The Rule of Three in the Workplace

Whether or not you have ever heard of the “Rule of Three” you have been exposed to it. You’ve heard (or told) a joke with three characters. “A priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a bar…”. You’ve experienced it in story-telling, where character number one fails one way, character number two in another way, and then number three gets it right. Think “Three Little Pigs”. And who hasn’t heard from a consultant with a three-part approach to whatever problem you might be trying to solve?

I recently ran across this quotation incorporating the rule that I believe everyone in HR, everyone responsible for the design of work and workplaces, should commit to memory.

In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it. -John Ruskin, author, art critic, and social reformer (1819-1900)

Let me be clear – I don’t think that HR or work designers are responsible for people’s happiness in their work. But they are responsible for creating conditions in which people can be happy in their work. Also for recognizing when the work and the individual are just not a good combination. You may have a culture where high pressure is the name of the game. If someone does not have the personal skills to work effectively in that environment, then they are not fit for it. You can’t change that. This leads me to think about three things we can do to support this idea.

  1. Understand the nature of the work well enough to know what “fitness” is required. This is about overall capability, not physical fitness. Do they have the mental skills, the flexibility, the collaborative skills that may be needed to help your whole team succeed?
  2. Do you give them adequate time to accomplish the work? Are they always in over their head? Do they work 10-12 hours a day each and every day, all the while saying “I’ll never catch up”? They either have too much to do, or, as point number one suggests, they aren’t fit for the work.
  3. Think Sisyphus – he’s the guy pushing a rock up hill, only to have it roll back down. Each and every time. There is no success. Something positive for the individual and business needs to come from hard work.

I like those three things. They can help you identify someone who maybe needs another job, possibly in another organization. Or they can help you re-arrange how work is done so that people can feel more pride in what they have accomplished. Not just a cog in the machine, but part of the engine of the organization.

That’s two things they can help you with. The third thing is up to you.

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