December 31, 2022

Getting work done without lifting a finger

For much of my life, I took pride in working hard. When I finished an extremely long day on the job, I felt a sense of achievement, especially when I felt exhausted afterwards.

Being wiped out was a sign that I really gave my all to a particular project or task.

It also gave me a kind of bragging right to be able to showcase my dedication and discipline.

This is especially so because our culture in the West values people who make great effort.

But when I came across the Tao Te Ching (The Book of Changes”)*, I had to rethink my take on the idea of hard work.

The book is attributed to Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who is believed to have lived during the 6th Century BC.  

Disappointed with the forceful, authoritarian type of leadership that prevailed during his time, Lao Tzu penned this treatise of 81 short verses, describing what he thought effective leadership entailed.

The text is striking for its seemingly paradoxical statements.

The one that has stood out for me the most is this one:

The Masters get the job done without moving a muscle
and get their point across without saying a word.*

It seems like a contradiction. How is it possible to get the job done without moving a muscle?

I tended to equate work being done with the classical concept of work in physics. When an object is moved, work is performed.

It would seem impossible for me to move an object or get work done without my making some kind of an effort.

But what if I told someone else to do the work?

Now I’m starting to get somewhere.

In fact there seems to be something in this statement that implies, “It’s not effective if I try to do everything myself; it’s more effective if I engage others in the process.”

Hey, that’s a solid leadership strategy.

But what if someone else has to work really hard and struggles to do that particular task. Then I’m not such a great leader after all, am I? I’m just exploiting someone. Sounds a little tyrannical.


But wait! What if I did the work and I really enjoyed doing it. So much so that it felt like play. Then it’s not work.

Aha, I’m getting somewhere again.

And what if I got someone else to do the work, and it was like play for them.

OK, now I’m really onto something.

Let’s come back to the second part of the quote

and get their point across without saying a word.

How is this even possible?

Charades? Well, then I’m moving muscles.

Wait, I could send them a text with emojis.

But that seems like cheating. And they might wind up misinterpreting my message.

The answer here is by being in tune with others. When my colleagues understand me so well that they intuit what needs to be done simply by thinking about what I would want or expect them to do.

It might sound idealistic, but you’ve certainly experienced a time when someone did something for you, and you responded by saying, “You read my mind.”

I think leaders can approach this level when they and their colleagues understand their Natures deeply.

First, when they choose their own work activity, it aligns with their inherent tendencies. It’s pleasurable and doesn’t feel burdensome. It requires minimal energy. In fact, engaging in the activity energizes the person much like a hybrid vehicle charges itself while it runs.

That’s what “without moving a muscle” really means.

Second, when people are connected in a profound way, communication becomes simple and fast. Teammates begin taking on tasks more independently. They don’t need to be told what to do, but figure out what needs to be done based on what they believe their leader would want them to do in that situation.

That’s what it means for someone to “get their point across without saying a word”.

When viewed from this perspective, it suddenly seems like becoming a “master” is not impossible.

One way to get to such a level of understanding is for teams to spend enough time together. Eventually, over a period of years, that type of awareness may certainly develop.

However, the process can be expedited by becoming consciously aware of your own and others’ abilities and tendencies (which I refer to as Multiple Intelligences and Multiple Natures).

For instance, when I know someone is on the higher side with their visual ability and Creative Nature, I can predict that they’ll find it pleasing to create some social media banners—even if it’s not formally part of their work profile.

If they have a Protective Nature that is prominent, I can anticipate that they are not going to accept a new idea point blank. Therefore, I can prepare a sheet for them that has a list of objections and responses.

Or if their Interpersonal Intelligence is on the lower side, I can rethink a proposal for them to attend a two day networking event, or find a way to make it more palatable.

Developing this kind of chemistry isn’t difficult. The tools exist. I know this because I not only make them; I use them.

And as a result, I’m getting more accomplished with less “work” done, and far fewer words to get my points across.

I hope you find a way to do so as well.

Leave me a comment to let me know if you have been able to put Lao Tzu’s concepts into practice.


* I would like to acknowledge Ron Hogan’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching for the quote I’ve used.