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I Would Prefer Not To

23 August 2013

I received a mail today from a client’s employee which reminded me of an old story that had puzzled me when I first read it and continues to puzzle me today in very different ways.

It is the story of Bartleby, the Scrivener, by Herman Melville.

In the story, an elderly Manhattan lawyer employs the forlorn looking Bartleby. At first, Bartleby appears to be a boon to the practice, as he produces a large volume of high-quality work. One day, though, when asked to proofread a document, Bartleby answers with what soon becomes his stock response: “I would prefer not to”.

Soon he is doing fewer and fewer tasks around the office and despite several attempts to reason with him offers nothing but his signature “I would prefer not to”. After a while, Bartleby stops working completely. Tension gradually builds as the lawyer’s business associates wonder why the strange and idle Bartleby is ever-present in the office – he is now even living there.

Sensing the threat of a ruined reputation but emotionally unable to throw Bartleby out, the exasperated lawyer finally decides to move out himself, relocating his entire business and leaving Bartleby behind. Soon the new tenants of the old space start trying to unsuccessfully evict Bartleby until he has to be forcibly removed and imprisoned.

Towards the end of the story, despite access to plentiful food, Bartleby is found dead from starvation, having apparently preferred not to eat.

What really causes our employees to close themselves to change and to Action? How many times do our team members imply “I would prefer not to” and then don’t do something even after committing to do it. Does this attitude in a team reflect on the leader’s own attitude and attributes? Why does a business owner close himself/herself to new ideas and fresh thinking that could massively improve their business? Who really loses when this happens?

In the lonely job of the entrepreneur, why would we choose to not work with others creating win-win scenarios and making a difference bigger than ourselves?

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