Leadership lessons from Confucius: trust but verify

rotten wood

宰予晝寢。子曰:「朽木不可雕也,糞土之牆不可杇也。於予與何誅?」子曰:「始吾於人也,聽其言而信其行;今吾於人也,聽其言而觀其行。於予與改是。」
Zai Yu was asleep during the day. Confucius said: “Rotten wood cannot be carved; dung walls cannot be troweled. What’s the point of scolding him anymore?” Confucius said: “There was a time when I used to listen to what people had to say and trusted that they would act on their word, but now I have to listen to what they say and watch what they do. It’s my dealings with Zai Yu that have forced me to change.”

Trust but verify. No matter how sophisticated your management systems are, you still need to keep your ear to the ground to make sure that your team members are meeting their deadlines.

A gentle nudge here and there is generally enough to make sure that they stay on track. If someone isn’t living up to their commitments, then take them to one side and discreetly let them know what they need to do in order to improve their performance. Letting the whole world know that you think someone is a helpless case as Confucius does with his talented but idle young follower Zai Yu is probably not the best way of persuading them to buck up their ideas.

No matter how good it may feel to vent your frustrations using curmudgeonly insults, it doesn’t exactly help to solve the problem at hand! 

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 10 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.

(1) Confucius had a stormy relationship with his Zai Yu, not least because the cocky young upstart like to ask tricky questions about his teachings. On the other hand, he trusted him enough to send on missions to the states of Qi and Qu as his personal ambassador. You can read more about Zai Yu here.

I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.

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