“Who’s responsible for this mess?”

Photo by Ricardo Viana on Unsplash

That’s the kind of question that sends employees running for cover. Looking for people to blame. Ways to avoid being branded as the problem-causer.

We’ve all been there, and it can be devastating. This is the kind of accountability that rips teams apart.

Why? Because, by asking the question, we’ve established:

  • It’s a significant problem, a “mess.”
  • Somebody has to be held accountable.
  • The tone of voice likely conveys that there are going to be painful consequences for failure, even just “blame and shame.”

Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of that, so we look for excuses and rationalization. None of that actually addresses the problem.

On the other hand, people tend to be drawn toward opportunities for contribution, self-improvement, and recognition. Notice these are all focused on the future, simply because you can do something about the future. You can’t change the past.

How do we change the conversation?

When a problem or mistake is encountered, a better approach is to:

  • Acknowledge the impact the problem has created.
  • Identify the best people to: (1) mitigate that impact; (2) fix the systems that allowed that problem to occur; and (3) prevent reoccurrence.
  • Give people the time and resources to make improvements, and monitor progress.

This is a process you might follow if there weren’t people to blame. Your computer just crashed and took the morning’s work with it. After attending to the immediate issue that you have to re-create your work, you’ll look to avoid and prevent that in the future. You’ll save your work often, put backups in place, maybe buy a new machine, whatever. You’ll pay more attention to it, looking for any early warning signs.

It doesn’t mean that the computer wasn’t at fault, it’s just that you’re not going to fix anything by yelling at it and trying to make it feel bad. You’ll vent your frustration a bit, but it won’t change anything.

With employees, though, we often assume that shaming someone will get them to change their behavior and thus fix mistakes. Rarely does that work, and we all know it. In the worst case, it may cause them to create even more problems for you. That’s the way people are.

There’s certainly a place for firing someone for unacceptable performance or behavior. Even in that case, there are likely systems (including your own management behavior) that allowed, even encouraged, them to mess up.

I worked with a client a few years ago who had pretty high employee turnover. He asked me why he “kept hiring idiots.” It turns out that he was actually hiring pretty capable people, but his own management habits would drive people to be unhappy and ultimately leave. His micro-management and lack of encouragement was showing up in the quality of their work and fights between team members.

I understand that you’re comfortable with your management techniques and you’re doing the best you know how. But you may have to accept that you might be part of the “system” that creates problems.

Look toward the future, and see what’s possible to change things for the better. Your people will appreciate it.

This article was first published in BizWest.