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  • Writer's pictureMotty Chen

More than the Calf Wants to Suck the Cow Wants to Suckle (Huh?)

This beautiful phrase is borrowed from the Jewish Talmud (Pesachim 112a), and as simple as it may sound, I am fascinated by the depth of its meaning.

The phrase idiomatically means that sometimes we want to provide more than it is desired. 

There are many ways to look at this phrase; let's examine them and discuss the business implications of this idiom.

When looking at this idiom in a business context, this represents the notion of someone who really wants to contribute in an area that is beyond their duty or responsibility. This could be perceived as if the employee wants to show off or express their expertise in some area they are not supposed to. The passion for giving is so big that that person will always find an obvious need for their contribution and will feel like he or she provides tremendous value.

This could be good and bad at the same time. On one hand, a fresh energy with new knowledge is being provided, with a great and sincere desire to help. On the other hand that could be imposing help or direction that is not needed, or at least there is no buy-in yet for that initiative.

Looking at it from the provider's point of view (the cow, the employee in our case) - This could be a very frustrating situation. Say an employee is very knowledgeable and talented in some areas that are beyond the direct core competency for which they were hired. That employee will immediately try to identify opportunities to contribute in those areas, will provide advice even if not asked, and try to get involved in activities around that subject. When the attempts to help are faced with a cold shoulder, rejection, and sometimes harsh response, the result is frustration and may affect the overall energy, compassion, and desire to contribute in all areas, including the ones in which they are hired to do. This may lead to resignation in favor of a place where the employee feels they can be better expressed.

From the receiver side (the calf, the manager in our case) this could also be a very frustrating situation - Not only is the employee 'wasting' time doing other stuff instead of what they are supposed to do, but they are also breaching boundaries into areas that may be the responsibility of someone else, hence imposing a threat, or even putting someone in a situation where they feel they are not performing good enough. The response is usually an attempt to eliminate the problem either by enforcing strict rules, thus preventing the employee from the opportunity to deal with anything other than their assigned tasks, or, in extreme cases - letting the employee go.

It looks like a lose-lose situation, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step to resolve such a situation is to recognize it, in both sides: the employee and the manager. If only one side is aware of that situation, simply create awareness by exposing the other side to this situation without judging it as good or bad, simply recognizing it.

Like in any relationship, it takes two for tango, and if there is a will, there is a way. As an employee, try to create buy-in by being less aggressive and asking permission before suggesting or actually doing anything in an area you are not directly responsible for. Make your manager aware that you are passionate about this subject and ask them if and how you could contribute without distracting your responsibilities. This act can go a long way since you shift the ball into their court, and now it is within their discretion to ask for your help, manage it, and provide you with the best way to do it. Even if the initial contribution is initially small and not even close to what you would want it to be - agree to it. It is a trust-building step, and if done correctly, you will get more and more involved.

As a manager, you have a treasure and need to recognize it. Allowing employees to participate and contribute in an area they like will make them feel important, increase their buy-in in the company's success, and motivate them to be more productive in other areas. 'But if what they think is the right way is not really what I consider the right way?' You may ask. The truth is that, in most cases, you may be biased and judgemental. Try to be open to new ideas and listen carefully. If you have a good case of why the idea may not work - express it only after serious consideration. When you come up with real and concrete reasons, the employee feels and understands that you have considered it seriously and given good reasons why this idea may not work. It will help direct the employee to come up with a solution that better fits their needs. It would be a good idea to try and come up together to an agreement about the scope and extent of the help accepted and revise it from time to time. The results will be well worth it.

To summarize it, no calf will feed if it is scared and forced, but any calf needs to eat. At the same time, no calf can eat more than its stomach capacity, even if the cow is full of milk. The idea is to create a balance and understanding that, in the end - cows need to suckle, and calves need to suck.

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