Running Thin

November 4, 2023

I work with organizations all over my region, and they are all running thin. Over the past few years, I cannot recall a single entity where leaders believe they have enough workers. This habitual problem causes all kinds of operational issues, including burnout. Another problem is lower creativity.

A student in one of my MBA classes made a remarkable statement. She wrote, “Short staff think only inside the box.”

Knowing the “correct” level of staff is a tricky business for sure. Running thin can lead to employees screaming that they are totally overloaded. Later on, people would grumble about how most people are not pulling their fair share of the load. In truth, most organizations get only a small fraction of the discretionary effort inherent in the workforce. My estimate is that a typical organization these days extracts only about 30% of the capability of their workforce.

Some leaders use the amount of screaming for more resources as a guide to hiring. If the whining is not there, they figure the organization is running too fat. If people are complaining but toughing it out, they conclude things are about right. If people are becoming ill and if turnover is sky-high, they grudgingly agree to add more people.

Gauging the level of staff based on the complaint level is dangerous on both extremes. If things get so thin for an extended period, the best people will just leave. If you do not wait until people whine to hire people, then you are probably running a Country Club.

Back to my student’s comment on the impact that running thin has on creativity. I thought her observation was spot on. You can observe overworked people in numerous venues. According to many students, one typical place to see the stress is in nursing.

According to the Gallup Organization, the nursing occupation is the highest trusted occupation category of all. Nurses are normally so stacked up with critical tasks that they often don’t find time to eat. Trying to figure out creative solutions to problems is low on their priority list. I am only singling out nurses because it is easy to observe this situation. In reality, the problem occurs in numerous types of jobs.

In an effort to improve productivity, leaders stretch their resources like a rubber band. The problem is that if you do that, eventually you will exceed the elastic limit of the rubber. Running thin will permanently deform or just break the band.

People will do the requirements as best they can and not be very engaged in improving the conditions. They become case hardened and bitter. When people feel abused, they go into a survival mode, which severely limits productivity. The managers get exactly what they deserve. It becomes a vicious circle.

The antidote is to work on changing the culture. Improve the environment so that the current workforce is producing at a multiple of their prior productivity. That concept means working on trust rather than forcing existing people to work in a constant state of overload. It means investing in the resources you have, and maybe even adding some. Avoid continually cutting back in an effort to survive. You may survive in the short term, but your long-term prognosis is terminal.

When I suggest to leaders that they need to invest in their culture they get angry. I often see an incredulous or outraged look in return. “How can we possibly afford to work on our culture when everybody is already at the limit of their capability?” Well, you cannot unless you change your attitude about how people work. Try the alternate path. The road to long-term health and even survival is to have the right level of resources. That way you can invest in the culture and enjoy the benefits of higher trust.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPTD, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at,