Fist In A Bucket Of Water

By Henry Bagdasarian

Do you think that every employee is just a fist in a bucket of water? When I heard this metaphor describing the value of a high performing employee within a large organization that I served a while back, I started wondering whether all employees within the company were also viewed as a fist in a bucket of water regardless of their performance or this was just an isolated case.

This particular story was reported to me by one of the employees who had decided to leave the company for another opportunity. In his exit interview with an Executive, he was told that an employee is like a fist in a bucket of water. I didn’t know initially what this meant and after I discussed this metaphor with the leaving employee, he further described to me what this meant according to his understanding and based on the detail conversations he had with the Executive.

According to the employee, as it was explained to him in his exit interview, this meant that any time an employee leaves a company, he is replaced as fast as the space in a bucket of water when the fist is pulled out. I’m not a physicist, but what this means to me is that, an employee can be replaced pretty fast and never missed again. Well, I could not disagree more with this way of thinking if we want our businesses to be successful for the long term. While business priorities such as restructuring, layoff, outsourcing, and cost cutting may be necessary to increase the business bottom line in the short term, inattention to employee management or mismanagement with regards to key employee identification and their retention may prove to be disastrous to any business success in the long term. Every performer employee is unique with special talents and characteristics, which cannot be easily replaced and replicated, if at all possible.

How to identify key performer employees

By the term "key or performer", I mean those who are assigned to an important function within the organization, are talented, know the business goals, understand and execute their job requirements well and on time, are highly self motivated, are dedicated to the success of their co-workers, groups, management, company and industry, and do not attempt to get away with the least amount of work load while using all company benefits available to them and at the expense of their co-workers and company. The non-performer employees appear to be most abusive of the company systems, excel at the expense of their co-workers, are least talented, exist in abundance within any company, and are well capable of hiding their lack of performer traits. The non-performers may be identified by smart mangers and considered as a fist in a bucket of water. However, performers within a company should also be identified as soon as possible, and placed in a retention program. The hardest task for managers is to identify both performers and non-performers because the latter group is well capable of hiding their lack of talent and most managers do not have the aptitude to identify performers, at least fairly quickly.

Happy employees create happy companies

It is often reported that happy employees contribute to the success, bottom line and happiness of companies. That’s because and I strongly believe that happy employees are more policy compliant, creative, punctual, ethical, caring and dedicated to the managers and companies they work for.

How do employees then become and stay happy? One way is to show appreciation, and statements like "you are a fist in a bucket of water" don’t help the case for employee appreciation. Employees must see and feel that companies care for them, have good future plans for them (at least some of them), have implemented a retention program and really show that the business success is dependent on the talented and performer employees. However, in order to accomplish this, key and talented employees must be identified, communicated and separated from the crowd. Usually, superstar employees don’t want to be considered as just another "fist in a bucket of water".

My professional experience unfortunately suggests that most companies and their managers truly think and believe that each employee is really a fist in a bucket of water and easily replaceable. My experience also suggests how difficult, expensive and time consuming it is for managers to define a position and its requirements, find a talented employee for that position, and then train and retain the employee for that position. Speaking of employee retention, what do companies do to identify and retain their valued and talented employees if they believe each employee is a fist in a bucket of water? What kind of retention programs do they have in place? Probably not much of a program exists in these companies if they really, really believe that an employee is just a fist in a bucket of water and that the same value can be found in each and every employee.

Most companies and their managers are so preoccupied by their own goals, accomplishments, and bottom lines, that they forget about their valued and talented employees, until these employees suddenly leave for better opportunities. I must however sadly admit that those rare managers who happen to be aware and appreciative of the values and contributions of their talented employees, sometimes, can not develop and implement sound retention programs due to the thinking at the higher up levels of management that an employee is just a fist in a bucket of water. Such thinking at the higher up levels of management creates obstacles for a quick reward and retention decision, slowing down the competing process for retaining such talented and performer employees. For example, the company compensation plans may not be flexible enough to allow for a quick salary adjustment. Such thinking also does not provide adequate dollars to maintain an effective retention program.

Unappreciated employees can be disastrous for companies

We all agree and I’ve heard this many times in my career, that employees are the greatest assets of a company. However, somehow, I don’t have the feeling that companies act on this. Maybe companies and their managers don’t really believe in this statement and we should all just stop pretending that employees are great assets and instead be honest like the Executive in this story and admit that an employee is just a fist in a bucket of water.

Although I believe creative ideas for developing and marketing new or improved products and services, efficiency in company operations, and effective customer service management are key elements and ingredients for a successful company, none of it can be effectively implemented or executed without human efforts, especially in the areas of creativity and customer relationships. Therefore, lack of key performer employees and managers within any organization whether for or not for profit, can be disastrous for any company or organization growth and sustainability. Not only unhappy employees can create unhappy companies by rendering them unsuccessful as defined above, they can even steal or destroy valuable company physical and information assets such as proprietary confidential or personal information. Therefore it is extremely important to identify and retain such performer employees and managers through appreciation and effective retention programs before it is too late.

How is happiness created?

Employees must feel wanted and appreciated by the companies and the managers they work for. Happiness does not arrive overnight and programs can be created, supported at the highest levels of the company that can convey a message of appreciation backed by solid action and flexibility for long-term retention. Some plans and actions are more effective than others. For example, solid career advancement plans and road maps, competitive salaries placed at higher levels than the competition and non-performers, and financial rewards and equities that offer "shock and awe" reaction, are usually better than award pins and certificates. Such effective retention plans can assure maximum retention rate of key employees and long term success for their companies.

Return to workplace security after reading the fist in a bucket of water article.

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