Some Notes on Stealing

Stealing is always wrong, right?

That’s usually treated as a pretty basic and general ethical claim. But today, I want to look at what kind of stealing counts and what we often overlook.

Let’s start with this passage from Seth Godin’s article “Let’s Stop Calling Them ‘Soft Skills,’” the whole of which is worth your attention:


If an employee at your organization walked out with a brand-new laptop every day, you’d have him arrested, or at least fired. If your bookkeeper was embezzling money every month, you’d do the same thing.

But when an employee demoralizes the entire team by undermining a project, or when a team member checks out and doesn’t pull his weight, or when a bully causes future stars to quit the organization — too often, we shrug and point out that this person has tenure, or vocational skills or isn’t so bad.

But they’re stealing from us.

Seth Godin, “Let’s Stop Calling Them ‘Soft Skills’” (31 Jan 2017)

I think it’s true that actions like those count as stealing. Anyone who’s ever worked with or for demoralizing people knows the feeling of having hours, days, weeks of her life stolen.

Part of the challenge with this kind of theft, though, is that both the act and any response are social and political. Can you tell your boss he’s stealing your time or talents? What kind of culture would you have if you carelessly “prosecuted” teammates for stealing-by-demoralizing?

If we treat this as an enforcement or compliance problem, I don’t think things will get better. People will fight to avoid being publicly labeled thieves, even if it’s true that they’re stealing our best work and care.

Instead, it’s important to see this as an ethical matter for ourselves, as employees and especially as managers. With power and responsibility come the ability to steal people’s time and talents, and we shouldn’t give ourselves permission to do that even in exchange for some treasure.

The truth is that we know this kind of behavior is real theft: we can see it and we can feel it. But, as with so much else in the realm of morality, it’s really hard to legislate against it effectively. What we might be able to do is to start a more honest conversation about the standards we’re going to hold ourselves to, and how we’re going to deal with people who steal from the group in this way.

Bad management (of self and others) costs real money, after all. Opportunities are missed, people leave organizations to escape their managers.

What are we going to do about that, now that the economy so prizes efficiency, connection, and discipline, and we’re all working in public like never before?