Managing Exceptions

Most companies are robust enough that a single employee taking a single sick day doesn’t cause the company to go into bankruptcy. Imagine then that the CEO of the company said “hey, since an employee taking a sick day and contributing nothing to the operations of the company for an entire day didn’t do any damage, that means we can operate entirely without employees! Everyone take off!”

There’s a gap in there somewhere, right?

This is somehow related to the “heap problem,” where if you have a million pennies all piled together it’s definitely a “heap,” and if you take one away it’s still a “heap,” so if “heap – 1 = heap” then literally any number of pennies is a heap. So if “Company Success – One Sick Day = Company Success,” then a company should be successful even if every employee takes every day off.

So why isn’t that true? Well, there are two ways to think about it:

The first way is to say that there actually is some minor damage caused even by a single employee taking a single sick day, and while a company can absorb some damage without major disaster, there’s definitely a threshold where the damage becomes too severe. (For instance, consider the difference between a single employee missing a day and a strike.) If we think of it this way, the formula looks more like “100% Company Success – One Sick Day = 99.9% Company Success” and anything below 95% starts to hurt. But I don’t actually think this is the correct solution.

Tangent: if one couple chooses not to have kids, no big deal. If every couple chooses not to have kids, we go extinct. So why shouldn’t we encourage every single couple to have kids?

Let’s create a term “X-Action.” An “X-Action” is anything that would be devastating to the whole if every member did it, but in small doses isn’t just not harmful – it’s beneficial.

“Not having kids” is an X-Action. If no one had kids, species ends. If some people don’t have kids, then we end up with a diverse and specialized human population that can support numerous different micro- and macro-configurations to meet societal needs at any given time.

“Having a lazy day” is an X-Action. If you had nothing but lazy days, your life would be in shambles. But having one every now and then actually improves your life, keeping you in good spirits and recharged for the work you do in the rest of your life.

And “taking a sick day” is an X-Action. If everyone did it every day, the company would go under. But in small doses, it’s actually helpful, because it prevents sickness from spreading when it occurs and gives employees a buffer so that they can be their best selves when they are at work. A company might crash and burn if everyone took them every day, but a company is definitely better if they have a 2-3% sick day rate than if they had a 0% sick day rate because no one ever took them under any circumstances.

So it’s not just that some things are “always bad, but in small doses not so bad that we have to worry about them.” It’s that some things are “bad in big doses, but good in small doses.”

There’s a difference between those categories. For instance, “murder” is not an X-Action. If everyone was murdering all the time, society would collapse. But even a little bit of murder is bad. Murder is something we should strive to have 0% of as much as the costs for such progress are reasonable.

(Why make that disclaimer? Because you could achieve 0 murder by pre-emptively jailing every single citizen, but that wouldn’t be a “reasonable cost” for a murder rate of zero.)

One of the challenges in life as well as in organizational design is being able to mentally separate those two categories. Lots of managers think “sick days” are like that second category, instead of the first one. I myself am guilty of thinking of “lazy days” in that second category, and feeling guilty when I have one. But recognizing which things, bad in large doses, are actually good in small ones can take tremendous weight off your shoulders.

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