The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory which outlines the problems with people sharing communal property versus private ownership. An example of communal property is when employees don’t feel any ownership in the furniture, fixtures or building grounds, so they don’t report problems when they occur. Whereas, in private ownership, any asset is checked and taken care of to avoid expensive repairs.
The tragedy of the commons is a principle that can devastate your business if you’re not careful. For example, employees can walk by an unstable door latch and ignore it for weeks without getting a screwdriver and tightening the screws or reporting it to someone so it doesn’t break. When asked why it wasn’t reported, they might say, “It’s not my job” or “I didn’t think I was supposed to touch it.” It’s not even that they’re being negligent or insincere. They genuinely feel it is not their responsibility or their right to deal with anything other than the specifics of their job.
Once, I was at a carwash that had a leaky faucet with water pouring out of it. The water was all over the ground. I mentioned it to the attendant and said, “All you need to do is pull out a pair of pliers and tighten it up.” He responded with all sincerity, “It’s not my job, man.”
People’s attitudes can be very good. It’s often well-intended that they don’t want to overstep their bounds. It is as if there is an employee mentality that tells them the business belongs not to a person, but to an intangible, infrastructure overlord. The feeling seems to be that big brother is watching over you, knows better than you and is perpetually supported by limitless funds.
On that note, I remember when my daughter was a little girl. She overheard me talking about how wells can dry up and homes can be left with no water. With a dumbfounded look on her face, she asked, “Is that even possible?” As adults we know better, but still the mentality or the mindset quietly lingers within. There can easily be the assumption that magically things are provided and maintained, and that the current state of high-functioning and plenty will last forever.
The question then becomes: How do you deal with the tragedy of the commons mindset in managing a business?
Numerous studies have shown that to employees, self-actualization is even more important than money. We can self-actualize by feeling like we are a team, jointly committed to a cause. There is the comradery of purpose in our business. And the word is “our business,” not the boss’s business. Inspire everyone to take a heartfelt interest and involvement in the business as a whole. They don’t just have a job per se. Instead, they are pitching in to make the company a success. Certainly they have specific responsibilities, but their commitment to the business is all-encompassing.
2. Delegate oversight.
There are some people who are naturally more gifted in particular arenas. For example, one man who works for me is just a natural handyman. He can fix just about anything. So I asked him to keep an eye on the mechanical items throughout the entire office building that may need maintenance and repairs, and to go ahead and fix it. If the problem is particularly expensive or beyond his abilities, to let me know. He should treat the property as if he owns it.
Other people who may have interpersonal relationship skills can be asked to keep an eye out for conflicts or personal issues to see if they can help things run more smoothly. The idea being that the harmonious functioning of the team is their personal responsibility.
3. Bridle the hypercritical.
Not everybody is cut out to be an overseer of a business. Some people are just too hypercritical, negative or confrontational. How do you bridle them? Even if such people have particular skills, you do well to not assign them to an overseer position. They can drive everybody crazy. Usually these people aren’t comfortable dealing with coworkers as it is. Create a place for them where they work predominantly alone. This keeps them and everyone else happy.
When it comes to the hypercritical, they can be more suited to just focus on a well-defined, limited set of responsibilities and perform quite well. On the other hand, hypercritical people can be very good at finding things that do need attention. Find a person in the company they have a good relationship with who can become the person they report to. It becomes a matter of understanding the individuals in the company and figuring out how to avoid the tragedy of the commons in relationship to them.
If you notice something is not being taken care of, point it out in a respectful manner and figure out what is going on. This becomes a valuable tool to show employees that this is important to you, and you genuinely care about them and the state of your assets.
The tragedy of the commons is real and is not to be underestimated. An understanding of the concept and the recommendations mentioned above are the key to managing it well.