Blame the system, not the people

Managers typically subscribe to one of two theories about their employees. Theory X is that employees are typically lazy, unmotivated, have little work ethic, and won’t do a good job on their own. Theory Y is that employees want to do a good job, want to do work they can be proud of, and are internally motivated.

In my experience, Theory Y holds true. Even when I have had challenging employees who aren’t doing great work, over time I have been able to help them improve by engaging with them and building trust. When someone takes ownership of a facility or a task, and they begin to feel that their work is a reflection on their self, the quality of their work will improve.

Because I believe this, I think that when people are doing bad work it is because of a system rather than because of that individual. It could be that the individual lacks necessary skills or knowledge, but I don’t think most people get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I want to go to work today and do a really bad job.” No, people would rather build something they can be proud of, rather than waste their time.

So when things go wrong, we shouldn’t blame people. The people working with us want to do well, but something about the way work is conducted might be preventing them from doing well.

No one wants to get lost in a maze. Don’t blame people for getting stuck in a broken system.

We should always be looking for ways to improve how our organization does business. We can break down all of our work into discrete steps and find ways to improve each of the steps. As it turns out, some of the worst employees I’ve ever had have been the ones with the best ideas for how to improve the work we were doing. Part of the reason they weren’t performing well was because they were so frustrated with the tasks assigned to them, but they had thought of ways to make things better. By engaging with them, taking their feedback, and doing something with it, I gained their trust and made everybody’s jobs easier. But none of that is possible if we just blame the people.

If something is less than ideal at your workplace, I suggest getting a group together of the people who are closest to that work, and talking about how you can make it better as a team. Be careful not to imply that people are doing the wrong thing; this isn’t about the people, nor is it about the decisions we made in the past. Sometimes, when we start talking about change in the workplace, it makes people feel as if we are pointing fingers and saying that they made bad decisions in the past. We instead need to shift our language and our approach to emphasize continuous improvement and learning. We just want to keep making things better for everybody.

All of this starts with a small, mental shift on the part of the manager. Stop blaming people, start blaming the system, and then you can start finding ways to improve the system so that the people are empowered to do the good work that they have always wanted to do.

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