How to get the best from your employees – a lesson from Tom Sawyer
When I was a child, I first became a big fan of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I read and re-read the stories and also enjoyed a TV adaptation that frequently screened in the 1980s.
Perhaps the most memorable tale is about the time weekend Tom was made to whitewash a fence by his Aunt Polly. It was a glorious Saturday morning in spring, and Tom was mournfully thinking of all the fun plans he’d made for the day.
His first thought was to pay other boys to whitewash the fence for him. But when he went through his pockets and found only “bits of toys, marbles, and trash” he realised he couldn’t afford to buy so much as half an hour of freedom.
Then he was struck by inspiration. He dipped his brush in the whitewash and got to work.
Shortly afterwards, another boy – Ben Rogers – appeared, waving his arms about pretending to be a paddle steamer.
Tom ignored him and carried on painting, seemingly absorbed in his task. When Ben tried to talk to him, he remained quiet and carried on working his brush.
Finally, when Ben said “Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”Tom wheeled suddenly and retorted:-
“Why, it’s you, Ben! I wasn’t noticing”
“Say Tom—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d ruther work—wouldn’t you? Course you would!”
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
“What do you call work?”
“Why, ain’t that work?”
At this remark, Tom returned to his whitewashing and gave an offhand reply.
“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple.
Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect—added a touch here and there—criticised the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed.
Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
Tom’s plan was beginning to work. Instead of making fun of Tom for having to work, Ben was now interested in getting involved. The whitewashing now seemed to him to be a desirable activity. But Tom was too wily to hand over his brush just yet.
Tom considered, was about to consent but then he altered his mind:-
“No—no—I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence—right here on the street, you know—but if it was the back fence I wouldn’t mind and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”
“No—is that so? Oh come, now—lemme just try. Only just a little—I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”
“Ben, I’d like to but Aunt Polly—well, Jim wanted to do it but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now don’t you see how I’m fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it—”
“Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say—I’ll give you the core of my apple.”
“Well, here—No, Ben, now don’t. I’m afeard—”
“I’ll give you all of it!”
Tom agreed, and Ben got to work whitewashing the fence. Every now and then another boy would come along to jeer but end up paying Tom to do some whitewashing.
By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with—and so on, and so on, hour after hour.
And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.
He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a Jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar—but no dog—the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel and a dilapidated old window sash.
In this way, Tom spent an idle day in company, gathered untold riches – and the fence got three coats of whitewash!
I think many businesses have a lot to learn from Tom.
If employees dislike their work, they are going to be less productive and take less care in what they do. But if you are a clever enough leader to make their work appeal to them, to make them feel it enhances their status and demonstrates their skill, then they’ll put heart and soul into it.
Because it won’t feel like work anymore.
As Mark Twain wrote in the same story:-
“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”?
So if you have employees who don’t seem to be giving their best, try thinking about how you could make them see their work as play. Because when that happens, they’ll never tire of giving of their all.
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