Whose Ox Is Being Gored?
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.
You've probably heard the old cliché, "It all depends on whose ox is being gored?" This cliché has its origins in the Bible in the Jewish laws concerning property in Exodus chapter 21:28-36:
28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. 33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal. 35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36 But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.
Biblical scholars generally interpret this passage in light of our understanding of legal liability, retaliation, and restitution for loss or injury today. Substitute “dog” for “ox” and “attacks” for “gores” in this passage and you’ll better understand the passage in light of our modern culture and laws. (Lex Talionis is Latin for the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree.)
But actually this cliché "Whose ox is being gored?" owes its origin to Martin Luther in his defense in the 1521 Diet of Worms, Germany, Luther said that “most human affairs come down to depending on whose ox is gored.” In other words, a given event will be seen differently depending on the degree to which the viewer’s self-interest is involved.
In any organization today, employees and managers will often behave badly because they feel as though their “ox is being gored.” For example, employee productivity may be down because management imposed some whimsical work rule, which most employees feel is unfair, and they retaliate by being less productive. Managers impose whimsical work rules because they feel their employees are behaving improperly and they want to put a stop to it. It’s a catch 22 or a no-win situation.
As a manager, when you see employees (or other managers for that matter) behaving badly, do some detective work and try to figure out how their ox is being gored? There’s usually a reason behind it that can be resolved in a positive manner. Although most managers are not trained psychologists and have difficulty diagnosing why someone is behaving badly, they can try to talk with the employee (or manager) to first understand why they’re behaving the way they are. If that doesn’t work, the manager can try to talk with their co-workers and colleagues to get their take on it.
For example, you as a manager may notice that your employee hasn’t been his usual self lately. He’s been calling out sick a lot and taken a lot of unplanned, last minute vacation days. He hasn’t been good about answering emails or telephone inquiries, and most of his work is slipping and falling behind schedule. Some of his colleagues are complaining to you that he hasn’t been carrying his weight at work. What do you do?
A foolish manager would reprimand him for his poor work performance and put him on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Unfortunately, his work performance doesn't improve quickly, and the employee is eventually fired.
A wise manager would talk to him privately in order to understand why he has been behaving this way. After you do this, you discover that your employee’s wife is terminally ill and he has been busy taking her to doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy. This makes the situation crystal clear for you now. You thank your employee for sharing the cross he’s barring with you and you agree to give him carte blanche time off. You even go a step further and allow him to work remotely from home. The employee does these and eventually, his wife passes away. But he’s so grateful for the compassion you showed him that eventually, he becomes one of your star employees. His colleagues see how fair and compassionate you treated him and their work performance improves too.
In the case of the foolish manager, he now has to hire a replacement, but the learning curve is so steep that the new employee takes several years to get up to a full performance level. Plus the organization may have to endure a lengthy legal battle for wrongful termination under the Family Medical Leave Act. The employee's coworkers learn what happened and, believing they're working for an unfair, ruthless manager, begin leaving in droves. And the ones who stay are even less productive and your organization is now in trouble.
You can see that how you choose to act as a manager can have a ripple effect throughout your organization. There are many stakeholders who can have their ox gored. In the prayer of St. Francis it says, "Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand."
The foolish manager's choice was just from the standpoint of the organization, but he showed no mercy or understanding, and the results were not positive for the organization.
The wise manager's choice was not just from the standpoint of the organization, but he showed mercy and understanding, and the results were positive for the organization. And this is the key point. You as a manager must balance justice with mercy, but you should tend towards mercy. Remember, a given event will be seen differently depending on the degree to which the viewer’s self-interest is involved or whose ox is being gored.