The Two Out of Three Principle

Jeff - Charlotte, North Carolina
Entered on May 6, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: tolerance
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I believe in the two out of three principle. In my small business—a veterinary hospital–there are three major qualifications I hold dear for my employees: they must be pleasant to work with, efficient and productive, and dependable and punctual in showing up for their shifts. However, I don’t require perfection. After years of owning a small business, I accept that the people I hire may not be as motivated as I would like. And to expect perfection is to court disappointment.

Hence, the two out of three rule. I demand two out of the three qualifications, and will compromise on the third. An employee who is just fun, a joy to be around, upbeat and positive—well, if they show up on time and every day, who cares if they’re not the most productive? And if they are super productive? Maybe they don’t have to be the most punctual. If a belligerent or difficult staff member is a model citizen otherwise—punctual, dependable, and productive? You get the picture: the belligerency is overlooked as long as it does not get out of hand. Two out of three ain’t bad. In fact, sometimes, with the relatively low salaries many small businesses can afford to pay, it’s all we can expect.

Some would say this philosophy champions mediocrity, allows ineptitude to flourish, and provides succor to the imprompt. I disagree. Instead, I look at those who work with and for me, and have done so for years, with affection and some degree of fatherly regard. Like some far-flung cultures, who do not name their children until sure they will survive, we hesitate to become attached to our new staff until their probationary period ends. Then, finally, accepted almost as kin, they get a name tag. Afterwards, they seemingly must err repeatedly or disastrously to be forced out into the cold world of unemployment.

Occasionally I find the perfect employee. These rise up through the ranks, gaining in responsibility and salary. Usually, they move on to further schooling, corporate work, or state employment—with my encouragement and recommendation. These gems make life easier for however long they stay. Then they say goodbye, and are seen no more except for the occasional visit or to return as clients with their pets.

The two out of three principle evolved out of necessity, not altruism. Life’s too brief and small business ownership already too stressful to waste time and energy turning shortcomings into crises. I prefer to view the forest, and if individual trees have flaws, the forest itself still flourishes. So too with my business. After a couple of years of banging my head against the wall, I learned to compromise, adopt the two out of three principle, and relax.