Small fire burning prevents larger fires

I have always claimed that leadership trainers who have first-hand experience of leading real teams, offer much better service to clients than the academic ones who become trainers by reading books on leadership. Here I offer one example of that by showing how the popular advice that HR should work to help individual employees is, by and large, bad advice.

Most HR departments look like hospitals and HR people look like nurses – out to get the patient back to health through the ‘love and welfare’ approach. They do so by administering him or her the best training and lots of mollycoddling. This is wrong. They should act like surgeons. A surgeon excises the useless part.

When an employee fails to deliver, it could be so due to wrong structure of the organisation or wrong placement. When so, the correction must be made at the organisational level. But when the organisation is failing because the employee is unable to hold up his part of it, not a moment should be wasted to throw the employee out.

Let us now leave this narrow example and move to some concepts at a generic level.

I have come across these concepts from a study of randomness as preached by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ( Book ‘Anti-Fragile),  not by direct experience of my leadership tenure of 26 years. However, I did try some of these in my tenures and found them to be right.

Randomness ensures that all things are never equal and some weak stuff will always get into circulation – whether in an organisation or in a human population. To remove the weakness, there are two routes – hormesis and the evolutionary trick.


Hormesis works on the theory that living organisms (and organisations are living organisms)  get strengthened by application of stress. When the body is weak and unable to lift even 30 kg weight, we advise person to go to gym and work steadily to lift 20-30 kgs. This does not break down the weak body, but strengthens it. Being a living organism, hormesis works to force the body to generate the strength to lift the weight. It does more than produce strength to bear just that weight. It overcompensates. That is the basis of hormesis – and weight-lifting. By gradually increasing the weight, we increase the overcompensation and within months, we have that person lifting 50 kgs.

What if we had instead reduced his load even lesser, or given him some crutches to help him life that weight? Remember we are dealing with living organism, not non-living glass.

The Evolutionary trick

Then there is the evolutionary trick. Evolution makes the larger entity stronger by killing the weak smaller entities in it. When nature kills the weak puppy dies, it improves the overall litter quality. In an organisation, the weak must be weaned out, otherwise the whole organisation is weakened. One has to decide where does one’s loyalties lie – towards the organisation as a whole, or towards the weak employee? The weak part must be removed, not protected. If not, the whole system blows up later.

Large forest fires are avoided by allowing small forest fires. If that is prevented, dry leaves and broken twigs gather in the forest. Then, one day, the whole thing goes up in flames.

What needs to be done

HR must stop behaving like nurses. Instead they must behave initially like gym trainers, and then like surgeons.

Progressively load the weak employee, under supervision, and allow hormesis to do the work. If it does not work, use the evolution trick. Remove the weak, so that the genetic pool of the remaining improves. Allow small fires to avoid large ones later.

HR should also stop following advice from mere academic people, particularly those who are not practitioners themselves in the real world.

This is also available as a podcast here.

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