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Joe Isn’t The Problem — The System Is The Problem

effective communication management team organizational culture systems

I have a short and sweet story to share with you that I have wanted to share for far too long. It is not a tale of heroing adventure, of conquering great adversity, nor of the loving kindness of another human, per se. But it could fundamentally improve your ability to find and address the right and real issue in the many challenges that arise in the workplace.

My story begins with me as a wide-eyed graduate student at the University of Minnesota, soaking in through every last pore, all of the tantalizing theory and real-world anecdotes of a favorite instructor, Val Kosky. Val had a challenge on her hands this semester. Her class was called, “Introduction to Organization Development,” which is a broad amount of territory. It was being offered to undergraduate and graduate students in the same room (which the teachers out there will recognize as difficult because of the range of interest, work experience, life experience, and future career paths), and it ran from 5:00 – 10:00 pm after many students (and Val, herself!) had worked a full day already.

I admired many things about Val. She wore long, flowy skirts, not conservative suits, which expanded my developing conception of what a “business person” or “consultant” might look like. She thoroughly knew her subject and respected the history of it, the foundational theory underlying it, AND understood the ways that theory could come to life in the “real” world of work and organizations. She spoke plainly and not to impress. She was brilliant and down-to-earth. [Thank you, Val.]

On one particular evening, we were exploring the topic of analysis . . . how an organization development practitioner observes and makes sense of organizational behavior and dynamics. She told the story of a client who summoned her in to her organization to “fix Joe”. Joe was an employee described by this manager as a problem. Specifically,

  • Joe had an attitude problem.
  • Joe was not creative.
  • Joe did not seek out ways to improve the processes he worked with.
  • Joe was unresponsive to other internal departments involved in the same work processes
  • Joe did not communicate well or frequently enough with colleagues
  • Joe was unmotivated and did not seek out feedback or professional development.

The list went on. What Val explained to this manager, her client, was GOLD. Her next statement provided me with a lens through which I could make sense of work environments and teach my clients to use as well.

Val said to the manager, “Joe isn’t the problem. The system is the problem.”


What about the systems in this organization enabled Joe’s behavior?

As it turns out, in this case, Joe had been trained on his job responsibilities by his former boss, Alan, who outlined his tasks succinctly. Alan did not, however, describe his expectations about HOW Joe was to complete these tasks, what sort of relationships would be important to build, or the importance of open and strong lines of communications between Joe’s colleagues or between Joe and his point people in other internal departments. Alan hadn’t felt that it was his business to do so.

Add to this scenario that the culture of Joe’s organization inadvertently rewards turf-guarding. The atmosphere is low-trust, high-competition, back-biting, blaming, and certainly not one where honest and direct communication are modeled or encouraged in action. Though a few managers are vocal about wanting to build teams that communicate openly, the well-engrained practices, habits, and even the performance review process reinforce keeping one’s head down, not making waves, and certainly not poking one’s head around a shared work process, looking for ways to improve it.

Beyond these system dynamics, there were plenty of others that also perpetuated an environment counter to the very behaviors Joe’s current manager expressed wanting to see in him.

So is Joe to blame?
Is his manager to blame?
Is his former manager to blame?
If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of BLAME. It’s an unhealthy habit. Indeed, it IS a habit and can be changed, given the required protocol. It is often found in workplaces like Joe’s, but it is not useful, only harmful. The only positive thing I can say about blame, is that it acts like a little red flag, waving to indicate a “sore spot,” an important issue, broken system, contradictory set of expectations, and almost always a place where conversation is sorely needed!


What systems could be examined in Val’s story, that could create the conditions for Joe’s behavior to shift in the desired ways?

I’ll start you off with a few: the organization’s vision or philosophy of management, manager transitioning process, performance discussions between managers and employees, performance management system and practices, process improvement, coaching, feedback to and from bosses . . . what others can you think of?

Is the individual always held harmless?

In some cases, Joe (or whoever the person perceived as the problem is), does indeed exhibit some behaviors that would be generally accepted as unproductive or problematic. I am not advocating holding Joe totally unresponsible for behavior change. I am, though, suggesting that you START with a systems view which does not simultaneously place blame on a person. Most often, you’ll find that we humans play the roles that we think are assigned us at work, and by the rules we think are in the rulebook – written or unwritten. Then, respectfully, Joe and his manager can re-establish the relationship they have — one where the manager gives clear and complete expectations, useful feedback, Joe understands what is important to his boss and other colleagues, and where he might be refueled in a new way about his work.

As psychologist Carl Rogers espoused, “assuming unconditional, positive regard” is never a bad place to start when you’re looking for a way to improve relationships — in your personal life, your workgroup or organization.

So, the next time you find yourself (or someone else) habitually exclaiming, “_______ is a real problem . . . if only s/he would leave, everything would be better!”, try arresting that thought and taking a step back to consider that,

“Joe isn’t the problem. The system is the problem.”

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