Not My Problem

The story of the Good Samaritan is fairly well known, but in case you don’t know it let me recap.

Dude makes decision to cut through bad part of town, alone, with valuable things on his person. Predictably, he is rolled by the bad guys and left for dead. Several people pass by him without helping him—people that should have had something in common with him and should have felt compassion for him but didn’t. Then a person with nothing in common and no reason to help comes along and helps. He goes out of his way and expends time, energy and resources (money) to make sure the dude will be cared for and nursed back to health. Good Samaritan.

This story, or one like it, is foundational to a lot of cultures. The underlying message is that “good” people help other people. Even people who are not like themselves. Even people who may be enemies. Even people who make poor decisions and suffer the consequences of those decisions. Basically, if someone is in trouble or floundering, “good” people step up and step in. “Good” people help. “Good” people sacrifice themselves for others. For anyone. For everyone.

This is a terrible moral philosophy.

And it isn’t what Jesus was trying to teach when he told the story. What Jesus was talking about might be the subject of another Musing, but for now I want to talk about how this gets twisted into harmful behavior.

First, I want to make sure no one takes from this that I am encouraging people to not help those in real need. If someone’s life is in danger (as the dude’s was in our story) we should do what the Good Samaritan did. Help.

With that out of the way, we can talk about how this moral philosophy can lead to damage for everyone involved. The messaging we get from many channels, for most of our life, is that what we do determines our value. Performance, success, acquisitions, and the like equate to our value in a competitive and judgmental culture. With that as the basis, some people add on the extra requirement that to be “good” we must be willing to throw ourselves on any grenade we see. Sacrifice ourselves to save others.

As I’ve already said, there is a time and place for this. However, when this is applied to the workplace it gets sideways quickly. At some point, many of us make the huge mistake of letting other people’s problems become ours. Separating myself from other people’s problems doesn’t make me selfish, greedy, or immoral. Actually, it makes me a better person. Stick with me, I can explain.

There are lots of reasons people take on other people’s problems and responsibilities. Ego, pride, misunderstanding compassion. Someone does an inhuman amount of work. They sacrifice themselves. People praise them. They ask, “How do you manage it all?” The hero shrugs and says, “I’m just dedicated.”

Did you catch that? We praise people for throwing themselves on the grenade of other people’s failure to do their job and fulfill their responsibilities.

My spiritual mentor tells me, “There is your job, God’s job and the other person’s job.” I find that when my life isn’t working well it is often because I am trying to do God’s job and/or someone else’s job. Taking on someone else’s job ends up burning me out and keeping the other person from growing and learning.

What would happen if, when someone wasn’t doing their job, we let them fail? (Remember, I’m not talking about rare cases where things have conspired to create a problem everyone needs to pitch in to solve. I’m talking about habitual failure to perform.)

What might happen?

The person may be prompted to finally step up and do what they are being counted on to do. Management may become aware of systemic problems that need to be fixed, either workload problems or some level of incompetence. People may realize that what they do is important to the team and we are relying on them to do it.

What won’t happen?

The world won’t come to an end. No one will blame you when someone else doesn’t fulfill their responsibilities. You won’t burn through your energy solving problems that will continue to be problems as long as you (or someone else) come to the rescue.

It turns out that a more balanced moral philosophy is not only better for everyone involved, it is what Jesus taught too. He said that we should “speak the truth in love” so that we can grow up. He also said that we should expose unfruitful works.

For our community to be healthy we need to be honest about it when someone is not able or willing to complete their responsibilities. This means that we first need to clearly define what each person should be doing and what it looks like for them to succeed. Then we need to trust them to do their job, but periodically verify that they are. Finally, we need to make necessary corrections when someone is unable or unwilling to do their job.

As leaders it is our duty to protect our people. Sometimes this means moving someone out of a position where they are not experiencing success (and causing others to have to pick up the slack) and finding a role where they can operate within their capacity. This isn’t unkind or uncompassionate, it is in fact the kindest most compassionate thing we can do.

If you see someone lying on the side of the road, beaten, robbed and left for dead, that is your problem, help them. If you or your team members find yourselves constantly stepping in to save the day, stop, that’s not the right problem to make your own. A healthy community finds the right place for each member and then honors each member by allowing them to do the important work that is theirs to do. That’s everyone’s problem. That’s the Kimray Way.