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Who (or what) is the REAL problem?

Have you heard this? Have you said it?
[Joe] has an attitude problem.
[Joe] is not creative.
[Joe] doesn’t look for ways to improve processes
[Joe] did not communicate well
[Joe] was unmotivated
What about the systems in this organization enabled Joe’s behavior?
As it turns out, in this case, Joe (fictitious employee name) 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, 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 often,
“Joe isn’t the problem. The system is the problem.”

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