“Be known as those who ‘cut others slack.’”  This is one of the many memorable, mind-altering insights from Steve Brown that has stuck with me recently.  It’s his explanation of Phil. 4:5 where Paul said, “Let your reasonableness (gentleness, forbearance) be known to everyone.” The implication seems to be that it is directed at those who have the opportunity or perhaps even the authority to be very demanding—like a leader in an organization.

It seems like we’re hearing terminology like “zero tolerance” and “no margin for error” more and more these days.  I suppose it’s a credit to our ingenuity and advancing technology that we’re able to demand such standards.  Motorola was among the early adopters of “six sigma” standards in their manufacturing processes.  That means that the processes are so well controlled that no more than about 3 parts in a million are defective. That’s amazing.  And that level of quality has become increasingly common with advancing technology. We’ve been “in search of excellence”—now in many ways, we’ve found it.

So our computer-aided and controlled “everything” can be as precise as you can imagine—zero tolerance for flaws or errors.

People are not zero-tolerance machines

But people aren’t made that way.  And they never will be. They still—and probably always will—have more creative potential and relational ability than any machine, but they are—and surely always will be—messy and unpredictable and inconsistent and flawed.

It got me wondering how one “cuts slack” in an organization.  And, even further, can one be known for cutting slack?

I get that there are places where you can’t tolerate a lack of ability, or maybe willingness, to learn and follow procedures—especially standards that can be the difference in life and death for people, or the business.  I recognize the challenges for those in (or those managing) positions like air traffic controller, pilot, surgeon, on and on—you can fill in the blank—jobs where errors can kill people or be very costly. I’ve managed FDA regulated production where mistakes in clean room processing can cost lives, or at minimum can mean the loss of very expensive, hard to obtain materials.  

But—appropriate to the context—can one still “be known for cutting people slack”?  Even a little bit?

Maybe our expectations for the goals we should achieve with the available resources have us constantly running close to the edge, potentially compromising our capacity to fulfill our calling from God with people within our organizations.  I’ve wondered before if there could be times where God might grant spiritual fruits, like reasonableness or patience, but I wouldn’t feel like I could afford the time to let them manifest in the situation.

A step beyond just “good business”

In an organization, it’s important to provide backup, redundancy, cross-training, etc., especially in critical systems, to prepare for the unexpected.  It’s considered “good business”—that is, it’s good “for the business.”  I’m not suggesting something inconsistent with this practice. But perhaps a step beyond just “good business” is intentionally building in slack for the people “in the business” as well.

Steve’s mentor, the late Fred Smith, used to encourage executives to save up a year’s salary, have some financial slack, as a “go to hell” fund.  If they were ever asked by their employer to do something unethical, then they weren’t a financial hostage to their job, but could afford to tell their employer to take the job and…well, you know.

I like the phrasing that Dave Ramsey (radio personality, financial counselor, and Christian) uses for the goal of personal financial management.  He calls it “financial peace.” An important part of reaching that goal is avoiding debt and having several months of salary as an emergency fund, so one has some financial “slack” built in to respond to the unexpected from a fallen world.

I’m thinking there might be an analogy for the organization.  Perhaps we can avoid the “debt” of excessive expectations in our organizations, and then have enough “resources” in reserve that are intended to respond to the unexpected that occurs with people.

Maybe having a reserve of knowledge or capacity at a key position would, for example, allow extended grieving and adjustment time when a key employee loses a close family member. Or, if it seems appropriate, perhaps there is enough flexibility to support rehab for a long-term, faithful employee struggling with substance abuse.  On a day-to-day basis, are the organizational commitments constantly so high that employees can’t go home to their families at a reasonable time, or take a vacation?

They just might cut you some slack, too

Perhaps there can even be extra morale “in the bank.”  Then if the organization hits a setback or the leader makes a really stupid decision, there might be a reserve of loyalty and commitment to the mission to allow the organization to recover.  To even cut some slack for the leader.

There is admittedly a lot of judgment here. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t have ambitious goals or demanding standards—those can even be good for people. Nor am I saying that one should ignore or enable problems, or forget about accountability.  And sometimes “the ox is in the ditch,” and people need to put in extra time for the business to survive. Some issues or situations may not allow for an individual to remain with the organization. Some situations or some industries really do leave essentially “no margin for error.”

But maybe, if one works towards building slack in the organization, there can be a little more room for the Spirit’s fruit to manifest, like reasonableness or benevolence.  Where we can, when we can, maybe we can build in slack, so it’s at least possible to “cut slack” for people.

Not a “go to hell” fund.  Maybe we can call it a “what the hell” reserve.  As believers leading organizations, maybe we can work towards having enough in reserve, leaving a little extra room, so even in the organization, we can “be known as people who cut others slack.”