We're so understaffed it's pathetic!"

So goes one of the commonest complaints in the office world. And it's usually true.

What a lot of managers fail to realize, however, is that there are some advantages to being understaffed . . . and that, furthermore, their departments will always be understaffed, regardless of any success in adding personnel.

First, there's a certain amount of security in being short-handed if your deficiency is recognized. A barely adequate performer may well be spared the corporate axe so as not to make a bad situation worse, even temporarily.

You're also granted excuses for imperfection. A report of yours, for example, may be judged "pretty good under the circumstances" -- but that wouldn't apply if the circumstances were ideal.

Being pressed for time and assistance even adds a dash of heroism to your accomplishments.

But you would still rather get the go-ahead to expand your staff? You want help instead of sympathy?

Obviously, you don't understand the basic arithmetic of staffing.

Both your boss and the personnel department will assume that anyone you add can accomplish twice as much as is humanly possible. (This Unreality Factor of two is a universal constant, like the speed of light. If you reflect on it, you'll see that it corresponds perfectly with the fact that these folks think that whatever you do should take half as long as it does.)

The implications of this mathematical law are bad enough in a big department. But suppose you're just expanding from four people to five. You're adding one person and the expected output of two. Spreading this unreality over just five people, you end up with 120 percent of the previous expectations per person.

What's worse, there will be a long time lag before it's finally recognized that you are still understaffed. For some months or even years, you'll be faced with greater demands on you without the current understanding that your tiny, beleaguered band is performing heroically.

Just because you're trapped in the Alamo, it doesn't mean you should volunteer for the Little Big Horn.