Un-Sticking from the Stapler

The stapler by the copy machine doesn’t work properly.

Sometimes, it staples perfectly. Most times, only one half of the staple goes all the way through the paper while the other half kind of crinkles up and sticks out. Other times, two staples come out at once and neither one of them go all the way through the paper the way they are supposed to. Sometimes in jams altogether and nothing comes out, then you spend 5 minutes unjamming and digging twisted staples out of it.

One day, I decided to just throw it away. There were no extras in the storage closet so I made a note for myself to get one with the next month’s supply order. The next order date was only about a week away so I figured everyone would be fine managing without it for a few days so we could replace it with one that worked.

Apparently not.

The following day, the stapler was back! Someone fished it out of the trash, filled it with staples and put it back on the table next to the copier.

Just for giggles, I threw it away again. And it was right back on the table the next day! This time, I left it there –but I stuck a post-it on top of it saying a new stapler had been ordered and would be in the following week.

I was surprised at how people reacted. Most were relieved – “That stapler hasn’t worked in months. I’m so glad you went ahead and ordered a new one.” But a few were upset – “Why waste money on a new stapler? If you just open it, shut it, and bang it on the table, it works fine just about every other staple.”

Well, call me crazy, but I think a stapler should work on the first staple, every time as intended by the manufacturer.

Then it occurred to me that this reaction happens not just with faulty office equipment but with faulty office employees as well. We all have a person in our office that obviously isn’t producing the results that they should and we work around them. We all have a person who performs a function that has outlived its usefulness within the organization and we placate them with busy work. Why is that?

The stapler was familiar and comfortable. Even though it didn’t do exactly what it was supposed to do every time, it was predictable and almost endearing in its ineptitude. It was a running gag of failure that everyone bonded around … The same is true of our faulty office employees. Usually, they are employees who at some point either disengaged because they were dissatisfied or their position evolved and they were unable to make the transition with it. Instead of addressing the problem, everyone else works around it. Behind their backs, everyone mocks and complains about the person’s shortcomings. That person’s reputation forms from there, without their even knowing or trying to make such a negative impression.

This is because people are afraid of confrontation. There is nothing fun about telling someone they are performing poorly. It never gets easier over time, especially when it is someone we’ve known and worked with for a long time. That stapler had sat alongside the copy machine for at least 4 years. It wasn’t easy to let go of it. What if the new stapler didn’t work either? What if it required more adjustments, like buying different staples or a power cord? That would mean more change for everyone around the stapler. In the face of change, sometimes sticking with the familiar situation seems better than confronting the issues.

It’s not. That broken stapler was slowing everyone down. A process that should have taken a few seconds was taking minutes, which over the course of a week amounts to hours, which over the course of a month resulted in days of lost productivity because one piece of process wasn’t doing its part. We lose even more time and opportunities when a person in our organization slows down productivity because they are unable or unwilling to do their job. Not confronting problems does a disservice to everyone in the organization, including the person that is not pulling his/her weight. It is harmful and hurtful to the person to allow their reputation to be tarnished with gossip and negative talk about them and their performance. It is harmful and hurtful to others to allow someone who is not performing optimally to continue to go on unchecked. It is not the message anyone wants to send or receive.

So if your office stapler isn’t working, try to fix it – but if it can’t be fixed, replace it. And the same goes for anything and anyone else in the office.

Comments Closed


  1. Quite on point,Buzz! We waste people’s work lives by not being honest with them about performance issues. Can’t do it or won’t do it; the end result is the task doesn’t get done or it gets delayed.
    If they can’t do it, there’s training,courses, retraining, and “the talk” about pursuing alternatives. If they won’t do it, discipline is an obvious answer.
    When the person is gone, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and moves on to the next thing.
    Same with the old stapler. Shoulda bought an electric one. That would be good for non productive water cooler talk for a few days….

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 13, 2011 at 12:49 AM

      Everyone is definitely relieved when the un-productive person or thing is gone. What I’ve noticed is that when that thing is allowed to stay for too long, people feel relieved but they are also resentful to the organization for not addressing the problem sooner. They move forward, but they don’t forget. Those effects are long-lasting on the environment and the culture. That’s why candid feedback on a consistent basis is so important.

      We ended up with a heavy-duty, long-necked Swingline stapler. It is awesome! 🙂

  2. I think it also points to the fact that most organizations have little to no stomach for change. Change is the buzzword of every company, of every political campaign, and yet, when the rubber meets the road change happens at the same rate it always has. It’s the evil that you know vs. the evil that you don’t know.

    • Buzz Rooney

      June 30, 2011 at 1:33 AM

      You are right about that. Change is difficult. We are great at giving lip-service to it and making it look like change has happened from the outside, but remain the same underneath it all. I’ve learned that the devil you don’t know is usually an angel testing your faith and willingness to make true progress. Change is always better than a bad or mediocre status quo.

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