he goes and preaches thehard line without support from senior management, he’ll be the laughingstockof his peers. His career won’t be worth camel sweat. Jonah tries to make thispoint to his boss, but God will not hear of it. "Go to Nineveh and warn them."

On the other hand, Jonah has had some success in the past in the Tarshishdepartment. He really enjoyed working with that group, so instead of going tostraighten out the problems in Nineveh, Jonah wrangles a transfer to Tarshishand actually starts to move his stuff to their region. At His weekly staffmeeting, God looks in on Nineveh to see if they are heeding His warning. NoJonah. Where could he be?

Jonah’s leave of absence
    Using His all-seeing, all-knowing employee-tracking system, God sees Jonah ona boat to Tarshish. Like any boss whose directives are ignored, God is upset. SoGod sends a storm to rock Jonah’s world, not to mention the boat to Tarshish.Call this a Corrective Action. But Jonah doesn’t get the message. Jonah doesn’tsee this as a real warning; you might even say he’s asleep at the switch. Heis having sweet dreams about how well he’s going to do in Tarshish.

Everyone else on the boat is terrified of the ups and downs that the waterywarning and these economic troughs are wreaking on their department. Forgetabout downsizing; they’re worrying about capsizing. Finally they figure outthat the reason they are all undergoing these turbulent times is Jonah. Jonahhas ticked off the Big Boss. Jonah really doesn’t know what to do, but hedoesn’t want to take the whole department down with him, so he volunteers totake a leave of absence.

Unfortunately, the only way to accomplish this on a boat is for Jonah to bethrown overboard. His colleagues are loath to do this at first, and demonstrategood teamwork by pulling together and rowing even harder. But the storm growsstronger, and in the face of a Final Warning and to save their own jobs, over hegoes.

But God is a benevolent boss, and rather than allow Jonah to drown in his ownself-pity, He sends along a big fish to swallow Jonah and hold him in its bellyfor three days. Call this a Suspension. For three days Jonah thinks things over,and finally decides that, as bad as his job is, it sure beats fish guts. Hetells God he’ll go to Nineveh this time, if God will only give him his jobback. Out spews Jonah and it’s off to Nineveh he goes.


Everybody buckles down. No more business casual--it’ssackcloth and ashes.

Once there, Jonah finds things as bad as he feared, but like most employees,the people of Nineveh really do want to do a good job. They just need to wake upand smell the incense. Jonah gives them all a final warning: Turn yourperformance around or there may not be positions for all of you in therestructured organization. Jonah really is good at his job, and to hisamazement, they listen. Everybody buckles down. No more business casual--it’ssackcloth and ashes. God sees this, and just as Jonah predicted, He decides notto downsize. He is satisfied with their retraining and allows them to keep theirlivelihoods, not to mention their lives.

The goal of management
    Now Jonah requests a meeting with the Boss. "You see! It’s just like I told you. You’re too easy on them. You want me to say you’ll take serious corrective action, and then you don’t back me up. How can I show my face in the department now? I can’t go back there; I’d rather die. You’ll have to give me a severance package. Maybe I’ll retire to Tarshish."

God has some retraining to do
    "Jonah," He says, "what’s the goal of management? Is it simply to flex your supervisory muscle? Is it done to terrorize the staff? No, the goal of managing is to retain and develop the staff. To motivate them to do their jobs as best they can and keep them holy. Wholly involved in reaching the greater objectives of the organization. You’ve met the goals of the organization by saving these souls. Remember, smiting is expensive. You’ve done good work in Nineveh. In fact, you’ve done so well, I’ve decided to assign you an assistant, someone I want you to mentor. He has a bit of an attitude problem, but I think you can work with him. His name is Job."

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