The 80/20 Rule: Nature vs. Nurture?

Most of us have heard of the “80/20 Rule,” or Pareto Principle, which can be applied to almost any activity Using the 80/20 Rule to Simplify Life. As applied to workforce productivity, a central concern of leaders worldwide, the rule may be stated as follows: “20% of your employees will perform 80% of the work.”

This assertion begs the question: What is preventing the overwhelming majority of workers from performing at capability?

This question in turn provokes a variation of the infamous “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Are 80% of workers inherently lazy and unproductive? There are certainly many days (Mondays, anyone?) when this pessimistic statement rings all too true. Taking a slightly more optimistic view of humanity, however, perhaps some employees have been temporarily “derailed” due to a variety of circumstances (micromanaging by superiors, personal concerns, etc.).

Take the example of a middle school student who is performing poorly in school. Frustrated, the teacher moves him to the back of the class. The student’s performance deteriorates further, and he enters a downward spiral. Perhaps the student is a troublemaker. Perhaps he is lazy. Perhaps he has a learning disorder. But what if I told you all the student needed to start with was a pair of glasses because his eyesight was poor?

This situation is analogous to what often happens in the workforce. Often, when an employee fails to “make the numbers,” an otherwise talented asset finds him/herself strangled by micromanaging, stressed by poor reviews and warnings from higher up, etc. and performs worse as a result.

The 80/20 rule as applied to leadership actually operates in reverse. A true leader is akin to a gardener, with his team/organization as the plant. 80% of the plant is good, and 20% may need to be trimmed from time to time. Instead of hacking apart the plant if it doesn’t grow, the effective leader is better off giving the plant a little more water and sunlight, relaxing, and letting the plant follow its natural inclination–to grow and flourish.


1. Does the 80/20 rule ring true in your office? If so, how are the 80% treated? Are the results you achieve in keeping with the way the majority (80%) of your team is treated? (Hint: if you feel your company is underperforming, the answer string is likely: Yes, Poor, Yes. Coincidence?)

2. Do you prefer to prune or nurture? Why? Which approach do you think will achieve greater long-term success?

3. When is it appropriate to “prune”?

ACTION: Focus on “creating space” for your team to achieve. New Generation Leadership


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