advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Ask a busy person to do it

There’s an old management saying that goes “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” I couldn’t agree more. As a manager, I find my busiest employees are my most productive, and vice versa. They accomplish more, do it better, and in less time than their slacker colleagues. So when I really, really need something done, I ask one of them. Makes sense, right? – Name withheld

So far as I can tell, the earliest documented uttering of this familiar management adage seems to have been in 1856.

In the minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, the then Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man in Britain, Rev. W. J. Kennedy exclaimed:

“…if you want any business done for you, you should ask a busy man [sic] to do it, and not a man of leisure…”[1]

The saying has also been attributed, erroneously it seems, to Elbert Hubbard (an American author and philosopher), Benjamin Franklin, and Lucille Ball.

Regardless of its origins though, you’re spot on as to its meaning.

Busy people are busy for a reason, it seems: They’re always doing something – and appear to prefer it that way. Rather than working quickly to maximize their leisure time (or avoiding work altogether), they seem to derive satisfaction—even pleasure—from being efficient, and the accomplishment of the task itself. The lazy and unmotivated, on the other hand, linger unnecessarily over work that might take half the time, balk at any additional demands that might be placed on them, and seem to expend more energy dodging work than actually doing it.

You’re also astute to recognize this can be useful information for a manager to have. But I would urge you to be very, very cautious before acting on it.

Here’s why: When you start giving your busiest employees more to do, in effect you punish your most productive. Unless there’s some immediate reward in the offering, this approach will only prove effective for so long. Then your high achiever(s) will look around and begin to wonder why they’re working so hard while everyone else is not. This will rankle their sense of fairness – and that’s a problem. Human beings are actually quite happy to behave in ways contrary to their own best interests—not to mention the interests of their employer—if doing so allows them to re-establish this perception of equity.[2] So be careful.

Frankly, you and your organization’s interests would be better served by holding your loafers accountable.

By that I mean make sure they’re doing their fair share, if not necessarily keeping pace with your best. Not only will this up their productivity (or prod them to seek employment somewhere more lax), it’ll prevent your most industrious from feeling like such chumps. You’ll still want to spend most of your time with you top-performers, mind you. While all that extra work directed their way will eventually feel like punishment, your attention does not. As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman of The Gallup Organization explain, the interest and attentiveness of a manager—provided it comes from a place of respect, appreciation, and support—can be its own reward.[3]

So again, resist the urge to pile more work on those who already get a lot done. It’s not fair to them – nor is it in your organization’s best interests. You’re the only one who stands to benefit, and temporarily at that.

But if you do, don’t be surprised if your most productive employees soon join the ranks of your layabouts.

Or choose to leave the organization altogether…presumably for an employer (or a manager) who is more appreciative of their efforts.


[1] 1856, Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, Section: Inspector’s Reports for 1855, General Report for the Year 1855 by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, the Rev. W. J. Kennedy, M.A., &c., on the Church of England Schools inspected in the County of Lancaster and in the Isle of Man. Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, London. Reprinted later that year in The Manchester Guardian (The Guardian). Found at: Retrieved 03-30-23.

[2] Kahneman, Daniel; Jack L. Knetsch; and Richard Thaler. “Fairness and the assumptions of economics.” The Journal of Business, Vol 59, No 4, Part 2: The Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory (October 1986), p. S285-S300.

[3] Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First, Break All the Rules. 1999. Gallup Press, p. 156.

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